It’s risky business trying to understand the psychological meaning of particular trends in literature, film and culture. Nevertheless, when a peculiar trend is popular enough to be referenced on the Center for Disease Control website and inspire costumed “zombie days” and parades, it bears a moment of reflection. Why are zombies so popular? What do they speak to in our collective consciousness?
Zombies are only the latest twist to the post-apocalyptic theme. The graphic and emotionally intense 28 Days Later and The Hunger Games, both books and movies, and the television series Revolution all reached wide audiences, and there is a wealth of less successful books and films that explore the same idea: The world as we know it has been destroyed/destroyed itself, and the survivors have to do what they can to keep going. Civilization and its institutions are gone. Authority and technology can’t help. Reading the news provides lots of fuel for these kinds of fears: Gun violence rips through schools, neighborhoods and summer camps; Europe is in decline, with unsustainable levels of unemployment; the U.S. has been struggling to pull out of a long and painful recession; revolutions in the Middle East expose and increase the numbers of fanatic Islamists eager to kill and die. Post-apocalypse is Lord of the Flies on steroids.
Some writers feel that zombies represent more specifically our fear of pandemics…something has gone wrong with the natural order of things (in which dead people stay dead) and a new illness has swept the world. HIV/AIDS had that kind of effect in some parts of Africa for a long time, suggesting to those writers that the hidden meaning of zombies is fear of a viral epidemic. Viruses spread relentlessly and are never sated. Perhaps that’s why the CDC built on the zombie-craze for public education in disaster preparedness (http://www.cdc.gov/phpr/zombies.htm).
Diving deeper still, zombies bear a striking similarity to Buddhism’s “hungry ghosts.” Hungry ghosts are pathetic creatures with huge, always-hungry stomachs. They can never satisfy their hunger because they have tiny mouths and necks so thin they can’t swallow. A hungry ghost is an incarnation that results from a life of greed, envy and jealousy—vices for which there is never enough. Hungry ghosts are also associated with addiction, obsession and compulsion, making them the perfect template for zombies who move forward in dumb, blind mindlessness, driven by their obsessive, compulsive addiction to human brains. Addicts in the throes of their addiction appear to be in a trance, unable to consider anything beyond getting what they crave. Using to oblivion, they sleep, and then rise with self-loathing (the zombie is ugly, not alive and not human), only to be driven forward by their hunger again.
I haven’t yet seen World War Z, but I hope the humans triumph in the end.