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Zombies as the Monstrous Other: Challenging Modern Boundaries

In Uncategorized on February 2, 2013 at 12:22 pm

Zombie boundariesPrevious Zombie Posts:

Zombies are physical monsters, there is nothing in them that is spiritual or supernatureal or even superhuman.  We can therefore call the zombie an immanent monster.  In the immanence of the monster, in the ordinariness of the setting, and in the ambiguity surrounding the presence of the horde, the zombie film reflects reality as it is understood by modern man: one bereft of transcendence.  Ideally suited to shamble through a purely physical world (the closed immanent frame), the zombies terrorize the residents of this world–that’s us, modern secular humanity.

Monsters basically do two things that worry us.  First, they make us dead.  Second, they always transgress boundaries.  People have an idea about what’s good and what’s bad, what’s “us” and what’s “them.”  Monsters challenge these categories reminding us that they are pretty flimsy.  According to Kearney, monsters evoke fear because they transgress “the conventional frontiers,” and in doing so they remind us “that we don’t know who we are” (Strangers 117).

Like all monsters, the zombie kills victims and transgresses boundaries.  Its uniqueness lies in the particular boundaries that it blurs, the nature of the death it brings and in its presentation as a horde; each of these is a particular horror for the modern secular identity.

Ideally suited to shamble through the closed immanent frame, the zombies terrorize the residents of this world.

The monsters of old transgressed the ordered wholeness of the cosmos by transgressing boundaries between categories that ensured order and held meaning.  The monsters, through supernatural means, transgressed boundaries between human and nonhuman and between living and dead.  These monsters were demons, ghosts and witches.

Later, post-Enlightenment monsters lost the spiritual dimension that the monsters of Christian mythologies possessed.  Asma says these more natural monsters “came under the new umbrella of a mechanistic worldview, and spiritual monsters (e.g., demons and devils) were sent packing, along with diviners, priests, and theologians, never to return in any significant way to the pages of the natural philosophers” (149).

As modern monsters, zombies occupy the space between immanent categories.

The modern monsters still transgress boundaries, but rather than supernatural ones, they transgress natural or immanent categories—often animal and man—and “usually possess the worst but most potent qualities of both species: brute strength, diabolical intellect, deceit, lechery, lust for power, and savage disregard for life” (Paffenroth 7).  As the idea of the mechanistic universe strengthened at the expense of the old cosmos, the monsters lost much of their transcendence but were still superhuman. Frankenstein’s creation, the wolf-man and Count Dracula are such monsters.

But in the zombie we see the absence or irrelevance of the transcendent.  Monsters threaten identity because they transgress boundaries, and as modern monsters zombies occupy the space between immanent categories.  Immanent categories would include individual/group, humourous/horrific, self/other, conscious/unconscious, consumer/consumed, human/not human and most significantly, life/death.  Zombies are monsters, but they are a very different kind of monster.

Next zombie post: Why are zombies are so disgusting?

A Brief History of the Zombie

In Books, Movies and Television on January 14, 2013 at 4:05 am

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

In Books, Movies and Television on January 10, 2013 at 5:01 am

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