This is the fourth installment of excerpts from my dissertation chapter on zombies in popular culture, and it’s the last before we get to the psychobilly part of all this. There’s one final point that needs to be wrapped up before we can best understand how psychobillies have inverted the hegemonic narrative of zombies in popular culture.
READ THE PREVIOUS INSTALLMENTS: SECTION A gives examples of the so-called Zombie Renaissance within recent popular culture; SECTION B discusses the origins and definitions of zombies that make us think they’re evil and must be killed; SECTION C talks about how zombie stories over time have corresponded to major fears or anxieties that permeate the masses.
As shown in SECTION C, we’re inundated with images of death, undeath, or societal collapse during times when these fears are most present in reality. Decaying zombies remind us of the dead bodies we see on the news and the ones we will ourselves become. Infected zombies play on our anxieties about mutated diseases, biological weapons, or scientific experiments that could potentially create states of undeath. And the zombie apocalypse recalls infrastructural emergencies that we’ve experienced recently or could realistically experience in the future as a result of the devastating effects of hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes, oil spills, fires, floods, volcanoes, infectious epidemics, terrorist attacks, wars, and so on.
So, why do we like being presented with these real fears? How do zombie movies help us deal with these concerns? Going back to Jameson again, how are these anxieties managed or repressed through zombie popular culture? I propose there are at least 2 important reasons:
1. Preparation for disaster: First, as discussed in the previous installments, zombie popular culture has given us many tips and tools with which to defend ourselves against a possible real disaster. Take the Zombie Squad, for instance. With the motto “We make dead things deader”, ZS is a nonprofit organization committed to promoting emergency preparedness. They’ve raised thousands of dollars for local, national, and international disaster aid charities through their events and have organized food and blood drives, all in the name of preparing for the inevitable “zombie outbreak.” Their upcoming international gathering of members, Zombie Con 2011, features a trip to the local shooting range, survival themed games, and informative seminars on radio communication, first aid, ammunition hand reloading, fire building, blade sharpening, and night navigation. These are useful skills that might come in handy should we experience a major social upheaval.
Similarly, gearing up for the premiere of The Walking Dead, the AMC website challenged guests to take a “survival test” under timed conditionsb: “What kind of survivor would you be after the apocalypse?” (click here to take the test yourself). The show itself is less about zombie monsters than about the survival of humans in a changed world, as Entertainment Weekly writer Jeff Jenson notes: “What makes it a cut above is its brainy envisioning of a terrifying apocalyptic meltdown that leaves human characters struggling for physical and spiritual survival by snaring them in one moral quagmire after another. Your beloved spouse is now a zombie. Do you put her down or wait in hope for a cure? A member of your community needs to be rescued. He’s also a vile racist. Is he worth the bullets and manpower to save? What is the value of a human life? Who makes the rules when the world breaks down?” (30)
By experiencing zombie survival narratives, viewers cathartically deal with the possibility of social collapse by mentally rehearsing strategies that might need to use or moral dilemmas they might have to deal with during a disaster. It’s a practice run. In fact, Peter Dendle, the author of one of the most comprehensive zombie movie encyclopedias, was once approached by a student who personally survived the 9/11 attack in New York. He “claimed he had been emotionally prepared for the tragedy, not by his family, community, or government, but by the zombie movies of which he had been a long-time appreciator” (in Bishop, 36).
2. Survival: In most of the narratives that permeate popular culture, humans survive. After all, someone has to tell the story. World War Z, Max Brooks’ “oral history of the zombie war”, is the story ten years after the apocalypse, documenting how people rose to the occasion, successfully contained the threat, and began to rebuild society: “World War Z captures the sacrifices and, toward the end, the ingenuity of our race to defend and save our cities, towns, and villages from a plague that seemed virtually impossible to stop” (www.randomhouse.com).
People want to survive … and they typically do, by whatever means necessary. I believe this is the most important cathartic aspect of the zombie narratives that makes them appeal to the public during times of crisis. “Winning” is acted out. People succeed. The zombies and whatever threats they represent at the time in our lives (infectious disease, foreign invasion, terrorism, mind-controlling spies, infrastructural collapse from natural disasters, etc.) are ultimately stamped out by highly motivated individuals, and that makes us feel as if we can conquer anything, even the challenges that confront us in reality.
Moreover, zombies are the ideal monsters for these stories of human triumph, since they’re relatively easy to kill. They move slow and there’s a clear way to defeat them (everyone knows you destroy their brain). And as noted earlier (SECTION B), we face no moral dilemma in killing them since they have ceased to be human and they do evil things. In fact, they represent such a ridiculous threat that “zombedies” constantly mock their harmlessness. In Shaun of the Dead, the living protagonists have time to debate which vinyl records they should hurl at the zombies who inch closer and closer … very, very, very slowly.
Thus, shooting the heads off zombies can seem satisfying and fulfilling, giving people confidence and a sense of agency. By watching zombie movies or playing zombie video games, people can feel empowered, capable of defending themselves, and hopeful that they could survive a real catastrophe.
The hegemonic narrative: Fred Botting agrees with cultural theorists Stuart Hall and Fredric Jameson; he argues that Gothic literature “retains a double function in simultaneously assuaging and intensifying the anxieties with which they engage” (280). By presenting us with death and apocalypse, our fears of those realities are made evident and intensified. But by offering us strategies for survival and by re-enforcing the idea that humans can indeed defeat the enemy that threatens the safety of our lives, these fears are assuaged and managed. In other words, zombie narratives have their own hegemonic narrative that is retold time and time again to appease the audience, and it’s that humans must defeat the zombies and survive the apocalypse…. that is, until psychobillies turn this all on its rotting head.
NEXT INSTALLMENT: THE PSYCHOBILLY ZOMBIE
Bishop, Kyle William. American Zombie Gothic: The Rise and Fall (and Rise) of the Walking Dead in Popular Culture. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2010.
Botting, Fred. “Aftergothic. Consumption, Machines, and Black Holes.” In The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction, ed. by Jerold Hogle, 277-300. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
Jensen, Jeff. “Dead and Loving It.” Entertainment Weekly. #1131, December 3, 2010.