MonthJanuary 2013

“Mommy, where do zombies come from?”

zombies causePrevious Zombie Posts:

Zombies are our monsters; they scare us.  We are modern and we are secular, so our monsters will be just the sort of creature that would be scary to a modern, secular audience.    Because they terrorize the closed immanent frame, zombies can’t suggest any transcendent meaning because we really don’t go for that sort of thing.  One of the features of movies in the zombie genre is that they are not very clear as to the cause of the zombie infestation.  I believe the reason is that to offer a cause would be a step toward attributing a meaning to the disaster.  This ambiguity as to cause, protects the immanent nature of the world of the zombie film.

This motif was established in Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, and it is true of almost all the stories of the undead that follow.  Various theories as to why corpses have re-animated are sometimes suggested: “human error might be the cause, so might the space program, extra-terrestrial forces, ‘natural’ conditions in outer space, and so on” (Waller 275-6).  But the cause is almost never certain.

To offer some rational cause for the walking dead would give meaning to the calamity.

It is not important, nor is the plausibility of that cause, since the movies are really always about the effects, not the causes, of the zombie infestation.

Zani and Meaux analyze this lack of clarity surrounding the cause of the zombie horde in the films of Italian director Lucio Fulci, whom they describe as the “quintessential director of zombie gore horror.” One of the most fascinating qualities of his films is that Fulci is “not afraid to throw aside logic or narrative” (Zani [Better off Dead] 108).  In his film Zombie 2, for instance, the cause of the zombie infestation changes from a pagan curse early in the story to some form of contagious disease later in the film.   This disregard for consistency shows that “the central concern of zombie films has nothing to do with . . . discovering the ultimate cause of the catastrophe.”

To offer some rational cause for the walking dead would give meaning to the calamity.  The search for the cause would end up being a search for the meaning of the zombie within the context of the film, and this is precisely what the zombie film will not do—the lack of meaning is at the heart of zombie narratives.

A consistent ambiguity surrounding the cause of the zombie infestation, both within or between movies of this genre, places the attention on the immanent struggle of the human protagonists and away from a cause for which transcendent explanations would have to be too seriously considered.

Next zombie post: Challenging Modern Boundaries

Zombies Ain’t Got No Soul

zombies immanentPrevious Zombie Posts:

The horror story in general, turns fear, “whether personal or social, into a specific type of monster; and seeks to contain and destroy it” (Worland 17).  As a very popular figure in modern narratives, the zombie is the embodiment of the fears of modern man.  Because modern man is secular man, the zombie represents fears that have come as a result of secularization on the human identity.

Romero’s Night of the Living Dead took zombie narratives in a whole new direction from the voodoo zombie films, a direction consonant with the cultural texture of secular modernity: one which no longer recognized the relevance, and even the presence of transcendent reality (by which I mean anything beyond the material, or immanent reality).   For this reason, it is called the first modern zombie film.

The zombie represents fears that have come as a result of secularization on the human identity.

Much of American society had come to terms with the death of God, as declared by Nietzsche, by transferring its faith to a new master and savior: technology and science.  But with the events of the Second World War, most particularly the Holocaust, the dropping of the atomic bomb, and the Cold War that followed, American culture found its new gods inadequate.  The zombie that Romero’s presented in Night of the Living Dead still represented the loss of subjectivity, but more importantly, and more horrifyingly, it also represented a humanity experiencing the loss of the transcendent.  This loss occurred through the spread of secularization.

The process of secularization and its effects are described by Charles Taylor in A Secular Age.  In his exploration of belief, he describes the “shift in background” (13), that is, in the interpretive context or framework in which all beliefs are tacitly held.  In the pre-modern past, reality encompassed both transcendence and physical realities; the immanent frame was understood to be open: open to the transcendent.  Modern man believes reality is “a ‘natural’ order, to be contrasted with a ‘supernatural’ one, an ‘immanent’ world, over against a rejected ‘transcendent’ one” (542).   Because it does not allow for any supernatural explanations, Taylor calls this stance the “closed immanent frame” (5).

