The prospect of actually living through a Zombie Apocalypse is terrifying, but also, we seem to find it oddly romantic, even appealing. Who doesn’t occasionally fantasize about being a post-apocalyptic zombie-killing hero?
But I believe that the fact that we find it appealing says a great deal about modern life. I believe that modern life is alienating, repressive, and inauthentic.
1. Modern Life is Alienating.
We have traded self-sufficiency for convenience, and in turn, we feel both alienated and vulnerable. We rely on systems that we do not fully understand, and therefore, can never truly trust, to bring us all of life’s essentials. The more elaborate and complex the processes become, the less we trust them and the more alienated we feel.
By contrast, characters in Zombie Apocalypse fiction cannot rely on any system for their survival. Each individual must provide for their own food, water, shelter and safety or they will certainly die. Empathizing with these character's plight (as removed from our own experiences as they are) gives us a sense of vicarious empowerment. It makes us feel a little less vulnerable, a little less alienated from the jungle from which civilization has sprung up to defend us against. We believe that, if put to the test, we too could survive and thrive without the blanket of protection that society offers us.
Zombie fiction fans this illusion.
2. Modern Life is Repressive.
Freud believed that as we become more “civilized,” as we apply more rules to how we are supposed to behave, we also increase the amount of tension between our conscious selves and our animal nature. These tensions result in psychological neurosis.
Society is inherently repressive when it comes to the issue of violence. "Violence," we tell ourselves and our children, "is barbaric." This is an excellent idea for maintaining a peaceful civilization, but it's also at odds with our base animal nature, which has no moral qualms about inflicting pain on others.
As we attempt to repress our impotent rage, our inner violent fantasies become more intense and grotesque until they approach frenzy. And when one of us gets to that unspeakable place where the rage inside outweighs everything else and they go on a murder spree, killing as many random people as possible in a senseless act of rage, we all pretend like we can't understand them. We ask, “How could anyone ever do such a thing,” as if that thing isn’t inside every single one of us.
But it is. That’s why we love the Zombie Apocalyptic fiction so much. It is a perfect manifestation of how our ape brains all ready feel about the world. We have our tight knit tribe of friends and family, and everyone else is just a mindless, faceless horde that wants to eat us alive.
The Zombie Apocalypse then lets us vicariously play out that fantasy of being mass murderers, roaming the world, gunning down innocent unarmed civilians without feeling like we have anything in common with the likes of Eric Harris or Dylan Klebold, or any other name in the endless rolodex of mass murderers that the United States has produced.
It is no accident that we fantasize so much about killing unarmed Zombies specifically and not, say, “Giant Insects” or “Weird Looking Two-Headed Aliens From Another Planet.” Zombies are, after all, just people. They are our neighbors, our co-workers, the random strangers that cut in front of us at Starbucks. This genre gives us that vicarious fantasy that we are all too afraid and ashamed to admit is alive and well (and growing) inside each and every one of us.
3. Modern Life is Inauthentic.
Most people don’t spend any time honestly considering suicide. This is because modern life is excellent at giving us enough distractions to fill up our days and the illusion that life has some kind of general meaning or purpose. The only downside to this, though, is that we seldom confront the reality of our mortality or the place of human beings in the cosmos.
The truth, when you strip everything away, is that there is no inherent meaning or obvious purpose to the world, and especially none when it comes to humankind specifically. In fact, the whole of human activity, every human thought, endeavor, and achievement will likely crumble to dust over time until absolutely nothing remains and there will be no mark that we ever existed at all. There is no plan for your salvation and no purpose for your suffering in our cold, silent universe. A human who believes in an infinite God made of pure love makes just as much sense as an ant that believes in an infinite God made of pure sugar. It’s a silly, naïve, self-serving assumption about that which is completely unknowable, but we tell ourselves it's true purely because it gives us comfort. It helps us ignore The Horror.
However, in the Zombie Apocalypse, ignoring The Horror is impossible. Characters are forced to confront their mortality from moment to moment. Their friends and family are routinely ripped apart and eaten alive right in front of them. There is no society, no family obligations, and no five-year plans. Everyone’s full time job is survival. The world is dark and cruel and no one has the stomach to pretend it’s not. The loss of faith is guaranteed. Each character has to look at the world in all its unbridled Horror, and still say “Yes” to life to even be a player in this genre.
This is, above everything else, what makes The Zombie Apocalypse different from other Post-Apocalyptic genres and so deeply satisfying on a human level. Other genres might end civilization with an alien invasion, a killer asteroid, or a nuclear war. But these genres all provide a way out, which they all routinely take. We defeat the alien invasion. We divert the asteroid. We repopulate the planet after nuclear fallout. In short, we rebuild civilization.
These genres, more often than not, maintain the illusion of hope for a better world and salvation of the human race through human actions or a divine destiny. In Zombie Apocalypse fiction, more often than not, there is no better or safer world to build, no guiding divine hand to save anyone, and every character, no matter what, must face the reality that whatever they do is merely stalling an inevitable horrific death.
The Zombie Apocalypse is life itself stripped of all the bullshit we say and do to make ourselves feel better.
Suicide in Zombie Apocalypse fiction presents itself not as “a permanent solution to a temporary problem” as it is so often characterized by our modern, sheltered sensibilities. Instead, suicide is viewed as a legitimate and humane solution to a very real, pressing problem. Some characters in this genre do commit suicide and we, as viewers, do not judge them for doing so. We do not think of them as “mentally ill,” or worse, “cowards.” Instead, we see them as totally rational, maybe even courageous. They are merely sparing themselves whatever pain they are capable of avoiding. We feel nothing but compassion for them. It is the horrific world, not their decision, which is the real tragedy.
And the characters that do decide to go on living in spite of The Horror are true existential heroes, better developed and described within the context of Zombie Apocalypse fiction than in any other genre. These characters have no hope for anything better than each breath they are currently taking and the knowledge that they have done their best, given the world that they have been thrown into. It is through these characters in this genre alone that we can glimpse what an authentic human life could possibly look like.