18: The zombie apocalypse

Modern zombies

The zombie apocalypse is among the most recurrent and persistent themes in the popular culture of our time. The image is of a world overrun by creatures neither living nor dead, whose sole sustenance is the flesh of the living. Millions if not billions of people find this vision thoroughly compelling, perhaps even addictive. What makes this theme so enchanting to the modern human being?

Undead confluence

As we shall see, there is a confluence of mutually reinforcing factors that compound together to render the zombie apocalypse a canonical mythology of our time. However, despite the multiplicity of elements, there is one underlying theme at the center of the confluence: flight from life and death, from love and pain.

In the context of the zombie myth, this flight is summed up in the word used to define the essential nature of the zombie: undead. To be undead is to be neither living nor dead, to exist in a kind of living death. Zombies do not think or feel and are, so far as we know, entirely deprived of the capacity to experience anything at all.

Take note of this meaning, for it will be significant as we extrapolate the essential meaning of the zombie apocalypse. Now, let’s dive into the undead confluence so that we can isolate its elements and, hopefully, escape its deathly gravity.

Much better you than I

At the core of the zombie apocalypse experience is the phenomenon of watching things die. Whether in film or in video games, pretty much all zombie features entail some amount of zombie killing. Indeed, this is arguably the reason to buy the ticket in the first place. What good is a zombie flick without a bit of gore?

Clearly, watching zombies die of dismemberment, fire, and the classic headshot is satisfying for audiences of just about all ages. Accordingly, we might surmise that humanity itself finds some delight in the spectacle of death. The Romans were no strangers to this notion, but what have the people of an advanced civilization like ours have to do with such ancient practices?

As it turns out, evolution happens rather slowly and humanity has not yet outgrown its voyeuristic and sadistic desires. At the root of these impulses lies a foundational disposition of denial of basic facts of existence - principally, a denial of death. This may not be immediately obvious at first, but it will become clear with a little reflection. Ask yourself: “Where is death when I watch a zombie film?”

Now, there are two essentially valid answers to this question. The “objective” answer is that death is the same place as it always is, that is, in human existence and our ever-present capacity to cease to be. That is, death lies in our mortality. However, there is also an equally true “subjective” answer, namely that death is in the film or on the screen.

The second, “subjective” answer provides us with the material for explaining the voyeur’s instinct for violent spectacle. Specifically, when we watch a zombie flick, death is over there, distant from us. This distance allows us to cover over the truth of the “objective” answer and the fact that we are always ever mortal.

In the zombie experience, death is revealed as something that is not for us, but for the zombies and perhaps their human co-stars. I, the viewer, live while those on the screen die. Much better for them to die than me, who am categorically immune to the death they suffer, being comfortably seated upon the couch or theatre seat.

Better still, unlike depictions of human death, zombie death strikes us as justified and without moral consequence. While delighting in watching even fictional people die might raise moral alarms, watching zombies die is totally legit. Everyone knows the zombies must die, so we cheer their demise with no pangs of conscience. Thus, we can satisfy our desire to witness violence without the moral indigestion that comes with enjoying watching the living suffer. Win, win.

In short, the zombie flick allows us to delude ourselves that death doesn’t apply to us, but is something that principally happens to others. More precisely, it allows each of us to live that delusion concretely in the act of viewing death as an observer. In the zombie experience, death is quite literally “over there” and “not here”. Such is the nature of spectacle. [1]

However, this explanation doesn’t highlight the specifically undead character of the zombies in the apocalypse or its apocalyptic character.

What it means to be undead

As touched on above, to be undead means to be neither living nor dead. Insofar as the undead are not living, they cannot die. On the other hand, insofar as they are not dead, they cannot have lived. This might sound like funny word games, so let’s break this down until we have at least a basic understanding of what’s going on here.

To understand the meaning of undeath, we must first understand the meaning of life, that is, of human existence. In brief, life is one’s possibility to do and to become. Death, in contrast, is the possibility of no longer being able to do or to become. Death, in essence, is the completion of life such that all possibilities to be are cut off and one finally is. No more becoming, no more openness.

