Saturday, October 12, 2013

Why Everybody Loves Zombies

This isn't the first article or blog post written to examine my generation's unhealthy fixation on the zombie apocalypse and it sure won't be the last. We love zombies. We love watching people run from them in movies and on TV and yelling to them about what they should do to survive and discussing why, constantly and repeatedly frustrated by their decisions to split up, venture out alone or try to save the guy who predictably tripped over the exposed tree root and fell behind. We love shooting them and hacking them to bits with found melee weapons in video games; we love making latex flesh wounds and pretending to be them for Halloween (and for theme parties and Thriller flash mobs). And, we especially love discussing zombie contingency plans. We all want to believe that we'd be strong, fast and resourceful enough to survive on the day that everything we know and love ceased functioning and imploded. But why are so many people obsessing over this pop culture phenom?

Technology has progressed so rapidly on every front in the last 20 years alone that most people can't keep up. The average American yuppie who buys every brand new iThis and iThat hot off the shelf isn't even keeping up. We don't understand how the things we use every day work and don't usually stop to consider the tiny, sophisticated pieces of technology they contain. Most people don't get and/or trust jet engines, let alone microproccessors. All of this contributes to a constant and justifiable undercurrent of fretting about how integral our dependence on this technology is and what would happen if, say, a particularly bad bout of solar weather sent a space tsunami of magnetically-charged atoms our way and fried the power grid as well as the batteries in our phones and cars. Or whatever. Remember Y2K? People don't like to admit how worried they actually were about all of the software we were using failing entirely when all of its two-digit date coding switched over to "00", or so it was erroneously supposed. When 2012 was upon us, we were seeing even more doomsday predictions everywhere. Of course it was all malarkey, but you never know! There's always next year.

But that doesn't stop Doomsday Preppers from stockpiling non-perishable army rations, fuel and supplies just in case, because you're better off safe than sorry and apparently better off broke than fiscally responsible. I personally had an uncle who passed away suddenly at a young age who did just that. There was a lot of dated fuel and water in his house, bags with combat boots, fatigues and basic wilderness supplies packed and ready to grab at a moment's notice, and a really appallingly unreasonable number of guns hidden everywhere. He believed much of what the far-flung Tea Party fringe sector of the GOP says about the government watching your every move and trying to control your life, but in paranoid Philip K. Dick sort of way borne of not understanding how modern surveillance and computer technology work, as he refused to touch a computer even once in his life. He genuinely believed that they're going to turn on us at any time (because a sawed-off 12 gauge will hold off Earth's greatest multi-trillion-dollar-per-year military machine, right) and that nearly everyone who goes to college is "indoctrinated" into the media-backed liberal conspiracy theory behemoth tirelessly working to dismantle conservative Christian values. And this was an intelligent man with a business degree, a competent craftsman who enjoyed Star Wars memorabilia and Benny Hill. There are a lot of people like him. There are a lot of people even further removed from what we consider reality. These people earnestly believe in imminent social breakdown, chaos and anarchy, or even that it's already begun. Of course they tend not to be hip on what's cool and into stuff like The Walking Dead, but I think they probably would be if they gave it a shot.

So what we've got is technology that will likely be directly interfacing with our brains in another decade advancing at breakneck speed, a complex global society connected in infinitely more intricate ways than it ever was in the past, violently fluctuating social paradigms, fearmongering extremist politicians funded by humanity-hating megacorporations pitting us against each other and crusading to destroy social safety nets and civil liberties, terrorism, illegal immigration, a lot of seismic activity along the Pacific Rim in the last decade or so (and throughout all of recent geological history but whatever, it seems like part of some pattern now that we know more about it), global warming and some of the most intense weather many people can remember, and the Mayan calendar that ominously ended last year, thankfully to no effect. Well, shit. Am I forgetting anything? Oh yeah, what about medical technology? 

IMHO, one of the biggest threats to our physical security in the immediate future is the wanton overuse of antibiotics, especially in the States. There are a number of super bugs such as a particularly voracious variety of Staph that have become resistant to even our strongest antibiotics because our systems are so full of lesser ones that the pathogens have built up a resistance. They're evolving a lot faster than we can keep up with them, and they will outpace us on some fronts. I guess it's just a question of how severe it gets, and how fast. There's always the possibility of biological weapon use, too. Ever hear of the U.S. government's syphilis experiment in Guatemala a while back? What about Syria, were the Russians responsible for that? (2016 Edit: Yes.) Stuff like this has already happened. It's no wonder so many people are convinced that the release of AIDS was intentional. Imagine what the government could possibly be doing when things like that lovely Guatemala experiment are open and available for everyone to read about.

