Horror

Zombies in our Midst: A Cultural Analysis

 

SinNight of the deadce I recently finished reading Max Brook’s World War Z, I thought I would post back up this essay that I wrote about zombie culture on my blog.  I wrote it a couple of years ago, but took it down for whatever reason.  Since I finished the book, I thought I would repost my thoughts on the topic.  After all, there is no denying the hype that exists around zombies these days.  In fact, whether looking for a book at the library or scanning the shelves at your local movie rental, these monsters seem to be everywhere you turn.   They are certainly not the prettiest things to look at, either.  By their very nature, they are rotten to the bone and keep getting gorier and gorier with every film.  They used to walk stiff-leggedly through the night, searching for brains, but now, they chase their prey down in mob fashion.  Hollywood keeps making it easier for these zombies to overwhelm survivors who haven’t died yet. One minute they’re limping and moaning, the next they’re running and snarling. They just keep getting meaner and meaner. No surprise really. When you stop to look at a list of movie titles available from Wikipedia, the zombie movie, arranged by year, is produced by the droves annually and has been since film production studios were able to produce films, so they need to do something to keep these slow moving mobs interesting. Budgets usually don’t help either. Earlier films managed to make really scary backdrops with hardly anything going for production crews. According to Zombiepedia (yes, such a website exists), George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead was filmed and produced on as little of a budget as $114,000. Regardless of the budget or theme, the film industry pushes the zombie movie through the production lines, because it is what most people want to see.  They are high in demand.  But why?  What is the fascination? Because we want to live to tell about it, that’s why.

HvZZombie culture is not just limited to the big screen.  In fact, it is invading college campuses all across the nation.  HUMANSVSZOMBIES is an organization devoted to social networking campus-wide events, where users can label themselves as either human survivors or zombie menace, in order to socialize and roleplay zombie apocalypse scenarios in a real-world setting.  I say campus-wide, but what I really meant was worldwide, as the influence of this organization seems to have quite the reach.  The location finder (Googlemaps) they have on their homepage shows their registered users extending even to remote countries like Kyrgyzstan, located in Euroasia.  So what does this glorified game of tag ultimately mean, in terms of the apparent obsession that people have with zombies?

While a game like this may be “fun” to play when it is not exam time, there are others who take the idea of a zombie apocalypse much more seriously.  Guns and Ammo magazine seems to have picked up on the fascination, as they offer an entire series of blog articles on their website titled “Zombie Nation.”  Their tag line: “When you’re helpless against the zombie horde and their blood lust, don’t say we didn’t warn you.  Get your tips, tactics and gear for zombie defense here” (Guns&Ammo).  There’s something disconcerting about a magazine that advocates second amendment rights, but uses a theme like the zombie apocalypse to inform their readers of “responsible” gunmanship.  One of the articles, for example, is about the Kel-Tec shotgun.  Tom Beckstrand, a demonstrator for the “Zombie Nation” column, advertises and promotes this tactical weapon when he states in the video: “If you’re going to carry a shotgun in the zombie apocalypse, this is a good one to have” (0:24, “Ultimate Zombie Shotgun).  He, then, proceeds to unload the 14-round magazine this .12 gauge pump-action shotgun is capable of holding into a series of zombie paper targets. “Alright, that was fourteen rounds of twelve-gauge goodness,” he concludes the video with.  What a safe feeling it brings to know that such tactical weapons are available on the open market.  Just think, weapons like this are being stockpiled and bunkered in American homes right now for the “coming” zombie apocalypse.

But, I digress.  This is more of a by-product with the fascination that surrounds the zombie, not an explanation for its influence over the American mentality.  Interestingly enough, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the governmental agency responsible for the nation’s immunal security, offers some insight into this fascination for the undead when director Dr. Ali Khan is quoted from a CNN interview to illustrate why they are using the zombie apocalypse theme to promote preparedness: “It’s a good metaphor for where you have complete disruption” (qtd. in Greene). He goes on to suggest that the same level of preparation needed for a pandemic or a natural catastrophe would be the same if the world were to be plagued by a zombie infestation.  It’s a step in the direction they want people to think in when it comes to a disaster, where they want people to survive and fend for themselves when the social system in place is disrupted by circumstances beyond anyone’s control.  In every way, they’re promoting survivalism.  In fact, from their Public Health Matters Blog, the CDC states:

When you walk up to a person and start talking about the undead they have all kinds of preparedness ideas, most involving food, water, and other life essentials which just so happen to be the same items that we recommend people put in their disaster kit. So, the old adage really holds true, if you’re prepared for zombies, then you’re prepared for anything (Zombie Nation).

