Thursday, May 10, 2012

Zombies: It's a Lifestyle Change, not a Diet

Stephen King argues in his non-fiction book Danse Macabre ( that the types of horror that we consume are influenced by the cultural fears and anxieties of the times we live in.  For example, movies like "Them!" from 1954, about giant ants, represents cultural fears over the realization of nuclear weaponry, after the horror of dropping the atomic bomb in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  The great Universal horror films of the 1930's, which harken back to an almost pre-industrial 19th-century Europe, were a great distraction from the all-too-contemporary Great Depression and the frightening modernity of living in a post World War I world.  Are these European monsters (Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolfman) merely the front lines of the very modernist horror show of World War II to come, teasing out US audiences' anxieties about what was left unresolved after the devastation of WWI?  Gives a whole new spin on the next generation of these films, when Abbott and Costello hung out with the Wolfman, doesn't it?  Once WWII was over, and the United States begins its ascendancy to the top of the superpower heap, Boris Karloff and the rest have to jape with comedians, not menace poor damsels in distress, a sure sign that the world was safe for democracy and consumerism once again.

I've always been a fan of a good monster movie, and my allegiances have always been to the vampires.  They're the most human of monsters, if for no other reason than their close resemblance to non-monstrous humanity (although in recent decades the serial killer has usurped vampires in this category, adding a sort of 'banality of evil' ethos to the monster pantheon due to their obvious un-supernatural nature).  Their sensuality and allure have been well documented, and they have been able stand-ins for all sorts of cultural fears, many of those related to queerness (see, Carmilla, Anne Rice, "True Blood").  In fact, vampires themselves seem to embody the idea of 'queer time' or 'queer temporality' in provocative ways, since their ultimate allure is their immortality, and their shady existence (literally).  Who wouldn't want to have the power to mesmerize others, draw them into your control, and then decide if they live to serve you or not, all while living forever, and never aging?  It sounds like both the historical stereotypes of gays, and everything our contemporary time dreams about, and no wonder their popularity continues to live on in so many different forms, including Mormon vampires (the "Twilight" series).

Even though my fandom has always been for the vampires, there are aspects of Frankenstein's monster that appeal to me.  In keeping with my evocation of queer theory in the previous paragraph, the tomb as womb in the Frankenstein narrative is a queering of reproduction in very provocative ways.  As well, using a more traditional assimilationist approach, the primal need of the monster to be accepted as fully human, to be able to participate in perhaps the most fundamental of human rituals, the ritual of kinship formation and social networks via communication and connection, and to feel something akin to giving and getting love, speaks to any outsider bullied or stigmatized or shunned.  In other words, Frankenstein's monster sure could have used an "It Gets Better" video.  The werewolf doesn't much interest me, but I appreciate the dynamic it tries to play out, the culture/nature divide, although the lack of any real female werewolf leaves the base story of the werewolf much too patriarchal for my tastes.  The werewolf narrative often reads to me like a scary variation of Huck Finn or any John Wayne movie, those rugged individuals trying to escape the constrictions of 'polite society' (otherwise known as 'Girls Town') and heading out for the wilderness in order to enact 'real' masculinity free from criticism and restraint and girlie cooties.

I've spent some time on some other monster staples because, well, even though this blog post is about zombies, I don't much like zombies at all.  They bore me.  They have no personality, they have no humanity, they don't for a moment allow me a point of connection, and even worse, they don't much scare me.  However, I find their use in this contemporary moment as being a great source of amusement for so many to be telling.  I would argue that zombie narratives are so popular today because they represent the 'obesity epidemic.'  Many folks are familiar with the cultural analysis of perhaps the greatest zombie narrative in the US, "Night of the Living Dead," that it evokes the dread of what was happening in the 60's, the Vietnam War, Civil Rights struggles, the rebellion against the military industrial complex and the increasingly ineffectiveness of governments to serve their citizens.  Zombies, because they are such ciphers, seem to have gained traction in recent decades as being a 'go-to' monster for explicating societal dreads.

What could be more fearful than the 'obesity epidemic'?  Every day, in a million different ways, fat people are presented as the most dangerous thing to happen to our society since perhaps the Black Plague.  Soon the whole world will be fat, we'll all die impossibly young, with a plethora of crippling diseases, draining the coffers of nations via our health expenses and failing to reproduce, because everyone knows fat people are icky and shouldn't be touched, let alone screwed.  According to the now-disproved social-contagion theory, just being around us fattys will make you fat, and of course hauling our fat asses around in cars and airplanes is causing the destruction of the environment.   It is heady stuff, having the power to destroy the universe as we know it, and I for one won't take this responsibility lightly (rim shot).

Zombies are fat people, no question.  Like the stereotypical representations of fat people (and not, let me be clear for those of you who traffic in fat stereotypes, real fat people), zombies stumble and lumber around, unsteady on their feet and struggling with locomotion.  Like fat people, zombies have pasty, blotchy skin; the fat get this way from all that time indoors in their mother's basements gaming and consuming high fructose corn syrup.  Like fat people, zombies rarely get to dress in fashionable tailored clothing, or even care to invest in their personal appearance.  Like fat people, zombies have no interest in sex.  Like fat people, zombies are mindless and have no reason and won't deviate one bit from their hunger drive; fattys are so dumb you can't get them to see the error of their ways and start dropping the lbs.  Like fat people, all zombies care about is eating, and will do anything to eat.  Not only that, but their favorite thing to eat is brains, thereby symbolizing exactly what fat does to a human, it eats away their brain, their seat of consciousness and understanding of themselves as a human being.  Like fat people, zombies reproduce rapidly, and if we don't annihilate them, they'll be none of us (thin)humans left.  Therefore, no mercy or kindness can be shown to the zombie or the fat person, and they must be destroyed as soon as possible.

Thus, both zombies and fat people are completely dehumanized, and audiences can deploy their own well-stoked anger and fear of fat people vicariously through zombie narratives in TV, film, and games that requires exhilaration when zombies are killed, and the collective sigh of relief that the world has been made safe for the non-zombie/fat again.  Every day the collective drumbeat of 'obesity epidemic' rhetoric does nothing more than hasten the transformation of fat people into dehumanized, monstrous zombies who must be destroyed.  However, there is one key difference between representations of zombies and fat people, and I think it is frighteningly telling:

There are no images of headless zombies, but an industry of headless fatty images*+

*thanks to Charlotte Cooper for this wonderful phrase
+although I've been playing around with these ideas for a few years now, thanks to folks at the Popular Culture Association Conference for indulging my riffs on this topic