Truth be told, it is hard for this generation of Horror fans to remember a time without Zombies. Yet such a time seems to be upon us.
Rather abruptly (and some may think at last), the Zombie Craze seems to be fading.
What does it all mean?
And perhaps the more interesting question is – if your Literary senses are tingling –what comes next?
For those too young to remember, there have been other monster-dominated decades…and to fans of Literary Horror, such changes in Horrors represent changes in our times, our societies, our very self-image. More than any other genre, Horror “represents.” Horror is the spirit of the times…the Zeitgeist of who we think we are. And as such, these monster transitions can be very telling.
In Literature, Horror plays a unique and indispensable part. Horror mirrors our social and cultural failings: it is our dirty laundry, hung out for the world to see. And it is meant to awaken us, to inspire change.
Our World history and our regional histories are decorated by the monsters of our choosing. Pay attention: THIS is how Literature moves in Horror…
Because even if you don’t think your genre is speaking loudly in Literary terms – even if you “just” read or write pulp – monsters have historically been stand-ins for what scares us the most.
And what scares us the most – is humanity itself.
Growing Up Zombie: the Decades of American Disillusionment
It came at the end of the Reign of Vampires: the rise of the Zombie and the apocalyptic visions of a world we were clearly eager to see end.
But for Literary watchers, it also came coincidentally during the tenure of the George W. Bush Presidency – a time (2001 to 2009) when the United States was shaken rudely awake from its American Dream, “given more real life strife than it had seen since in the 1960s, including two very long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, destruction on the home front in the form of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, plus massive natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina, and the global economic meltdown [of] 2008…” And the subsequent Zombie movie milieu “fits in perfectly with these aforementioned national and world events because it functions on two levels simultaneously. On a literal level, Zombie movies concern rampaging monsters that want to eat your flesh and/or brains. But on another, more metaphorical level, these movies focus on the collapse of the familiar infrastructure that maintains our high-tech civilization.” (Muir 159)
This was a rather unpleasant rousing from our previous Literary monster decade – the Vampire Era – which seemed like a lazy summer reverie in comparison. Those were the times born of the Summer of Love and spurred by gender rights and sexual liberation. And I can’t help wondering if there must have been something about those amorous Creatures of the Night which pissed most of us off – or finished doing so – in order that we were willing to exchange Horror’s most beloved monster for something more like ourselves.
That’s right: we are the Dr. Frankensteins, creating the monsters in our own image. And therein hides the Literature.
The Zombie says a lot about us. The Zombie tells the world how we felt from the mid1980’s onward: like we were all being marginalized…like we were undervalued cogs in machinery that had swallowed us whole…like nothing of ourselves was valued or mattered. We began to see ourselves as hapless, unwitting victims. Conspiracy theories and suspicions of everything from our own neighbors, coworkers and government rose from the ashes of immolated Vampires. And we got angry.
It is no small coincidence that the rise of the Zombie coincided with the rise of Technology. In fact, the last time a monster rose in such a way to represent us en masse was during the Industrial Revolution when it was the Ghost who came to envision how we felt – like we were truly rendered dead and invisible in our own time…like the world suddenly lurched forward without us…like it didn’t even have the courtesy to wait until we died before burying us in time-stamped irrelevance.
During the Ghost Era we saw so much suddenly slipping through our fingers – some of it wrenched heartlessly from them – seizing our sense of spirituality and subsequent order of our universe and replacing tradition with an unsettling, rapidly changing uncertainty.
Literature abounds with examples of the heartless separation of humanity from a more acceptably paced march forward. Everywhere people were awakening as if from a stupor to find change unfettered, science dominating, the human touch in life left cold and uncaring. In the Ghost Era, we discovered we could no longer live the lies. And women’s voices rose in chorus to name the sins, spawning the Golden Era of spectral fiction that still today informs us strongly of that time in history.
