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The Optimism of the Zombie Craze: How Chuck Klosterman and I Differ with Regard to the UnDead

How I got to such an optimistic place with zombies.

OK, I am treading on seriously thin ice.  Sometimes, I guess, to make a point, you gotta take a risk.  I just hope it doesn’t hurt too much. 

Here goes:

I am going to challenge one of my favorite writers, one of the very best commentators on popular culture.  Prepare yourself, Mr. Chuck Klosterman, author of Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs, prepare yourself despite your place on my bookshelf; prepare yourself precisely because you, through your wonderful musings, helped me to truly grasp the formidable power of funny-as-hell pessimism, even nihilism, especially when these sentiments are crooned like I’d imagine an eloquent punk band that insists on writing their lyrics in Iambic Pentameter.

 In the New York Times, on December 3, you, sir, characterized modernity as zombie-like, and wondered in a brilliant piece whether the current zombie craziness correlates with the extent to which “Modern Life Feels Rather Undead.”

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 I couldn’t agree with you more on that general theme.  I thought in fact of those very sentiments just this morning as I shambled through the line at Starbucks, my great act of rebellious individuality expressed in my ongoing insistence to call my medium sized cup of coffee “a medium” rather than a “Grande” or whatever they call it.  Doesn’t it seem, at this point, that I’ve already lost the battle?  I mean if my rebellion is driven because the rest of the world has seemingly adopted these faux sizes of beverages, then really I am reiterating the dominance of Starbucks over any silly desire on my part to fight “the (Starbucks) Man.”  But this is of course old territory. Go rent Role Models for the famed great coffee-ordering scene.

 But, I digress.

At the end of your essay, Mr. Klosterman, you suggest, based on the crushing and deadening effects of modernity (the internet and voice mail are good examples of the heftiness of our technological surrender) that we are “living in the zombies’ world” and you note, in that patented Klosterman way in which the reader feels both understood and simultaneously scolded, that “we can do better.”

 Well, I think we already do. 

 This is probably the Pollyanna in me, but I can’t be what I’m not, so if I am Pollyanna, I ought to at least explain how I got to such an optimistic place with regard to zombies. 

 I think the zombie construct has garnered such impressive momentum precisely because it generates a kind of cautious optimism.  Zombie stories, like all folk tales (and anything that catches public attention with such strength and psychological resonance becomes to some extent a folk meme) are cautionary tales of what NOT to do.  Can you think of a folk tale you heard and remembered in which the protagonists actually get it right

The shell of the zombie, the "nothingness" of the zombie himself, is in fact an opportunity to celebrate what makes us, humans, unique.  I don't think that the internet, video games or even changed words for “medium” and “large” at Starbucks are taking away our capacity to be pretty cool creatures.  In other words, I don't see the zombie craze as a sign of our lost humanity.  I see the zombie craze as a challenge, an invitation even, to understand better how we define ourselves as both part of a pack and as uniquely separate.  The dialectic of every zombie movie involves exactly this struggle: that is, can a motley crew of seemingly never-to-get-along humans behave in a good-enough fashion (not perfectly) for most of the time (not all of the time) so that they can be proud of how they handle a relatively easy crisis 5 years later when they are all hopefully there to look back on it? 

  This interpretation allows us as well to make sense of the subtle but slow merging of zombies with the apocalyptic scenario. In the first of the modern zombie flicks, the construct of the walking dead was not really tied to Armageddon.  How’d we go from shambling corpses to the end of the world? 

 Well, for starters, we have a tendency as a species to forget how cool we are.  Think of the Battlestar Galactica, think of the brilliant movie Splice, think of Justin Cronin’s The Passage.  If we forget how cool we are, then the world can go to hell awfully fast.

Let’s take it out of the zombie realm for a moment.  Consider the story of John Henry, the “steel drivin’ man.”  He accepts the challenge to take on the merits of a steam powered hammer, beats the damn machine in a race, but ultimately pushes himself so hard that he dies. When I was a kid, I loved this story exactly because I saw it not as a celebration of the silly machine, but as an example of John Henry forgetting what he already had and ought to have already known.  At the end of the day, you shouldn't have to fight a machine to know that humans have things that machines just don’t.  John Henry dies, in some ways, because he forgets in accepting the challenge that being uniquely human is way cooler than being a machine, especially since every steam powered hammer will be built more or less like every other steam powered hammer.  (Sorta like a zombie.)  Ultimately, John Henry surrendered his humanity and became that machine – and he did therefore exactly what machines do.  He broke.  Thus, our folk wisdom offers displaced caution so that we might avoid calamity in the world of the living.

I see every zombie story as an example of what not to do, and chief among the list of what not to do is to forget our ongoing, unique, and fortunate tension between the drive to be pack animals and the drive to be something special.  This balance is a dialectic, and always will be, and the living dead – hell, they’re script is already written.  It never really changes.

Steven Schlozman, M.D., is an Associate Director of Medical Student Education in Psychiatry for Harvard Medical School.

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