Paying Attention to the Zombie Craze

As zombies continue to be popular in movies and television (and possibly in real life), more people are turning scholarly attention to the subject in the hopes of answering why the craze continues.

Here at Patheos, Christian Piatt thinks that the craze is partly a result of our own paranoia about threats from within:

I tend to think this points to the mentality of our nation ever since the events of September 11th, 2001. Whereas, in the days of the World Wars, the “good” and “bad’ guys were clearly delineated, the current state of international conflict is much more opaque. The Enemy could be the person right next to us. The threat is everywhere.

My problem with this is that I don’t think that America has ever existed without a great deal of fear about internal threats. In The Paranoid Style in American Politics, Richard Hofstadter showed how Americans since before the Revolution have been afraid of the enemies within, from the Illuminati and the Freemasons to the Catholics and the Mormons.

As for the supposed clarity of WWII: where does Russia fall? Given the paranoia about fifth columnists, communists and Nazi sympathizers, I don’t think that Americans could feel safe at home. And lynching of black soldiers and the internment of Japanese citizens proves that people would lash out at supposed internal threats to their way of life.

Piatt seems to see the anxiety as secular and holds up religious communities as a way of relieving that anxiety. In contrast, Kelley Baker is interested in the religous undertones of the craze and what it says about the way we contruct communities. Baker is currently promoting her book Gospel According to the Klan, in which she argues that the KKK “rather than being a fringe movement in narratives of American religious history, proves to be more mainstream and essential to narratives of American culture.”

So it’s probably not surprising that she sees similar themes in the zombie craze, and she plans to make it the subject of her next book. In a recent interview, she states:

I’m also interested in how zombie fascination might act like religion. In fact, I’m distinctly nervous about the ethics of popular zombie devotions. Popular culture helps to create the spaces in which we live, how we construct who is human and who is not, who is worth saving and not, our ethical notions around violence, when is it redemptive, when not. It’s worth noting who survives in contemporary zombie media. It is rife with images of national destruction and rebuilding, and there is a remarkable amount of whiteness in the cast of characters that typically survive and get to rebuild society. I’m interested in what contemporary zombies communicate to us, how they shape the spaces in which we live, our expectations and perceptions. Why am I so interested in zombies? Because people are paying attention to them. Americans consume these monsters, so what does this mean. What are we working out here?

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  • UrsaMinor

    I’m no fan of the zombie craze, but at least it means that the vampires are getting a rest.

    As for the “remarkable amount of whiteness” among the survivors in zombie movies, I think this is nothing more than a reflection of the remarkable amount of whiteness in American cinema in general.

    • JohnMWhite

      Agreed. In any kind of horror, slasher or disaster film, you will find an overwhelming proportion of the survivors are white (and all attractive and not one disabled or overweight or transgender or otherwise different from the mold), but that’s because that is what movie studios think sells so that is what they cram into all their pictures. Obviously the survivors get the most screen time.

      And I’m not really sure we can draw any significant cultural conclusions from the current interest in zombies. It’s nothing like anti-Muslim or anti-Japanese sentiments, or the Red Scare. It’s not real. We know it’s not real. We’re not actually sitting there panicking over the possibility that the person next to us in the pub might spontaneously start eating our face and we’ll have to beat them to death with a pool cue and some Queen. Young people are currently interested in zombies because it’s kind of funny and entertaining to imagine something so crazy and steeped in certain tropes and memes breaking out into real life – but they’re not morons who think they need to stock up on shotguns and lock up anybody who drools a little too much.

    • brandon
  • Ericki

    “Why am I so interested in zombies? Because people are paying attention to them. ”

    That statement right there pretty much sums it up. People are paying attention because people are Paying Cash. Zombies are pretty much the current thing and like all things will pass and be replaced by the next. Maybe we’ll go back to the Bigfoot craze like it was in the 70′s

    • trj

      Oh God, no! The last thing we need is a Bigfoot revival. If Animal Planet or History Channel realize there’s a market for it it’ll only be a matter of time before they start airing “documentaries” with groundbreaking new insights on Bigfoot. Probably followed by Sasquatch Week on Discovery.