It was not long after that our genre began documenting our own shock at the world around us…and all manner of Horrors and deceit and human tragedy was rendered in Horror form. From the psychological Horrors of Poe to the alien monstrosities of Lovecraftian nightmares, our genre continued to narrate the changes we all encountered, the fears we hid and the resentments we nurtured.
In fact we had tried on many monsters on the way to the Vampire (a constant infatuation throughout our folkloric history) – including the Mummy, Frankenstein’s monster, and the Wolfman – all in the attempt to make sense of self-discovery.
So when the Vampire came along again in the 1970’s to tease us about our sexual indiscretions, our Sexual Revolution and search for gender identity, the threat was more subtle…less encompassing… and certainly left us employed and believing what we did and who we were somehow mattered. It seemed a pleasant, if not superfluous distraction, its latent threat more shadowy. With the Vampire, the illusion that all was still well – just different – predominated. Not so in the Zombie Era.
When the Zombies rose, it was an apocalyptic moment. It was a sign that while we were sleeping, something had gone terribly wrong.
Much like the Time of the Ghost, the rise of the Zombie represented our minimalization by those we had trusted – a betrayal that wounded in private places made horribly public.
We had become mindless cogs in someone else’s machine. Our days grew from nine-to-five with weekends and holidays off, to 24/7/365…instead of eight hours including a lunch it became eight hours or more plus another for lunch, plus accommodation for breaks, plus longer and longer congested commutes, plus forget holiday pay or overtime, count yourself lucky you still have a job…plus fund your own darn retirement…and insurance…and education….
Worse, we now had jobs (many times multiple ones) instead of careers. And at any point, anywhere along the way anyone from a politician to a coworker could take it all away with a single fib.
We had trusted, invested, and committed. And we were summarily robbed. Unbeknownst to minorities and immigrants, the betrayal had at last reached all the way up the ladder of entitlement…We were – all of us for that moment in time – equalized by an impending sense of doom, poverty, ill health and despair.
The world as we knew it and had relied on with its haphazard, unequally applied rules, was indeed ending.
And so the Zombie rose…hungry for mindless vengeance to supplicate mindless anger at a mindless society which eviscerated us without apparent care.
Because the Zombie is all about humanity, according to John Russo in his foreward to The Walking Dead Psychology: Psych of the Living Dead, “about human beings, with all their good qualities and all their bad qualities, having to fight for survival against tremendous odds and daunting, soul-deadening destruction…[and] how we may rise to the occasion when we are in extreme jeopardy or how we may fail.” (xvii)
So this Zombie was different than any Zombie that came before.
Simply rising from the grave with a need to dine on brains wasn’t nearly enough to satiate our fury at what was happening in the world – at what was happening to us.
This new Zombie did not rise alone, but rose in hordes….walked in herds…swarmed like hungry locusts to purge the land of all we had built.
And we were different too – we who survived the first onslaught to fight the menace. WE rose as well…grabbing guns and bats and crossbows and swords and hatchets… We fought back in unspeakable violence – so much so that we shocked ourselves.
In earlier versions of the Zombie, the Zombie was the Horror. In this one, it was not only how the Zombie comes to be, but the hideous violence that we ourselves inflict on the Zombie that is the real Horror.
How Furious Are We? ZombieLit…
As in the Industrial Revolution, the Technology Revolution has disfigured our ability to see ourselves out of it, and we cannot separate this newer revolution from the human carnage of today. Now as then we have experienced massive job loss, massive blows to our loyalties, our sense of worth, our very identities. Talk of retraining the masses has been a lie for most of us; and when thousands of jobs are replaced by one or two, that leaves a lot of us free to stew in anger.
Unfortunately, we are not very creative when we are reeling in personal pain. How angry are we?
Just look at what we have undone in the United States with one rebellious presidential election. Because this is what is going to inform our Literature for the next few decades…
This is not about liking or disliking a president or American politics. This is all about the surfacing of major divisions that have been simmering beneath the surface of contentment and “progress” in our country and the world at precisely the same time Technology has completely reshaped how we interact with the world, how we process TRUTH and FACTs and understand what we ARE or ARE NOT entitled to…
Rather than fix the problems our own greed has created, we have chosen the old default in a time we should know better: to blame the Other.
