Have you noticed all the books, films and articles about zombies? (If not, you might be a zombie yourself!) There are bestsellers, such as Pride, Prejudice, and Zombies — a fictional retelling of Jane Austen’s classic novel — by Seth Grahame-Smith. There are also pseudo-nonfiction works, such as The Zombie Survival Guide by Max Brooks. There are websites devoted to zombies, an increasing number of films about zombie invasions, and scholarly conferences devoted to zombies. Is this obsession with zombies the obsession of a relatively few weird individuals or does it reflect something important about the zeitgeist? I shall argue for the latter.
It’s true that the fascination with zombies is nothing new. But in regard to American culture and society, the key date is 1956. That’s when the cult classic, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, was released. Another seminal film was Night of the Living Dead, which came out in 1968. Of course, today’s zombie literature is, to a large extent, tongue and cheek. But, it’s rightly been said that “Many a true word is said in jest.” Could it be that the recent spate of humorous zombie books and films is a defense mechanism against an underlying anxiety?
Zombies threaten to possess one’s body and one’s mind. In regard to the latter, they threaten to eat one’s flesh, at least according to popular films about zombies. Other zombies can make one a zombie oneself, one of the walking dead! (In that sense, they are akin to vampires, for a bite by a vampire can transform one into a vampire.) The anxiety in question is of a paranoiac quality, for paranoia is, essentially, a fear of being possessed and thus losing one’s autonomy. A related paranoid anxiety is that one’s borders will be violated, for if they are, one will lose the integrity of self, thus losing one’s autonomy.
There exists, in all human societies, many borders. One of the most fundamental is the border between the living and the dead. When that border is transgressed — whether it be by visitations from the spirit world or simply by memories of the deceased — we feel haunted. Thus religious rites and rituals are created to ensure that the dead do not intrude upon the realm of the living. In zombie books and films, that is exactly what happens. Paranoid narratives often take the form of conspiracy theories and apocalyptic fantasies. The zombie apocalypse involves the emergence of the dead, thus “the night of the living dead.”
If the fear of zombies is prevalent today, it is because this is an age in which borders are being transgressed, on many fronts. Sometimes, borders are being literally transgressed, as in the case of the border between Mexico and the United States. Borders are also being transgressed socially. Traditional marriages are predicated on there existing limits on what can be regarded as a marriage. A marriage cannot, for example, consist of three people. Nor can it, for example, consist of the union of a human and an animal. The advocates of homosexual marriages seek to violate traditional limits. An example, in the economic realm, is socialism and communism. They seek to dissolve, by fiat, economic distinctions. Finally, such movements as diversity, multiculturalism, globalization are threatening to dissolve the identity of various nations.
Most relevant here is how the borders between the human and the inhuman are being transgressed. There are animal rights activities who claim that humans are guilty of “speciesism,” which consists of placing a higher value on human beings than other beings, whether they be animals, plants, or bacteria. Philosophers, like Peter Sanger, view speciesism as morally equivalent to racism. Then there are the computer theorists who claim that humans are essentially no different than computers. They like to point to “Big Blue,” the IBM computer that defeated the Grand Master Gary Kasparov.
But that which makes human beings different from both other animals is not that humans can think, or it would appear that the computations of computers certainly resembles thinking and may indeed be thinking. Thinking is not essentially what distinguishes humans from both animals and computers. What distinguishes humans from everything else is self-consciousness. We have the amazing ability to reflect upon ourselves. The existence of consciousness is being denied, by these computer theorists, and by philosophers life Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins. In so doing, the border between the human and the nonhuman is being dissolved.
It has been said that “sometimes paranoids are right.” There, indeed, exists…
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