April 2, 2014

The trouble with zombies

(As a note, I am probably not saying anything terribly new about zombies here, but it’s something that struck my mind after seeing a comment on Twitter today.)

I’ve never been comfortable with most zombie apocalypse stories, but it’s always been tough for me to explain why. I definitely get the appeal: the me-versus-the-world aspect, the sudden transformation of a recognizable home environment into hostile territory, the whole of society turned upside down… That’s all thrilling stuff.

So why don’t I like modern zombie stories that much?

For a while I thought it was the idea that zombie scenarios put the audience in a situation where it’s acceptable to murder countless civilians and dodge all moral consequences. Ever wanted to shoot your neighbor, your boss, your coworkers, random people in the street? Well, now it’s not only okay to do so, but it’s demanded of you. You can’t not shoot random people – you have to in order to get by in this world, thus indulging, however peripherally, countless murderous fantasies.

But this conclusion felt rather trite, and I didn’t think it really scratched the surface of my issues.

Then today I read a tweet by John Perich that analyzed the zombie scenario in racial terms: to an affluent white person, a constantly hostile environment is a surreal nightmare. To a black person, or any other minority, there’s a much greater chance of it being a reality.

This struck me as somewhat right, but it was the subject of “nightmare” that I found struck a wrong chord: because the more I thought about it, the more I felt like the idea of a constantly hostile environment was less of a nightmare for the common affluent citizens today, and more of a paranoid fantasy.

Think about it – most affluent Americans live in the suburbs today, so think about how the suburbs are structured: they’re advertised and designed to be communities separate from the city. Some of them are gated communities, but even if they aren’t, that gate is often metaphorical: there is some kind of barrier there, keeping strangers out. I grew up in Houston, where many suburban communities are ringed with high, high stone walls, with only a handful of entrances and exits. These rare apertures suggest, however subtly, that you wouldn’t think of coming in unless you knew you were supposed to – unless you’d been invited, in other words.

And on the inside of these larger barriers, what do you see? Fences, and lots of them. Usually smaller ones, cordoning off each plot of land. And though we might like the idea of looking over your fence and having a conversation with your neighbor, I think to most people this might feel like an intrusion: “This is supposed to be my space,” they’d think. “I don’t want just anybody sticking their head in here.”

That’s why people buy houses and yards, of course: to have a piece of property that’s their own, to do with as they please. It’s the American Dream.

But ingrained in this perspective of “my own” is the concept that you have to keep the world out. To express true ownership, true control, you have to wall yourself off, draw firm boundaries around your property, and you have to be ready and willing to defend it. Your home is your kingdom – why else do the wealthy buy ranches, besides to maximize this desire and create their own independent fiefdoms? (Imagine the signs at the fences: “Trespassers will be shot!”) A home and a yard is a sovereign nation in miniature. And in this idea is the assumption that, at some point in time, your nation will be invaded, attacked.

“But by whom?” you might ask.

The answer is, “Anyone. Everyone.”

And that’s the raw nerve that I think the zombie scenario massages: this idea of your home or your world as a fort that you have to defend, the idea of the entire nation full of hungry assailants chasing you, tearing down your walls, suddenly obsessed with capturing and abusing you. It all beckons to a deep-seated mistrust of humanity and the larger world that lies in the foundation of this zealous, jealous guarding of personal property: “I have to keep everything I have safe,” it says, “because they’re coming.”

Sometimes this is used for satire, but this is less common in the past five or ten years. The popular explorations of zombies entertain the idea that the average Joe is something worth chasing – which is, of course, delusional fantasy. As if you, Just Somebody, have something on your property or on your person that could cause a giant crowd to chase you or come beating down your door.

It’s almost like a persecution complex, and it’s laughable in that the very idea is vain – why, exactly, would the whole wide world want to spend two seconds thinking about you, let alone chase you through the streets? – and the endpoint is preposterous: the idea of the common man suddenly discovering the tools and the fortitude to transform himself, overnight, into a combat machine capable of stemming back a flood of assailants. Much like how a wealthy oil man might buy a ranch and immediately feel he is transformed into John Wayne, patrolling the borders of his country with a rifle, protecting his property.

It’s that pessimism that I think zombie scenarios indulge, that mistrust and paranoia… all of that puts a bad taste in my mouth. It hugely inflates the powers and judgments of the individual, and it rewards suspicion and savagery: you have to defend your castle, and if you invite anyone in, you have to check them for bites – and you must be ready at any time to shoot them down if they show any symptoms.

Perhaps we value individualism so much that we condemn the whole of humanity, to the degree that any property owning person must reasonably explore a scenario in which they justly kill their neighbor. And zombies allow us to execute that scenario without any hint of recrimination. Though these scenarios, where one civilian expects another to suddenly exhibit murderous behavior, and acts accordingly, are all too real life these days.

Zombies force you to imagine that anyone at any time could become a slavering animal – which suggests that, deep down, that’s what we were all along. Whether zombification is caused by infection, by magic, by radiation, or by nanites, whatever their cause, zombies allow us to entertain our worst impulses as human beings, always ending in the fantasy of putting a human face in the sights of a gun – man, woman, or child – and feeling totally righteous in pulling the trigger.