Accordingly, death proper is part and parcel of life itself. In light of this, we can see what’s special about the nature of the undead. The undead are those who have no possibilities to be and so cannot properly die, for death is a possibility of life. In this sense, zombies are quite literally immortal. Sweet deal, right?

Turns out, this deal is more bitter than sweet. Rather than the manifold potentials of life, the “life” of the undead is one of irresistable impulse to consume. For the zombie, there is no possibility, only the actuality of an endless pursuit of living flesh. But why do zombies, as undead, need to eat at all?

Here we are brought face to face with the human truth expressed in the zombie myth. Within the mythology, zombies generally remain zombies until their heads are blown off and their mobile, dead meat becomes immobile, dead meat. However, if we apply the mythology to human life we see that being a zombie actually takes a lot of work.

When a human being “acts like a zombie”, they are exhibiting the salient characteristics of undeath described above. Namely, such a person subsists in a living death where the possibilities of life and true death are cut off to them. Insofar as love and pain are only meaningful as possibilities of life, these, too, are cut off. One way this is commonly expressed is in the idiom, “going through the motions”. But isn’t going through the motions supposed to be easy?

Going through the motions like a zombie is easy, until it isn’t. Life has a nasty way of intruding itself upon us, and the possibility of our own death has a habit of giving us friendly reminders from time to time, often to our chagrin. So, the zombie aspirant must take pains to remain undead by keeping life and death as far away as possible.

The price for zombie immortality is one’s own living flesh, which must be ever reintegrated into the dead flesh of a creature without potential. Fortunately, there are myriad ways to consume one’s vital life in undead sacrifice, not least in witnessing bloody spectacles. The sine qua non of undeath, existentially speaking, is the flight from one’s own mortality.

Apocalyptic visions

Now that we have an idea of what undeath is about, we can better understand what a zombie apocalypse could be. Now, “apocalypse” comes from a Greek word meaning “to reveal” or “to uncover”. In other words, an apocalypse is a revelation, implicitly understood to be of a profound or deeply significant truth. The zombie apocalypse is no exception. What might it reveal to us?

There are two principle revelations contained within the zombie apocalypse myth. First, there is the revelation about the nature of existence entailed by any scenario wherein the world is overrun by zombies. Second, there is a revelation about the current state of our world. These revelations are not mutually exclusive, but rather mutually intertwined.

What would a world overrun by zombies look like? Depending on what point in the scenario we look at, we will see a world more or less populated with zombies pursuing an ever-diminishing number of living humans to consume and integrate into the undead horde. Sound familiar?

Such a scenario reveals a universe that is ultimately devoid of life and filled with an amorphous mass of equally indistinguishable and ugly monstrosities devoid of will, potential, and any distinctly human features. Worse, such a world would be largely bereft also of any animal features. In this world, nature is finally overcome, for the cycle of life will have been dissolved in universal undeath. A regular utopia.

To sum up the nature of this revelation in a word, we could call it nihilism. Why nihilism? The world of zombie apocalypse is nihilistic in that it is a world devoid of meaning, either inherent or created through will or some other means. More profoundly, it is a world wherein meaning is categorically impossible insofar as all possibilities are reduced to unwitnessed actualities. Zombies see nothing, feel nothing, and so witness nothing. No one is present to hear the sound of the tree falling in the forest. The eradication of human and, arguably, animal life is the eradication of all those who could witness any beauty or meaning in the world.

Worse still, the world of zombie apocalypse in which there is no longer anyone who can even identify the descent into nihilism as such. So long as humanity truly exists, we are able to at least witness the dissolution of meaning in the world and thus preserve the meaning of nihilism itself. Not great, but not nothing. When zombies overrun the earth, even nihilism loses its meaning.

Turning to the second revelation of the zombie apocalypse, we find that the world of the first revelation is not so imaginary as it might seem at the outset. Indeed, the second revelation is that the first revelation is an allegorical expression of the current state of humanity, that the world is already being overrun by zombies.

