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



  1. Trent, as always a thoughtful post. The zombies, though, are an new take on an old problem. Aren’t all men dead before they come to Christ? and thus all of us have some experience as “the living dead.” It’s also interesting that eating the living is a zombie and vampire trait. The prisoner in Dracula who eats living things gives the rationale to the uninitiated by explaining in the blood is the life, and that life is power. Thus by eating the blood, the life, the eater becomes stronger, powerful, and with enough — invincible. It is a ritual that may be rooted in the transubstantiation theology of the Roman Catholic Church. By ingesting the living Christ, Roman Catholics have internalized the physical blood and body of Christ. They become part of a larger entity, part of God, in fact, and one would think, more powerful by ingesting his life. Zombie-like indeed.

    • Thanks for the comment Jim, I agree that zombies represent a new take on an old problem. The particular problem that I am looking at in this post, and those that follow, is the old problem of idenity. Ideally, Christians find their identity in Christ, and see the identity of their neighbours in terms of being created in the image of God. One of the ways we can understand the modern secular self is to look at the monsters in modern secular narratives. This is just as fruitful an investigation to explore the Victorian self by looking at its monsters–Dracula, Wolfman and Mr. Hyde (to name a few). There are many directions to go in the study of monsters, and you open up another very interesting line of thought that bears some thinking (once I have completed the current line of inquiry). Thanks for that.

  2. mmmm…. brains.
    Zombie are fun and zombies are inherently fractional. Of course, zombie-based learning based-learning is right up my alley, see my book, In Parts: A tale of fractional zombies at https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/in-parts/id615486016?mt=11

    ps- I’m more a fan of Romero’s zombies than many of the newer incarnations, but at least they keep the genre alive 🙂

  3. Michael Britt

    June 3, 2013 at 3:42 pm

    An interesting commentary Trent. I found the idea that zombies are “negative mirror images of ourselves” interesting. As far as “scapegoats” – that angle is captured in my own (if I may plug) eBook, Zombie Psychology. Where I talk about what in psychology is called the “Just World Belief”: that when things go wrong we like to blame others rather than face the inherent chaos in the world: http://www.thepsychfiles.com/1621/episode-138-zombies-6-reasons-why-are-we-so-fascinated-by-them

    • Once I have caught up on some reading that I neglected because of my zombie research, I might just visit that eBook of yours. Thanks for the comment, even though it was unabashedly self-serving. 🙂

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