Grand Rounds

Why we do the things we do

Zombies Are NOT Real

But the metaphor of the zombie is.

I’ve written a lot about zombies.

Because of the recent horrific spate of violence that many have noted is frighteningly similar to classic zombie movies, I think it is important that I set the record unambiguously straight. Indeed, given the congruence of the public’s interest in all things zombie, and the unfortunate but understandable desire to tie the events in Canada, Florida and elsewhere to signs of an impending “zombie apocalypse,” I’m not surprised that some in the press have asked me to comment. This is because of the novel I wrote and because of my previous posts. I remain a zombie enthusiast; I feel, therefore, that it is extremely important that I be absolutely clear right now.

-I am a physician and a psychiatrist. I would never under any circumstances refer to my patients or any patients as zombies. That was not my intention in writing a novel with zombies. Like many people, I have enjoyed since I was young the capacity of the fictional zombies that George Romero created to elucidate our own human foibles as well as our attempts at nobility. If anyone has read what I have written and thought that I was referring to patients of any sort as zombies, than I deeply apologize.

-Although it is tricky for me to separate my roles as a doctor and as an author (i.e. I can’t simply stop being a doctor when I write, or vice versa) I think it is important that I note that I am writing this post now as an author and as avid observer of popular culture. To the extent that my training as a psychiatrist allows me to make suppositions about trends in popular culture, I suppose the two roles can be muddled. Still, I am very wary of anyone equating my vocation (physician) and my avocation (writer) in ways that are damaging to somebody's health. I have spoken to other physician-authors and they have expressed similar caveats and concerns with regard to their own fiction.

-Zombies are not real. They have never been real. Like all fictional monsters, they are metaphors, and the metaphors can change as a function of current events, of the intended messages, and with the varied audiences.

-I’ve spent a lot of time with some very nice people who have written some very unsettling stories that feature zombies. None of these people endorses violence of any kind. All of these people are actively non-violent. They are adamant in their stance that violence is virtually never a good thing. In fact, I am comfortable making the seemingly paradoxical suggestion that zombie movies and zombie stories, at their best, are powerfully and often satirically anti-violent in their messages. This is hardly an original notion among film scholars and post-modern theorists, but it is important given recent events that we make this clear. Zombie movies are about how NOT to act. They are by definition cautionary tales. They force us to carefully define the human condition, but a careful definition never means a narrow definition. When characters on The Walking Dead kill a “walker” they are indeed killing. Plain and simple. The show, though, isn’t about the killing. It is about what the killing, necessary or not, does to those who remain among the living.

-Every zombie tale with something worth saying does so with tongue deeply in cheek, but the stories are by definition not happy or optimistic. The characters in these stories who would not have even shared a seat on a bus are now stuck together. They wall themselves up in some societal symbolic structure (a church, a farmhouse, or a shopping mall), they try to get along and stay alive despite their differences, and they end up more often than not turning on one other. In other words, they lose track of the enemy. And the enemy? I’d argue that it is the desire to oversimplify during uncertain times. Oversimplification is bad. (I know - that's an oversimplified statement)

 -There will not be a zombie apocalypse. Many people shout “boo” when I say this at conventions. If anything, the news this week, with real people suffering real tragedy, is sign enough that we do not need to call something a zombie apocalypse for it to be awful. As I said at comic-con, “We’re humans. We have plenty of ways to end our civilization without zombies.” Zombie movies allow us to ponder these issues in the afforded displacement of campy fiction and movies. Our civilization has made it through some tough times, but the zombie movies teach us that there is a danger in taking for granted the importance of community, of compromise, and of civility.

 -So – to the horrible events in the news this week. Even if I were writing more explicitly as a doctor, it would be highly unethical and inappropriate for me to comment. I have not met with the people involved, and if I had, I would never share my impressions.

However, the leap to call this a harbinger of apocalyptic proportions? Involving zombies? C’mon. These are horrible tragedies and they deserve serious consideration. I can understand the desire to make light. Here I suppose I am more explicitly writing as a psychiatrist. Humor is a well-developed defense, and when the unspeakable happens it is comforting to both joke and to categorize.

But none of what has happened is fiction. Still, we can use the lessons offered from the cautionary aspects of the best zombie films; these warnings are pretty apt. When Ben is killed in the last scene of Night of the Living Dead, there isn’t a person in the audience who cheers, but we all understand the events that lead to his execution. The sheriff and his men oversimplify, categorize, act without thinking, choose to forsake their very humanity. Acting without thinking never goes well.

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

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