The absence of the transcendent is apparent in the modern zombie film, most particularly in the monster itself.  In Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, the walking dead, except for the fact that they are walking, are very ordinary.  Some of them “are fully dressed; one of them is rather fat and dressed only in jockey shorts; one of them, a young woman, is naked. They look vulnerable, and they are vulnerable, to a blow to the head and to fire” (Dillard 21).  Interestingly, “they were cast from local citizens of Pittsburgh . . . becoming extras in a story . . . and in many senses playing themselves” (Warner 366).  There is very little difference between the zombies and one’s neighbours.

As a modern monster, like a werewolf, a vampire or a ghoul, the zombie has no supernatural qualities, but unlike them has no superhuman qualities either.

As a modern monster, like a werewolf, a vampire or a ghoul, the zombie has no supernatural qualities, but unlike them has no superhuman qualities either: “they cannot fly, they cannot turn into vapor, bat, or wolf; they are not possessed of superhuman strength; they don’t have fangs” (Paffenroth 8).  Without transcendence or superhuman qualities, they are “just pale skin, gaping wounds, and noticeable decay” (Bishop 117).  Unlike the spirits of distant generations, “a zombie is embodied and material, [it] walks and bleeds and sweats” (Warner 358).  The thoroughly immanent zombie, then, is a suitable terror for the closed, immanent frame.

As the zombie is unremarkable; so too is the world through which it shambles.  In Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, the ordinariness of the setting reflects a thoroughly immanent world.  The “dully commonplace settings” of Night of the Living Dead reflect the flatness of a universe in a way than do the more fantastic settings of almost all of the American horror films that preceded it.  The graveyard in the opening scenes has no painted background or ominous lighting, but is “flatly lit and unretouched.”  The house where the rest of the film takes place is an ordinary farmhouse, not a gothic “castle overlooking the perpetually befogged forest” (Dillard 17).  The setting of this film in relation to those of other American horror films, like Frankenstein (1931), illustrates the shift from a cosmos enchanted by the transcendent, to a disenchanted universe.  The world of Night of the Living Dead is a wholly immanent one.

Next zombie post: Where Do Zombies Come From?

A Brief History of the Zombie

Zombie HistoryPrevious Zombie posts:

A New Kind of Monster


Before it became the monster against which the modern secular self was constituted, it was  a monster against which African and Carribean selves were clarrified.

It has undergone a few small but significant changes in its short history. The zombie has two basic characteristics: it is a reanimated corpse of one person (this disqualifies Frankenstein’s monster) and it lacks free will (Pulliam [in Icons of Horror] 724). It differs from the other monsters found in western fictional narratives because it is a relative newcomer, arriving onto the scene only in the last hundred years or so. Furthermore, the zombie is a new world monster. Unlike ghosts, ghouls, werewolves, vampires, and other monsters transmitted to American culture through the medium of European fiction, the zombie went directly from folklore to the movie screen and skipped the literary phase of most European monsters.

The zombie proper was brought to America from Africa with the slaves, and later emerged from “Haitian folklore and the mythologies of voodoo religion” (Bishop 13). The zombie changed as it moved from its native African context to Haiti. In its African manifestation, the zombie was an external spirit that was feared because it was capable of indwelling the human form, supplanting the human subject. In the Caribbean context of “long-standing conflicts that have arisen from imperialism, oppression and slavery” (32), the slave culture formed the idea of the zombie as being an unwillingly servant of a malevolent sorcerer. In this manifestation, the zombie represents “the way in which slavery stripped someone of personhood” (Warner 357). The zombie underwent more changes when it migrated to America.

