What exactly ARE zombies for?

Posted: April 22, 2009 in Braak
Tags: ,

Sometimes I say things that I shouldn’t be allowed to say–things like, “If no one is going to use zombies for what they’re for…” as though maybe there is a specific thing that zombies are for, and all right-thinking zombie stories are confined to that particular usage.  I keep expecting someone to challenge me when I say crazy stuff like that, but most people can’t be bothered, so what happens is, I challenge myself.

What do you mean, “what they’re for“?

Okay, so, I am one hundred percent sure that someone wrote a play that was about a college professor opposed to his student’s idea for a musical version of Antigone.  I can’t remember what the play was, or who wrote it, or the names of the characters.  All I remember is that the professor has a speech in that play that says something along the lines of:  “Tragedy isn’t supposed to be nice.  It’s supposed to be dark and scary and make us afraid of the world.”

I believe that, when done correctly, the genre of horror has a legitimate and vitally important place in the tapestry of human expression–and I believe that modern horror, along with its close cousin Absurdism, is the heir to the ancient conception of ritual tragedy.  Not tragedy like, “an airplane crashed and forty-five people died,” but old-fashioned, cosmic tragedy about parents eating their children and people gouging out their eyes.

The point of horror is to say this:  the world is horrible.  This is a perfectly valid and very useful statement to make.  Why?  Because in a horrible world, we, human beings, are each others’ only refuge.  The point of horror is to make us all afraid to be alone at night.  And while we’d suffer if there was nothing BUT horror around, in small doses it is extremely useful for strengthening our social bonds.  Especially when that fear can be cast onto something that does not have a real-world political, social, or racial analogue.

So.  Zombies.  The nature of zombies is that they are meant to make us afraid of something.  Now, you might reasonably say that sometimes putting zombies in things is funny–in fact, if you’re a modern playwright, or that guy that wrote Pride and Prejudice and Zombies–you probably think that’s really what zombies are for.

This, of course, is nonsense.  Any monster put into a comedy is funny.  That’s why Abbot and Costello met the wolfman.  Anything serious in a comic world is funny, so the question is, why did we take them seriously in the first place?

What is the horror story that you tell with zombies that is NOT the horror story you tell with Dracula, or the Furies?

I’m just riffing here, for a little bit, don’t take me too seriously.

Most of our modern tropes about zombies come from George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead.  This is a story about people huddled in a cabin, surrounded by teaming masses of the undead.  This is the essential zombie story–in some way or another, all zombie stories are basically this story.

In fact, many elements can be switched out.  We all recognized 28 Days Later as a zombie story, despite the fact that there were no zombies in it.  In Dawn of the Dead, people are trapped in a mall.  In Day of the Dead, it’s a military base.

But many elements can NOT be switched out.  Aliens has the same basic premise as Night of the Living Dead–people are trapped in a location, surrounded by masses of unreasoning monsters which they are not prepared to fight.  And yet, we don’t think of Aliens as being in the same category.

There are a couple of key ingredients here, and I think they are:  numbers, mindlessness, and contagion.

This yields two basic kinds of horror from the zombie story–one makes it kin to Rhinoceros:  it’s about the rise of fascism/nazism/&c.  Formerly intelligent, independent, real human beings lose their self by becoming infected with [zombieness], and become part of a mindless horde that regularly engages in activities that individuals would before have found horrific.  It is a metaphor for the mass, irreedemable loss of the minds of those one loves. (And this is the nature of horror:  losses must be irredeemable.  If you are in for a penny, you need to be in for a pound.)

The second is less about the psychological contagion and more about individual alienation:  that the world is full of things that look human but behave atrociously drives home the idea that the individual is lost in a completely hostile world.  Here the point is to set the hero, or heroes, at odds with a universe that is both familiar-looking and also completely alien.  (Interestingly:  the death of the main character in Night of the Living Dead, despite not being a zombie-related death, actually supports this theme; why?  Because the movie is not about ZOMBIES, it’s about what zombies mean.)

his is the other key element of the zombie mindlessness:  they are unreasonable.  There is no way to negotiate with them, no way to argue with them, there is no possible reconciliation. It’s why “zombies” are so often paired with “apocalypse”:  because the end of all systems of succor, cooperation, of human achievement highlights neatly the unending and unnegotionable nature of the mindless hordes.  That is a story about the inevitability of death, and that no matter how you slice it, there is no way out.

