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Our endless appetite for zombies is because we’re looking at ourselves

The zombie apocalypse has upended the entire TV business.

Those were the words of America’s TV Guide in response to The Walking Dead, the smash-hit show for cable channel AMC in 2012. Based on an equally popular graphic novel series, it centres around Rick Grimes, a deputy sheriff who wakens from a long coma to find that the world has been overrun by a zombie apocalypse. It was the number one entertainment series on TV among 18 to 49-year-old adults at the time, a “landmark accomplishment for a cable show”.

The monster ratings continued through to this year, so no wonder AMC is now launching a prequel series. Fear the Walking Dead will take place at the start of the zombie apocalypse and follow a different group of survivors. Teasers, trailers and speculation have been all over the internet for months ahead of the August 23 premiere, making it one of the most hotly anticipated across the globe for a some time.

While the main show is itself returning for a sixth season in October, there are also numerous other big-budget zombie stories in the offing. World War Z is being followed by a sequel in 2017, while the odder mash-up phenomenon that is Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, adapted from a novel of the same name, is due for release in 2016.

And that’s just the tip of the zombie-berg. They stretch into any number of forms that encourage participation in popular culture: video games, such as Wii U console launch title Zombi4U; augmented reality games; phone apps; and immersive zombie walks across the globe. There are zombie runs, where participants are “encouraged” along by zombie attacks; the zombie shopping mall experience and even the I Survived a Zombie Apocalypse game show.

Zombie origins

The zombie is not a new figure in popular culture, but interestingly it neither comes from the folklore of medieval Europe nor from Romantic or Victorian literature – unlike Dracula or Frankenstein’s monster, for example. If we are talking about origins it comes from the Caribbean island of Haiti. Yet the myth only entered western consciousness in the 20th century, mainly through the US occupation of Haiti (1915-34). This was through the publication of stories such as William Seabrook’s Magic Island in 1929, which has been credited with drawing the attention of the American public from the Old World to the New.

Today’s zombie is even more recent, however. It did not exist before George Romero’s groundbreaking film Night of the Living Dead from 1968. Prior to that, zombies in film were more like their Haitian antecedents. One writer has described the zombies of films such as White Zombie (Victor Halperin, 1932) or I Walked with a Zombie (Jacques Tourneur, 1943) as “dead people who are revived, more or less intact, to serve the purposes of the living”. They are raised by black magic to become the mindless slave of the magician who creates them, and in reality the “monster” of these films is not the zombie but its master.

With Night of the Living Dead the rules changed. It became about mass outbreaks where the dead rise up to consume the living, and any cause given is fragmentary and inconclusive. It might be a (man-made) virus which reanimates the brain stem of the dead; or radiation; or some force from outer space. Importantly it is no longer the result of occult black magic practices, making the genre arguably more science fiction than horror. They still have little character of their own, intent only on devouring the living, but the zombies’ main characteristic has now become their relentlessness.

Why zombies and why now?

Zombie narratives offer multiple possible points of identification for audiences, and simultaneously play to many different concerns at once. Some viewers, perhaps most, will identify with the survivors, whom the zombies inexplicably rise up to attack over and over again. It is a very simple narrative from that point of view – in The Walking Dead world the survivors keep fighting, but every time the group think they have found a secure location they are overrun once more.

It has been suggested that the survivors might be said to embody “a heroic chivalrous ideal that man has to fight evil, be involved in fighting it actively – doing something about it.” Yet this very western approach doesn’t get them very far – the zombies never give up and never go away. Yet the survivors fight on and on and on.

What the survivors forget is that the zombies are also them – to be bitten by a zombie is to become one. In The Walking Dead the survivors realise that they are all infected already and will inevitably all turn when they die whether they are bitten or not.

Do you see these people at the watercooler? Caio Schiavo, CC BY

These kinds of insights make some of the audience identify with the zombies: lacking emotion, lacking joy, only feeling the relentless urge to consume. And perhaps the majority of the audience unconsciously suspect that zombies really are us, a heedless plague of humanity consuming the world.

Ultimately the zombie, like all good monsters, holds our attention because it raises many questions about the nature of the monster itself and about our response to it. This matters because what we are really looking at is ourselves.

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