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Popular Culture, the Zombie and Mental Health

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Popular Culture, the Zombie and Mental Health

Note on the text: I’m from Britain, so all of my spellings will be in British English, except where I have quoted from an American website where I have retained the authors’ original spelling.

Don't Open Dead Inside

The zombie, primarily in film and to a lesser extent in literature, is the dominant horror monster of modern Western culture. The interwoven tales of all zombie fiction form a framework of ideas, or a meta-myth that is relies on the audience accepting it and bringing with them an understanding of the rules of the genre. Even people who have never watched a film or read a novel containing zombies understand, in remarkable detail, the basics of what a zombie is and what it does through cultural osmosis.

‘Stories are the original virtual reality device; their internal rules spread out into reality around us like a bite-transmitted virus, slowly but inexorably consuming its flesh.’ [1] Many people have used the metaphor for how resilient and inevitable the zombie is for how apparently unstoppably popular the genre is. The cultural dominance of zombies has, in turn, given rise to a burgeoning semi-academia about what zombies, and their popularity, mean.

Zombies have been called ‘the prevailing metaphor of our times’[2], and ‘a social metaphor that refuses to die’[3]. It was so prominent in recent years with the incredibly success of films like Zombieland (2009), television shows like The Walking Dead (2010 – present) and real-life news stories that seemed to eerily parallel those of zombie fiction that the Center (sic) for Disease Control and Prevention issued a controversial report on how to prepare in the event of a zombie apocalypse[4], that was so popular it crashed their website.

It is worth noting that zombies have a peculiar discursive trait that leads them to be discussed as allegories for our time more so than any other modern cultural artefact, and ‘[l]ike all fictional monsters, they are metaphors, and the metaphors can change as a function of current events, of the intended messages, and with the varied audiences.’[5] I would argue that they are especially an especially American myth. A counterculture reworking of an Afro-Caribbean belief divested of its mysticism in most productions that has perhaps dominated the popular consciousness in direct correlation to American hegemony in economic, political and cultural matters. Zombies are texturally and tonally different to older European monsters like the vampire, werewolf and Frankenstein’s monster.

However, I feel that there is a metaphor that has been missed in the pages and pages of virtual ink (and it is mostly virtual) that has been spilt over the zombie mythos. I don’t claim to be anything more than an avid fan, and I’m by no means an expert so if I’ve missed any arguments on this issue then by all means let me know.

George Romero

George Romero, the originator of the modern zombie and creative force behind the earliest and some of the best zombie films ever made, uses his zombie horrors to discuss many things.

Night of the Living Dead (1968), produced at a time when the violent disturbance over the Civil Rights movement, and the turbulent passage of the Civil Rights Act were very fresh in the American and world popular consciousness, uses the idea of the living dead to play with attitudes towards race, being one of the first films to cast a black lead in a plot that was not ostensibly about race, and was acknowledged at the time as ground-breaking. In it we see the straight-laced Harry, in the unenviably tense situation of being holed up in a boarded up country house with many strangers, suddenly start to treat Ben, the black lead, in a manner that at first makes the audience (particularly a modern one) feel uncomfortable, and then progresses into out and out racism. The idea that the veneer of polite society is so thin that a crisis can turn people into seething, angry, selfish bigots was a popular theme of science fiction in the 1960s with its most distilled representation in an episode of The Twilight Zone titled ‘The Shelter’ (1961). Later in Night, the audience sees news reports of uniformly white male gangs armed with shotguns roaming the streets. The same news reports depict a white, Southern Sheriff McClennan talking about how to deal with the dead that have risen; scenes that would have been terribly familiar to the lynch posses that existed in the American South within living memory of the audience watching the film.

A further interpretation of Romero’s (and others’) zombie films is that they are a subtle examination of nuclear fear in America, and the larger Western world, demonstrating the depth of cultural mining that can go into analyses of zombie films. Most prominently in Night, we as an audience, who at the time would be much more familiar with these tropes, observe a group of people thrust together by circumstance in a house whose windows are boarded up windows, hoarding water, and huddled around a radio and briefly a television set listening to and watching government emergency broadcasts on what to do. The correlations with the government guidelines on what to do in the event of a nuclear attack are frighteningly similar.

