Zombies are everywhere these days. Ok, not actual zombies, but shows about zombies, books about zombies, websites about zombies, everything about zombies. Here in Missoula we have a zombie film fest and a company called Zombie Tools that makes actual swords for killing zombies. Zombies are a big part of our pop culture these days, and you might say that a lot of people have an obsession with zombies. The big question is why? What's the attraction? Why all the interest in zombies? I've studied the issue and come up with some answers.
Since the caveman days, humans have been wired for danger, for survival. Zombies strike a primitive chord in us on both counts. Our modern world is orderly and safe. It's well-lit and better organized. We have police and firemen to protect us from dangers, and most urban dwellers don't have to worry about facing a saber-toothed tiger on their way to work. We're wired to look out for danger, though, and zombies satisfy that. Part of our primitive brain is still focused on survival, but a lot of those primitive dangers are gone. Zombies show up, though, and suddenly the primitive survival part of our brains light up. It turns out a little danger, even if its only a movie, sparks something deep inside of us. Look at the popularity of Stephen King books, monster movies, slasher movies. We like to be scared. We might even need it, in controlled doses. Zombies let us focus on danger and survival in a way that our rgular lives don't.
There are a lot of scary creatures out there in the horror genre, and none of them have grabbed our collective consciousness like zombies. Why? Because of the good old zombie apocalypse. Yeah, not only are zombies scary, they come with their own full blown apocalypse. A total break down of society. Suddenly our organized, well-lit lives are plunged into darkness and confusion. All the institutions that protect us are gone. Chaos rules, and we must survive. Suddenly life is primitive and fierce. Our primeval lizard brains are finally in charge. Survival. When we think of zombies, we also get to think about how to prepare, what we need, what we would do. Survival. The primitive part of our brain is happy.
Another advantage of zombies is that they are adaptable. They come about because of a mysterious plague, or vague viruses. No one really knows how zombies are made. Because of this, zombies can show up anywhere. Any country, any climate, any time frame. Zombies show up in adapted Jane Austin novels, in The Civil War, in the Dark Ages. It may be hard to justify space aliens showing up in the Middle Ages, or killer pterodactyls attacking New York City, but a zombie virus could happen anywhere, any time.
The best thing about zombies, though, is that they're approachable. I mean that, as monsters go, a zombie is a creature that you think you might be able to fight. An old-style vampire with inhuman strength and supernatural powers? No. A super-advanced alien with high-tech weapons? No way. How about a thirty foot, irradiated spider? No. Nobody wants to fight any of those things, but a zombie looks like a possibility. First off, they're slow, especially if you're looking at the old George Romero ones like in Night of The Living Dead. They shamble and stumble around, and even an average person might think they have a chance against one. Second, they're not very intelligent. By definition, nearly all of their higher brain functions have ceased. We like to outwit people (and animals) that are dumber than we are. It makes us feel smart and capable. It's another reason we like zombies. Lastly, zombies are unarmed. We don't have to worry about them attacking us with guns, bazookas, or rocket launchers. Most versions of zombies are not even smart enough to wield clubs or sticks. That means that we can fight them with anything from hammers and baseball bats to pitchforks, shovels, and crowbars. No fancy weapons needed. All this combined makes us look at zombies and think that we have a pretty good chance of fighting them. With the right weapons, and strategy, defeating a bunch of them looks possible, even to someone who hasn't spent lots of time in the gym or the dojo.
So, that's the attraction of zombies. They give us all sorts of opportunities to use the survival and fight instincts we still have ratlling around in the primeval parts of our brains. They seem vulnerable enough that an average person could fight them, and live. Plus they give people a good excuse to go online and look up all sorts of interesting stuff about weapons and tactics and how to prepare for the next necropocalypse. We get to use a little imagination, and best of all, since zombies don't actually exist, we can all pretend it's just a fun diversion.
Sticker from Missoula's Zombie Tools