Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Why Zombies Are So Popular

Zombie walk photo by Bob Jagendorf.
Zombies. Ugly as homemade sin. Scientifically impossible. And yet zombies are as popular as puppies and peanut brittle—moreso, in some circles—in all sorts of media.

“Zombie walks” or “crawls,” where people dress up in costume and zombie makeup to walk the streets of a community, are annual occurences in cities and towns worldwide, as chronicled on the Crawl of the Dead website. Interest in the forthcoming film version of Max Brooks’ 2006 zombie novel, World War Z, is so high, that when it emerged that there were differences between the book and the movie, the online hubbub was so great that the story reporting the controversy was subtitled “Internet Melts Down.” When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) wanted to publicize their ideas about being prepared for outbreaks of contagious disease and other natural disasters, they put together a webpage in May 2011 titled “Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse.”

Why all this interest? What’s the attraction?

The popularity of any given film depends on the quality of the script and the acting, the direction and the production values. The popularity of any given video game depends on factors like the game play and the quality of the animation. But the popularity of a whole genre, spanning such media as film, television, and video games, reflects factors beyond any one movie, TV program, or game. Now we are in the territory of psychology.

It has long been observed that popular films reflect societal fears and nightmares, hopes and aspirations, albeit often unintentionally. The people behind the 1956 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers have sworn up and down that they were not making a movie about either Communist infiltration or McCarthyism—but that is still the way the film came off to many people. One of the seminal zombie movies, George Romero’s 1968 film Night of the Living Dead, has often been related to the trauma of racial conflict in America in the 1960s. But the racial subtext does not seem to be at work in more recent zombie movies, including Romero’s later work, the work of those he inspired, the games and films in the Resident Evil franchise, Zombieland, Left 4 Dead, or the “kinda zombie” film 28 Days Later and its sequel 28 Weeks Later.

Some people have opined that zombie movies reflect fears about the apocalyptic end of the world. That’s fine as far as it goes, but I think that zombie media reflect a far more specific fear.

I think it’s about pandemic disease.

Think about it. Romero’s original film had zombies rising from the grave due to radioactive contamination from an exploded space probe; some other films have spawned zombies from radioactive waste. But most of the non-Romero zombie media of the 1990s and 2000s, especially the wildly popular ones like the Resident Evil and 28 franchises, AMC’s much-lauded TV series The Walking Dead, and Max Brooks’ novel World War Z, have taken the tack that zombies are a result of some kind of unusual viral infection, either manmade or arising in nature.

The zombie as a metaphor for the outbreak of pandemic disease makes perfectly good sense. I find it instructive that some Canadian medical researchers published a chapter about zombie epidemiology in a serious 2009 academic book on disease modeling, a chapter titled “When Zombies Attack!: Mathematical Modelling of an Outbreak of Zombie Infection.”

Why shouldn’t our society be afraid of pandemic disease? We surely live in a world where the risk of such a disease, with potentially apocalyptic consequences, is greater than ever before. Consider these developments, just over the last half century:

• International air travel, even intercontinental travel, is much more common now. For all its many benefits, widespread international travel means that disease can spread much more quickly than in earlier generations.

• Population growth in rural China means that an ever-larger number of people live in close contact with the farm animals in which organisms such as avian flu virus incubate and mutate.

• Advances in biotechnology and genetics make it possible for well-heeled organizations to design their own microorganisms—including, potentially, pandemic disease viruses.

• The population of America has shifted radically from rural to urban areas, where disease is spread much more efficiently. The typical subway commuter into Manhattan passes more people during the morning commute than the average farmer in medieval Europe saw during her or his entire life.

• Misuse of antibiotics has lead to the rise of treatment-resistant forms of bacterial diseases like bacterial pneumonia—diseases that often come in on the tails of a viral infection such as the flu.

We know more about historical pandemics now. We know more now than ever about the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, which infected 500 million people, over one-quarter of the Earth’s population at the time, and which killed 3% to 6% of everyone on the planet—back in a day when almost no one travelled across oceans other than one-way immigrants and military personnel. This pandemic, fueled by the H1N1 virus, was followed by another H1N1 pandemic in 2009; although it was not a big event in the United States, this pandemic infected between 11% and 21% of the population of the world.

And now, just to make things a little bit better, the United Nations World Health Organization just issued an alert this past week about the rise of a new mutation of the H1N1 virus, a mutation which has killed 331 of the 565 people it has infected in recent months.

So society has good reason to be concerned about the possible reoccurence of a pandemic disease that could sweep the planet. That concern, in a context where the average person seems powerless, is reflected in the popularity of the zombie in so many types of media.

So what do we do? All the zombie crawls in the world won’t prepare people for a real pandemic. As in other aspects of life, when we meet real challenges with purely symbolic actions like jokes or even neurotic symptoms, we may get some emotional payoff, but the real challenge still remains.

As it happens, there is a lot that the individual can do. The aforementioned Zombie Apocalypse page on the CDC website actually has quite a lot of useful information about disaster preparedness, as well as a link to the CDC’s Emergency Preparedness and Response webpage. A lot of information about general emergency preparedness is available on the Emergency Preparedness and Response webpage of Provident Living, produced by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Emergency preparedness is something that every family and individual needs to work on a little bit every week or so. Over time—with a little planning here, and a little purchasing there—anyone can become much more capable of dealing with legitimate emergencies of any sort.

The zombie meme reflects a widespread societal fear of pandemic disease. Far from being powerless, individuals and families can do a lot to be prepared for such emergencies.

Proactively dealing with what we secretly fear is truly On The Mark.

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[The photo of a participant in a zombie walk in Asbury Park, NJ was taken by Bob Jagendorf on 3 October 2009. It was obtained from Wikipedia, and appears here under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.]

(Copyright 2011 Mark E. Koltko-Rivera. All Rights Reserved.)


  1. So then. is Maslow a zombie on the Internet?

  2. That is to say, can there be B-zombies as well as D-zombies? One day, people will relate this to B-weapons, perhaps. Taps the Umweltanschauung if that's a word yet.

  3. Pandemic disease is part of the appeal. Jennifer Cooke suggests as much in her "Legacies of Plague in Literature, Theory and Film." But perhaps we could go even deeper to find out why zombies resonate in our culture now. Shakespeare and Dante each had a "zombie" in their work, and there has been some unhappiness since then, but the walking dead didn't catch on until now. I suggest that the zombie does in contemporary culture what all other narrative monsters have done in the cultures that told those monster stories. They are different because we are. I have posted a summary of my research at: http://www.squidoo.com/the-meaning-of-zombies2. The more academic stuff is at http://trentdejong.com/?p=592.


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