Is this what we find fascinating about them?  Because we would rather be survivors than mindless zombies?  Perhaps watching a zombie film is not about watching a gore-fest, per say, but to see how we could potentially survive such a scenario.  As the quote above states, many people have their own ideas about preparedness when they talk about the undead.  Some believe that the possibility, although highly improbable, exists, so these people toy with the idea and concoct a hypothetical strategy for survival against an imaginary foe.  An exit plan, if you will, for when hell on Earth ensues.  As improbable as they may be, though, zombies are still dangerous — not just to the protagonists in the zombie story, but to the American way of life, in general.  They represent a much larger threat; one that is not detrimental to our physical, bodily condition, but a threat that is more psychologically restrictive.  With the violence our culture is often exposed to, both factual and fictional, most Americans like to think they can handle a zombie single-handedly.  But, when it comes to the zombie horde, closing in and cutting off all avenues of escape, liberties are at stake.  A person trapped cannot help but die an agonizing and terrible death.  To make matters worse, that individual rises again to join their ranks.  To this end, it goes against the very notion of being free and living your life the way you want to.  Is this not something Americans pride themselves with over anything else?  Once an individual turns into a zombie, he or she is no longer capable of their own free will, rather they become a part of the mob that makes up the undead.  This scares Americans.  Perhaps this is why the CDC uses the zombie as a means to encourage people to think for themselves in terms of their own survivability during a disaster.  Most people will listen and act when their civil liberties are at risk.

An article written by Stephen Gertz, then a senior English major for the project “An Exploration of Modern Monsters,” headed by Professor Eric Rabkin of the University of Michigan in 1999, addresses something similar about the notion of free will and the zombie, but he draws his conclusions by looking at the root of the zombie’s origins in Haitian Voodooism.  He declares that “by ‘controlling’ another person and eliminating that persons [sic] ability to make choices, let alone engage in conscious thought, the ‘controller’ has reduced that person to the level of an animal and has robbed him of his humanity” (Gertz).  The “controller” that he is referring to here is known as the bokor (evil sorceror) and the houngan (healer) in Haitian Voodoo, both who are capable of zombification through the use of a powder, where the victim is drugged into a zombie-like state, rendering them as “zombi astral” (Jacobi).  Wade Davis talks about this type of zombie in his widely acclaimed book, The Serpent and the Rainbow, an inside look at Haitian Voodoo and the secret societies that exist around it.  When the poison is used by a bokor or a houngan, the soul of the victim is released and becomes trapped.  He writes, “‘In that bottle was the soul of a human being… the control of which is an ominous power.  It is a ghost, or like a dream; it wanders at the command of the one who possesses it. It was a zombi astral captured from the victim by the magic of the bokor'” (Davis 167).  Clearly, an human being is placed into jeopardy when such a poison has the ability to render a person soulless, but this type of zombie that Gertz and Davis describes is more malevolently created by the hands of a witch doctor.  This is not the same zombie — zombi savanne — that returns from the dead (Jacobi); it is not the zombie that George A. Romero reinvented with Night of the Living Dead.  This zombie rises from the grave to feast on the flesh of the living and is controlled by no one but its own urges.

The zombi astral, then, is in every way the literal theft of the human soul from a poisoned victim, and the loss of free will imposed by such an act is undeniable.  But, does the zombi savanne, the undead corpse that returns from the dead to stalk the earth, still fall under the debate about civil liberties and the threat against the American way of life?  It certainly does.  Death, in the present hypothetical context, is not a release from the throes of life, because the individual who dies is doomed to turn into one of them.  This is what makes the zombie so menacing.  It is not enough that one should be ravaged by a mob of flesh-eating monsters, but that the condition is viral and spreads with each attack.  This is where the power of the zombie narrative exists.  This is what makes for compelling stories of survival.

