(This article first appeared in the Claremont Review of Books on Dec. 4, 2015. Republished with permission of CRB)
Pop-culture has never seen anything like this: Unprecedented ratings, a cult-following without a rival and the kind of events no other show has ever pulled off,” gushed Troy Smith in Cleveland.com on October 13th. “This past Friday night, ‘The Walking Dead’ drew more than 13,000 zombie-crazed fans to Madison Square Garden in New York City for a special premiere of Season 6.” This degree of enthusiasm for what barely counted as a B-movie genre a generation ago is one of the strangest, and most revealing, features of American popular culture.
In the 1930s, when Universal Studios brought out its classic monster films, one out of 300 features was a horror film. Monsters were different back then: exotic imports, party-crashers who clearly did not belong. We humans always guessed their hidden weaknesses, then drove a stake through their hearts. Towards the end of the Vietnam War, though, the monsters began to win for the first time. Satan successfully begat an heir in “Rosemary’s Baby,” and the devil’s child wiped out the competition in The Omen.
Ten years ago the horror genre, thrillers with an expressly supernatural element, supplied one out of 25 film industry products. By 2013 the proportion had risen to one in eight. Horror films touch a number of sore points in the American psyche. Vampires embody a perverse eroticism, which Anne Rice was tasteless enough to make explicit. Satanic apocalypse stories address a more generalized fear. The Frankenstein monster and his emulators speak to our fear of technology. Intelligent scripts and artful acting occasionally have found their way into these themes.
But the strangest thing about the horror boom is the popularity of zombies. Of all the Hollywood monsters, zombies were last to break into the big time. Starting in 1932 with “White Zombie,” a minor Bela Lugosi vehicle, zombies featured in just six films during the 1930s, eight during the 1940s, thirteen during the 1950s, and fourteen between 1960 and the 1968. Zombies filled a tiny niche within a niche, when horror itself was an exotic genre.
1968 was the year of the Tet Offensive, the Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy assassinations, and global student riots. It is also the year that Night of the Living Dead first transplanted zombies from Caribbean settings to the American heartland. We’ve had nearly 2,600 zombie movies since—500 more than vampire pictures, and nearly 1,000 more than cowboy films. If the cowboy was the emblematic American in the time of Frederick Jackson Turner, the numbers argue that zombies are just as representative today.
All the stranger, given that zombies are utterly boring. Monsters may hold our interest for any number of reasons—but why, among all the monsters, do we prefer zombies? Interview with the Vampire was a bestseller. “Interview with the Zombie” would be a Saturday Night Live sketch. Whatever one thinks about the vampire sub-genre, it provides a vehicle for character actors. Werewolves are tragic and, except during full moons, elicit our sympathy. Jack Nicholson and Anthony Hopkins played lycanthropes, while Klaus Kinski and Gary Oldman have portrayed Dracula. How may A-list actors have depicted zombies, who neither talk nor have personalities? (The occasional exception, like the sensitive teen-age flesh-eater in 2013’s “Warm Bodies”, proves the rule. It was just Hollywood mixing genres.)
Apart from zombie films, only pornography repeats the same plot, requires no acting skills, and is watched obsessively by a mass audience. The story is irrelevant, the dialogue pointless. The fascination lies in the image, not in the characters or a narrative arc. The act holds viewers’ attention, and continues to fascinate when one actor after another performs it.
People don’t watch the same thing again and again unless it evokes an inner need. Watching porn does not stimulate sexual pleasure. On the contrary, prolonged exposure erodes the capacity to feel pleasure. But the voyeuristic obsession with fecund young flesh feeds our inner need to regenerate our physical existence, especially as we approach our use-by date.
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Zombie films—death porn—complement the worship of eternal youth, which is a kind of living death. We may have replaced Being-unto-death with Being-unto-Botox, but we can’t fool ourselves forever. We no longer encounter the terror and horror of death in churches, now that we have become “spiritual” rather than religious. But the terror and horror remain, and have erupted into our popular culture. We are as obsessed with death as were our medieval ancestors. Somerset Maugham’s story, “The Appointment in Samarra,” comes to mind: we have fled the churches to avoid pondering Death, while Death awaits us in the cinema.
The zombie invasion shows what a bill of goods we were sold by the psychoanalysts, the false messiahs of a substitute religion. To replace revealed religion, which offers man a response to mortality, the psychoanalysts diverted our attention. “We cannot, indeed, imagine our own death; whenever we try to do so we find that we survive ourselves as spectators,” wrote Freud. “The school of psychoanalysis could thus assert that at bottom no one believes in his own death, which amounts to saying: in the unconscious every one of us is convinced of his immortality.”
We only think we fear death, in other words, when we really fear abandonment, castration, and sundry unresolved conflicts. That was flummery. We cannot imagine ourselves dead, because it is we who are doing the imagining, but we can picture ourselves as a rotting carcass without mind and purpose—in a word, a zombie. We are obsessed by the fear of death, but we are cut off from the traditional means of assuaging this fear. In its place we watch death porn.
