MonthJanuary 2013

Zombies (7): “Mommy, where do zombies come from?”

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There is not clear answer to the question, “Where do zombies come from?”

Zombies are our monsters.

We are modern and we are secular, so our monsters will be just the sort of creature that would terrorize a modern, secular audience.  It’s like they are rubbing our face into what a truly material human being would be.  This is a horror.

If human beings are strictly material, then we have no meaning.

Cause and Meaning

This is why zombies resist meaning.  This is why there is no definitive cause to the zombie infestation.  To have a cause would necessarily attribute meaning to the presence of zombies.

  • If they are clearly caused by scientific hubris, then the zombies are a warning to not be scientifically hubristic.
  • If it is discovered that the dead have animated because of environmental degradation, then they mean we should stop driving SUVs.
  • If it is discovered that the infestation is a disease, the zombie would represent the perpetual struggle of man against a hostile world.
  • If they are the minions of an evil genius bent on world domination they would represent the negative effects of totalitarianism on humanity.
  • or created by aliens they symbolize an external political threat.

Ambiguity of Zombie Origins

Zombies refuse to explain their origin.

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. Within the story, 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.

And that’s because it’s 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.

To offer some rational cause for the zombie infestation would give meaning to the calamity--the lack of meaning is at the heart of zombie narratives.Click To Tweet

In fact, Italian director Lucio Fulci is “not afraid to throw aside logic or narrative.” 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”(Zani [Better off Dead] 108).

To offer some determinate 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 struggle of the human protagonists and away from a cause.  If there were a definite cause, the zombie and the struggle might end up meaning something–even transcendent explanations might have to be seriously considered.

When we stopped living in a world enchanted by the supernatural, we lost supernatural purpose and meaning.  Meaning, if it is to be found, will be found inside the self.

This means there are as many meanings as there are people, or at least groups of people.  It’s as if, out of respect for our unwillingness to impose some universal truth on anyone.

If there is a declared source of the zombie infestation in a particular movie, as does World War Z, (more here) then it has broken from a significant marker of zombie narratives.

The apparent meaninglessness of the zombie infestation challenges out identity and deepens the crisis.  Zombies resist meaning anything, because secular man refuses to mean something.  The zombie is giving us a picture of what meaningless may look like if we took it to its logical end.  And then it asks us if we are serious about it.

Next Zombie Post: Modern Boundaries 

Zombies (6): Settings

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The zombie is thoroughly physical; one of its primary qualities is that it has been emptied of transcendence.

The same can be said about the world through which it shambles.

The Setting of Night of the Living Dead

In George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, the ordinariness of the setting reflects a thoroughly immanent world. The “dully commonplace settings” of the movie reflect the flatness of a universe in a different 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 [in American Horrors] 17). The setting of this film in relation to those of other American horror films, like Frankenstein (1931), illustrates the shift in society’s understanding of the universe.  The world in which we live is no longer enchanted or terrorized by anything supernatural–it is a material, disenchanted universe.

The world of Night of the Living Dead is a wholly immanent one.

The Setting of AMC’s The Walking Dead

The Walking Dead is one of the few shows that sill uses 16mm film.  The reason for this is that 16mm film is grainier.  The world takes on a grittier feel–more organic.

The next time you watch the show, look at the colours.  They are muted, emphasizing the bleakness of the world.  They use a technique called desaturation; they basically drain the colour.  Along with the colour, they drain the world of the show of its transcendence.  Unlike saturation, which adds life and vitality to colour, the  leaves in TWD leaves are not as green, and the sky is not as blue as reality, or even in other television shows.

The net effect of all this is that the world “feels” far more immanent.  The trees, buildings and people are far from suffused with a transcendent glow.

Next Zombie post: Where do zombies come from?

 

Zombies (5): Ain’t Got No Soul

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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.   This direction is resonates with a culture that is permeated with secular modernity: a culture that no longer recognizing the relevance, or even the presence of the transcendent beyond the material.   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.Click To Tweet

Betrayed by the Gods

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many in the west were coming to terms with the death of God, as declared by Nietzsche, by transferring their faith to a new master and savior: technology and science. But with the events of the Second World War, most particularly the Holocaust and the dropping of the atomic bomb, and the Cold War that followed, American culture found its new gods inadequate.  Betrayed by these gods–we thought they would bring salvation, fulfillment and flourishing– we now have difficulty putting our faith in anything.