      • Yoav
        • trj

          Depressing. We can only hope it’ll prove too difficult to create a multi-volume YA trash romance novel about Bigfoot, which is subsequently turned into a blockbuster movie series.

      • UrsaMinor

        I’m waiting for Kim Kardashian to announce that she’s going to star in a reality show that revolves around her marrying and divorcing Bigfoot.

        • Ericki

          Oh come on, those shows are hilarious with the seasick inducing camera work and campy reenactments.

          I can remember watching “In Search Of” and other shows as a kid, always wondering why they never came up with any real facts and answers. And as a photography nut “Why do all the pictures SUCK”
          No Bigfoot, no Zombies, no Nessie. Next you’ll be telling me there’s no God.
          Well that just blows. 8)

  • vasaroti

    I think that the zombie fad might have to do with young people parodying the paranoia of their elders. Think of the things your parents shook a fork at you about over the dinner table, how non- life-threatening those things actually turned out to be, and you might as well add zombies and rabid bunnies to the list of “brown people in the neightborhood!” “microwaves!” “Splenda!” “online banking!” arrrgggggh! Did everyone’s dad turn into BG Jack D. Ripper at age 50, or was it just in my family?

    @Ericki- The Bigfoot craze would seem to be in full swing. Squatch supposedly eats deer (and elk!) but is so shy he’s never attacked a human. (snicker) Anyhoo, it if makes people more interested in preserving swathes of wilderness, I’m all for it.

  • Sajanas

    For my money, the craze for zombies is a combination of the fear of crowds and a fear of death, depending on the scale of the movie. You’ll see footage of riots and protests, and imagine how scary it would be to be mixed in with a large mob of angry people, particularly when its clear that a mob of angry people is a very dangerous thing. Taking those large groups and imagining them specifically wanting to kill and eat everyone seems a natural progression for horror movies. And on the more personal side, when you’re just dealing with a few zombies… I think its a lot about death. Friends and family simply stop, and become something different, their zombie versions reflecting their own gruesome death but not any of their original personality. Survivors in zombie movies have to cope with loss, and often the characters that die are the ones that cannot move past their feelings for their now dead companions (or ones that have been doomed by a bite).

    But I think the real reason for the zombie craze is that its really, really easy to make a zombie movie. All of the special effects needed to make a zombie movie are (for the most part) really cheap to do, and look pretty good on camera. Plus its a scenario that really lends itself to people thinking “What would I do in this situation?” Anyone could be a survivor, so you have a lot of different stories you could put in the same sort of world… from the really dramatic and scary, to the more silly. And zombies are a problem that even a first world country would have issues with…. while Vampires, Werewolves, Black Lagoonians… they’re really only dangerous to isolated, lightly armed groups.

    • Danielcb

      That’s my position; well, the last part anyway. I don’t know anyone who thinks zombie movies are scary; at most they’ll think it’s gross. I think the simple appeal is, for starters, everyone has had fantasies about going into a deserted mall and just taking anything you want and walking out; survival is also popular(Bear Grylls, and it seems like every network has a competing survival show), plus their political/religious neutrality(as opposed to other violent media). These people are way over thinking it.

  • flaquita

    If I may inject my personal view on zombies into this:

    I became a fan of all things Zombie in high school, when movies like Resident Evil and the Dawn of the Dead remake were selling out in theaters. The movies have their own attractive qualities (gore, bad acting, and suspense, to name a few), but I believe the real attraction to the idea of zombies lies in the romanticized ideal of post-apocalypse. In a time when the economy is tanking, the environment is being destroyed, disturbing violence is dismantling our sense of security, there is a lot of tension in the air. Zombie apocalypse provides a release. I don’t think people are looking for an excuse for the “Us vs. Them” mentality, as described in this article, but rather an escape from the confusion, tension, and listlessness that so many people feel. This, of course, is based on my own feelings about zombies and zombie apocalypse, but I’d like to think that it’s a feeling that others share.