The follow-up to Night Dawn of the Dead (1978), made in the wake of the first ever strip mall to be built in the world – its own cultural phenomenon that is just as dominant as zombies –has been described as a ‘melodramatic metaphor for recent theoretical disputes over the nature of value of consumerism’[6]. The holed-up survivors treat the barred up shopping mall they find themselves in as a kind of temporary utopia where they can shop, and shop (until they drop?) in what has been called ‘a fantasy of purchase power’[7] with no legal or economic consequences. The 70s was the start of consumer capitalism boom that would grow and grow until things like publics relations and marketing would convert the customer themselves into classified commodities. In Romero’s film the mindless zombies converge on the things they remember, even in death, scenes that permeate the film and hammer home Romero’s point that many of us are already zombies, slave to the excesses of consumer capitalism. When one character asks why so many of the undead have come to the mall, they receive the reply ‘Instinct. Memory. It’s something they used to do. It was an important place in their lives’[8].

‘Both are potentially life-threatening, single-minded herds who shamble around with glassy-eyed stares (this is due to undeath for the zomvies and probably lack of sleep for the shopping masses), pressing their faces against glass doors and traveling around hands forward clamoring for sustenance (brains) and/or those sweet, sweet deals… It’s not at all difficult to see the shambling hordes of undead as a metaphor for open-mouthed shoppers wandering through the halls of the temple of capitalism.’[9]

Dawn has also been interpreted as an analysis of how society interacts with science, of particular relevance to climate change today. In the opening scene a news broadcast shows an interview with a scientific expert ending with the presenter answering whether they believe that the dead are returning to life and attacking the living with ‘I’m not sure what to believe doctor. All we get is what you people tell us’, to which the scientist implores ‘What will it take to make you people see?’. This frank exposure of the media, and therefore the average person’s relationship to scientific expertise, which seems very wrongheaded and stupid in this context is further examined and expanded on in Romero’s later films.[10] In a world gripped in the throes of a nuclear standoff facilitated largely by scientific advances during the Second World War, it is not hard to sympathise with the average person who felt that scientists were not at all concerned with the ramifications of their work; a theme that is in evidence clearly in popular works like Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle (1963).

Later, in Day of the Dead (1985), Romero moves his discussions on to things like the military-industrial complex, scientific detachment from society and the idea that the ends justifies the means. Ideas reinforced by the much later originator of a new wave of zombie films 28 Days Later (2002), a film which would also explore in-depth the feral nature of man when the constraints of society are removed.

Simon Pegg

Simon Pegg, writer, star and one of the main creative forces behind (in my opinion) the greatest zombie film of all time Shaun of the Dead (2004), a comedy which achieves the majority of its laughs from the acknowledgement that the audience understand tropes of zombie films, has articulated one of the most famous (and obvious) metaphors in a great article published in the Guardian defending the idea of slow moving zombies. In ‘The Quick and the Dead’, published in 2008, Pegg articulates why he believes that the zombie myth is so pervasive in Western culture, the reason being that they represent death.

’As monsters from the id, zombies win out over vampires and werewolves when it comes to the title of Most Potent Metaphorical Monster. Where their pointy-toothed cousins are all about sex and bestial savagery, the zombie trumps all by personifying our deepest fear: death. Zombies are our destiny writ large. Slow and steady in their approach, weak, clumsy, often absurd, the zombie relentlessly closes in, unstoppable, intractable.’[11]

Pegg’s thesis is perfectly defensible, and I’d say accurate. It’s well argued, and tacitly accepted by most people without even giving it much thought. The undeniably most popular and critically acclaimed portrayal of the zombie mythos at the moment The Walking Dead (2010 – present) reinforces Pegg’s theory in many ways, not least of which is the fact (SPOILER) ‘the Walking Dead’ of the title refers to the human protagonists not the zombies; as in Robert Kirkman’s universe the virus has infected everyone alive. You can die of natural means (not even being bitten) and still return as one of the living dead. This universe has the crushing inevitability of death front of centre of its narrative.