The zombie that Romero’s presented in Night of the Living Dead still represented the loss of our selfhood (subjectivity), but more importantly, and more horrifyingly, it also represented humanity experiencing loss of the transcendent.

The Loss of the Transcendent

The transcendent is a broad category that includes realities beyond the simply physical, or immanent reality.  Things like God, the human soul would be considered transcendent.  As would the Good, or Truth and Beauty, as objective realities.

The modern self is secular because denies the existence, or at least relevance, of the transcendent.  So, the monster which terrorizes the modern identity is completely immanent.

The modern self is secular because denies the existence, or at least relevance, of the transcendent. So, the monster which terrorizes the modern identity is completely immanent.Click To Tweet

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: “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). Max Brooks, in The Zombie Survival Guide, reminds us that “the body of the undead is, for all practical purposes, human” (6).

Without transcendence or superhuman qualities, these lurchers 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).

Where is our identity in crisis?  We moderns have done away with supernatural categories.  Zombies are a representation of what a human being looks like if there is no such thing as the transcendent.  Are we zombies?  This is the terrifying question that zombies are asking.

The thoroughly immanent zombie, then, is a suitable terror for the residents of a world that is only material.

Next Zombie post: Settings

 

Zombies (4): The Modern Identity Crisis

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If we think of our collective identity as a fence that encloses “what we are.”  It separates us from “what we are not.”  And the monster threatens or attacks this boundary at the places where it is the weakest–at the points where there is some doubt as to who we really are.  Monsters are a product of a crisis of identity.

The shear number of zombie movies and television indicates that there must be a lot of anxiety regarding our collective identity.

The popularity of zombies narratives indicate a cultural identity crisis. Who are we? What is the Modern identity?Click To Tweet

Who are we? What is the Modern Identity?

Many writers and thinkers have described our collective identity as “modern.” Modern, not in the sense of keeping current, but in the more philosophical sense of holding to the beliefs of Modernism.

The ideas found in Modernism originated about 300 years ago and they spread until they became the dominant way of understanding the world and the self in the West.

The main characteristics of the modern identity are:
  • The Modern identity is secular.  By secular I mean that the modern self believes there is nothing that transcends the material world, or, if there is, it has no relevance to one’s life. In other words, the modern self lives life in the absence of anything supernatural: in a strictly natural world.
  • The Modern self is also individualistic rather than communal; she is independent and doesn’t feel as much obligation to others as our pre-modern ancestors did.
  • The Modern self is also autonomous and often says things that mean, “Your not the boss of me!”
  • The Modern self believes in clear boundaries between categories like mind/body, natural/supernatural, material/spiritual, imminent/transcendent, public and private, rational/emotional, fact/value, reason/faith, knowledge/belief and objective/subjective.
  • The Modern self believes in progress. Modernity has long believed that we need to get rid of silly superstitions and religious beliefs. Reason rather than religion will allow the human race to continue up the road toward perfection and science and technology will solve the problems that we face.
  • The Modern self is a “buffered self.”  Philosopher Charles Taylor further clarifies the Modern identity as a “buffered self.” All of the characteristics of the modern self work together to insulate the self. Because it is secular, it is insulated from anything supernatural (gods, spirits, ghosts, demons); because it is individualistic and autonomous, it is isolated from others. And because it has such faith the subject/object dichotomy, it is separated from the physical world around it.

Modern Identity Crisis

As a modern monster, the zombie is the embodiment of the fears of the modern person.  What does the modern identity fear?

Given the events of the last century, the faith that we Moderns have placed in Reason, Science and Technology has been shaken. Why?

  • Two World Wars,
  • one Great Depression,
  • the Nuclear Arms Race,
  • environmental degradation,
  • and AIDS.

These are just the highlights of the many things that caused us to wonder, even fear, that Reason, Science and Technology are not all they are cracked up to be.

