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The zombie fever

1 December 2011

Left4Dead 2

Boy. If looks could kill..!

You might have noticed lately that our culture has been invaded by zombies. Books, television series, films, video games and comics are teaming with the reanimated undead, or ‘infected’ as they now are called. World War Z, The Walking Dead, Zombie Land, 28 Days Later and Left4Dead all depict a postapocalyptic world where a horrific pandemic has decimated the population and only a lucky few have escaped unharmed. Lucky? Well, perhaps not so much: having survived the outbreak they now have to try to make a living in the shattered remains of our civilisation, always under the threat of attack from ‘the changed ones’.

These stories are bleak and cruel, filled with unimaginable suffering and heartbreaking sorrow on a global scale not depicted since the British television series The Day of the Triffids*. The mood is often so harrowing, in fact, that the inevitable zombie attacks almost feel like a welcomed release, giving your humanity and compassion a break by flooding your brain with adrenaline and rage.

But this is not a review of any of the titles mentioned above. No. Instead I’m curious to what the reason could be that we’re suddenly so keen to watch, read or play zombie apocalypse stories. What’s the attraction? Or rather, what’s the urgency? Why now?

The contagion

At least there's no traffic.

Few things induce fear in a human society as infectious disease. The medieval Black death plague is probably the best known, but we only have to go back to World War I and the 1918 flu pandemic (a.k.a. the ‘Spanish Flu’) for the most deadly and widespread of all diseases in human history. The flu, based on a particularly aggressive strain of the H1N1 virus, killed up to 100 million people – this represented 6% of the world population at the time.

That same H1N1 virus is responsible for the common seasonal human flu, but also swine flu and bird flu. Many virologists now believe it’s only a matter of time before the next outbreak of a new aggressive strain, especially with modern air travel shuffling people around the world on a scale and with a speed never seen before. This time, however, Patient Zero will probably not be an American soldier, but more likely a Chinese livestock trader.

The rage

"Wait: do you hear the pitter-patter of tiny little feet? No?"

But in addition to our (perhaps justified) fear of the next pandemic, there’s also a fear of what I call ‘The rage’. We are apparently petrified that our fellow citizens would suddenly become vicious carnivores, intent on tearing us limb from limb to consume our flesh.

That a human being should suddenly turn wild and start to hunt other people is understandably one of the most horrific thing imaginable. We know fully well what cruelty we’re capable of in human form; what horrors could we not visit on others if we lost all sense of human morals and compassion and became ‘soulless animals’?

This fear of the predator within is so strong in fact, that it has not only given rise to the myth of zombies, but also countless other myths including the ones of vampires and werewolves.

The fear

She's behind you!

If we mix these historic fears of the monster within with the current climate of fear of the pandemic disease, we end up with – you guessed it – a zombie apocalypse! “What if some new infectious disease would make people violent and crazy? It would be the end of the world as we know it!” This proposed mix of flu and rabies is quite different from the 1970s view on zombies, where the dead literally rose from their graves to shuffle around aimlessly in search of human flesh. The modern zombie is a different beast, created by a virus infection rather than magic, and is light and fast on its feet.

Is there any merit to such theories, though? Could some viral disease really turn us into zombies? Well, not undead zombies. If we die, we stay dead, even when infected by some strange new virus. But if by zombies we mean rage-prone needs-driven semi-conscious predatory humans, then yes, I guess that’s possible. Although not likely.

Better safe than sorry

Our society is more fearful than ever, and perhaps it’s rather healthy of us to live out our fears by watching zombie movies, reading zombie books and playing zombie games? By exposing ourselves to the very thing we’re afraid of, we begin to neutralise our fears. Not only that, but by experiencing these post-apocalyptic scenarios by the means of media, we accustom ourselves with the challenges of surviving under such conditions. This give us the confidence that we’re prepared, and therefore feel like we’re in control.

It also give us that nice buzz of adrenaline, whilst still knowing we’re quite safe. For now, anyway.

* The book The Day of the Triffids has been adapted to both film and television several times, but my personal favourite is the 1981 BBC version. John Wyndham‘s original book from 1951 is still very good, as is indeed most of his other books.

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. 1 December 2011 18:54

    Very nice! I have a morbid fascination with epidemics as well. I am currently reading World War Z (not impressed) and The Viral Storm (nonfiction, very interesting though not very technical). One of my all time favorites is The Stand by Stephen King. I’ve read it several times and don’t normally do that. I’ve given thought to where our fascination with zombies comes from and think this post does a very good job of explaining it. But I agree, once you are dead, you are dead. There are parasites that take over control of their victims brains though; toxoplasmosis makes rats and mice seek out cats!

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    • 1 December 2011 19:03

      Thanks!

      Yes, we all seem to be fascinated by zombies. It’s become a timeless classic, like werewolves and vampires.

      I’ve read about toxoplasmosis! Very interesting! There is also a fungus that infects ants and take over their nervous system, forcing them to climb up on high structures like twigs and tall grasses. Then they die, and the fungus develop little mushrooms that spread the pollen to the rest of the ants below. Very clever!*

      * Well, not ‘clever’, obviously, as a fungus doesn’t have a brain. But neatly evolved!

      Like

  2. blogginglily permalink
    1 December 2011 19:36

    Bottom line. . .

    Rule number #2 – The Double Tap

    Like

  3. 1 December 2011 20:24

    I’ve pretty much stole all my survival ideas from World War Z but so far no one seems to have noticed and thinks I am some form of zompie survive expert so… You know…Ssshh. Also: Amazing book.

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    • 1 December 2011 21:05

      Well, sorry but you totally ARE! You even got an anti-zombie tree-house. Allegedly.

      So we’re all going to gather around your place at the apocalypse – either to look for a leader and survival expert, or – if we weren’t lucky enough – to eat you. Which now reminds me of Jonathan Coutlon’s classic song “Re: Your brains”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1B8KFjhqDhc Watch it!

      Like

  4. 1 December 2011 21:42

    I think we are all secretly afraid of old people and don’t want to admit it. It is a little known fact that some of the people we are close to will gradually start stumbling and shuffling around, and slowly disconnecting themselves from the world around them.

    They might not literally eat your brain, but my next door neighbor is old and loves to chat. I can feel my brain being quietly being eaten as I try to talk about antibiotics and doctor’s visits for what seems to be a polite amount of time. Either that, or how well the Cowboys are playing.

    The the worst part of all of old age is that eventually, you succumb. It happens… to you. *Shudder*

    Well… I’m going back to denial now. See ya.

    Like

  5. 1 December 2011 21:44

    My favorite zombie book is The Forest of Hands and Teeth. Because that is what we are doing, right? Comparing zombie fiction?

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