I've got a theory about why certain monsters in horror cinema and literature become popular and influential. It has less to do with what monsters really scare us and more to do with what concepts really scare us.
Nowadays, monsters like vampires and werewolves just don't scare us that much anymore. It doesn't mean they're not still valuable for the skilled horrorist, because they embody certain fears that remain fairly universal. But let's face it -- Fear of Sex and Fear of Man's Dual Nature just don't have the cachet they used to. We live in a society that is slowly turning sexuality and thuggery into international virtues -- why should we fear what we want to become?
The zombie, however, is different. It's spent the last few years going through a renaissance of popularity, with high-profile new movies (like "28 Days Later," the remake of "Dawn of the Dead," "Land of the Dead," and "Shaun of the Dead"), computer games (including the popular "Resident Evil" series), science fiction TV (the Borg from "Star Trek") (suggested by Apollyon), and even pen-and-paper roleplaying games (Eden Studios' "All Flesh Must Be Eaten").
What sets the zombie apart from older monsters? For one thing, it's newer. The first important zombie movie didn't arrive on the scene until George Romero's 1968 classic "Night of the Living Dead". (There were a number of zombie movies in earlier decades, including "White Zombie" in 1932 and "I Walked with a Zombie" in 1943, but the voodoo zombie is a much weaker and less frightening animal than the modern flesh-eating ghoul) For moviegoers, "Dracula" has been around since 1931 and "The Wolf Man" since 1941 -- there's a certain feeling that everything that can be said about vampires and werewolves has already been said (that's not true, but it's why audiences haven't been reacting well to recent werewolf and vampire movies).
But the big reason for the zombie movie's success is that it addresses contemporary fears in a way that other horror films have not.
1. Fear of Death - Well, duh, I hear you say. But the death depicted in zombie movies is a lot different than death in a vampire movie. For one thing, vampires aren't really dead. Sure, their hearts don't beat, they've got cold, clammy skin, but their brains work fine, they've got superhuman powers, they're immortal, and they're pretty. If that's death, sign me up, 'cause it's a better deal than I got now.
The zombie, however, looks like what death really looks like. The skin rots, the eyes stare, bugs crawl in, parts fall off. We'll all look like that someday, right? Sure, but most of us never think of that. When most of us see death, it's in a funeral home, the body has been preserved, or the casket lid is safely closed. We think of death in the abstract, if we have to think of it at all. But the zombie shambles up to the house, hammers on the door, and demands that we stop thinking of death abstractly. "You think my rotting intestines are gross, bud? You think the maggots in my eye are horrifying? Guess what, dude? Someday, that'll be your intestines and your eye." And that's going to be a lot scarier to most people than the beautiful people hanging out in Dracula's castle.
2. Fear of Disease - This is pretty closely related to the Fear of Death, because disease can bring death, especially when the disease is new, unknown, or untreatable. The common cold doesn't scare most people, but AIDS, Ebola, and cancer scare the crap out of folks. While "Night of the Living Dead" operated under the assumption that it was only the dead who rose from their graves, other movies, including "Dawn of the Dead" and "28 Days Later" have focused on the idea that you could get infected by the zombie germ. Even the slightest scratch from a zombie could introduce the contagion into your body, transforming you from a healthy, living human into a mindless, flesh-eating corpse. Do you have a choice in the matter? No, the virus, introduced into the host body, will doom the organism. Scared yet? You should be. Maybe a zombie used that toilet before you...
This is a fear that has been used in many other modern horror stories, too. "The Howling" and "Salem's Lot" focus on werewolves and vampires, but they're also about what happens when you've got an epidemic that turns lots of people into monsters.
3. Fear of Madness - So, aside from the walking-around-while-dead thing, what characterizes the movie zombie's behavior? Cannibalism. Not a common pastime for the sane, is it? And whose flesh do they eat? Anyone's. Stranger, friend, family -- it doesn't matter. When someone comes at you with a knife, they usually get locked away, either in jail or in a mental institution. And even contemplating having your loved ones come after you and try to kill you is deeply frightening to most people.
And what's even worse? When your family stops recognizing you. They've gone so damn crazy that they don't even show any recognition when they try to kill and eat you. They won't stop attacking you, they won't recognize you, you can't talk sense into them, so what's your only recourse? You've got to kill them. And if they're crazy for trying to kill you, aren't you crazy for trying to kill them?
And you know what's even worse? If you get bitten, and you lose your mind, too, and start attacking and eating your friends and family. Insanity is scariest when you have to worry about it setting up shop in your own head.
