Zombie films evoke the fear of how people would respond if there were no authorities to keep the baser appetites in check. I must admit, for me this is the source of zombie terror for me. Without the authority represented by the government or any transcendent moral authority, human beings turn on each other.
This fear of others—indeed, of one’s neighbours—is the basis of Hobbes’ analysis in Leviathan published in 1651.
For Hobbes, the natural state of man, which exists outside the context of society, is one of war. According to Hobbes, all men are essentially equal in their vulnerability and weakness. Our natural equality and our conflicting desires result in a state of constant war with our fellow man. He also argues that competition, diffidence, and desire for glory are in our nature, as we seek gain, safety, and reputation. We, therefore, live in constant fear because we realize that at any moment we can have everything taken from us, including our life. This is a reasonable fear, for Hobbes says that we have a natural right to everything, “even to one another’s body,” but to avoid the constant state of war that would ensue, we create contracts in which we mutually transfer these rights. To ensure that the contracts are performed, a society needs a sovereign who will compel adherence to the contracts through force or through institutional constraints. We willingly subject ourselves to this authority because it protects us from the state of constant war with others. The zombie invasion returns us to a state of “continual fear and danger of violent death, [in which] the life of man [is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”The zombie invasion returns us to a state of continual fear and danger of violent death, in which the life of man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. Click To Tweet
Zombies and Loss of Authority
The zombies usher in a world where the Monstrous Humans invoke their natural right “even to one another’s body,” and they can do this because there is no longer a “sovereign” to enforce the contracts that Hobbes describes.
The loss of authority is central to zombie narratives. Zombies are certainly horrifying in and of themselves, but, as Bishop points out, “such monsters would not pose much of a threat if actualized in the modern-day world; most probably police or military could quickly exterminate these aberrations” (22).
Zombie narratives are almost always set during (or shortly after) the collapse of civilization, and whatever remains of the police or military, or any other governmental organization, is completely ineffectual and more often, nonexistent. Zombie movies, then, “offer a worst-case scenario of the collapse of all American social and governmental structures. Once people start to die at an uncontrollable rate, panic rages through all levels of the government and the military—a literal ‘dog eat dog’” world” (Bishop 23).
At the end of Night of the Living Dead, the zombies have been contained and are in the process of being eliminated; by the end of Dawn of the Dead, they have apparently overrun everything. Government, military and all other forms of civil authority evaporate.
According to Hobbes, the sovereign is supposed to establish “security and order, enforcing our agreements with others, resolving disputes, and imposing punishment. Hobbes’ sovereign also determines the ideology of the state (what is right and wrong, just and unjust). Under his authority, good and evil are absolute” (Fahy [The Philosophy of Terror] 65).
In the absence of such authority, there is no absolute ‘good’ and ‘evil.’ Because culture has reverted to a raw state of nature, only desire and aversion exist.In the absence of such authority, there is no absolute ‘good’ and ‘evil.’ Because culture has reverted to a raw state of nature, only desire and aversion exist. Click To Tweet
In the absence of “good” and “evil,” each individual determines his or her own morality. We desire what is good and have an aversion to what is bad. But individual desires and aversions are pursued at the expense of those of others. This is the role that the other, monstrous, humans play in zombie narratives.
The biker gang in Dawn of the Dead invades the mall to pillage it, and they will kill anyone—living or undead–to have their way. Because the living and the undead are both driven by almost equally base desires to “consume” the other, the zombie holds up a mirror to man, revealing what he is in a world without authority.
The line between monster and human is blurred.
Next zombie post: Zombies and the Crisis of the Modern Identity