Why The Hell Do We Want Everyone To Die and Eat Our Brains?: Zombie Fiction and The American Obsession With The End of the World

Death

The irreversible cessation of all vital functions especially as indicated by permanent stoppage of the heart, respiration, and brain activity : the end of life. *

No subject has held greater weight in regard to the human condition then Death. Sex, love, hatred, greed, envy, etc. -- none of it holds a candle to the time and thought that’s been put into examining the Big D. It is, of course, with good reason. Death is the unknown integer, the single aspect of being human we can know absolutely nothing about. But in my opinion, it isn’t the physical act of dying that we fear, but what comes after.

The zombie is a romanticized version of the afterlife based on a distorted version of the Eucharist of Christ: "Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you... “

The Afterlife

In philosophy, religion, mythology, and fiction, the afterlife (also referred to as life after death, the Hereafter, the Next World, or the Other Side) is the concept of a realm, or the realm itself (whether physical or transcendental), in which an essential part of an individual's identity or consciousness continues to reside after the death of the body in the individual's lifetime. According to various ideas of the afterlife, the essential aspect of the individual that lives on after death may be some partial element, or the entire soul, of an individual, which carries with it and confers personal identity.

What does become of us? What happens after the physical body stops? Does the soul linger? Does it travel to a paradise or damnation? Is it reborn into the body of a new being? Or does it just cease to exist? Are the soul and the afterlife simply fairy tales we’ve told ourselves over the centuries to comfort our fear of the great unknowable? Why do we want to believe that the possibility of immortality exists, even if that immortality is a hellish bastardization of life?

Zombie

A person who is or appears to be lifeless, apathetic, or totally lacking in independent judgment; automaton; a corpse brought to life in this manner.

The zombie is, in my opinion, the very essence of that bastardization. Much like the vampire, the zombie is a romanticized version of the afterlife based, partially—and particularly the modern version of the monster—on a distorted version of the Eucharist of Christ:

"Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you... “

But unlike the vampire, which over the last twenty years has become a thing of teenage fantasies, the zombie is a complete horror that isn't hemmed in by the religious doctrine that dictates the vampires every move. The zombie doesn't entrance or beguile, it does not desire minions; it has no fear of crosses or silver or garlic, and it has zero fear of the sun. It has one purpose and one purpose only—to devour the flesh of the son of man, and it does so in shambling, starving packs.

And very much unlike the vampire, the zombie isn't a different species; they're your mom and dad, your girlfriend, your first grade teacher; they are us.

But why over the past decade has zombie fiction become so popular of a subject among writers? From modern horror masters such as Jonathan Maberry, John Hornor Jacobs, and Brian Keene (Keene's "Dead" trilogy -- Rising, City of the Dead, and Dead Sea --are classics of the sub-genre, and one of the few which uses a malevolent anti-Christ style being as the harbinger of the Apocalypse) to literary novelists such as Colson Whitehead  and Joshua Gaylord (writing as Alden Bell) have tackled the zombie to varying degrees of success. What, exactly, is drawing novelists to the genre? For me, as both a fan and occasional writer of zombies stories, there are three themes which draw me to these kind of stories. The first is what drew George Romero to film Dawn of the Dead:

Consumerism

A social and economic order that encourages the purchase of goods and services in ever-greater amounts. The term is often associated with criticisms of consumption starting with Thorstein Veblen. Veblen's subject of examination, the newly emergent middle class arising at the turn of the twentieth century, comes to full fruition by the end of the twentieth century through the process of globalization.**

Let's face it, America is constantly trying to sell you something from every angle of our society. Food, music, books, movies, booze, health, a bigger penis, politics, more lustrous hair -- and this is just the tip of the iceberg. The American God is the dollar, and its worshippers are legion, but instead of bowing to it directly, we break into various camps of consumption: Over here we have the comic book collectors and video game players; to the right of you are the foodies and fantasy football players; down the road you've got the golfers and Scientologists. And in recent years, all of these sub-sects have become increasingly more rabid and violent in defending their consumer Gods. We've become blinded by our maniacal devotion that we've very much become --or perhaps always have been-- the same mindless creatures out to eat brains.

Yes, our very "culture" is ripe for the satirical aspects of zombie fiction, and figuratively speaking, maybe it's ripe for the Apocalypse.

Apocalypse

A prophetic revelation,  especially concerning a cataclysm in which the forces of good permanently triumph over the forces of evil; any universal or widespread destruction or disaster: the apocalypse of nuclear war.

So, I'd like us all to acknowledge something about the Apocalypse in terms of the Biblical/ Nostradamus/Mayan Calendar style of prophecy.

