Zombies and Why We Need Them

The Walking Dead is back after its half-season break, and not a moment too soon. I needed to see some guts hanging out from beneath an emaciated rib cage. And also, that guy with the W on his forehead needed to die. He had a change of heart? I call Bulls**t.

What does this have to do with quicksand? I’m glad you asked.

If you were born in the fifties or sixties or seventies, you were afraid of quicksand. It was in our sandboxes ready to devour our GI Joe dolls. It was in our movies. It was in our language. Quicksand was referenced in speeches about Vietnam and civil rights as a metaphor for being hopelessly ensnared.

Kids growing up today don’t think quicksand is scary at all. It’s disappeared from movies, TV shows, and popular culture. Foreign entanglements are referred to as “quagmires” instead of “quicksand.”

Quicksand had its peak in the 1960s, then fell off, then finally became the stuff of jokes. A cliche. (There’s a great Radiolab on the subject and I urge you check it out, plus all their other podcasts, because: fascinating.)

Why isn’t quicksand scary anymore? Why was it scary then?

To quote the Radiolab discussion: the 1960s were the era of exploration; the era of Vietnam. Maybe quicksand reflected people’s anxiety about becoming hopelessly entangled. After all, some of our endeavors were situations we potentially couldn’t extricate ourselves from. A foreign war. The moon.

Interesting.

So that got me thinking about zombies.

Zombies are huge now. They’ve been part of popular culture for a while, but they have exploded in the past decade.

Number of zombie films by decade (based on a Wikipedia list):

  • 1960s – 13
  • 1970s – 25
  • 1980s – 58
  • 1990s – 34
  • 2000s – 171

Three-and-a-half years into our current decade, we stand at 64, putting us on pace for 182.

The year 2003 brought The Walking Dead comic, soon to be followed by books such as The Zombie Survival Guide, World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, The Forest of Hands and Teeth, Breathers, The Passage, and so many more. And of course, there’s The Walking Dead television series, which is popular one not only because of the zombies, but because the characters represent the many ways we cope with adversity. And because it’s great. But that’s another blog post.

So, what do zombies represent? What cultural anxiety do they tap?

They are relentless, numerous, and have a deep-seated need to kill us. They are virtually programmed to kill us. They will do so at their own peril with no thought for self-preservation. They cannot be reasoned with. They are nearly unkillable.

They are terrorism.

Is it no wonder zombie movies spiked after 2001? Forces we cannot reason with aim for our (American/European) destruction. And like the creatures we put in our movies, if one is eliminated, a dozen are ready to take his place.

Zombies are a metaphor that have become be so deeply rooted that they are now an archetype.

For anyone unfamiliar, an archetype is a recurring symbol in a culture, and it’s in our nature to make them, because we seek patterns and try to categorize our world. So for all our loves, desires and fears, humans construct archetypes. Some resonate across cultural borders.

Using archetypes, we tell ourselves stories about our fears or desires or passions. I think this is why some people say that there are no original stories. But I disagree.

Granted, we may have a limited number of archetypes, and therefore metaphors. And stories are told with metaphor. But even if we have a limited vocabulary, there are nearly limitless ways to combine and rearrange the words we own.

Therefore, despite the limited metaphors at our fingertips, there is no shortage of original stories. One hero’s journey may speak to me, another may not. Anyone who has tried to write a novel knows that the number of choices to make can be overwhelming. And each choice can result in an entirely different story.

I think there are as many original stories as there are human experiences. Which means at least one for every human on the planet, plus those that came before us and those yet to be. There are a million ways to tell the story of an irrational foe whose only thought and purpose is our destruction.

Maybe in a few years the landscape will shift and terrorism won’t be in our cultural consciousness. Maybe then zombie stories will seem silly, just like quicksand. I hope so.

But I’ll miss the zombies.