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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