    • JohnMWhite

      I think this is a very good point. There certainly is an appeal in surviving the horror and starting over after everything has been torn down. I suppose it reflects a conflicted sense of hope and hopelessness in people, particularly the young, when we look at the mess we’re going to have to clean up. There’s hopelessness for preserving and repairing current society, but a sense of hope of rebuilding and renewing later, if we learn the lessons of how to actually cooperate and not sabotage one another and ultimately ourselves. Walking Dead seems to be telling a story along those lines.

    • kholdom0790

      That’s definitely what appeals to me about zombie movies. Zombie movies, natural disaster movies, anything (post)apocalyptic, they have this theme in common. Probably why I keep reading The Stand.

  • 100meters

    As a so-called “Zombie,” I am greatly offended. We prefer the proper term, Necro-American. Thank you.

    • UrsaMinor

      Duly noted. Do you also prefer “vitally challenged” to the term “undead”?

      • 100meters

        ” Differently-temperatured ” or ” Pre-dead ? “

    • trj

      I see you call yourself 100meters. So, are you a Runner or a Stumbler?

      • 100meters

        More of a Mumbler, what with this rotting, hanging-mandible problem and all.

  • DMG

    As a game developer, I think a lot of the prevalence of zombies, in that medium at least, has to do with the ethics of violence.

    Games like violence as an easy way to thrill an audience, as well as for its simple inputs (it’s easier to give the player a “kill” button than a soliloquy control scheme).

    But the standard tropes of ethically-acceptable violence – the war hero bravely fighting the evil invaders, the lone secret agent killing to save the world from an evil scheme – are starting to feel problematic. We’re slogging through the aftermath of wars that were sold to us as just this kind of noble stand against evil/certain destruction, and we have daily reminders of its human cost, and how hollow those promises were. We’re increasingly aware that NPC-in-a-turban-number-five didn’t ask for any of this, and that killing him really doesn’t make the world a safer place.

    Enter zombies, who make the violence fun again. Zombies are pure malevolence, without any hope of redemption. Killing them is the kindest thing you can do. They’re not really people anymore anyway (but still more convincing/believable opponents than rubber suit alien monsters). Any violence is warranted to save what’s left of humanity from this threat. And it’s all distanced safely from reality by the obvious monster-movie fiction of it, so we don’t have to think too hard about all the ethical ramifications.

    Zombies let us indulge in violence without feeling bad about it. Our fascination with the unthinking killers might be that they let us kill without thinking. ;)

    • Themon the Bard

      Good insight. Personally, I find that any distancing conceit works.

      I’ve tried playing some of the hyper-realistic human-to-human shooters, and I find myself facing the dilemma of real soldiers: I can’t pull the trigger. If I do, it makes me feel sick.

      On the other hand, shooting something with tentacles and green blood that explodes like a water balloon can be just as cathartic as blowing the head off a more humanoid zombie. My experience, anyway.

      YMMV (Your Maya May Vary)

  • Hitchslapper

    Let’s not forget the very first Zombie…. the KING of all Zombies, Jeebus!!!!!

    • Azel

      Wasn’t he a lich ? I wasn’t aware he was rotting…

  • Themon the Bard

    I think these are fun-house mirror reflections of stuff we see every day around us.

    Vampires: elitist, blood-sucking parasites who view ordinary people as nothing more than a resource to be used up for their pleasure, who drain us of our lifeblood and then discard the corpse in an alley.

    Zombies: mindless, shambling, already-dead former people, harmless alone, but horribly dangerous in large groups.

    Now where have we seen these in real life? Shall I spell it out?

  • Themon the Bard

    And incidentally, just for fun:

    Werewolves: victims of a transformation that breaks the voice, causes hair to sprout everywhere, brings on great physical strength and ungovernable passions (especially sexual).

    Hint: maybe you had one living in your basement for a few years…..

  • Juan Rangel

    I have been a zombie fan for a few years now. I remember once thinking “these people look stupid, how can you see yourself in a movie walking and snarling”Now I still think some zombie actors look dumb but I love watching the shows, and movies. I love most of the zombies games and apps out. But I think treyarch has really done zombies justice and can not wait until black ops 2 to follow the story.
    Check out the zombie virus