This sort of uncertainty unsettles identity. So modern folks like us have been asking some tough questions:

  • Science and Technology gave us the computer, but didn’t it also figured out the A-bomb and drone warfare?
  • Am I the boss of technology, or is it the boss of me?
  • Will science be able to solve climate change?
  • Technology helped us to catch a lot more fish, but what do we do when there are no fish?
  • Will I truly be happy if I have a nice place in the Hamptons?
  • Are we really better off than Laura Ingles Wilder?

The modern identity is in doubt, and when our collective identity is uncertain, the monsters attack. And they always attack at the weak points.

Zombies: an Embodiment of our Identity Crisis

How zombies are the embodiment of the Modern identity crisis is the subject of many of the posts that follow.  But we can start by saying that George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead takes zombie narratives in a whole new direction from the voodoo zombie films, a direction consistent with the cultural texture of secular modernity.

For this reason, it is called the first Modern zombie film.

We are no longer entirely Modern, but the uncertainty created by the shift from Modernism to whatever it is we are now, is one of the reasons for the zombie invasion of that began in 1968.

Next Zombie post: They Ain’t Got No Soul

Zombies (3): The Brief History of the Zombie

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Before it was our monster, the zombie was an African and a Caribbean monster.

As it moved from place to place it changes because the identity it challenged was a different identity. (Read “A New Kind of Monster”).

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.

Out of Africa

The zombie came to America, specifically the Caribbean, from Africa with the slaves.  In Africa, the zombie was an external spirit that was feared because it was capable of sliding into a human body and taking it over.  Traditional African religions saw spirits as inhabiting all things in the natural world.  Human identity was understood against these objects and animals in which these spirits dwelled.  True to its function, the African zombie challenges this distinction between human and not human.  When this external spirit indwells the human, does the human lose its humanity?  This was the place where identity was uncertain for some African societies, so this is the place where the zombie attacked.

The Move to Haiti

The zombie changed as it moved from its native African context to Haiti. In the Caribbean context of “long-standing conflicts that have arisen from imperialism, oppression, and slavery” (Bishop 32), the slave culture formed the idea of the zombie as being an unwilling servant of a malevolent sorcerer.  In this manifestation, the zombie represents “the way in which slavery stripped someone of personhood” (Warner 357).  Slavery was the threat to human identity, so the zombie took on a form that embodied this threat.

Coming to America

The zombie underwent still 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 depicts “the human subject as nothing more than an object” (131), an instrument to be used and abused by a diabolical master.  The zombie was terrifying to this particular audience because it struck at the boundaries of identity where it was weakest.

The zombies of early cinema didn’t differ a lot from the zombie of Haitian folklore because the audiences experienced a similar threat to their identity.  The rapid industrialization or the early 20th century objectifies the individual in much the same way as did slavery.

Objectification of the Self

It was this objectification of the self that resonated with American movie audiences.

The source of this fear of objectification was produced by the assembly-line economy that spread across America.  Maximum efficiency, the best cost-output ratio, is its measure of success.   The human beings in the new economy began to feel as if they were mere raw materials or tools for industrial projects.

The zombies in these early films show this dehumanization–the reduction of humans to the level of a cog in a machine.  Zombies are humans turned into objects.  The representation of the zombie as an empty body–emptied of selfhood–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.  This zombie will be the subject of analysis in this series of posts about this most modern of monsters.

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: The Modern Identity Crisis

 

Zombies (2): The Zombie Apocalypse

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The word apocalypse is often equated with downed power lines, collapsed buildings and the looting of electronics stores (which doesn’t make much sense given the downed power lines). Add a huge herd of zombies to the mayhem and you have the zombie apocalypse.

“Apocalypse” (Ἀποκάλυψις) is a Greek word meaning “revelation.” So, the “zombie apocalypse” literally means “that which zombies reveal.”

Astute zombie fans already suspect that zombies are trying to tell us something. The problem is getting past all that moaning and grabbing and biting in order to hear what they are saying.

Zombies are monsters, and so in order to understand what they are revealing specifically, one must understand the function of monsters in general.

Narrative Monsters

Monsters are created and defined by the stories they inhabit. They attack or threaten a group of people. This group of people is defended or protected by a hero. Together with the villain, the hero and the monster express and reinforce the identity of a group of a group of people.

