Why We Love Zombies

Photo by Jean-Philippe Delberghe on Unsplash

It’s been building for years. A zombie apocalypse was getting ever more popular in movies, games and books, long before Trump and the pandemic. It’s not just zombies, of course: we’ve been lapping up every kind of dystopian future, from The Hunger Games to Children of Men and The Handmaid’s Tale. Why do they appeal to us more than any utopian vision? The answer lies with the zombies.

However good some other apocalyptic renditions may be, zombies are killing it. It’s not just luck and Milla Jovovich that have enabled the Resident Evil movies to gross over US$1.2 billion. The Zombies’ global success reflects our real world social divides, in which we have increasingly come to regard other tribes of humanity as mindless sub-humans.

We want to blow them away, by the thousands and millions. The Walking Dead expresses this perfectly, in the callousness of the survivors towards those they slaughter. After all, they’re already dead, aren’t they? It’s not like they’re human.

No, they’re Trump supporters. Or the Liberal Elite, or Commies, or Zionists, or Muslim Fundamentalists, or LGBTQVWXYZ…  It’s endless. We’ve segmented humanity so far that every other group can be categorised and dismissed as sub-human objects of hate. The idea that every person is equal has been totally subverted. We now fear the others even more than our primitive ancestors did.

Violent video games that objectify the enemy can tell us what’s really going on here. They provide the superficial catharsis and ultimate sense of futility that I first recognised while watching Aliens. That wonderful rollercoaster of a movie revealed a dreadful truth: no matter how many you kill, they just keep coming.

That captures another aspect of our present malaise: the feeling of impotence. The world is going to shit all around us and there’s nothing we can do. So what the hell, let’s at least take as many of them with us as we can. It all turns to rage: the 28 Days Later rage that boils inside us. That rage is turning us all into killer zombies in real life, even as we fight against them in our fantasy lives.

How can we not love zombies? They are us: and the apocalypse is of our own making. Pass me another ammo clip, I’m almost out…

Unless we can find a cure. Something to inoculate the whole world, starting with ourselves. Some natural or God-given remedy that has been with us all along. And then of course we will have to persuade everyone to take it.

After the Event, my novel-in-progress, sees the anti-vaxxers fight desperately to avoid being infected with something that will cure their hate. Their excuse is that it’s an alien virus but that’s not their real reason, just as we all know the cure to what ails us and yet we still fight against it. We would rather kill or die than be cured. You can lead a human to the cup of life but you can’t make them drink.

Trump That

What would happen if some gun-toting Trump supporters encountered an alien? I think we know the answer: they would shoot it.

Later they might ask some questions, like, “That sure is one ugly mother, I wonder what it wanted?” But they’d shoot it first, to be on the safe side and because that’s how they see things.

Why is that? Why is half of humanity so afraid of anything different or “other”? On the flip side, why would the other half so eagerly try to connect with the alien? Why would its otherness provoke fascination more than fear?

Both approaches are risky but the differences go deeper than the rational mind. If you listen to Trump supporters, there is a superficial logic (“they stole the election, we’d won and then all these mystery votes appeared”): but their deep convictions can’t be shaken with facts or rational argument.

Trump’s appeal is based on understanding something that is anathema to rationalists. Most people want to be told that what they feel and believe is right. People want validation of what they really think, deep down. That’s why religion triumphs despite its absurdities. That’s why the religious right support Trump. He shouts out what they believe: and he tells them it’s OK to believe it.

The typical Trump voter, or their equivalent elsewhere, is sick and tired of being told that most of what they feel is wrong. Sick of being labelled racist, sexist, narrow minded, ignorant, prejudiced, obese, irresponsible, stupid.

Trump tells them that they are great. He tells them that they are right to think and feel what they do. He validates them, he empowers them, he makes them feel good about themselves. Make America Great Again really means Make Yourself Feel Great Again. That’s why he doesn’t have to deliver: he already has.

The educated elites just don’t get it. Centrist parties are failing everywhere as a result. They despise half the electorate and it shows.

So how do we make people embrace the alien instead of shooting it? For the purposes of my new novel, the challenge is to figure out what would happen to someone with a closed and fearful mindset, if infected with an alien virus that stimulates rational thought and empathy. Would the conversion be painful or pain-free? Would it drive them mad, or give them a glorious epiphany?

Previously I’d assumed that some would kill at the first signs of infection, rather than face the need to change. Yet why so negative? Religion succeeds by holding out the prospect of redemption, even whilst acknowledging human failings. We need to give people back both the right to forgive themselves and a belief in their ability to improve.

There is something aspirational at the heart of Trump’s message, however cynical he was in creating it. The lesson is that we must learn to love humanity for what it is, warts and all: and if we want to progress, we must hold up a mirror that shows us how great we can be, if only we have faith in ourselves.