The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue (Let Sleeping Corpses Lie) (1974) a criminally underappreciated film from the rich European zombie tradition from Jorge Grau, a Spanish director who filmed in Britain with a predominantly Italian cast and crew, shows that the resonance of these films stretch outside of the Anglo-Saxon tradition; and also demonstrates just how all-encompassing the zombie myth grew to be so quickly. This movie explores the previously well-trodden idea of institutional incompetence in the face of crisis, a theme that can be plotted in virtually every zombie film (after all if the government could deal with the problem, the film would end quickly and be pretty boring). It also explicitly plays with ideas of death and love like so many other films, but it achieves this in a particularly well-acted and well-written tale.

Charlie Brooker

Charlie Brooker, the writer discussed in Pegg’s article, has used zombies in many of his projects; explicitly in Dead Set (2008), and more implicitly in a fantastic recent episode of Black Mirror ‘White Bear’ (2013). Brooker’s unique take on the idea of the zombie rests on what seems to be his idée fixe when writing science fiction – the detachment of modern culture engenders and our obsession with electronic devices.

In Dead Set, a zombie outbreak occurs during an eviction night of the reality television show Big Brother. In a very of-the-time, but still biting, satire of celebrity culture Brooker co-opts the fast zombie trope from Danny Boyle and has the contestant desperate for fame find themselves trapped and inevitably killed by their lust for the limelight personified in these gangs of flesh-eating monsters (the paparazzi anyone?). Similarly, his episode of his acclaimed science fiction series Black Mirror ‘White Bear’ uses a very in-direct and clever use of the zombie myth. In this episode a woman wakes with amnesia in a world where everybody watches her from a slight distance soundlessly, many of them staring down their phone cameras recording her, seemingly transfixed. They don’t respond when she challenges or calls to them. This semi-zombie could perhaps be a way of using the zombie metaphor to reference Brooker’s idea that internet culture has atomised society, and made us all passive observers of news and events (an event reinforced by Brooker’s other role as a comic satirist of the news).

Mental Health

After that semi-brief discussion of the ideas that zombie films can stir up, and even more will be listed briefly later, I want to bring us around to my thought of what the films could mean.

If you have any experience of depression yourself, or are close to someone who has then you will instantly recognise the ideas that I am about to try to convey here. Take most zombie films. The survivors holed up in wherever they have decided to base themselves (usually a structure important to society) are isolated, scared and lonely. They are usually separated from their families and friends and even in the few cases where they find them again the experiences they have been through ensure they remain, at least partially, estranged. The rest of the world is arrayed against them, looking for any slip up or mistake so they can capitalise and attack the survivors. They are constantly worried that the monsters will get them; it’s present in the back of their minds the entire time. They may feel like they’re safe, like they’ve escaped but the zombies will always break down walls and get inside their security. It’s inevitable. It’s crushingly inevitable. They may be able to stave them off for months, even years, at a time, but there exists the sneaking suspicion that the walls will tumble down, or worse be ripped apart, and the monsters will get back in.

All of these descriptions could very easily be interpretations of what it feels like to be clinically depressed, and even recovering from clinical depression. The sensations of numbness and of your brain being the root cause of all the illness also go hand in hand with the metaphor of a zombie. In addition, the feeling of your body being infected with a foreign body that is controlling your actions and making your condition degenerate is a very powerful one and one that draws a direct parallel to the idea of a zombie.

