violence

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 “On Killing” by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman [Audio]

On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and SocietyThere’s something primal about the act of killing another animal. An instinct set deep within the psyche, killing an animal takes a considerable toll on a person who may not be hardened by experience to the act, as if one is ever prepared for such a thing. Not long ago, I came across a pigeon in our backyard that had been mauled by a cat, but had lived through the experience. I’d say I scared the cat away while it was playing with its prey; otherwise, I think the cat would’ve finished what it had started. So, here I was watching this bird. The pigeon could not fly, nor could it really walk; it simply flapped frantically on the ground, afraid of anything and everything that came within its line of vision. I fetched my neighbor who was in his driveway, and we watched it, contemplating what to do about the bird. We decided it best to put the poor animal down. He fetched his air-rifle, while I put on garden gloves and picked the injured bird up. I was mesmerized by the rapidity of this bird’s pulse, its rigid body anticipating the next move to come. I watched on, as my neighbor returned, aimed his rifle, looked at me to see if I was ready and pulled the trigger. I have never felt worse about a single moment like the killing of that bird. I was miserable the whole day, as I tried to rationalize what my neighbor and I did to the bird. It was in pain, for sure. The cat did a number on its wing, almost severing it from its body, and the bird’s eye had been clawed. The cat was toying with its food; I didn’t cause this, yet I couldn’t help but wonder about what I had done that afternoon. Was I wrong for having put the bird out of the misery it had endured from the cat that ravaged its body?

I hunted when I was younger. Born and raised in a small rural community in the Midwest, I have known from an early age what it is like to shot guns for recreation and survival. Like my father taught us, a deer tag in one season was lucrative for us, as it beat the prices for the meat we would pay to buy beef from the local butcher, had we not hunt for ourselves. A deer tag meant filling the freezer with venison that would last the whole winter, and that alone saved my family a lot of money to be spent on other things. Hunting literally fed the family for us. It wasn’t a sport done to collect trophies; my father made sure that I understood that. This was where meat came from. This was his life lesson parted onto me. So, why did I feel remorse for this pigeon?

I vividly remember the pace of the bird’s pulse, even to this very moment as I type out these words, and that was what affected me the most. Quite literally, I felt the life of this bird fade away. I watched the glean of its eyes vanish into lifelessness, and the experience touched a nerve. It was the closest moment I have ever had with death. It was physical, and I felt it. I don’t feel ashamed for having ended this bird’s suffering. The cat would have killed it, had I not interrupted its playful banter. I recall feeling after the shot, though, that this animal deserved every right to live and breath as the next animal, as myself, and I played a part in taking that right away, albeit for what my neighbor and I rationalized to be a good cause — to end its suffering. Nevertheless, it bothered me, because living is a powerful thing, a thing we can easily take for granted, getting caught up in our daily affairs. Working to earn money to buy things and goods to make our lives easier, to occupy our time:  all of these seem only as mere distractions from what really matters — to simply live for the sake of living.

Understanding the Act

For this reason, the book On Killing by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, published by Back Bay Books in 2003 (first published in 1995), is an instrumental lesson on the psychological costs of killing another animal, moreover another human being. This one-of-a-kind book, a study about killing, written from the expertise of a trained psychologist and U.S. Army Ranger, reveals several narratives from veterans who were forced into situations in Vietnam and other conflicts that have left them struggling to come to terms with their deeds ever since. Not only does the book seek to expose the effects that militaristic and behavioral conditioning have played on soldiers as they trained to become something their conscience would not willingly allow them to become, it also recognizes how killing became more efficient as a result of psychological conditioning, where soldiers often didn’t even realize it was happening, thus overstepping the moral dilemmas that often set in.  As combat situations have escalated throughout the twentieth- and twenty-first centuries, so too have the reparations for becoming more effective in killing taken a major toll on veterans in such conflicts, more-so than veterans from wars like World War II and Korea. The author argues that military conditioning comes with a price; the more hardened the soldier is made to killing, the more likely they are to suffer for their deeds later in life.