This is why the Zombie has gone away…
The World as we knew it has ended. And no amount of tantrum-throwing is going to fix things. Yet far too many of us fear our own adulthood. We search for blame and make it up if it suits our purposes.
We have become exactly what our enemies have been calling us.
And it wasn’t the fault of a political party or one black President. It was the fault of our own insatiable greed – the greed to be better than our own neighbors, to keep our own job even if it meant hundreds of other people losing theirs, if it meant pretending it was their own fault for not being bright enough or lucky enough to live and work where the Tech Revolution had not yet reached its suffocating tentacles, to bestow the title of Too Big To Fail on an irrational, select few.
Now that job loss and identity compromise has begun to hit the last of the holdouts – the ones who belittled the evisceration of millions of their own countrymen and -women – NOW there is a crisis.
Now bonking Zombies with a hatchet isn’t enough and is no longer funny. It is no longer sufficient. Because it DIDN’T WORK.
Because it is the upper classes, the wealthy, the alleged job-makers who have risen unscathed from the death threat… Surrounded by hordes of Zombies too oblivious or too greedy or too fearful themselves, these ever self-wealth-replenishing masters of the universe cannot be reached. The boss you dreamed of walloping over the Zombie head or eating the brains of is safely in the bunker he had you build.
Anger is no surprise. Blaming the Other is the disappointment.
Most of us had so hoped we were beyond this…
It is a sad fact of humanity that when we cannot get at the real problem, we get at the one we can reach….the convenient one.
And sometimes we are so, so angry we are willing to divest ourselves of important things in order to release that anger in mindless vengeance.
This is how a country like the United States begins rolling back human rights. This is how we rationalize doing so.
We are so brainwashed into believing that only the rich – in their wondrous, pure humanity – have the capacity to save us, that we forget we saved ourselves by forming this country in the first place. We forget we gave all future generations the tools to save each other.
We treat the Other like those Zombies – rending them limb from limb without the slightest human compassion all in an effort to vent without biting the hand we are told feeds us.
How soon we all forget….
We forget the Native American code-talkers that saved us in one war, the African American soldier that (forgiving the rest of us our judgment of them) shared our fox-hole in another, the immigrant soldiers who fight the same enemies in our name in order to participate in what used to be the world’s greatest Democracy, the foreign nationals who have given their lives or risked them to stand beside us, the Asian Americans who have built our infrastructure – not once, but twice over now, the gay Americans who have given us incomparable culture in unexpected ways, the American woman who has fought her own battles while defending those that cast long shadows on a mutual future, the Founding Fathers who without remembering to define what a “man” was freed forever what the definition of a “man” would be…
For certain our history has not been neat. But at least we could claim a percentage of ignorance in and of our own times. This – this new monstrosity rising from the ashes of the Zombie Apocalypse – is being resuscitated in the full light of day.
Where we could excuse ancestors for misinterpreting, for doing the best they could with what they had and what information they had…This time it is on US.
This time it is on PURPOSE.
For those gleefully waving the bat, the flag, the hatchet and the noose, there will be no forgiveness by your descendants. The stain here will be too great to cover with lies the rest of the world can already see through.
That any of us would STILL resort to blaming whole peoples for our own errors in judgment, our own misplaced trust, our own unwillingness to remake and reinvent ourselves is just plain indefensible.
We are lazy.
We are greedy.
We are selfish.
Way to make the terrorists of this world look right. Because now that the Zombie is dead, something else will rise to take its place.
I am betting on the Werewolf.
Not The Good Old Days, Howling at the Moon
Chances are, if the Zombie was different this time around, so will the Werewolf be. In fact, the “Modern Werewolf” has already done some serious changing – slipping away from the simple, unfortunate nip in the moonlight to become (like the Vampire) an empathetic creature.
