Monday, September 2, 2013

A Morbid Fascination: Society and the Zombie-Fantasy

So lately I've been playing a bit of Organ Trail, the affectionate zombie-themed parody of classic educational pioneering simulator The Oregon Trail, a staple of classroom computers for generations. It got me thinking, as such things have done in the past, about why the idea of zombies, or particularly the zombie apocalypse, is so appealing to people. Zombies are big business, with a booming market in video games, literature and cinema surging forward in the last decade or so. I personally enjoy zombie-related material, and because as everyone knows I'm legitimate and hardcore, my interest goes back to watching George Romero's seminal Night of the Living Dead and subsequent Hollywood franchise. In my time I have played well over a hundred hours of Left 4 Dead and its sequel - not much by some game enthusiasts' standards, I'm sure, but a lot for me. I have Max Brooks' Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z on my bookshelf. I am interested in, if not instantly sold on, most zombie-related media. So, apparently, are many people whose cash is lining the coffers of zombie-peddlers in our voracious consumer culture. This returns me to the initial question: why? I have a few ideas.

1. Independence
The zombie apocalypse is a world without rules. It has much in common with the the post-nuclear world, at least in the iterations in which it is survivable. This is not in reference to some particular fictional encounter with zombies in a particular place. Rather, it is true of the narrative set in a world in which society has collapsed. Infrastructure is gone and governmental institutions have failed. In this world, notionally, the individual is no longer governed; they are their own boss. In the zombie-fantasy, there are no real issues about resources. Things like food and shelter occur at the convenience of the narrative: there will be unlooted supermarkets full of supplies, abandoned cars of fuel, military caches of weapons at whatever opportunity. The survivor does not have to worry about the necessities of life but rather a more active form of survival. The zombie apocalypse draws its energy from every latent power fantasy and thrill impulse which persists in the human brain. In the world of zombies, an entire neighbourhood, a city, a country, the whole world is your personal playground. The only real issue is avoiding those pesky zombies which, by the laws of narrative, are ultimately non-threatening to the main character due to their vulnerability or stupidity. The zombie-fantasy is utopia. It is the paradise of the introvert, where there may only be a core group of other survivors - trusted friends, perhaps - beyond the blissful solitude of the ego, the individual survivor, and the infinite Other, the undead hordes. In this world the individual no longer has to justify themselves, no longer has to feel oppressed or threatened by anything other than mindless drones it is entirely ethically acceptable to kill on sight in large numbers. The post-apocalyptic world has neither laws, nor competition, except in cases of human rivalry which are a part of the narrative which may be excluded in the focus on the infinite potential of an abandoned world. The zombie-fantasy houses the desire for unlimited personal freedom and the accessibility of the whole world.

2. Individuality
In the zombie-fantasy, the populations of the world have largely been subsumed by endless mobs of shambling, flesh-eating grotesques. Yet where do these masses spring from? The less well-prepared, less genre-aware incompetents, presumably. The zombie-fantasy indulges the individual's desire for uniqueness. They are never one of the victims caught in the early days of infection and absorbed into the ravening ghoulish hosts. They are always the intelligent survivor, alone or part of a small and trusty team, which gets to stake out some fortified location or go on an otherwise-impossible adventure in the wake of social collapse at the bloodied hands of walking corpses. In the zombie-fantasy the individual can truly embrace and express their individuality, because they are now by their nature special by virtue of not being part of a single-minded Other. The zombie-fantasy thrives on our fears of oppression by the forces of conformity and social pressure, personifying these flattening concepts as an anonymous assembly of destructible foes which are factually incapable of reason or discourse. There is no dialogue with the zombie: just as the individual subconsciously wishes that its opinions and beliefs were absolute truth and that all identity-threatening differences of thought would give way, so can the survivor happily annihilate their formerly-human opponents in the name of survival. The zombie-fantasy is an objective world of black and white: humans against zombies, living against dead, reason against instinct, sentience against control, individuality against conformity. It is a fantasy of identity which elevates the meaning of individual existence.