Spending your days walking around with your mind fixed on other things, barely having the energy to get out of bed, always being tired – yet never being able to sleep, wanting nothing more than to switch off your brain and stop the thoughts cascading in and swirling around, these feelings have been described as feeling “zombified”, or “feeling like a zombie” by many sufferers. A simple Google search for “zombie” + “depression” yields 5,950,000 results, the vast majority of the top results being posts on forums asking whether people recognise what these sufferers mean when they say they feel “like a zombie”, or asking whether anti-depressants “turn you into a zombie”. The cultural and metaphorical short-hand that these people are using is clear, but the fact that the word “zombie” is the short-hand is telling, and not just as proof that the zombie phenomenon dominates popular Western culture.

Conclusion

None of this is to assert that this is a definite interpretation of what zombies mean to us in the West, or to say that my interpretation is more valid than any other. I also accept that most zombie films are made to scare the audience first and foremost, and zombies are used because they are so prominent in the popular consciousness and so suited to practice of a modern horror film. I simply hope to add a new avenue for analysis of zombie tales with this essay.

I believe that viewing zombies as a metaphor for depression is a new way to understand the stories, and a fruitful one for further discussion. I think one of the underpinning ideas reinforcing my view that this is a viable interpretation of zombie films is one of the most iconic scenes from The Walking Dead, in both its graphic novel and televisual forms, of a barricaded door in the hospital where Rick first wakes up before we ever see one of the monsters. The door convulses as it is pushed from behind by what appears to be a huge mass of the living dead, with moans. However, daubed across the door, presumably by the survivors who had trapped the living dead inside, is a phrase that sticks with the viewer/reader: DON’T OPEN DEAD INSIDE.

Hopefully I have explained (what most of you admittedly probably already knew) that the depth and breadth of interpretations that can be made into the zombie filmic myth. They can be seen as discussions of race, gender, nuclear fear, consumerism, capitalism, debt, economics, war, class, age, drug culture, individualism, violence, the military-industrial complex, and above all society, as well as many more themes. All are valid, and all equally valuable. I intended to add to this discourse and broaden the discussion of what the films could mean.

One thing that we can all accept, even if you disregard my analysis, is that ‘zombies specifically speak to our time’[12].

Note on the bibliography, where applicable I have included the name of the creative force behind the film in the entry in the few cases where this does not tally with the directing role.


[1] Story for beginners, reproduced at http://nielsenhayden.com/makinglight/archives/006628.html#006628, accessed on 20th March 2013.

[2] 5 Reason the Zombie Apocalypse is the Prevailing Metaphor for our Times, reproduced at http://www.activistpost.com/2012/05/5-reasons-zombie-apocalypse-is.html, accessed on 20th March 2013.

[3] Zombies as metaphor, reproduced at http://www.ifc.com/fix/2011/11/zombies-metaphor, accessed on 20th March 2013.

[4] Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse, reproduced at http://blogs.cdc.gov/publichealthmatters/2011/05/preparedness-101-zombie-apocalypse/, accessed on 20th March 2013.

[6] ‘Zombies, Malls, and the Consumerism Debate: George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, reproduced at http://www.americanpopularculture.com/journal/articles/fall_2002/harper.htm, accessed on 20th March 2013.

[7] Zombies, Malls, and the Consumerism Debate: George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, reproduced at http://www.americanpopularculture.com/journal/articles/fall_2002/harper.htm, accessed on 20th March 2013.

[8] Consumerism and Social Unrest – George Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead”, reproduced at http://dan-stein.xomba.com/consumerism_and_social_unrest_hoberman_and_rosenbaum%E2%80%99s_%E2%80%9Cgeorge_romero_and_return_repressed%E2%80%9D_their_bo, accessed on 20th March 2013.

[9] The Critique of Consumerism in George Romero’s ‘Dawn of the Dead’ (1978, reproduced at http://www.themaninthemoviehat.com/what-you-should-be-watching-george-romeros-dawn-of-the-dead-1978/, accessed on 20th March 2013.

[11] S. Pegg, ‘The Quick and the Dead’, Guardian, 4th November 2008.

[12] Zombies as metaphor, reproduced at http://www.ifc.com/fix/2011/11/zombies-metaphor, accessed on 20th March 2013.