The zombie's fascination with "BRRAAAINSS" (which didn't really get started until "The Return of the Living Dead" in 1985) is part of this. A person who becomes a zombie loses his or her mind in the process, so their quest for living brains serves a twofold purpose: first, it indicates that even the zombie recognizes its madness and wants, in a twisted way, to get a healthy brain again; second, it drives the zombie-madness meme home to the audience -- even if you don't get zombified, the health of your brain is still in danger, and you can lose your mind just from simple contact with the walking dead...
4. Fear of Mutilation - I considered calling this "Fear of Cannibalism", but it's a much broader fear. Eating another person is a cultural taboo almost worldwide, so that helps make it scary, but running just under the surface of our fears of cannibals is a fear of getting hurt. When we watch a movie in which someone gets hurt, it scares us because we identify with the character we see on the screen. It's scary for us to see someone who's had a chunk bitten out of his leg, because we're afraid of how bad it'll hurt if someone bites a chunk out of our leg. And zombie movies are all about letting us watch people get mutilated and then walk around displaying their mutilations as they inflict more mutilations on other people.
5. Fear of Betrayal - Every zombie movie I've ever seen includes a scene where someone is attacked by a close friend or family member who has been turned into a zombie. It's an almost certain bet -- if two characters are introduced who are best friends, lovers, newlyweds, or directly related to each other, by the end of the movie, one of those characters will be shambling after the other one and trying to eat his or her brains. This isn't just good drama -- this directly jabs a particularly potent personal terror of many people: the fear of being deserted or betrayed by someone you love and trust. And since this fear has its most primal roots buried in our childhoods (What child has never gotten lost in a grocery store or been dropped off for their first day of kindergarten and worried that they'd never see their parents again?), the most common relationships in zombie movies seem to be those of parents and children, with brothers and sisters running a close second. If the bonds of love are so easily broken, is there anything else in the world that's safe?
6. Fear of Isolation/Being Besieged - This is not really the kind of thing you'd expect, but it's a major feature in almost every important zombie movie. "Night of the Living Dead" is set in a farmhouse under siege from zombies. "Dawn of the Dead" is set in a shopping mall under siege from zombies. "Day of the Dead" is set in a military base under siege from zombies. "Army of Darkness" is set in a medieval castle under siege from zombies. "28 Days Later" includes zombie sieges of residences, high-rise apartments, and isolated army bases. Even "Shaun of the Dead" includes scenes where isolated bands of humans are besieged by hordes of zombies.
It's obvious why it's scary -- the zombies keep coming, the doors and windows are crudely and inexpertly barred, and eventually, they'll get through and kill us all. But this seems to be a fairly recent addition to the world of horror. Sieges occurred in horror movies in the past -- Dracula ran a minor assault to get into the Seward household, and the space carrot besieged the Antarctic base in "The Thing", but the sieges in zombie movies generally seem more hopeless and frightening. What changed to make sieges like this scary from 1968 on when they weren't scary before '68? I don't know for sure, but I'm going to cheat and say "Cultural Changes."
As modern life has become more complicated, we've had to come to terms with the fact that our dominant place in the universe is far from assured. The West is not the Dominant Cultural Monolith it used to be, mankind's abuse of the environment makes our own survival less certain, and even astronomy shows us that our entire solar system is about as far from the center of the universe as you can get.
Our lives are also growing more impersonal. Banks and the government identify us by our identification numbers, and our employers push us to become faceless drones in cookie-cutter cubicles. We're becoming more zombie-like every day, our personalities and individuality buried by corporations and governments that would seem to prefer mindless zombie-consumers as their customers.
The TV and newspapers are full of stories of families dissolving, random people being slain for no purpose, and traditional and national values under siege from all corners. Cultural change and upheaval are the norm, rather than the exceptions. We are all under assault. And zombie movies show us the unwashed cannibal horrors, hammering on our doors, trying to get inside, kill us, eat us, drop us down to their inferior level.
Is the zombie movie effective because it plays on our own individual fears? Yes, but it also has as much to do with society's own nightmares of irrelevance, extinction, and annihilation. In many ways, it is the most pessimistic of all the horror sub-genres, because it rarely sees any real hope for the future. The zombies -- and the decay of civilization -- cannot be stopped. Their drive to exterminate the human race is relentless and pitiless. The best we can do is slow them down for a while, but eventually, inevitably, we will fall, and we will join them as entropy's faceless cogs.
Some research from:
Night of the Living Dead by sid
GURPS Horror,Third Edition, Kenneth Hite, Steve Jackson Games, 2002
Nightmares of Mine, Kenneth Hite, Iron Crown Enterprises, 1999
Danse Macabre, Stephen King, Berkeley Books, 1981.
The Book of the Dead, edited by John Skipp and Craig Spector, Bantam Books, 1989
High school can kill you
October 23, 2004
October 24, 2004
October 25, 2004
Copious advice and assistance from sid