January 18, 2012

The Enduring Appeal of Zombies

Recently, I received an email with the following question:

I would like to read your opinion (and the opinion of your followers) on the enduring fiction of the zombie.
Why does it endure?
How does it maintain a sizable subset of fringe culture?
What is its appeal?
Thank you for your consideration of this topic.
~Zombie Hater

I thought it was an interesting question. Personally, I am not a fan of the zombie trend at all, and had never been able to understand the appeal they hold for so many people, so I had never given it much thought. However, since zombies do have a considerable presence in the world of speculative fiction, I decided it was worth looking into.
I've done a great deal of online research as well as talking to several different people about it, but unfortunately there are few people willing to field explanations as to the reason for the un-dead monster's popularity.
I did hear and discover some interesting theories, though, so I thought I'd share them and let you all decide for yourselves.

- One theory is that in the case of zombie movies or video games, one can experience the adrenaline rush of action and combat without worrying about the moral or emotional implications of killing another human being.

I suppose that, since zombies are supposed to be dead bodies that have been somehow reanimated, this is a legitimate point. If the person is already technically dead, you really wouldn't be 'killing' them. And, while we as humans do have a God-given right to defend ourselves from attackers (even if defending ourselves involves the use of lethal force) there is still a huge emotional cost that comes with taking another human life. I suppose, then, that using lethal force against some kind of freakish monster like a zombie would eliminate some of that cost.
So this theory does, perhaps, explain the appeal of fighting against inhuman monsters rather than against human beings. But it leaves the question: why zombies specifically? Why not trolls or orcs or Sasquatches? And of course the implications of experiencing the "rush" of combat and killing for enjoyment is an entirely separate issue.

- Another more philosophical theory is that a culture's or people group's real fears are represented and reflected in its fictional fears. For instance, one person I talked to suggested that Godzilla was originally a symbol of the atomic bomb in Japan. Likewise, early zombie-era zombies were a symbolic representation of people's fear of radiation and nuclear war. Today, they represent people's fear of terrorism.

I've seen plenty of evidence to suggest that the 'zombie' concept is indeed symbolic. The phrase 'For When the Zombies Come' has come to represent a mindset of general awareness and preparedness (e.g. I'm doing physical fitness or weapons training 'For When the Zombies Come'; I keep extra food and supplies on hand 'For When the Zombies Come'), especially as disaster preparedness becomes more popular in our culture.
In addition, I do find it rather interesting to notice that the zombies portrayed in the earlier days of the trend were slow, lethargic creatures that killed people simply by being absolutely everywhere in inescapable numbers. I can see where this could coincide with the radiation/nuclear war concept (i.e. if a nuclear weapon was detonated, radiation would be everywhere in inescapable amounts). Also interesting to me is the fact that the zombies of today have become more fast, agile, and aggressive; they could pop up anywhere unexpectedly, and even a lone zombie could pose a serious threat to someone. This would tend to correspond with people's fear of terrorism; a single terrorist could pop up in any given location and, with little effort, kill or injure dozens if not hundreds of people before anyone could stop him.
So I understand the reasoning in this theory as well. But, like the first theory I mentioned, it still leaves the question: why zombies rather than some other kind of monster? In answer to that, I have my own theory.

- The idea of heroes battling hideous and terrible monsters is thousands of years old. Even the most ancient cultures had hero-versus-monster legends and stories they loved. And with each new culture or era come new trends in how those heroes and monsters are represented. In the days of ancient Greece the trend was for cursed humans or demigods to be turned into horrible monsters. In the days of King Arthur dragons and sorcerers were the trend. In the days of the wild West, it was savage, scalp-hunting Indians. It's entirely possible that zombies are simply today's monster of choice.

