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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