MonthFebruary 2013

Zombies (12): Invasion of Privacy

Ahmadreza89 / Pixabay

The type of death one can expect from a zombie is nothing if not intimate.  They use no secondary object, like a knife or even a rock.  They use only their own teeth and hands.  Victims are frequently shown having their abdomens violated by a group of zombies who proceed to then put the vitals into their mouths.  Like I said—intimate.

In our culture we resist intimacy.  There was a time when servants would bathe and dress their betters, but nowadays we have a hard time carrying on a conversation with someone standing next to us at the urinal.

Charles Taylor observes that our culture is characterized by a “withdrawal from certain modes of intimacy, as well as taking a distance from certain bodily functions” (Taylor 137).  Taylor cites the work of Norbert Elias in his book, The Civilizing Process, where he describes a shift involving a “steady raising of the threshold of embarrassment, one might even say, disgust” (Taylor 138).  Where once people were advised not to blow one’s nose in the tablecloth, we now insist on leaving the table to perform the same act.

We are uncomfortable with intimate connections to others.  It is the convention that bodily functions are not even mentioned.  How much more offensive is the disembowelment and consumption of entrails witnessed regularly in a zombie film.

Clearly, this is a monstrous affront to our modern sensibilities.

 

Next zombie post: Zombies are Funny

 

Zombies (11): Modern Monster, Modern Death

Ahmadreza89 / Pixabay

Jaime Russell claims that the ultimate meaning of the zombie is as “a symbol of mankind’s most primitive anxiety: the fear of death” (8).

Well, our primitive fear is our modern fear and the zombie forces the modern self to face it.

Death is persistent and there is nothing we can do to stop it from getting us eventually.  One of the strategies of we modern people to deal with the fact of death is to just not think about it.  But we are also fascinated by it in zombie movies.

The persistence of the zombie personifies the inevitability of death and thus augments our fear of mortality.Click To Tweet

Simon Pegg, co-writer, director and actor of Shaun of the Dead, explains that zombies

are death and they will get you in the end. We could all be in a room now with one and quite happily walk round and round the room and he’d never get you because he’d just be stumbling along. But eventually you’d have to go to sleep and when you did, he’d eat you. There’s just something really eerie about that (Russell 183).

Death’s persistence has always been with us, so this characteristic of the zombie isn’t what makes it a uniquely a modern monster.  Almost all monsters kill us, it’s like their thing, but it’s just not the killing bit that is the problem these days—it’s the death.

Death in the Modern Sense

Zombies do not just deliver death, but they also embody death as we understand death in the modern world.

Like all monsters in the history of human storytelling, the zombie kills its victims, but the threat of death’s inevitability is more significant when one lives in a reality without the transcendent. In this context, life is equivalent to biological life.

Without any future beyond this world, the zombie horde represents to modern man an “ambulatory mass grave” and as such is “both a reminder of the inevitability of death and an affront to [modern man’s] belief in its finality” (Russell 69).

Unlike preceding centuries, in the modern materialist universe, death is final. It is not, as in the past, a transition through which one passes, but a permanent state of non-being.

Like all monsters in the history of human storytelling, the zombie kills its victims, but the threat of death’s inevitability is more significant when one lives in a reality without the transcendent.  In this context, life is equivalent to biological life.

Without any future beyond this world, the zombie horde represents to modern man an “ambulatory mass grave” and as such is “both a reminder of the inevitability of death and an affront to [modern man’s] belief in its finality” (Russell 69).  Unlike preceding centuries, in the modern materialist universe, death is final. It is not, as in the past, a transition through which one passes, but a permanent state of non-being.

The zombie articulates a profound—and profoundly modern—shift from older cultural attitudes about death: “the process of dying no longer means the conveyance of our eternally unchanging soul to another, more timeless realm; rather, death becomes a state we inhabit within our own earthly vessels, something we become rather than somewhere we go” (Muntean 83).

In the zombie narrative, the undead are the agents and the bodily representation of this “becoming.”

Next zombie post: Zombies and Intimacy

Zombies (10): The Horror of the Body

Ahmadreza89 / Pixabay

The zombies are an abject horror in themselves, but what they do to their victims is even more horrifying.  Spurting blood and biting of flesh, and the ingestion of slippery entrails and bloody organs, are staples of the zombie genre.   The zombie film exploits the fear that, in the absence of any transcendent meaning, we are nothing but vulnerable, and soon to be dead, flesh.

The zombie film exploits the fear that, in the absence of any transcendent meaning, we are nothing but vulnerable, and soon to be dead, flesh.Click To Tweet

Stephan Asma describes how modern horror focuses on “the subjective revulsion and terror of the flesh.” In the absence of the transcendent, there is a terror in “all things biological” (198).

The bodily violence in the zombie films exploits the vulnerability we feel as biological beings.  In his analysis of Night of the Living Dead, Jaime Russell explains how “Romero never lets us forget that this is a film about the body. Or to be more accurate, the horror of the body” (67):

Romero demonstrates the essential frailty of human flesh, repeatedly showing the violent capacities fingernails, teeth, knives, and bullets have to reduce living tissue to bleeding inert flesh. By objectifying the human body in such a graphic manner, Romero relentlessly dissolves the boundaries between the living and the dead, the human and the zombie, and the living beings and intimate products. (Russell 138)

The violence done to bodies, both of the living and the undead, forces modern viewersto consider the possibility that the human body may be “nothing more than meat, aligning human beings apologetically with stockyard animals and game” (133).