Note on the bibliography, where applicable I have included the name of the creative force behind the film in the entry in the few cases where this does not tally with the directing role.

 

Bibliography

5 Reasons the Zombie Apocalypse is the Prevailing Metaphor for Our Times, reproduced at http://www.activistpost.com/2012/05/5-reasons-zombie-apocalypse-is.html, accessed on 20th March 2013.

Boyle, D., 28 Days Later, 2002.

Brooker, C., Dead Set, 2008.

Brooker, C., ‘White Bear’, Black Mirror, 2013.

Consumerism and Social Unrest – George Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead”, reproduced at http://dan-stein.xomba.com/consumerism_and_social_unrest_hoberman_and_rosenbaum%E2%80%99s_%E2%80%9Cgeorge_romero_and_return_repressed%E2%80%9D_their_bo, accessed on 20th March 2013.

Fleischer, R., Zombieland, 2009.

Google search for “depression” + “zombie, https://www.google.co.uk/webhp?sourceid=chrome-instant&rlz=1C1FDUM_enGB483GB483&ion=1&ie=UTF-8#hl=en&rlz=1C1FDUM_enGB483GB483&sclient=psy-ab&q=depression%20zombie&oq=&gs_l=&pbx=1&fp=6405f5db73465c07&ion=1&bav=on.2,or.r_cp.r_qf.&bvm=bv.43828540,d.d2k&biw=741&bih=683, accessed on 20th March 2013.

Grau, J., The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue (Let Sleeping Corpses Lie), 1974.

Kirkman, R., Mazzara, G. & Darabont, F., The Walking Dead, 2010-present.

Pegg, S., ‘The Quick and the Dead’, Guardian, 4th November 2008.

Pegg, S. & Wright, E., Shaun of the Dead, 2004.

Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse, reproduced at http://blogs.cdc.gov/publichealthmatters/2011/05/preparedness-101-zombie-apocalypse/, accessed on 20th March 2013.

Romero, G., Dawn of the Dead

Romero, G., Day of the Dead

Romero, G., Night of the Living Dead

Schlozman, S., ‘Zombies are NOT real’, reproduced at http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/grand-rounds/201206/zombies-are-not-real

, accessed on 20th March 2013.

The Critique of Consumerism in George Romero’s ‘Dawn of the Dead’ (1978, reproduced at http://www.themaninthemoviehat.com/what-you-should-be-watching-george-romeros-dawn-of-the-dead-1978/, accessed on 20th March 2013.

What Zombie Films Can Teach Us About Climate Change, reproduced at http://www.newleftproject.org/index.php/site/article_comments/what_zombie_films_can_teach_us_about_climate_change?utm_source=twitterfeed&utm_medium=twitter, accessed on 23rd March 2013.

Zombie as metaphor, reproduced at http://www.ifc.com/fix/2011/11/zombies-metaphor, accessed on 20th March 2013.

‘Zombies, Malls, and the Consumerism Debate: George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, reproduced at http://www.americanpopularculture.com/journal/articles/fall_2002/harper.htm, accessed on 20th March 2013.

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About thommurph

A History graduate from the University of Liverpool blogging about history, politics, music, television, gaming and literature.

5 responses »

  1. I can totally relate to the zombie/depression metaphor, it’s something I’ve definitely thought about before. As someone whose struggled with depression my whole life, I know that feeling of utter helplessness and fear of existing in your own skin. For the survivors in zombie films, they have a physical enemy to fight with and their fights have definite outcomes. You either live, or die. With depression you are fighting a faceless enemy that lives in your own body and it’s an enemy you will never be able to defeat, only manage and learn to accept.
    It’s just like you describe; you think you’re safe, but there’s always that looming threat of danger. I sometimes will go weeks without even feeling bummed out. Then out of the blue my depression will suffocate me and pretty much disable me for days at a time. And that’s something I’ll have to deal with for the rest of my life.

    Reply
  2. Pingback: In the Flesh. Zombies and Mental Health continued. | Criticality-235

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