I have heard recently that there are people who really believe the government is experimenting and actually trying to create zombies. For what purpose, I have no idea, but if it's true that some people believe this, I suppose their apparent fascination with zombies could stem from this belief. In my personal opinion, watching zombie movies and reading zombie books as preparation is comparable to reading Jane Austen to learn how to get married. Just because it happens one way in Hollywood doesn't mean it'll happen that way in real life.
However, if there is a portion of society that believes in the scientific possibility of zombies, I suppose it makes sense that movie, book, or video game presentations of this would be marketable.
Do zombies have a place in Christian fiction? Truthfully, I don't know. Personally, I find them completely unappealing and have no interest whatsoever in movies or books built on that theme, but I know Christians who have read and enjoyed zombie fiction. I would encourage Christians to make careful, prayerful decisions about their reading and movie-viewing choices in regards to this topic just as they would with any other topic.

Zombie Hater, while I'm afraid this probably hasn't answered all the aspects of your question entirely, I hope it has at least shed a little light on it and given you some possibilities to think about. Thanks for the question, though! You've made me investigate and learn about a topic I hadn't really given any thought to before.

For the record, anyone can send me their questions, thoughts, or ideas by using the contact form at the top of the right-hand sidebar on this page. I'd love to see more thoughtful discussion starters like this one!

What are your thoughts on the zombie trend?
(P.S. My Blogger account hasn't been allowing me to post comments the last week or so, so my apologies to those of you who have commented that I haven't replied to.)


  1. I personally love the idea of zombies, I really think the trend is caused by the 2012 end of the world, people need to have a reason its going to end and why not blame it on zombies its as close to real as the rest LOL, I just happen to pick up this shirt Im sure your going to love it, this sums it all up http://c51creations.com/cart/index.php?main_page=product_info&cPath=33_34_56&products_id=222#next

  2. Ahh, zombies....Personally, I think that there are numerous factors behind the whole zombie craze, but I would say that the most affecting one would be a certain fascination with the dark and the evil and death. Despite an ubiquitous fear of death in our culture, there is also a prevalent fascination with it, because it is unknown, un-explorable, and unescapable. I suppose this has been a common human trait almost ever since man was created, but it seems more widespread now because our culture is so devoid of hope of anything AFTER death.

    Just my take on it all.

  3. I found this particularly interesting, because I finished Carrie Ryan's The Forest of Hands and Teeth over the weekend. It's not a great book (I hated the MC) but it does deal abundantly with the ethical implications of zombie killing, and their humanity. Interesting stuff. Nice post, logical and thorough. :)

  4. Good Stuff here Mary. Very well thought out and well written. Personally I like zombie stories and fiction due to the ever presence of a protagonist. Until you destroy every zombie or potential zombie, they are always there and guard must be ever present.

  5. Thanks so much to everyone who's commented and contributed their thoughts. I really appreciate your input!
    On another note: Hurray! I can finally comment on my own blog again!

  6. One question though...why on earth do you have this article about zombies labeled under "fictional characters"?

    As a certified zombie hunter (I even belong to the Zombie Research Society) just because you have not seen the things that I have seen, doesn't meant that they aren't out there.

    If you have never seen a zombie yet, you can just thank me. I make dead things deader, er, re-dead...uh, well you get the point!

    Now please excuse me, I just received a report that there is another outbreak in sector 7; I have work to do!

    Uncle Zombie Hunter!

  7. I've never been a zombie fan either (in fact, I have a decided distaste for them), but I appreciated your thoughtful perspective on the topic, Mary!

    You brought up an excellent point about society always telling tales of monsters, and while many like zombies, vampires, and the like have endured in folklore for centuries, they cycle in popularity. It seems to me, however, that recent writers tend to treat the undead (of all kinds) in more positive way than storytellers of centuries past, and they're often cast in the roles of protagonists rather than monsters (more so with vampires than with zombies, in my observation). And that says something about current views on life and death, and good and evil!


What are your thoughts on this post? I'd love to hear your comments, questions, or ideas, even if you don't agree with me. Please be aware that I reserve the right to delete comments that are uncivil or vulgar, however.