The closest thing to an actual zombie among prominent Americans was, of course, Michael Jackson, whose face began to fall off after too many surgeries. Jackson’s 1983 zombie video, “Thriller,” gave us the defining image of late 20th-century America: Peter Pan as zombie, the perpetual youth as a walking corpse. The 30-year-old video retains its hold on popular culture, as Nancy Griffin wrote in 2010 in Vanity Fair,
“Thriller” is thriving on YouTube, where one can view, along with the original, scores of “Thriller” dance tutorials and re-enactments by Bollywood actors and Bar Mitzvah celebrants. The dance has become an annual tribal ritual in major cities around the world, with initiates in ghoul makeup aping Michael’s moves en masse; the current record for largest dance of the undead is 12,937, held by Mexico City. A YouTube 41-million-hit sensation features more than 1,500 inmates in a Philippines prison yard executing the funky footwork as part of a rehab program designed to “turn dregs into human beings”; the prison, in the city of Cebu, has become a T-shirt-selling tourist attraction.
More than any figure of popular culture in the past century, Jackson embodied the burning desire of his generation never to grow up. Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray had a portrait that revealed his inner decay. Michael Jackson had a nose, which narrowed, shrank, shriveled, and finally fell in, perfectly reflecting the spirit of the times. In his self-disfigurement and ultimate self-destruction, this fey child-man fought and died in the service of the mad fantasy of eternal youth. Only the simulated death of anesthesia could control his anxiety toward the end of his short life, and the recreational use of Propofol finally caused his real death. Jackson’s image lives on through stage impersonations at the Cirque du Soleil and other venues, making him the principal saint and martyr of the spiritual-but-not-religious generation.
Jackson’s dysmorphia and pedophilia were not ruinous to his career because the public saw them less as pathological than as spiritual and aesthetic. He adored the children he longed to be. Jackson is loved not despite his flawed character but because of it. “I’m not like the other boys,” Jackson warned in the opening of “Thriller,” before morphing into a zombie. In this cathartic moment we know that an adorable child, which Jackson once was, will turn into a revolting image of decay. Prior to any of his compatriots, Michael Jackson embraced his inner zombie. As a public figure, he took upon his frail frame the original sin of the world—that is, original sin as our generation understands it, the propensity to age.
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We define our life by how we view our eventual death. In the Christian past, life on earth was for most people a preparation for the eternal life promised by religion. In today’s America we strive instead to perpetuate life in our own skins. Americans don’t believe in the walking dead quite in the way they used to believe in the resurrection of the dead, to be sure. Only 14% of respondents in a May 2013 YouGov survey thought a zombie apocalypse was at all likely (although 43% said that vampires would defeat zombies in a war). But the human condition remains unchanged, and our fascination with zombies stems from the same universal need that our ancestors addressed with religion.
The zombie plague is a side effect of the great transformation in culture that erupted in 1960s, which left us in thrall to one idea: freedom for self-discovery, -definition, -invention, and -reinvention—artistic, spiritual, or even sexual—is the highest societal good, and the dead hand of tradition the supreme societal evil. Except for a few pockets of resistance, America has for two generations striven to break with the past and shed responsibility for the future. The dominant American culture extirpates precisely those aspects of our lives that offer continuity beyond the brief span of our mortal existence.
But to be trapped in mortality without recourse to the past and access to the future is a living death. There is a reason that every haunted house in the horror movies, from “The Shining” to “Poltergeist,” seems to have been built atop an Indian burial ground. The cultures that never made it to modernity hold a special fascination for the simple reason that they are extinct. For the last survivors of a dying culture, the awareness that no one will be left to speak their language is a type of living death, the last speaker of an extinct language buried in a tomb of silence. In fulfilling the modern ideal—burning the bridges to tradition and creating our own identity—we come to resemble that disconsolate last speaker. The past becomes scorched earth behind us, while our newly minted identity will vanish in the next wave of self-invention. The ghosts of dead cultures haunt us because we fear that we, too, will soon be one of them.
The classic horror films of the 1930s required European actors and exotic locales—Central Europe for vampires, Haiti for zombies. The monsters belonged to the Old World, or perhaps to the pre-modern world, but not to America. After recycling the same material for twenty years, Hollywood put a stake through the genre’s heart in 1948 by casting Abbott and Costello alongside Dracula, the Wolfman, and the Frankenstein monster, in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Laughing at monsters, as Mel Brooks did superbly in 1974 with Young Frankenstein, was distinctively American. Tormented Europeans’ nightmares were naturalized as sight gags for American adolescents. The monsters had a different meaning in their Old World provenance. As Heinrich Heine observed, the witches and kobolds and poltergeister of German folk-tales were remnants of the Teutonic paganism that went underground with the advent of Christianity. Removed from their pagan roots and transplanted to America, they became comic rather than terrifying. America, the land of new beginnings and happy endings, had no place for these horrors. Making fun of foreign monsters fit the national mood after the Second World War, and the Abbott and Costello spoof expressed a healthy American desire to turn our backs on the Old World’s cruel obsessions. Doing so, however, did not free us from other, equally corrupting obsessions.