This is a scary idea, indeed.

Next Zombie post: Modern Monster, Modern Death

Zombies (9): Why are zombies so disgusting?

Ahmadreza89 / Pixabay

Zombies are disgusting–open wounds, fluids running out of their orifices, and what’s that stuck in his teeth, a piece of Barbara?

According to the theorists, identity–that which is us–is understood in relation to the Other–that which is not us.  The boundaries between the two are important in understanding the self.  These boundaries are clarified through challenges.  That’s where monsters come in.  They cross these lines as if to us to ask, “Where do I end and where does the Other begin?”

The Victorian wolfman, for example, transgressed the boundaries between human and animal in order challenge and perhaps clarify the boundary between these categories.  At that time, one of the challenges to the collective identity came from the ideas in books like Darwin’s Origin of the Species.  What is a human being?

The Abject–Julia Kristeva

There is a category of things that disgust us because they occupy the space between the self and the other–bodily fluids for instance.  We find these revolting because they transgress the boundary between the self and other–they are in between what is clearly me and what is clearly not.  Because zombies leak bodily fluids all over the place, they are an embodiment of this sort of revulsion.

Julia Kristeva puts vomit and pus and that sort of thing in a category that she labels the abject and suggests that, because the abject challenges boundaries between self and other, our identities are formulated against it.

Because the abject challenges boundaries between self and other, our idenities are formulated against it.

Julia Kristeva describes the abject as being “neither inside nor outside, neither subject nor object, neither self nor other, troubling identity, and order with the instability of boundaries, borders, and limits” (Zakin).

In Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, Kristeva describes the process by which identity is constituted.  Identity formation is a process involving the establishment of boundaries between that which is the self and that which is not the self.  It starts with the individual beginning to a distinction between the self and the body of her mother.  For this to happen, the person pushes away from the other.

Anything that is between the self and the other, that is both me and not me, falls into the category of the abject.  These things include an open wound, excrement, nail clippings, pus, blood, sweat, even the skin on the top of milk.  The abject often evokes the physical reaction of nausea because it reminds us of the fragility of the boundaries that constitute the self.  Thus, the abject is “horrifying, repellent, but also fascinating; it is strange but familiar” (Zakin).

Zombies generate revulsion in the viewing audience because they evoke the fear of the abject; they challenge identity in the same way the abject does.

Zombies are disgusting--open wounds, fluids running out of their orifices, and what’s that stuck in his teeth, a piece of Barbara? Zombies generate revulsion in the viewing audience because they evoke the fear of the abject.Click To Tweet

Zombies are Abject

Two things are necessary for zombies to elicit revulsion as falling under the category of the abject.

First, in order to inhabit the liminal space between that which is the self and also not the self, they need to have a strong association with the self.  This is an easy task for the zombie, because it looks just like us; it is the most human of monsters.

Secondly, they must be not the self.  This is accomplished by them being dead, and by their resultant state of decay and the bodily fluids they ooze and spew.  Thus, the zombie “disturbs identity, system, [and] order. [It] does not respect borders, positions, rules” (Kristeva 4).  The zombie is, therefore, abject.

As monsters, zombies help us understand who we are, by challenging the boundary between us and what we aren’t.  The abject does this as well.  In the zombie we have a convergence of monster and abject.  That’s why zombie movies are disgusting.  I would like to underscore once again, that the abject, like the zombie, challenges physical (or immanent) categories for, to the modern secular self, there is nothing else.

The Modern secular self assumes it is simply physical.  The zombie forces us to face the implications of this belief.  It is purely physical, purely biological–and totally disgusting.  This is unsettling.  This is what monsters do.

Next zombie post: Horror of the Body

Also Cited:

Lennon, Kathleen. “Feminist Perspectives on the Body.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 28 June 2010. Web. 19 Sept. 2012.

Zakin, Emily. “Psychoanalytic Feminism.” Summer 2011. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Web. 9 April 2012.

Zombies (8): Challenging Modern Boundaries

Ahmadreza89 / Pixabay

Zombies are thoroughly and completely physical monsters.  There is nothing spiritual or supernatural about them.  They aren’t even superhuman.

They are a very modern monster.

All Monsters Transgress Boundaries

Monsters basically do two things that trouble us.

First, they make us dead.

Second, they cross boundaries.  And not just literal boundaries like doors and fences in order to do the first thing that troubles us.  They transgress abstract and psychological boundaries as well.

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.  In doing so, according to Richard Kearney, monsters 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 self.

Like all monsters, the zombie kills and transgresses boundaries. Its uniqueness lies in the boundaries 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.Click To Tweet

The Monster: From Supernatural to Superhuman . . .

The monsters of old transgressed different boundaries that do our monsters today.  People lived in the ordered wholeness of the cosmos, filled with 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).

The modern monsters still transgress boundaries, but rather than supernatural ones, they transgress natural or immanent categories—often animal and man.

Our monsters “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.

. .  .  to not super at all.

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.  We will be exploring how they are different in upcoming posts.

Next zombie post: Why are zombies are so disgusting?

© 2019 crossing the line

Theme by Anders NorénUp ↑