The zombie fever
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?
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.
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.
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.