In the early twentieth century, the zombie entered American culture from the travel literature of William B. Seabrook. After living in Haiti for two years, Seabrook wrote his a first-person account of voodoo rituals in his book called The Magic Island (1929). This book seems to have been the inspiration for the film White Zombie (1932). Set in Haiti, this film links zombies to colonial anxieties. A white sorcerer controls the minds of peasants and his former enemies to create a labor force to work in his sugar mill and amass a fortune. White Zombie is representative of early zombie films that deal with a blend of voodoo, hypnotism, and scientific experimentation. The zombies of these films “act as cultural metaphors for enslavement” for the “monsters” in these movies “are not even the zombies but rather the sinister priest or master pulling their strings” (Bishop 19). The voodoo sorcerer robs the individuals of their autonomy and turns them into mindless servants. In these early zombie films, as in Haitian folklore, the zombie is terrifying because it depicts “the human subject as nothing more than an object” (131), an instrument to be used and abused by a diabolical master.

It was this objectification of the self that resonated with American movie audiences. The source of this fear of objectification was produced by the application of the principles of instrumental reason to more and more segments of society. Charles Taylor, in The Malaise of Modernity, describes “the primacy of instrumental reason” as a “massively important phenomenon of the modern age.” By instrumental reason he means “the kind of rationality we draw on when we calculate the most economical application of means to a given end. Maximum efficiency, the best cost-output ratio, is its measure of success (4-5). Instrumental reason has made the world of objects nothing more than “potential raw material or instruments for our projects” (3). The zombies in these early films show the principles of instrumental reason as applied to humanity itself.  Zombies are humans turned into objects; they are “being treated as raw materials or instruments” (5) for the projects of their masters. This representation of the zombie as “a body which has been hollowed out, emptied of selfhood” (Warner 357) shambled across the screens of America until 1968, when, at the hands of George Romero, it changed to embody a new set of cultural anxieties.

These changes through time and context bear out Kearney’s assertion that as “ideas of self-identity change so do our ideas of what menaces this identity” (Strangers 4). Our monsters change because we change.

Next zombie post: Zombies Ain’t Got No Soul


Also cited:
Klapp, Orrin E. “Heroes, Villains and Fools, as Agents fo Social Control.” American Sociological Review 19.1 (1954): 56-62. JSTOR. Web. 24 June, 2012.

Zombies: A Whole New Kind of Monster

Zombie 1“Apocalypse” (Ἀποκάλυψις) is a Greek word meaning “revelation.”  In popular culture we often equate the word apocalypse with zombies.  “The zombie apocalypse” actually means “that which zombies reveal.”  Zombies reveal some very interesting things about us, our society, and how we understand ourselves and our society.

This has always been the case with  monsters.  They always tell us about the people in whose stories they appear.

Richard Kearney says that “monsters scare the hell out of us and remind us that we don’t know who we are (Strangers 117). What he means is, the monsters that haunt, creep and conjure in our stories have something to do with our identity–that is, the identity of the people who tell and hear (and view) the stories.  Monsters help us to clarify who we are.

When Kearney says that, “[m]ost ideas of identity . . . have been constructed in relation to some notion of alterity” (66), he means that we understand who we are, through facing what we are not.  Monsters are an embodiment of what we are not–alterity.  Our monsters function as “negative mirror image of ourselves which we project onto a fantasy world. Flawed beings, scapegoats, the enemy, the unknown, and the damned must all be willed into being as foils to our own inherent beauty, virtue, integrity and truth” (118).

This is why monsters, even as they threaten identity, tell us a lot about ourselves as a society.

Monsters are often an important component of our stories, whether told around a campfire, in a novel or on the movie screen.  As such, they play an important role in the creation of our collective identity.  Literary critic, Stephen Greenblatt, understands culture to be a system of constraints where cultural beliefs and practices are “enforced by particular literary acts of praising and blaming” (226). In narratives where the central conflict is between hero and monster, these figures are the recipients of praise and blame respectively. As the embodiment of that which is praiseworthy, the hero serves to establish and sustain a culture’s ideals of self-identity.

So back to the zombies….

