Zombie Awareness Month: Terror of the Masses
Written by GeekGirlCon Manager of Editorial Services Winter Downs.
I hate zombies.
Oh, sure, zombies have been the zeitgeist for so long that I’ve developed a list of exceptions to my zombie media antipathy–Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century series, the videogame State of Decay, and most recently the ridiculous/awesome/ridiculawesome TV show iZombie are great examples. However, I realized that the zombie fiction I like all fits into one of two categories. Either it emphasises community-building (particularly of marginalized people) in the post-apocalypse, or it humanizes the zombie characters. On reflection, it’s not really surprising that I favor stories that center character and relationship development over mowing down mindless hordes of enemies.
When I heard that May is Zombie Awareness Month, I scoffed. Who isn’t aware of zombies? The lists of zombie films, novels, and games grow longer every month. The CDC uses zombie preparedness campaigns as an education tool. Zombie Awareness organizations have sprung up that imitate other awareness campaigns with ribbons and buttons to advertise their cause. Even hardcore zombie bandwagoners are starting to tire of the ubiquitous hordes.
But there’s an opportunity here to talk about zombies and what they represent in our cultural consciousness.
At their most basic level, monsters represent fears held by society, fears associated with dangers perceived in the surrounding world.
– Matt Kaplan, Medusa’s Gaze and Vampire’s Bite: The Science of Monsters
As any Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan can tell you, the demons are a metaphor. The specific meanings change over the decades, but vampires often represent deviant sex; witches stem from society’s fear of non-compliant women; werewolves are about loss of control, and so on.
And zombies? Zombies are a manifestation of “civilized society’s” terror of the masses. Exactly which masses might vary depending on current events, but it’s no coincidence that the name and the basic concept are appropriated from the folklore traditions of people of color–specifically, Africans and Haitians. In fact, the first voodoo zombies in American fiction began to appear in the 1930s, right around the time that Haiti was asserting its independence from the US.
Moving forward a few decades, George Romero’s celebrated Living Dead series, which began with 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, is usually interpreted as a satirical critique of mindless consumerism, with its hordes of ravening zombies shambling through a mall, the ultimate symbol of American commerce. It’s a popular belief among educated white liberals that they have risen above all that, that they are not susceptible to advertising (a view common with geeks who value rationalism and reason, figuring that since they know how the psychological tricks work, they can avoid being affected by them). The hordes of mall zombies, then, represent the uneducated masses.
This classist theme was revisited in the 2006 movie Idiocracy, which, while it didn’t feature any zombies per se, did posit in a flagrant misunderstanding of genetics that if educated white liberals stopped having so many kids, that the world would be overrun by hordes of stupid people (as measured by a low IQ), often represented in the movie by people of color. Though it didn’t make a mark on the mainstream, this film is wildly popular among educated geeks of my acquaintance.
True, not all geeks are educated white liberals, but their sensibilities drive what’s popular in geek culture, via spending power and social influence.
In his thesis, “Zombie Orientals Ate My Brain! Orientalism in Contemporary Zombie Film and Fiction,” Eric Hamako makes the case that the current wave of zombie fiction represents an Orientalist fear of Asian people. He notes that, since zombies tend not to have particular superhuman powers, they “primarily pose a threat because they gather in hordes and rapidly increase in number.” He also observes that “zombies are creatures that have lost their sense of self, their unique humanity.” He then goes on to connect these characteristics to Western stereotypes of Asian cultures, which tend to be more collectivistic than the individualistic US. In fiction, this is transmuted into a horde of people, no longer quite human, who cannot think for themselves.
The fear of overpopulation, while certainly a valid environmental concern, is often expressed in racist, Orientalist ways. Since so much of the world’s population is concentrated in Asia (China and India are each home to over a billion people, and six of the top ten most populous countries are located in Asia), Asian countries are often blamed for the problems caused by global overpopulation. I would argue that Africa is also a target for these kinds of fears–as Sociological Images points out, the photographs used to illustrate articles about population booms usually feature Black or brown women in the global South.
Never mind that more environmental damage is caused by richer, more technologically developed countries–like the US–who use resources without consideration for waste. The real, underlying fear is that white people may become a minority in the US–hence the alarmism in the media when the Pew Research Center discovered that people of color are having babies at a higher rate than white people in the US.
One thing that has always made me very uncomfortable in media is when human-ish characters are introduced, usually in vast numbers, solely that they can be mown down in droves by the action heroes. It’s OK, you see, because they’re not really human; they’re zombies, or androids, or projections of the subconscious mind, or reavers, or clones, and so on. (The clones thing in particular has never made sense to me, because surely they’re just as human as the original they are cloned from.)
So many post-apocalyptic stories are power fantasies about violence without consequence, and when taken into consideration along with the idea that these hordes may represent real-world fears of people of color, or less educated/lower class people, or other marginalized groups, it becomes very difficult to watch them uncritically.
For another great read on the zombie proliferation, read Sam Kabo Ashwell’s series on his New Year’s resolution not to consume any zombie media, starting here, and continuing in posts 1, 2, 3, and 4. He has a slightly different take on the problems inherent in the genre, but with quotes like, “‘Oh no! The disgusting mortality of the human body!’ ‘Can we fix it with violence?’ ‘Yes, yes we can,’” it’s well worth the read.