Books like The Zombie Survival Guide, authored by Max Brooks in 2003, are popular for this very reason.   People want to read about ways in which they can survive a zombie apocalypse.  Afterall, who wants to become a zombie?  The AMC original series, The Walking Dead, is in its fifth season now, because most viewers want to know what happens to the survivors.  Their quest for survival and liberation from the oppressive and ever hostile zombie makes for compelling story.  We watch these shows always from the perspective of a survivor, someone whom we are sympathetic with, because we ourselves want to think we can survive such an event, too.  A book like this offers strategies and tips, all hypothetical, of course, that we can consult, much in the way of a Boyscout Handbook.  Afterall, does not the survivor, pitted against all odds against a horde of flesh-eating zombies, appeal to our gun-crazy, survivalistic, free-thinking society?  If anything, it makes for a compelling and dramatic storyline — the more apocalyptic and dire the backdrop, the better.  WWZMax Brook’s World War Z, a collection of testimonials from survivors of the “Zombie War,” which was very entertaining, given all of the different perspectives Brooks offers.  At one point he even shows what the zombie apocalypse looks like from an astronaut’s vantage point on the International Space Station.  Needless to say, it was a well-thought series of stories about a significant event, which Hollywood had to put on the big screen.  It was adapted and released as a film starring Brad Pitt back in 2013, making it the exact type of plot that attracts viewers.  It is post-apocalyptic and barren — a no-man’s land.  This is the direction that Hollywood film-making seems to be taking us, too.

In post-apocalyptic America, the rules change.  It is the wild, wild west all over again.  Lawlessness and zombie menace make life for survivors difficult and rugid, but they are free from the bonds of social restraint, from the bonds of government.  These survivors are where the appeal lies.  They are not limited by rules and regulations.  They do not live the mundane lives, where routine dictates what comes on the dinner table or what we wear when we go to work six days out of the week.  In fact, the more alone they are, the better.  There are no ties or commitments to be made.  It is simply a matter of fending for oneself.  In Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, for example, three survivors coup themselves up in a retail mall, where they clean out and barricade themselves inside for protection against the zombies that roam the land.  One of the protagonists, Roger, played by Scott Reiniger, is injured at one point in the film, where he is laid up in the storage room they turned into their home. There, he slowly rots from the viral infection that spreads from the attack.  Peter (Ken Foree) watches the heart-wrenching transformation from human to zombie and shots him once he turns.    This is one of the drawbacks that the zombie narrative plays on its survivors; the protagonists are forced to consider and do things that often go against their conscience, their very nature, in order to survive.  At first, they see the zombies as humans — from a distance — until they are up-close and aggressive.  Once they are forced to defend themselves, their demeanor becomes hardened.  They do not sympathize with the dead and are desensitized by the violence around them.  It becomes easier for them to do the harder tasks, like surviving.

There is a certain appeal to the zombie horror movie that people will acknowledge.  Any way you look at them, they make for intriguing but grisly stories.  We see these people placed in horrific environments, where they are forced to fend for their right to live.  Each turn the story takes leaves us predicting who amongst the cast will be killed and how.  As horrible as this may sound, it is something we are used to.  The exposure most Americans have to violence is commonplace, ranging from the sensationalized evening news to prime-time television,  making a topic like the zombie apocalypse an interesting one for some.  Therein lies the truth to the zombie myth in America: it is the by-product of a culture that thrives and profits off of violence.  We like to watch as the human condition is pushed to its limit.  Just looking at how Guns and Ammo‘s “Zombie Nation” column or the CDC’s “Preparedness 101” blog uses zombies to reach out and peek the interests of people is certainty of this.  Culturally, we are saturated in violence, so we long to sympathize with those who survive situations we would not otherwise want to be in.  It is thrilling, in a way: the anxiety that comes with isolation and the inescapability of death.  Some of us, though, would rather survive and live to tell about it than have our will to live taken away from us.

 

Works Cited

“About HVZ.” hVZ: HumansVS Zombies.Gnarwhal Studios, 2010. Web. 25 Nov. 2012.

Davis, Wade. The Serpent and the Rainbow: A Harvard Scientist’s Astonishing Journey into the Secret Societies of Haitian Voodoo, Zombis and Magic. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 1985. Print.

Dawn of the Dead. Dir. George A. Romero.  Perf. David Emge, Ken Foree, Gaylen Ross and Scott Reiniger. United Films, 1979. Film.

Gertz, Stephen. “Zombie Symbolism.” An Exploration of Modern Monsters. Ed. Eric Rabkin. University of Michigan, Fall 1999. Web. 26 Nov. 2012.