God/the Earth/the Universe is not out to get the human race.

Now repeat that 100 times like you would a Hail Mary.

No malevolent force is going to punish us for our sins; the earth is not going to crack open and have a million demons come storming out of it. The same can be said of another human being going bugshit and dropping a million bombs on the world or unleashing a toxin which kills 99% of the population and then brings it back as 9.9 billion slavering, mindless predators.

Well, maybe that wouldn't happen... But at least it's a little more believable.

Because if there's one thing Apocalypse fiction has taught us, is that there's always that one rogue scientist who's gone off his meds; or an alcoholic 4 star general who lost his only son in the hills of Afghanistan; or, and this is the most likely scenario, a couple of lab techs playing grab ass while one of them just happens to be transporting the deadliest virus known to man, and he drops it in front of the big old exposed nostrils of a soldier meant to keep the deadly plague out of the hands of our enemies, and suddenly things get very out of control and spread like a human mushroom cloud of teeth, unquenchable hunger, and blood.

Yes,  chances are the world will end - at least in the world of the Zombie Apocalypse - not at the hands of a madman, or religious zealots, but because of incompetent, bumbling hands (i.e. human error) followed by a nuclear counter strike to rectify the mistake:

... she heard a small boom in the distance, like someone slamming a door in a large house. She stopped. It was such a small sound, she allowed herself to hope. Her perception stilled into a series of snap shots, like a camera shutter sticking. The sky streaked with color, turning brilliantly white, like a new sun coalescing from stardust...***

--John Hornor Jacobs, This Dark Earth

Because the other thing zombie fiction has taught us, is that things are only going to get worse for the survivors, and chances are, they'll never get better. And this is the real fascination behind the zombie novel: the story of the survivors, the major "what if I were one of them?" How would you react to having to cave in the skull of your next door neighbor? Would you aid someone covered in blood, shrieking, as they're being chased by an undead horde? What would you do to survive?

Survival

The act or fact of surviving, especially under adverse or unusual circumstances.

Perhaps I should break it down to the simplicity of survival.

When his mother and father dragged him to the city for the season's agreed upon exhibit or good-for-you Broadway smash, they usually dropped in on Uncle Lloyd for a quick hello.  These afternoons were preserved in a series of photographs taken by strangers. His parents were holdouts in an age of digital multiplicity, raking the soil in lonesome areas of resistance; a coffee machine that didn't tell time, dictionaries made out of paper, a camera that only took pictures. The family camera did not transmit their coordinates to an orbiting satellite. It did not allow them to book airfare to beach resorts with close access to rain forests via courtesy shuttle.****

--Colson Whitehead, Zone One

Could you really imagine a world without your iPhone? Without Netflix, instant communication, electricity? Most of us would say we could, some us might even say that we'd prefer this kind of stripped down existence. Of course, I imagine most people who make this kind of broad "survivalist" statement are typically the first ones to pull their cells from their pockets to respond to a tweet or e-mail during their dinner order to Pei Wei. The fact is none of us would be fully prepared for the type of societal digression described in most zombie fiction. We may all day dream of existing in a world without time clocks, or Facebook, or even the insistent white noise of street lamps, car alarms, and the heavy bass of the teenager next door's stereo speakers. But what zombie fiction does is replace the noise with the insistent hungry moans of the living dead and the constant fear of being hunted; of being an animal. For some, this base existence may be far more attractive then the anxiety ridden day-to-day grind of modern living. At the very least, it's a semi-comforting fantasy. But could we survive it?


My one complaint about zombie fiction, and post-apocalyptic fiction in general, is the lack of progress in stories involving the long term survival of the human race. Very few novelists have examined what the world would be like ten, fifteen, twenty years after the apocalypse. Would humanity be an endangered species, constantly running, looking over our shoulders? Would the zombies begin to form a civilization where there was a hierarchy of leaders and followers; managers and workers? Or would humanity overcome, and segregate the living dead like in S.G. Browne's debut novel, Breathers?

My overall hope is that the sub-genre morphs into a far more complex literature (and it is beginning to shift, particular with the recent inclusions of Stephen Graham Jones' Gonzo comedy, Zombie Bake Off, and David James Keaton's satirical, Zombie Bed & Breakfast) which goes far beyond the destruction of the human race and the birth of a dark new world.

But for the love of God, no one write a zombie Twilight.