So, near as I can figure, those are the two good ways to use zombies.  Of course, there are other considerations.  No matter how good a play, book, or movie is within its own context (its First Domain, for you devotees of my aesthetics theories), you can’t get around the fact that it exists in a world full of referents and history (Third Domain).  Even if you can write a really good zombie story now, DON’T.  The fact of zombie popularity is only going to drown out any good work that you do.  You’ll come up with some awesome–let’s say, for the sake of argument–some awesome satire of the marketing industry and memes, and it’ll have zombie elements in it, and even if it’s good, who cares?  Next week, someone will have made a musical about Pirates Versus Zombies Versus Benjamin Disreali and no one will remember your awesome play.

  1. Jeff Holland says:

    Oh, man! I’ve been using my zombie as a hat-rack this whole time.

    Stupid, STUPID Holland!

  2. braak says:

    I kept telling you that was a bad idea. Remember when it ate my hat? And then tried to bite me? And then dripped rotten zombie goo all over your carpets? And then wandered off into your basement, where it just moans piteously now and leaves half-dismembered rats everywhere?


  3. Jeff Holland says:

    Though oddly, they’re a great place to put your hanging plants.

  4. V.I.P. Referee says:

    Of course, the reason you can’t tell a zombie story in the same way you can a “Dracula” or “Furies” deal, is because vampires and The Furies are extremely hot. Zombies are gooey and rotting and a not-so-subtle reminder that “Damn–that’ll be me someday. But I won’t be moving or even capable of having any motives, or cravings for anything, including brains. Maybe the zombies are far luckier than I’ll ever be.” Vampires? Pssst, please. Enough people are already going all “Bloody Countess” style, clamoring for fetal beauty ingredients and franken-chopping their bodies to look “sexy”. So, what—you suck some people’s blood? The trade-off is that you’re immortal and really, really good looking. I’m not sure I’d like to know how many people would choose that option if given the opportunity to “turn”.

    This is yet another opportunity for me to bring up my favorite horror flick, “Picnic at Hanging Rock”. It’s pretty but creepy; cozy, yet cold. Something to mess with the minds of everyone. It also focuses on the foreboding dread-factor of horror and how atmospheric build-up and assignment of significance and strangeness to otherwise common things, can make anything eerie and chill-inducing. ‘Cause life is creepy, if you think about the vastness and smallness of it.

  5. Jeff Holland says:

    I misread that at first and thought you were talking about furries.

    Which are also horrifying.

  6. V.I.P. Referee says:

    Well, “furries” can certainly be horrifying in their own right. “Critters” was an entire franchise developed to creep-out people who feared small dogs and squirrels.

  7. V.I.P. Referee says:

    …I can’t believe I didn’t mention “The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra”, which is another very scary horror flick, mixing both things we trust—scientists and science, forest rangers, black turtlenecks, women in pearls and circle skirts—with otherworld creatures and horrific dangers. Plus, it dissects all that from the intellectual perspective of the scientists and their science, which is scary enough because scientists are always so scientific.

  8. jge says:

    Didn’t you know that Zombies are good as examples? There’s a whole lot of philosophical literature about zombies … look it up… I thought that is what zombies are for! http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/zombies/

  9. threatqualitypress says:

    I don’t know; this seems an awful lot like it was written by a philosophy grad student, feverishly trying to tie the weekend he spent picking up goth chicks at the Night of the Living Dead movie marathon in with his thesis on dualism for a Freshman intro class.

    The “zombie world” thought experiment would make more sense if it were an “automatic world,” since zombies traditionally, when deprived of their consciousness, revert to animalistic function.

  10. jge says:

    In that case you have to infer that philosophers never have understood Zombies. (That may be right.) It’s interesting I think that philosophers cling to a feature that one actually can not see in any movie I know of (since indeed Zombies go animalistic). Are Zombies capable of speech or is it only “arrrgh” and “brainsss”? — So philosophers spice up their texts to lure some horror and splatter movie fans into their courses…

  11. threatqualitypress says:

    Well…I can’t blame them for trying. It’s hard enough to get people to read about Descartes.

    “Well, Cartesian coordinates…uh…mind-body duality….uh….he, he INVENTED ZOMBIES, TOO! Whoahhh, zombies!”

    Interestingly, the original, mythic zombi, prior to Romero’s reinvention with Night of the Living Dead, was actually a fully-capable human being that had been essentially deprived of volition, rather than cognition. I still don’t think it fits into the “zombie world” model, since that seems to posit a world without self-referential awareness (I guess, like the Hooter’s song), but it is kind of an interesting avenue for discussion.

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