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 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
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.