*All definitions used are from dictionary.com

**Except this one. I got this one from Wikipedia. Screw you, bitches, you know you use it to.

***I got this quote straight from the book

****Same with this one

Image of This Dark Earth
Manufacturer: Gallery Books
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Image of Zone One: A Novel
Manufacturer: Anchor
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Image of Breathers: A Zombie's Lament
Manufacturer: Three Rivers Press
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Keith Rawson

Column by Keith Rawson

Keith Rawson is a little-known pulp writer whose short fiction, poetry, essays, reviews, and interviews have been widely published both online and in print. He is the author of the short story collection The Chaos We Know (SnubNose Press)and Co-Editor of the anthology Crime Factory: The First Shift. He lives in Southern Arizona with his wife and daughter.

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Comments

Rob's picture
Class Director
Rob from New York City is reading at a fast enough pace it would be cumbersome to update this August 27, 2012 - 6:57am

Fantastic piece, Keith.

I've always believed that, besides being the ultimate storytelling MacGuffin, zombie stories are a fantasy of freedom. In a zombie apocalypse, you don't have to pay your taxes or pick up the kids from soccer practice. You don't have to follow rules or laws--you set your own, based on your own code. Things are different, in ways that you can barely concieve (and sometimes wish they would be) and it's fun to explore characters against that backdrop. 

Also, challenge accepted. Zombie Twilight is one its way. How could you not love that concept? You get to kill all the characters right at the start!

postpomo's picture
postpomo from Canada is reading words words words August 27, 2012 - 7:04am

Great piece - I've been wondering about it myself, and you've touched on all the points that I've been cogitating.

Zombies are the ultimate paranoia device. Everyone is out to get you, and there's no mistaking their intentions as poor communication.

I'm reading Justin Cronin's "The Passage" which may as well be a zombie apocalypse for all intents and purposes. I'm only about halfway through, but he seems to be working towards the longer term civilization (although, I'm guessing that's the only way he could make a trilogy out of it).

Keith's picture
Keith from Phoenix, AZ is reading Growing Up Dead in Texas by Stephen Graham Jones August 27, 2012 - 7:19am

@postpomo - The Passage is a huge step forward in Apocalypse fiction, (albeit Cronin's monsters are limited because of their reaction to the sun and light.) and one which I hope authors of Zombie fiction use as a guide. John Hornor Jacobs touches on it a bit in This Dark Earth, (particularly on how survivors deal with radiation poisoning and cancer.) but I'd still like someone to go a little further with it.

leah_beth's picture
leah_beth from New Jersey - now in Charleston, SC is reading five different books at once. August 27, 2012 - 7:40am

Great post.

I stumbled into zombie-writing by accident...but then I fell in love. Zombie Apocalypsesesees give you a chance to investigate and evaluate the behaviors of people pushed to their very limits...and that's what I've enjoyed writing about thus far. Not the zombies, but the people...

If you haven't read FEED yet, check it out - Mira Grant actually does take a look at the human race, a decade after the zombie apocalypse. My opinions on the results are mixed, but it's an interesting read.

postpomo's picture
postpomo from Canada is reading words words words August 27, 2012 - 8:39am

from what I've read recently, I'd hazard to guess that part of the fascination with post-apocalyptic scenarios is the reformation of society from the bottom up, with a focus on the immenent threat. It's hard to get worked up about the constant threat of terrorism, when the risk is lower than getting killed by lightning or falling coconuts.

The current environment is global, and extremely complex. Most of us live in large cities where we know very few people. The post-apocalyptic scenario simplifies matters by putting basic survival to the forefront, in small manageable groups, with a strong focus on the hierarchy of needs.

but sometimes it's just fun to shoot people to bits without the moral quandry - you can't kill what's already (un)dead, and they are after your brains, so it's pure self-defense.

If only our pre-apocalyptic world were so cut and dry.

drosan's picture
drosan August 27, 2012 - 1:00pm

"But for the love of God, no one write a zombie Twilight."

I've got bad news for you....

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1588173/

Marc Ferris's picture
Marc Ferris from Carmel, California is reading Animal Attraction by Anna David August 27, 2012 - 2:56pm

I think the current Romero-Zombie story model has appeal for a number of reasons. First, they are politically and socially safe villians that have a simple motivation, and can be "killed" in awful ways without angering an ethnic/religious group.

The second thing making the Romero Zombie popular is the timing. We're just eleven years out from 9/11, and pop-culture is hyping the Mayan calander nonsense so the end of the world is rolling around in the collective mind-set. 

Finally I think they reflect a recognition of the dying off of Victorian social models which framed the 20th century. So much of western culture is sustained by people simpley going through the motions without thinking about why they're doing things. Like the walking dead converging on the shopping mall people are doing things out of reflex instead of rational thought...like zombies. Like  the alien invasion movies of the 1950s, zombies reflect a subconcious fear that our world has already ended, but we don't know it yet.

postpomo's picture
postpomo from Canada is reading words words words August 27, 2012 - 3:19pm

@Marc Ferris - your description of the Romero Zombie conventions certain explains the threat of having your brain eaten.

also, there's nothing nonsensical about the Maya calendar - it's people who don't understand it who are crying like chicken little - it's been wedged into our apocalyptic zeitgeist.