3. Instinct
Paradoxically, despite being a world where intelligence and reason are the greatest assets one can have, the zombie-fantasy is nonetheless a world of instinctive animal aggression. Zombies are dangerous and threatening, but also completely individually defeatable: they are either slow but satisfyingly vulnerable in the cranial regions, or fast but entirely susceptible to human injury. In the zombie-fantasy the survivor is presented with two choices which revolve around hyperarousal. Zombies may be destroyed piecemeal, usually with much gore and splattering vitals to the accompaniment of the firing of a gun, or they may be retreated on and, in defence, lorded over from the security of some invulnerable citadel or fortress, the satisfaction of which derives from outwitting the zombies, either through traps and secure locations of attack or through exploiting their incapacities: usually an inability to swim, ascend stairs or ladders or determine the location of false doors and hidden entrances. Zombies fulfil both desires of hyperarousal: they are an enemy which can be fought and destroyed without compunction, to the satisfaction of a destructive desire and aggressive survival impulse, but they can also easily be escaped from, being some combination of slow and stupid. In the zombie-fantasy both of these reactions, fight and flight, are equally valid and equally satisfying in general terms. Survival becomes a form of pleasure experience. In the zombie-fantasy the failure, often otherwise overlooked, of the luxuries of entertainment is replaced by an environment in which survival, the mere act of living, is a visceral form of entertainment.

4. Inversion
The zombie-fantasy is a Western fantasy. I realise it is not confined to Western culture but in its Western iteration its focus is, unconsciously or otherwise, on the specific failure of the West, of developed nations, of the first world. The zombie-fantasy is Western society turned on its head. Skyscrapers are crumbling edifices of a lost age. Electronics are useless in a world without regular electricity. Fresh food and sustainability are no longer meaningful concerns. Survival is a day-to-day issue, dependent on the exploitation and depletion of, in the absence of a larger population, effectively infinite preserved resources: canned goods, simple machinery, conventional vehicles and weapons. There is no culture or economy in the zombie-fantasy. Cities are dangerous concentrations of the undead, with the countryside and isolated islands transformed into desirable locations of safety, bastions of life. The zombie-fantasy engages with that subconscious desire on the part of the Westerner to see their society, innately removed to such an extent from their instincts and hidden drives, inverted. It is a thanatophilia, a characteristic of the irrational fascination with destruction and death that lurks at the heart of a society so built on comfort, longevity and ease. Western society is enjoying a recent and unprecedented period in which the majority of the population, by and large, is free of the brutality and injustice which humans have inflicted upon each other for the rest of history. The zombie-fantasy, in which the dead are now also the majority, places a mirror before that society, exploring the wish to see the world destroyed.

5. Irresponsibility
In the zombie-fantasy, the human race is divested of responsibility for Earth. As an endangered species, humanity no longer needs to gaze or imagine beyond its immediate future. It is no longer important to worry about things like climate change or nuclear weapons, racial and sexual prejudice, or indeed progress of any kind. The humanity of the zombie apocalypse gets to enjoy being in a final stage in which they are no longer responsible for the future and need not begrudge it to hypothetical later generations whose happiness may be greater than that of the present population, for now there is realistically no such future generation to be. This is another area in which the zombie-fantasy shares much with the nuclear scenario or any other apocalyptic dream. In the zombie-fantasy, mortality has a new meaning which was previously lost among the endless years of history. In this fantasy, humanity is freed from the burdens of guilt and long-term ethics, reduced to a primitive state of survival which supposedly cannot be condemned, certainly not by future generations. The zombie-fantasy is a suicidal one, in which humanity no longer has to trouble itself with solving its own problems and overcoming its own failings.

Examining these notions, which I present as purely speculative on my own part, an interesting image emerges. The zombie-fantasy embodies the paradoxes and irrationalities of the human condition. It is both a world in which human intellect is an invaluable asset, and yet one in which our animal desires may be fulfilled. It is a world where life is given a new meaning, but one in which death is given a new meaning also. It is one which abandons comfort for the sake of pleasure. It eschews the control of governments and leaderships, but also places its characters in a position of complete irresponsibility on any scale beyond individual survival and personal ethics. It is a world which abandons the relevance of anything more than an extremely limited altruism, yet places the individual in considerable danger. It is not a threatening fantasy, yet also one with appeal. The zombie-fantasy, then, is the sublimation, I would argue, of the tension between human nature and the current state of human, particularly Western, society, and the conflict between humanity's commonality with broader life and its unique capacity for reason. Just as our society transforms us from an evolved organism to a peculiar social creature, so is the zombie-fantasy a transformation: the individual into a unique human-animal and society into an Other. It is a desire to exceed society while simultaneously regressing from it. We all wish to be a survivor in a world of zombies. In this way, the zombie-fantasy is, simply put, a human fantasy.

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