Greene, Richard A. “Ready for a Zombie Apocalypse? CDC has Advice.” CNN. Turner Broadcasting System, Inc. 19 May. 2011.  Web. 26 Nov. 2012.

Jacobi, Keith. “Zombies, Revenants, Vampires, and Reanimated Corpses.” Encyclopedia of Death and the Human Experience. Ed. Clifton D. Bryant, and Dennis L. Peck.  Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, Inc., 2009. 1002-06. SAGE Knowledge. Web. 26 Nov. 2012.

Poole, Eric R. “Enough Gun for Zombies: Kel-Tec KSG Tactical Pump Shotgun.” Guns and Ammo: Zombie Nation. Intermedia Outdoors, 19 Apr. 2012. Web. 25 Nov. 2012.

“Ultimate Zombie Shotgun: The Kel-tec KSG.” Youtube. GunsAndAmmoMag, 19 Apr. 2012. Web. 25 Nov. 2012.

“Zombie Nation: Move Over Dorothy, Zombies are Taking Over.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Public Health Matters Blog.  19 May, 2012.  Web. 26 Nov. 2012.

Image Source

Romero, George A.  Night of the Living Dead. 1968. Screenshot. Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 14 Jul. 2006. Web. 13 Jul. 2013.

“The Humans vs. Zombies Logo.” hVZ: HumansVS Zombies. Gnarwhal Studios, 2010. Web. 13 Jul. 2013.

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Review of “Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus” by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy [Audio]

Rabid: A Cultural History of the World's Most Diabolical Virus

One fine afternoon, while walking with my son through the woods just down the road from where we live, we meandered our way down an overgrown path, just off the logger trail, to a hunting lodge,  where I found a sign posted outside the makeshift cabin warning of Tollwut, which means “Rabies” in German.  When I asked my father-in-law about the warning, he said it was something to watch out for in these parts of northern Bavaria where I live, just on the outskirts of the Steigerwald.  Curiosity about the disease seized me from that point on, where luck would have it that Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy, husband and wife, journalist and veterinarian, wrote a book about the disease.  Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus was published by Viking Adult in 2012,  so I downloaded an audio version of the book from the Overdrive digital library to indulge my inquisitiveness.  What I found was a comprehensive and engaging look at the historical, the cultural and the empirical nature of this disease.  And it was a damn good read, too.

About the Book

Wasik, a senior editor for Wired, writes jointly with his veterinarian wife, Murphy, of accounts of attacks made on hapless, unsuspecting victims bitten by all manner of creatures, ranging from dogs to raccoons to bats, some with grueling imagery.  Yet, the book does more than recount these gruesome struggles for survival; it illustrates, rather effectively, how rabies as a virus has captivated our imagination over the centuries when scientific scrutiny offered no insight on the terrible nature of this illness, where people would often mistake its symptoms for demonic possession instead.  Wasik and Murphy take the reader on an exploration through pages of medieval texts, revealing how the virus has become more than that, but an inspiration for myth and legend.  One reviewer wrote that the book was “rather slow” during the earlier chapters where the authors build up their case for this mythical association, what with their “[description of] the potential for rabies as the disease that significantly contributed to vampire and werewolf legends,” but later yields that the “pace of the book picks up”  once Wasik and Murphy begin looking at the earlier works of  microbiologists and how the book directs its focus more on the scientific, microbial aspects of the disease (Boury).  It is safe to assume that with this review being published in the Journal of Microbiology and Biology Education, the reviewer may be a bit bias toward the more scientific inclinations of the book.  I do agree with her, though, when in the end, she concludes that “this book was both educational and entertaining and worth reading” (Boury).  I feel this book is well balanced  and offers a little something for all readers about the many facets of the disease.

