Kirby Farrell Ph.D.

A Swim in Denial

Zombie Nerves

The enemy within.

Posted Feb 08, 2017

Last weekend at LAX, Los Angeles’ airport, NPR interviewed a protester who was defending the ban on travelers from certain Muslim countries. The man argued that he’s afraid of terrorists and that’s all that matters. He wasn’t being patriotic or religious. He was blanking out the thousands of lives thrown into chaos by the sudden travel ban, making those individuals and families a faceless mob. His own fear swelled to take their place. However much you sympathize with him, he was saying, “America first. Me first.”

In a nation where guns are as dandy as candy, there’s always some danger. But the terrorism risk is minimal. The visa process is already more thorough than a colonoscopy. The only attackers since 9/11 have been home-grown rampage killers. What was triggering the man’s self-important panic?

Zombies can help us think about this puzzle. Like vampires, zombies are a popular fantasy in which the ambiguously dead prey on the living. Zombies invade as a faceless mob, alien, unable to speak, and vengefully hungry. Like Terminator robots, they’ll stop at nothing. They want your life. They’ll eat your brain and make you one of them.

Mr. Trump’s populism is organized around fear of zombies. In his speeches, they’re Mexicans and Muslims and racial minorities in an American slum. Like the monsters, they’re the walking dead—socially dead, a condition as terrifying as real death. Like zombies, they’re faceless nobodies who have fallen out of society. As zombies eat brains, the nobodies would gobble up identity and status from the living: you. They're frightening because they’re rivals for food, jobs, taxpayer welfare, and self-esteem. In Mr. Trump’s speeches, they’re potential criminals and terrorists. In the real world, at the Arrivals gate, they may be losers or they may be brilliant job prospects. Either way, they can spook you.

To keep zombies out, Mr. Trump vows to create a fantastic wall and travel ban. But these projects also serve to keep the fear of zombies in everybody’s thoughts. How? During the years it would take to complete the wall, it would make news and political propaganda every day. With every mention would come reminders of the threat.

Since in reality the threat is minimal, the believer in zombies has to stay pumped up. The leader’s speeches oblige by insinuating that we have been suffering invisible or “underreported” massacres. But there’s an added twist: The man speaking into the mic at LAX has picked up fear, but he's also spreading it around as the politician does. Doing its job, media helps. The result is a spiral of panic that reinforces believers’ belief. Since zombie panic can make you feel helpless, angry, and loyal to the group, you can become what you fear.

Today populism is stirring around the world. In Europe, immigration and open borders have combined with refugee disasters to rattle nerves. As Franklin Foer puts it, researchers have found that “right-wing populists have largely fed off the alienation of older white voters, who are angry about the erosion of traditional values. These voters feel stigmatized as intolerant and bigoted for even entertaining such anger—and their rage grows. . . . Their alienation and fear of civilization's collapse have eroded their faith in democracy, and created a yearning for a strongman who can stave off catastrophe.”

Fear of rivals is built into us. If racial or financial superiority comforts your self-esteem, you don’t want outsiders discounting your whiteness or your checkbook.

“The alienation of older white voters” is especially acute in the U.S. because a generation of aging baby boomers have to come to terms with death. Economic distortions have left many of them abused, neglected, or otherwise vulnerable to social death. This is partly the despair of a generation for whom traditional verities no longer console for change and death. As zombies overrun “my” world, my life and my death feel meaningless. What Foer calls “fear of civilizational collapse” is the terror of annihilation.

Mr. Trump too is a baby boomer approaching the end of life. Wealthy, living in a tower, he formed his political identity by attacking zombies. He repeatedly charged that a Kenyan zombie had infiltrated American government. Like his “older white voters,” he wants to be “great again.” Angry “about the erosion of traditional values,” he calls for violent law enforcement. In his tweets he can sound like older voters who “feel stigmatized as intolerant and bigoted for even entertaining such anger—and [whose] rage grows.”

Structural change is amplifying that rage. Rant broadcasting routinely vilifies scapegoats. Rant pumps up emergency neurophysiology to change flight (depression, anxiety) into fight. With a station transmitter, the ranter dominates the audience, directing the listener’s rage and legitimizing it. If it's contagious, it's good business. 

When authorities urge you to throw off inhibitions, the release of hostile energy can be intoxicating. When the hostility is confined to a like-minded bubble or the airwaves, it is difficult to see its personal consequences. After a demonstration at Berkeley against a provocative Breitbart speaker, a Michigan GOP official called for "Another Kent State"—the 1970 National Guard massacre of students. Afterward he apologized, as if he'd only just realized he'd been inciting murder. He must have been assuming that others would reinforce his clever call for a massacre. Tragic misunderstanding is all too likely.  If a travel ban is interpreted as discrimination against Muslims, it may alienate Muslim allies. Terrorists may perceive the ban as a challenge to score a kill in the U.S. And in blocking the ban, the law would be blamed if some terrorist strike did happen. Without reality-testing, zombies pick up the pace.

Again, zombie panic is not new. As immigrants, Americans have long struggled to control hostility toward rival outsiders. To unite fractious colonists during the Revolution, Ben Franklin and other founding fathers vilified “treacherous” slaves and Indians. The “yellow peril” immigration from Asia roused classic zombie panic. In the Reagan years, Central American zombies were called “the foot people” and duly slaughtered by proxy. The last decades of the 20th century imagined a plague of child-kidnappers, "remembered" abusers, and a mind-controlling—brain-eating—Satanic cult. With the 9/11 attacks, hysteria fueled catastrophic American invasions that destabilized the middle east and still bleeds resources and lives. 

Zombie panic makes others faceless. It reduces personality to the doomed, decaying human body. It destroys the value, not to mention the joy, of intimacy with other people. You’d think leadership would be trying to calm us down so we could restore our creative powers. Think of Mary Shelley, who registered the shock of the French revolution in Frankenstein. Assembled from many different body parts, Victor Frankenstein’s misshapen, misunderstood creature evokes the revolutionary poor. He begs to be accepted into humanity, and when rejected, turns violent. Arising from death and social death, the creature is a kind of zombie. His story is still alive today.

Resources used in this essay:

Ernest Becker, Escape from Evil (Free Press, 1972).

David Frum, "How to Build an Autocracy," The Atlantic (March 2017).

Franklin Foer, "It's Putin's World," The Atlantic (March, 2017).

Kirby Farrell, The Psychology of Abandon (Leveller's Press, 2016).

Peter Homans, The Ability to Mourn: Disillusionment and the Social Origins of Psychoanalysis (Chicago, 1989).

Jean-Michel Oughourlian, The Mimetic Brain (Michigan State U. Press, 2016)

Robert Parkinson, The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution (2017).

Orlando Patterson, Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study (1982).