It seems like a lot of people over 50 just "don't get" this zombie obsession, but it's immediately relevant to them, too, especially if they're the aforementioned technophobic ones being frightened into submission by what politicians tell them and what they see in the media every day. It has to do with a sometimes overwhelming undercurrent of fear that permeates all but the highest echelons of society in this continuously poor economic climate. What exactly each person is afraid of doesn't matter. Economies are based largely on the psychology of that grandiose and unpredictable complex system that is human behaviour, so when they crash and burn, people will go for anything to help explain why or make themselves feel a little better or to prove they'd been right all along. When the collective consciousness is tainted by fear we start making rash decisions and doing things we'd normally never consider, so that's a big part of it. 
Most people seem to think that the time in which they live is the worst time, that "things have never been this bad!" and that the end is closing in. Look, earthquakes! Unrest in the Middle East! Oh, wait, those things have always happened. But look how bad it is now! And the number of tornadoes we had this season, and the rise of China as the next great superpower! We're done for. Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition in case anyone tries to get in and take our canned food and gasoline

Any excuse for one of the most beautifully done web comics ever
Finally, Generation (wh)Y has no great war under its belt, and hopefully we never will. The Boomers and their parents - the sometimes paranoid ones who "don't get" the whole zombie thing - saw their share of wars. Throughout the 50's and 60's during the Cold War, kids were taught to duck and cover in school, as if crawling under your desk and putting your arms around your head would provide any measure of protection if an atomic bomb were detonated 500 metres overhead. It was just a tactic to try to keep people from panicking, but because of the repetition and anticipation, it became a tool of (capitalist indoctrination and) fear in and of itself. A lot of those kids had recurring nightmares about the day the strange red sunrise would come and leave nothing but a photo-print of their shadows on the portions of walls that would still be standing after the Soviets decided to push the little red button in the glass box on the big control panel. And no one could do a damn thing except hope that it wouldn't happen.

I could go on about the Great Wars - when I'm sure it seemed like the world was literally ending - and the Agent Orange and napalm death in Vietnam, but you get the idea. My theory is that the people who lived through these things don't want or need to see the world end again in zombie fashion and try to think of it as entertainment, despite of what a neat show The Walking Dead is. They don't understand why we would romanticise and make hobbies out of something so gruesome. Most of us don't know what it's like to be truly afraid of imminent death and to lose the ones we love, so we have plenty of time and leeway to fantasise about it. 

I think my generation chose zombies as its favourite threat to the survival of the human race because it's something we can call our own. Zombie movies and unnerving stories out of places like Haiti have existed for a long time (ever seen The Serpent and the Rainbow?), but their tone has changed. I read a great article about this a while ago and tried to find it when I was first writing this so I could cite it, but I couldn't. What it said was that old zombie movies are about people who have been coaxed and drugged into doing the bidding of a less-than-ethical Voodoo witch doctor, and those slaves generally snapped out of their trance when that instigating person was killed, like the same principle that sometimes applies to vampires. Over time, though, zombie movies have evolved into something grander as society has changed.

We ourselves are much like zombies: consumers who work in identical cubicles and are identified primarily by a series of numbers cataloged into a vast series of machines. We've lost a lot of our individuality and humanity in this world careening toward ever-more frightening changes each day, and what's worse is that we can no longer see those who would hurt and control us. We distrust and dislike the corporations and governments that run our lives and that screw us over on a regular basis, but we're mostly helpless to do anything about it. 
Zombie movies and other media have come to reflect this newer, more complex social hierarchy: pretty much everyone becomes a zombie, society collapses, you can't rely on any kind of authority figure to help you, you're completely on your own, and finally and most importantly, no one can fix it. There is no resolution. It just tapers off, or worse, on, forever. Usually there's a sad lesson about how the living people you meet are worse than the horrifying flesh-munching monsters (e.g., 28 Days Later). Even if we know that a virus that can be identified caused the mayhem, with no infrastructure there can be no research and no subsequent manufacture of a cure.

Or, even worse (Contagion and Twelve Monkeys): we think or know that someone does have a cure, but they stand to profit so handsomely off it that they refuse to distribute it until irreversibly massive damage has been done, if they ever choose to at all. We all know the pharmaceutical and insurance companies in the U.S. make a ton of money off letting people die from cancer, for example, and that there are a lot of very effective treatments for many forms of it, but that they're completely unaffordable for most people or they've been discovered but not tested enough to be widely implemented yet. Don't get me wrong, I know that those medications do need to be tested and studied for years and that some don't really work, kill tissue indiscriminately, etc., but imagine the treatments we don't know about because big pharma bought up the patents and sealed them in a vault. It's like the fact that Magic Johnson is rich enough to still be alive, even though he contracted AIDS at a time when the survival rate for it in the U.S. was totally abysmal.

We also know that the oil companies dismantled the tram system in U.S. cities a century ago and that they buy up the rights and patents to all kinds of wonderful electric and other sustainable vehicle technologies but that they won't distribute them until the day the last drop of fossil fuel evaporates in an internal combustion engine somewhere so that they can subsequently become the hegemonic rulers of that industry as well. 
People are simple, callous, and self-interested. The wealthiest and most important of us would be underground somewhere in the event of a zombie apocalypse and they'd eventually have a treatment, vaccine or cure. That's how we think now. Those are the things we assume. And that's why zombies have become a symbol of increasingly anti-humanist governments and ways of life instead of just a strange, exotic story about black magic with a happy ending, or at least some kind of resolution.

So, in conclusion, I guess I would say.. Only use Neosporin when it's really necessary, have a basic contingency plan for any major emergency tucked away in the back of your head, don't believe anything the media reports and, when and if it does hit the fan, don't get scratched or bitten. Because you're own your own.

(Originally Published 3.4.12)

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