While the book offers clear descriptive accounts for the symptomatic features of the virus, what with hydrophobia, the fear of water that is typically associated with patients or victims of the illness, there are a few areas I feel it could have been more convincing, namely in its attempts to tie rabies to some of today’s own popular culture.  I couldn’t help but feel that the authors were trying too hard to link the virus to popular themes seen in today’s media.  Yes, it ambitiously ties the associations of the disease found in many primeval texts to such folkloric myths as the werewolf and the vampire, which are the more convincing parts of the book, but it takes this even further still by linking rabies to the zombie narrative.  As it is referenced in the book, though, the zombie is somewhat suspect in having its origins rooted anywhere in the history of rabies, a redeeming point I must give back to the authors.  Be not mistaken, I do find the book’s rational for the werewolf myth to be very informative, especially in the accounts told in the earlier chapters of the book for the dog and its role as man’s best friend and servant, but also for being one of the predominant species that carries rabies in the world, thus revealing where a deeply rooted fear for the animal comes from.  Equally, the association made to the vampire and the appearance of the bat as one of the main carriers for the disease by modern science explains some of the myth stemming out of the nineteenth century, where closely linked ties between victims who would fall ill from the bites of bats were more than abundant. A hat tip to Bram Stoker with regard to this one.

About the Disease

The grim accounts told in the book to illustrate these points linking the disease to its mythical counterparts are not for the squeamish, but they do serve to show how those victims could easily be seen as that of the mythical monster, transforming upon a moment’s notice into a raging, uncontrolled beast, on account of the incubation period of the virus in the body.  Losing all control over themselves, the onset of hydrophobia would drive these victims into a raging frenzy, biting haplessly into the air, uncontrollable spasms racking the body as the nerves’ synopsis fail to inhibit their receptors, causing the victim to die rather terribly without the aid of a vaccine to reduce their symptoms.  An example of what rabies does to animals — namely dogs — may be found in this KOAT Action 7 News video, reporting on a case of rabies in a Valencia county animal shelter in New Mexico.  As the report indicates, footage in this video may be sensitive to some viewers.

 Regrettably, the 12 dogs in the kennel were euthanized as a result of the progressive state of the disease.  There was little that could be done for them.

Like any compelling analytical survey does, the book delivers a full account for the historical development of its topic, in this case the vaccine as it was developed in the 19th century by Louis Pasteur, a French chemist and self-taught microbiologist.  The trials and tribulations as Pasteur set to discover what he did not know about rabies at the time is one of the more remarkable parts of this book.  At one point, Wasik and Murphy account for why trained medical professionals from the 19th century  had such a profound lack of understanding for the disease, given that all the folklore and myth loosely based around the disease had undoubtedly compounded and misconstrued the truths behind the virus and its symptoms, so much so that 3rd century Grecian philosophers and their observations of rabid dogs were more telling about how rabies really was over these learned medical practitioners, some 1,500 years later.  It wasn’t until the discovery of the virus as a microbial organism that the dynamics for our understanding of rabies changed for the better.

Still, the modern world is not safe from this virus, as it kills many animals and even people from less stable regions around the globe each year.  In more remote regions  where government bodies lack an adequate infrastructure, rabies remains a deadly disease, to which even the Center for Disease Control and Prevention acknowledges its danger.  The book discusses in its later chapters several threats that occurred across urban spaces in the United States during 2008 and even an outbreak of rabies amongst dogs on the island of Bali, where “the island’s first attempt to combat the outbreak was an unsuccessful culling campaign in which 100,000 dogs were killed” (Belford).  With these incidents happening as recently as 2010, there is little doubt to the magnitude this disease can have on an isolated population, whether it be an inner-city or an island.  One thing the book does well is that it ends with a hopeful look at what is being done in rabies research.

Raising Awareness

Regardless of the breakthroughs that have happened in the way we understand the virus, though, it still poses a threat to anyone who may be bitten by a rabid animal.  If someone is not immediately treated after having been bitten, the results could be terminal, grueling and painful.  The book does not offer a cure for the disease, but what it does offer is awareness.  For all of the book’s strengths — what in its ability to show the disease’s influence over our imagination — and its weaknesses — making associations it, itself, acknowledges as border-line ridiculous — it tells a compelling story of a disease that has haunted man with his tamed natural instinct for countless years.  The book has certainly got me thinking about that walk in the woods I frequently take.  While it hasn’t deterred me from going outside to enjoy nature, I remain vigilant to the signs that are out there, knowing that deep down there’s more to this virus than its own pathological origins.

Works Cited

Belford, Aubrey. “Dog-Loving Bali Tries to Tame Rabies Outbreak.” New York Times.  The New York Times Company, 29 Sep. 2010. Web. 08 Mar. 2014.

Boury, Nancy. “Review of: Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus.” Journal of Microbiology & Biology Education 14.1 (2013): 139-140. PubMed. Web. 08 Mar. 2014.