While this may sound hyperbolic, there are in fact far too many examples to list here, and the number grows by the hour. If you doubt this, consider for a moment whether you know anyone who feels there is no fate worse than death, that there is no sacrifice too great if only the mortal body may be sustained indefinitely, regardless of its state. I suspect you will not have to look far.

Such a sentiment amounts to a feeling that life is not worth living, for death is not worth dying. Perhaps Jesus, Ghandi, and MLK should’ve just stayed home. Sadly, ever more people feel this way as time passes: better to head off human potential at the pass, than to allow the potential for death to appear on the scene. With this, the horizon of human existence itself is cut off, and the living body is turned to dead meat.

The undeath pact

Before wrapping up, it is worth noting the collective nature of the zombie horde. Each human body claimed is one more corpse in the undead army. This dimension of the mythology reveals why zombies must consume living flesh at all and so the nature of their sustenance.

Any human who wishes to flee death into undeath succeeds only insofar as the awareness of his or her own mortality is covered over and denied. Since humans are social and the lives of others may cause us to reflect on ourselves, seeing others live may remind us that we may die.

Accordingly, zombie aspirants must diminish the ranks of the living, lest they be reminded that they too are truly mortal. So, those who would flee death are compelled to get others to also flee death and join the undead legion. There is nothing so loathed by zombies - insofar as they remain, at bottom human - than another living a full life, affirming their existence, death and all, with joy.

The solution to this is, obviously, to make life as unlivable as possible for as many people as possible. The more difficult life is to affirm, the more empty and meaningless death seems, and the more enticing undeath becomes. To ensure insulation from the truth of life and death, it must be ensured that the risk of death is impossible.

In practice, this means that rather than literally eating people, though we may get there eventually, those who would flee life and death seek to make a kind of undeath pact with the living. The pact consists in the mutual agreement to see no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil regarding the true nature of existence, and to ensure no one else does, either. If no one sees it, it doesn’t exist, right?

Similarly, activities and experiences that might reveal the truth of human mortality must be denigrated and, ideally, outright banned. Instead, a regimen of fantasy and spectacle is the order of the day, the more violent the better, as this heightens the feeling of death’s distance as discussed above.

Some of the more zealous zombie aspirants may even graduate to non-simulated violence once the effects of fantasy violence begin to diminish through overconsumption. Alas, the hunger is insatiable. Fortunately, undeath is not inevitable and is, moreover, curable.

Remove curse

As noted above, the human attempt to maintain undead immortality is itself rather precarious and susceptible to disruption through even the mere observation of life. Accordingly, removal of the curse of the undead is as simple - though not easy - as facing and affirming mortality. Once one has broken the undeath pact and freed oneself for life and death, only then can one endeavor to remove the curse from others.

Undeath hangs and creeps about everywhere in our darkening age, rendering the removal of the curse a dangerous quest in itself. The quest begins with the call and demands that one embark on a venture. The venture is that of life itself, wherein lies true worth and meaning, but also the possibility of death.

The quest belonging to each of us is ours alone. The venture is unique, unlike the nondescript and uniform striving of the zombie horde to ever increase its ranks until life and death are no longer possible upon the earth. In the quest, each of us is granted to ourselves and delivered into the fullness of life and death.

Part of the risk of the venture is that the undead legion will all the more strive to subsume one within it. To wit, sunlight is anathema to zombies and vampires alike.

However, this is no deterrent, but rather an essential aspect of the quest. The fate of the zombie horde is also wagered in the acceptance of the call and its venture. So long as one mortal remains unassimilated, the possibility remains open that the curse may yet be lifted and the world spared from oblivion. The more mortals there are, the more precarious the domination of the undead.

So, if you would live, take heart, let your light shine, and seek out fellow mortals to aid and to aid you in jolly co-operation.


[1] There is an important counter-example to this, namely children. Children tend to respond to zombie features and other horrors with fear, horror, or perhaps even terror. I suspect that in such cases this occurs because they have not come to feel a need to flee death by looking upon it, causing it to have the opposite effect of bringing it closer than it otherwise would be.