Commentary | Fear, anxiety drive zombie craze

Miami HeraldJune 5, 2012 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued an official reassurance: no zombie apocalypse.

“CDC does not know of a virus or condition that would reanimate the dead (or one that would present zombie-like symptoms),” agency spokesman David Daigle told The Huffington Post.

Who knows, maybe the CDC statement allayed a few anxieties. I found it downright depressing. That the CDC felt compelled to issue an official denial that the zombie apocalypse was upon us seemed like another discomfiting moment in America’s cultural descent.

All this, of course, was set off by the savage May 26 attack on a homeless man on the MacArthur Causeway and the horrible hospital photos and the overwrought on-line, hit-driven media coverage. And, as “zombie apocalypse” trended to become the second most popular search term on Google, it was as if Americans, some of them anyway, couldn’t be bothered with the intellectual distinction between a very real, brutal tragedy in Miami and the ghoulish zombie fantasies of movies, TV and literature.

“I’ve written quite a bit about the current ‘zombie renaissance,’ but things are starting to go far beyond the ideas I explored in my book,” Kyle Bishop, author of American Zombie Gothic: The Rise and Fall (and Rise) of the Walking Dead in Popular Culture, told me by e-mail Monday. “I thought we as a culture were simply seeing a renewed and increased interest in monster narratives as a gut-check reaction to 9/11 and the War on Terror.

“Now, however, the zombie has become something much more visceral, something that has taken hold on our collective unconscious. People – many people, probably – think zombies, or something like them, may actually, indeed exist,” Bishop stated.

Elizabeth Bird, a professor of anthropology at the University of Central Florida, sees these reanimated corpses plodding through pop culture as surrogates for the pervasive fears that nag at modern life: pandemic diseases, nuclear destruction, environmental collapse, “the idea that we’re consuming ourselves. If world comes to an end, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.”

Professor Bird said that the CDC probably didn’t help itself last year with a tongue-in-cheek youth-oriented campaign, with ads and buttons and a novella packaged as “a fun new way of teaching the importance of emergency preparedness. Our new graphic novel, Preparedness 101: Zombie Pandemic demonstrates the importance of being prepared in an entertaining way that people of all ages will enjoy. Readers follow Todd, Julie, and their dog Max as a strange new disease begins spreading, turning ordinary people into zombies.”

The CDC slogan: “If you’re ready for the zombie apocalypse, you’re ready for any emergency.”

I keep wondering what anthropologists, digging through the remnants of our society, will make of us, a thousand years from now. Judging by the content of our most popular books, movies and TV programs, we’ll look like a culture much more obsessed with vampires and zombies, with the occasional werewolf outlier, than, say, religion or philosophy or science.

“I expect anthropologists in the future will find our collective fascination with zombies (and other supernatural monsters) amusing — the wild rantings of a backward and superstitious culture,” ventured Bishop. “Or maybe they’ll be more sympathetic and see how we used our monsters to try to explain our society (and vice versa).”

“I think if future anthropologists were to look back on our culture and try to explain our fascination with monsters they would see a society riven by fears and anxieties of various kinds, including uncertainty about the future, the fear of being victimized by violent crime, and a sense that we live in an atomized culture, each of us separated from everyone else by religion, class, economics, among other things,” said David Schmid of the University of Buffalo, who has written about our pervasive fascination with real monsters in Natural Born Celebrities: Serial Killers in American Culture. “You might think that our pop culture would be filled with happy-go-lucky tales of escapism that would help alleviate these anxieties, but the opposite is true: Whether it’s Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy, the Twilight movies, TV series like True Blood or The Walking Dead, or this latest incident in Miami, both our pop culture and the media are saturated by violence, more often than not committed by monsters of one kind or another.”

Schmid suggested via e-mail that all this zombie stuff is supposed to be therapeutic. “Watching TV shows or films, and reading books about monsters give us a safe, manageable way to work through our fears, to remind ourselves that happy endings can still happen.”

He wrote, “In this respect, the reason that the ‘face-eating’ incident has received so much press coverage is that it seems to signal a place where fiction has crossed over into reality.”

“Even the ironic jokes about ‘The Zombie Apocalypse Starts Now!’ are tinged with a certain unease because our pop cultural monsters can only ever give us a way of processing our fears, not removing them entirely,” Schmid said. “Even if we know our house is secure, that next bump in the night will still make us start!”

Bishop, who teaches, among other courses, fantasy literature at Southern Utah University, said he intends to talk about the Miami incident in Montreal next month. He’s delivering the keynote address at the First (but probably not the last) International Zombie Conference.

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