All groups have an identity–a way they think of themselves as a people, and it’s very important. The hero possesses the qualities that the people value. Those viewing, listening to or reading the story can say the hero is “us”–the best of us.

But identity is a tricky thing. It’s as if it are based on shifting sand. Our group identity is often in flux and we become uncertain. This is where monsters come in.  Monsters appear when we are uncertain.

Think of our cultural identity as a fence.  On the inside of the fence is what we are–it’s the group of embodied ideas that form the “us.”   Outside of the fence is what we are not–it’s the group of embodied ideas that form the “not us.”  The fence is high and strong when we are clear about who we are, when our identity is strong.  But when we have doubts, when the fence is weakened at specific points, that’s where monsters come in.  They attack the fence between the “us” and the “not us” at the very places where we are not sure of who we are.

Monsters scare the hell out of us and remind us that we don’t know who we are.

–Richard Kearney Strangers, Gods and Monsters

This is why monsters, even as they threaten to destroy us, 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.

The Zombie Monster

The zombies keep coming and coming. Movie after movie is made and they still keep coming. Zombies are insistent. They are trying to tell us our identity is in crisis. And we are meant to ask why.Click To Tweet

The fact that there are so many movies, books and TV shows about the zombie apocalypse tells us that our identity is in doubt,  And it tells us exactly where.

The zombie is the modern monster. It attacks the modern identity, because the modern identity is in flux and we are uncertain of who we are. They challenge how we think of ourselves and they suggest that we may need to consider adjusting our self conceptions.

When the hero kills the monster, the collective identity is secured, perhaps with a few alterations, but stability is achieved.  But zombies have not been defeated as yet. They keep coming and coming. Movie after movie is made and they keep coming.  Zombies are insistent.  Our identity is in crisis.  And we are meant to ask why.

This is what zombies reveal to us; this is the zombie apocalypse.

Next Zombie Post: The Brief History of the Zombie

Zombies (1): A Whole New Kind of Monster

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The idea of the dead walking among the living has been around for a long time.  In Inferno, Dante meets Fra Albergio 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).

Isn’t it strange that both Dante and Shakespeare conceived of the zombie, but it never caught on as a monster?

Zombies never caught on . . .until now

Zombies sure have caught on lately.  The zombie is one of the most popular monsters of the last century. Over four hundred zombie movies have been made and almost half of these since 2000 (see Wikipedia, “List of Zombie Films” and do the math)

So why the popularity of zombies now and not before?

The short answer is that monsters show up when our identity is under is threatened.  Not our individual identity, but our collective identity.  The form the monster takes has everything to do with what our collective identity is, and where it is vulnerable.  The popularity of the most recent addition to the monster pantheon, the zombie, suggests that it is representative of that which menaces our contemporary collective identity. Consequently, we can learn a lot about ourselves by paying some attention to our monster, the zombie.

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?

The zombie is a horrifying reflection of the modern self in a world without transcendence—it is, therefore, a monster for our time.Click To Tweet

The Modern Identity

This is a complex question, but at its most basic, the Modern identity is materialistic.

Our society made the turn toward materialism over a century ago.  Materialism in the philosophical sense is the idea reality is composed of matter.  Only matter.  Everything, including thought, feeling, mind, consciousness and will, can be explained in physical terms.

In other words, there is no spiritual reality, no transcendent — no God or gods, angels, demons; no objective Good, Truth, or Beauty, no universal meaning or human purpose.

This is what Friedrich Nietzsche had in mind when he voiced this idea through the madman in The Gay Science (1882) declaring the death of God. This idea didn’t immediately percolate down to the popular level of our culture.  It was beginning to be felt in the 1960s.

The implications of materialism are one of the key features of the Dead in Romero’s Night of the Living Dead.Click To Tweet

My thesis is that the zombie is a horrifying reflection of the modern self in a world without transcendence—it is, therefore, a monster for our time.

Next zombie post: Zombies (2): The Apocalypse 

 

Enlightenment Dualism

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

This from Mark Rogers, “Why we must keep religion out of politics” The Belfast Telegraph–Opinion/Letter

Where does this idea come from? The idea that religious expression must be confined to the church like other ideas are to be kept in the bedroom.

Enlightenment Roots

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.

Immanuel Kant

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.

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

 

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