SammyB's picture
SammyB from Las Vegas is reading currently too many to list August 27, 2012 - 11:28pm

Zombies are great. The concept of losing control and being turned into a monster is something that I think a lot of people fear, but most of all they fear being forced to survive alone. It is scary to think about your loved ones being transformed into monsters. My favorite thing about zombie books is the interaction between characters who form groups and have to struggle to survive, when really they want to kill each other. The Walking Dead does a great job, in both the TV show and comic, of telling the story of people who are almost as scary as the monsters.

Who do you trust?

A couple of years ago, I wrote a novella for one of my friends. It was a traditional zombie story, but I changed the origin story slightly. And everyone dies by the end. :-P

I read Breathers a couple of years ago. Great book and a very unique twist on zombie fiction. Haven't read it, but I've heard that the book Warm Bodies  by Isaac Marion is like Twilight, but with zombies lol.

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading A lot of Brian Evenson August 28, 2012 - 8:15am

I think World War Z did a decent job of telling a zombie story with a larger scope. If I remember correctly, it spans years, if not decades.

Interesting bit of trivia: I was watching a documentary on the making of Return of the Living Dead the other day, in which the claim was made that the film was the first to introduce the idea that zombies wanted to eat brains, specifically. Not sure if that's true or not. Anyone know of any zombie stories or films that beat Return to the munch?

Joan Defers's picture
Joan Defers from United States August 28, 2012 - 9:16am

Meh. I think it's egotism rooted in misanthropy. There's a Carlin routine where he talks about watching disasters and always wanting things to be bigger, worse, more deadly until eventually a giant black hole sucks up all the Uncle Daves.

Zombie stories work with that same impulse. 

It's a more entertaining and ego-gratifying fantasy than, say, pandemic illness, because germs are not discriminatory.You don't get extra smartie/bad ass/special snowflake survival points when it comes to a cold that kill people. It's more fun than aliens, because you get to shoot humans.

The thrill is in thinking that you'd be clever/fast/brave enough to survive, and that you'd get to kill people with impunity afterwards because they're undead and it doesn't count.  It's a nasty, base little fantasy--and it's pretty much exactly the same as Left Behind.

JEFFREY GRANT BARR's picture
JEFFREY GRANT BARR from Central OR is reading Nothing but fucking Shakespeare, for the rest of my life August 28, 2012 - 10:23am

I am so annoyed by these new entries into the zombie genre. World War Z, I think, really started this decline. It wasnt a terrible book, but it started this divide betwwen the story and the writer. Now all the zombie stories are meta-zombie stories more about the writer than the fun of zombie apocalypse.

Feed, referenced in another comment, is a yawnfest. Reading a story about blogging about zombies is not fun.

The Passage? The lord of the rings for post-apocalypic fiction. Fine for kids, boring as hell.

White Zone was simply awful. Just an excuse for elitist horror dilettantes who will only read something if the New Yorker says its ok.

There is still a lot of good new material coming out. The Hater books by David Moody, while not zombies per se, capture the spirit and intent of effective post-apocalypse fiction.

Rise, by Ben Tripp. So good, and 100% character-driven.

The aforementiond Hornor book is fantastic, and of course, the Brian Keene books are good old-fashioned gory fun.

postpomo's picture
postpomo from Canada is reading words words words August 28, 2012 - 2:43pm

Last thoughts on this - the Zombie apocalypse (and all the other end-of-the-world scenarios cropping up) is the expression of our living through the dying days of our civilization. This may take decades or generations, as these things go, but the particular images of the dead, the end of the world as we know it, rebuilding civilization from the ashes, and typically it being a result of our own actions (or inaction) support the idea.

 

Cina Town's picture
Cina Town August 28, 2012 - 4:02pm

This is a great paper on zombies, which the author recently delivered at York University in Toronto.  He takes particular interest in fast moving zombies and how they relate to changes in the global workforce--especially since 9/11--which has been made more flexible, precarious, and temporary, forcing workers to run to survive, to serve the 'innovations' (aka hyper-efficiency) demanded by transnational capital.

http://goldsmiths.academia.edu/YariLanci/Papers/1132247/Zombie_2.0_Subje...

 

postpomo's picture
postpomo from Canada is reading words words words August 30, 2012 - 6:46am

@Jeffrey Grant Barr: I just finished the Passage - it's about 300 pages too long.