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.
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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?