The idea of the dead walking among the living has been around for a long time. In Inferno, Dante meets Fra Albergio who tells him of traitors like himself who are dead before their bodies die. Dante is horrified; he has seen one of these men the friar describes, one that “eats, and drinks, and sleeps, and puts on clothes” (33.141) but is, nevertheless, dead. In Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors walks Dr. Pinch, who is described as “a living dead man” (5.1.241). Both Dante and Shakespeare conceived of the zombie, but it never caught on as a monster, “at least not the pervasive and successful one that we have seen in the modern era” (Zani [in Better Off Dead] 100).

For contemporary culture, it is the zombie that threatens our collective identity and thus leads modern secular man toward self-knowledge. The zombie is one of the most popular monsters of the last century. Four hundred zombie movies have been made and almost half of these since 2000 (see Wikipedia, “List of Zombie Films” and do the math). The popularity of the zombie monster suggests that it is representative of that which menaces our contemporary collective identity.

George Romero’s in Night of the Living Dead (1968) presents us with the “modern” zombie. He changed earlier ideas of the undead and the transformation embodies exactly what scares the crap out of the modern identity. What is this modern identity?

In A Secular Age, Charles Taylor describes the modern identity as a “buffered self” living in a “closed immanent frame.”  He means, in essence, that the modern identity does not understand itself in terms of the transcendent—the supernatural.  The modern zombie threatens this modern identity in the same way that monsters have always done, as a monstrous other. But zombies are more than just a monstrous other. They also pose a threat to collective identity in their monstrous sameness, for the zombie is a horrifying reflection of the modern self in a world without transcendence—it is a monster for our time.

Next zombie post: A Brief History of the Zombie


Enlightenment Dualism

Publicprivate“No religion should ever be involved with anything other than its own place of worship, where worshippers can believe and practise anything they deem fit, far away from enlightened, logical, reasonable people.”**

Where did this idea come from?

Both Bacon and Descartes trusted in reason to be the arbiter of truth.  Bacon used reason to take him from observation of particular phenomenon to universal principles, and Descartes saw the human mind as the final authority in understanding reality.  Although they approached it from different angles, both trusted reason, rather than faith and tradition,  to lead to the truth.

Because of their influence, by the middle of the 17th century, science was becoming the lens by which reality was viewed.  Importantly, this does not mean that there was a corresponding loss of belief.   Still, as the mysteries of nature that had previously been attributed to the direct intervention of God came to be explained as natural phenomenon, a division developed between science and religion.  God was understood to be the creator, but was no longer thought to be necessary for day to day management of the material world because it was obedient to Natural Law.  Correlative to the division between God and His Creation, was a widening gap between God and human reason; reason was understood to be autonomous.

Enter Immanuel Kant (1724-1804).  Kant saw the movement from reliance on God toward a reliance on reason as analogous to the movement from childhood to adulthood.  This idea was foundational to the period we call the Enlightenment.  The light of the Enlightenment was the realization that it was neither God nor the church which would lead to a better world, but human Reason.  The light, in Enlightenment, is Reason.  This view of is the essence of the modern worldview, and is still with us today.

Kant believed that human beings were also developing morally as we continue to articulate universally recognized moral principles.  All cultures and religions are expressions, to one degree or another, of these principles.   He believed that these Moral Laws could be uncovered by reason.  For Kant, religion was simply a particular expression of universal principles.

It was supposed that we could arrive at universal truth using only reason.  Importantly, it was believed that reason was neutral, unaffected by belief, (or history, tradition, body, etc.).  Because religion is particular, rather than universal, and because it is greatly influenced by belief (history, tradition, etc.) it wasn’t very long before Religion was thought to be the opposite of Reason.

This is where the divide between faith and reason was formalized–this is dualism.  It’s the belief that we can hold to whatever particular beliefs we want, but these are to be kept in the private sphere.  The public sphere is to be ruled by universal reason.  If we keep things in their proper spheres, we can all happily get along (about this site).

Although, this idea is considered passé by many intellectuals–not just the religious ones either–it still dominates public thought.

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