According to Nathan Robert Brown in his book The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Werewolves, “Werewolves are no longer depicted in exclusively negative or evil light. In fact, modern pop culture has embraced the werewolf as a rebellious antihero. Similar to modern-day motorcycle gangs, they move and hunt and live and die as a pack, and they live outside society’s rules. Pack law is the only law. In the last century, werewolves have been embraced by every medium of pop culture. They’ve become major figures in literature, films, art, comic books, and even video games. In America, urban legends about werewolves have sprung up with increasing frequency over the last 50 years.” (109)
I don’t know about you, but I see a lot of our modern outsider, rebel political factions right there. I hear the phrase “silent majority.”
Here we have a creature that cannot control its fury, who while in “human form” cannot fathom the carnage it creates, who cannot remember its animal behavior (which is far too convenient to ignore here), and who hides among the rest of us undetected, and for whom the end justifies the means. Like a mean drunk justifying his or her actions, everyone and everything else is responsible for the ensuing bloodshed – real or imagined.
Remember the last election? Yeah, I don’t know half of the people I thought I did, either…
But what I do know is that the Werewolf always denies he or she is a Werewolf – because that would be a horrible thing to be.
So they become in their own minds – if Were-anything – Werepoodles, I assume.
Where once they were unfortunate, hapless victims themselves… now with a kind of mental Photoshop, they are free to remake themselves into vigilantes – heroes of the state, the arm of popular justice…the same ones who say it is better to execute an innocent man now and then than miss one single guilty one.
And as we learned from the Zombie Apocalypse, there is safety in numbers…
Instead of being an isolated case, now we have Were-communities.
Like the Vampire Mega-Covens and the Zombie Hordes before them, we no longer think in singular terms….This is about survival. So what if other people think we are wrong to become a monster rather than cease to exist: they aren’t here with us.
Besides. They can’t get all of us if we swarm them, and if there is more than one of us, we are in the right…right? And if collateral damage happens, it cannot be helped…what can one person do in the face of the rise of Hell itself? The Devil made us do it…sure it looks like me, but it wasn’t me….I was just following the pack, the will of the people, orders….
For some of us, the familiarity of the excuses makes the hair stand on end, the hackles rise, our own fangs bare…
Like the Zombie Apocalypse before it, this new Horror is all about the Little Guy surviving the end of all reasonable things. And that means your neighbor may not in fact be your neighbor…but something else….something come to destroy all that the Zombies left of you…
And so what if the Werewolf is US? Or a spouse? Or a relative? Or a boss?
Forget the blood dripping from their lips….look at all of the STUFF they get to keep…
And if you keep feeding them Others, they might leave you alone.
Except they won’t. They can’t help themselves. They are sociopathic predators. You aren’t them. They are better than you.
Beware of Dog. Because like the Zombie Apocalypse, it is most likely not you who will survive. Once the carnage starts, we are ALL meat.
Read any old Werewolf story. Read what happens to the victims of the Werewolf.
In its animal form it can barely stop itself from devouring what it loves in its human form.
Do you want to take that chance?
How’d ya do stopping the Zombie Apocalypse? The Industrial Revolution? The Tech Revolution?
This is going to take more than Wolfsbane.
All of us better be prepared to lose some flesh.
Because if the Werewolf is back, we have to remember that as much as we once valued the human form, we are going to have to put the animal down, because indeed we might not be speaking of folklore anymore…
What cannot be trusted, what randomly and wantonly and indiscriminately destroys what we have – all of us – built, cannot be suffered to live and thrive and reproduce.
Get your silver bullets. There will be blood. And this time, it will most likely be justifiably our own.
Brown, Nathan Robert. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Werewolves. New York: Alpha Books, c2009.
Muir, John Kenneth. Horror Film FAQs: All That’s Left to Know About Slashers, Vampires, Zombies, Aliens, and More. Milwaukee, WI: Applause Books, c2013.
John Russo. “Why Don’t They Die?” Foreward. The Walking Dead Psychology: Psych of the Living Dead Langley, Travis, ed. New York: Sterling Press, c2015.