The substitution of “spirituality” for religion and narcissistic sexuality for family life has had horrific consequences. The youthful flesh that surges with hormones will, we know, turn morbid with age and eventually rot. Sex can remind us, once the moment of pleasure has passed, that we are another step closer to decay, but can also bind together a couple who hope to extend their lives through their children. Liberals loathe the traditional family, which honors mothers and grandmothers whose youth has come and gone, as a nest of hypocrisy and oppression. The sexual revolution of the 1960s transformed women from prospective wives into sexual commodities, leaving them to choose between protracting their youth as long as possible or accepting consignment to a human scrapheap.
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No wonder so many American women have come to abhor their bodies. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, anorexia and bulimia threaten the lives of ten million American women. Psychology Today reports that these disorders “afflict 40% of women at some time in their college career.” More than a third of American women are obese. We live among hordes of female zombies—anorexic zombies on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, morbidly obese zombies in Des Moines, cosmetic-surgery zombies in Southern California, and Prozac-dependent zombies coast-to-coast. The sexual revolution has transformed a frightening number of American women into the walking dead, victims of a failed social experiment.
We know that the object of our narcissism will look a little worse in the mirror each day no matter how much Botox we inject. The older we get, the harder we strive to stay young, and the less convincing we find our efforts. The aging metrosexual on his way out of the plastic surgeon’s knows that he is one day closer to joining the discarded elderly, subject to the same contempt with which he regards the last generation.
If we assign no meaning to the lives of our ancestors, to be sure, we are less likely to bother to bring into the world children, who will only come to despise us as we despise our own parents. Demographers across the ideological spectrum agree that people of faith tend to have children while the non-religious tend not to. “The weakest link in the secular account of human nature,” writes Eric Kaufmann, Professor of Politics at Birkbeck College, University of London, “is that it fails to account for people’s powerful desire to seek immortality for themselves and their loved ones.”
Biblical religion envisioned life in death. Secular liberalism gives us death in life. That explains why zombies have to rot before our eyes. It isn’t enough for them simply to be dead. They also have to display their rotting flesh: zombies are not only stupid and boring but revolting as well, a new wrinkle in their cinematic presentation. The first few zombie films showed Haitian zombies, whose bodies remain alive to serve their master’s will. Armies of ambulant corpses in appalling states of decay don’t appear until the 1960s.
Why is rotting flesh so important to the zombie experience? Consider the opposite case: the Jewish and Christian image of eternal life. As Harvard professors Kevin J. Madigan and Jon D. Levenson explain:
The Temple at Jerusalem was the physical manifestation of God’s promise in this world, “a paradise-like place where God, for all his purity and holiness, is nonetheless available on earth and his blessing as abundant. It is the antipode to the grave, a “fountain of life” (Psalm 36:9). In ancient Israel the whole male population was required to present itself at the Temple for the three annual pilgrimage festivals, and sang (Psalm 115): “It is not the dead who praise the Lord, those who go down to the place of silence; it is we who extol the Lord, both now and forevermore.”
All associations with death were banished from this abode of the divine presence and fountain of eternal life. A member of the caste of hereditary priests, the Kohanim, could not preside over Temple sacrifices if he had come into contact with a corpse, and was forbidden even to be in the proximity of the dead. Because nothing bearing association of physical corruption had a place in the Temple service, no priest with a physical defect could officiate at the Temple, nor any animal with a blemish or defect be sacrificed. The Temple service, the “fountain of life,” excludes all contact with death and the appearance of physical corruption. For the same reason Catholic and Orthodox Christians see a special proof of holiness in the absence of corporal corruption.
The biblical symbolism of the Temple—the embodiment on earth of God’s promise of eternal life to Israel—is the antipode to the image of the walking dead. The death-ravaged features of the zombie herd convey the concept of collective death just as vividly as the Kohanim represented the ancient Israel’s collective life.
How quaint, how superstitious these ancient notions of eternal life seem to the secular modern world, and how strange and primitive the rituals that sustained the Psalmist’s conviction that God would not abandon his servants to the grave. Modernity tells that nothing in the universe cares whether we exist or not. Where the meaning of our lives is concerned, all of us are on our own. We are enthralled by the same images, but in reverse: the walking dead in place of the dead awaiting resurrection, decaying corpses instead of wholesome priests and uncorrupted saints, the zombie herd instead of the happy pilgrimage of God’s people to the holy courts of the Temple.
The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times.