In On Killing, Grossman tells us that the military has made their rate of fire against enemies more accurate and efficient, upwards to a 93 percent kill-ratio, in comparison to times before when posturing, or firing over the enemies’ heads to scare them away, was more typical of the battlefield. Each modern battlefield became more proficient, as behavioral studies revealed more ways to refine, reward and hone conditional aspects to learning. Killing becomes muscle-memory to a soldier who repeatedly drills the process of shooting human-shaped targets over and over again on a range. But, this is an important point in his book. This military training is controlled, highly regulated and with severe consequences to anyone who breaks the rules of engagement. This reward/punishment system, he argues, is what keeps veterans who learned to kill and who may have had to kill in a time of conflict from doing so outside of the line of duty. The same principles can be found in law enforcement.  The responsibility to keep these trained skills at bay is a testament to this type of positive and negative reinforcement.

The premise of the book is welcoming, as it seeks to explain that killing and death are integral to life, a natural part of it, and our understanding of this back in the ol’ days was all the better for it. While reproduction and sexual relations, all of which pertain to creating life, have been studied extensively for several decades, this book’s author argues that death is seen moreso as a taboo subject, one that is often coveted in ritual, a process not openly discussed. Therefore, it is a subject that scholars have yet to fully recognize and understand. It is important to remember the olden ways of living, he argues, where families were readily open to slaughtering their own livestock, teaching and instilling the lesson of respect through the ritual of the slaughter, while showing children where their food came from. Now, we hide the process of the slaughter behind the façade of super markets, shopping centers that shrink wrap slabs of meat within little Styrofoam trays, neatly trimmed and blood-free. The process has been taken out of our daily lives, and no one is made to feel uncomfortable or squeamish by the acting of killing another living thing. This comes with a price.

Dealing with the Consequences

Grossman warns the reader that by recognizing the act of killing as a shameful process, a taboo to be avoided, we are thus instilling and harboring a morbid fascination for it. As Hollywood and the video game industry produce violent media outlets that encourage and reinforce in similar ways what the military has taught its soldiers, young people look on with a deep sense of intrigue, innately recognizing the power that comes with taking a life. Going to the movies to see desensitizing violence on the big-screen only reinforces the act. Here, we bring our families with us, buy popcorn and candies, and laugh or cringe often at the folly of the weak protagonists who allow themselves to be victimized. The sensation for more extreme and brutal violence is only made worse, building on what previous films had done in order to heighten the experience. Compounded by this association with our loved ones being near watching with us, violence on the big screen emboldens us, makes us crave the rush that comes from the horror of it all.  While the soldier on the range learning to shot targets that appear human in form is conditioned through discipline and punishment, no one reprimands us for cheering as a head is severed from the body of an evil-doer on the big screen.

The interactive nature of video games is much worse. Most people screen what their children see at the movies, with enforced rating systems in place to keep inappropriate content away from impressionable minds. The accessibility to video games, however, remains an issue. While most retailers only sell age-appropriate games to children, there are still parents who buy the latest games, not knowing that those games are violent and aggressive in nature. I remember watching a woman buy God of War III for her son, no more than 10 years old, in the checkout line in front of me once while at the store. If you know anything about this game, you would have had the same reaction I did at the moment, watching this unsuspecting mother buy this game for her boy and his friend. They were giggling with excitement about playing it when they got home. Games like these reinforce acts of violence through achievements — the more head shots in a first-person-shooter, for example, the more prestige. Combine this principle with leadership boards linked to social-networking websites, and the behavior is further reinforced. Grossman goes on to cite some very fascinating studies about the impact incarceration has on keeping extreme violence at bay, the prison system serving as a deterrent to some degree, much in the same way the military instills discipline in its own soldiers. But, this is a problem of considerable degree, not a solution to it. The point should be to keep people out of prison, not placing them there for having committed an act of violence to begin with.

I feel this is an important book, because it reveals what the psychological consequences of killing are. Post-traumatic Stress Disorder is a major theme throughout the book, and it describes many situations from the perspective of interviewed veterans who suffer from PTSD, offering insight into a disorder and its severe consequences over a person’s psyche. The problems addressed in this book are very real, and Grossman handles the topic maturely, even engaging the families of people who know someone who’s been placed in a position to kill. Returning soldiers from Iraq or Afghanistan often faced such situations, and this book is devoted to helping family members and spouses understand and attempt to relate to what their soldiers went through when faced against their enemy. Taking a life, regardless of whether it is a pigeon or a human being, is a serious matter and should be regarded and taught as such, not as some estranged act that we should downgrade and shun. By doing so, we only enlarge the gap to understanding what killing does to a person, the consequences of which our society would do well to acknowledge, to help with understanding the repercussions for such acts. This book is well worth the time.