Zombies as the Monstrous Other: Challenging Modern Boundaries


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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?

3 Replies to “Zombies as the Monstrous Other: Challenging Modern Boundaries”

  1. Very nice piece, bringing home several important points (kudos).

    Question: “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.”

    I always had this th eother way around. Isn’t it a feature of post-modernity that the cleavage between good and bad is blurred, that there is no more Überbau (superstructure) that allows us to clearly pass normative judgment?

    And isn’t the zombie a vehicle to re-introduce exactly that clear-cut line by inventing something that is purely evil, not justified by any higher priciple, and can (must!) be killed without remorse? This would at least explain the Nazi Zombie, a recently popular category?

    Second (if I may refer here to “Zombies: A Whole New Kind of Monster”) isn’t the sudden explosion of zombie movies since 2000 the real puzzle? As you have rightly pointed out, the undead always pupulated our imagination, but the sudden popularity (I think I read a recent poll that had “zombie apocalypse” named third in the most likey ways the world will end!) seems to be significant. Hence, my guess that it is related first with the wariness and after 2008 with the grwoing realization that we live in a system that is undead- already imploded in its core, but somehow carries on by life-prolonging measures. Like a vampire feeding on the blood of the innocent.

    1. Thanks for the positive comments Marc,

      And for the question too: Monsters challenge boundaries. It follows that modern (or post-modern) monsters challenge modern (or post-modern boundaries). So what boundaries are these post-modern monsters to challenge when there is no metanarrative providing us with boundaries? There are several boundaries between immanent categories that I suggested in this article, but I would say the key one would be between self and other. Future posts will explore how the zombie trangresses this key boundary– perhaps the only one the modern secular self has.

      But you are right, because the modern secular self no longer takes evil seriously, the zombies aren’t really evil. That’s my argument in a future post as well.

      I think it is true that the zombie is somthing we are we are allowed to hate and kill without remorse–the zombie modes on many first-person-shooter video games attest to that. This is the monsters role, after all, to embody what we hate and, in their destruction, purge us of the evil–classic scapegoat stuff.

      But I will suggest, again in a future post, that zombies are different in all other monsters in that they do not only represent the monstrous other, but the monstrous self. This is not inconsistent with our assertion that we are already living in a system that is zombie and makes zombies of us all.

      Thanks again for reading, and I hope you visit us again,

      Trent

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