Far and away the search-term that lands the most people at Nerd Hurdles is “zombies.” It’s well into the hundreds and the next highest non-zombie related search-term is “borg queen” at 22. And I’d argue the Borg are just space zombies so “data star trek” at a count of 14 is the real runner-up. Since until this latest episode we’d only talked about zombies once (episode 21), this is a clear indication the public has gone rabid for zombies. And it’s not just googling nerds who have a hunger for the dead flesh, last weekend we walked amongst hundreds of punk, goth and hipster wannabe ghouls at the Toronto Zombie Walk 2009.
But why have the undead sprung to life? Something about shuffling brains-hungry corpses clearly resonates with the living population at a near universal level. I believe for the most part it’s due to the following three points:
1. Irony-obsessed hipsters
If there’s one thing a hipster likes above all else it’s something lame they can make fun of. If it can be made into a faux-retro t-shirt, well, that is so much the better. This is because while most of us breathe nitrogen and oxygen, the hipster breathes irony.
Taking an ironic stance on trite, corny, poorly executed and dated elements of pop-culture is the quickest, easiest route to a form of wit. It’s also the safest in a social world based entirely on taste and fashion. Taking the ironic stance on something is a no-fail proposition. If it’s not actually hip, it’s still hip because you are obviously aware how lame it is, you’re just being clever.
There was a time not that long ago, before 28 Days Later and the Zombie Survival Guide, when hipsters started wearing Night of the Living Dead t-shirts because zombies were the lamest, least frightening, cheesy, hilarious, ill-conceived horror monster ever. Zombie movies were so perfectly mock-worthy, zombie-themed parties, film festivals and drinking games began to spread like an air-borne virus.
And then, like everything hipsters paint with the irony brush, overnight zombies became “hip.” Suddenly even the hipsters forgot zombies aren’t cool and zombies became the coolest movie monsters ever. Once the hipsters start believing their own press, the public soon follows. It happened with professional wrestling a few years ago as well. People have forgotten it’s a joke. I’m just waiting for hipsters to start wearing Geordi LaForge style banana-clip sunglasses. They’ll probably be sold at American Apparel by next summer.
But for zombies to be so popular, it takes more than hype. Yes, hype can undeniably go a long way to ensuring buy-in from the public for a concept or product, but the product needs to resonate on a subconscious, primal level as well.
Part of the fun of the zombie rage is sitting around with your friends bullshitting about your zombie escape plan or what’s the best weapon to kill the walking dead with. Every time a new zombie movie is released (so, every other weekend) the water-cooler talk turns to chainsaw vs. two-by-four vs. shotgun. There’s something about slaughtering a hoard of approaching zombies which appeals to people. It’s a socially acceptable mass-murder fantasy. Zombies aren’t really people, heck, they’re not even really alive, so taking a crowbar to a dozen of their skulls is an entirely tolerable form of wonton violence.
No longer is it considered acceptable for humans to go out and decimate a herd of buffalo or antelope. Society now takes a dim view on what was once not only an acceptable activity, but an expected pursuit. It was part of the tribe’s survival. Today it’s considered barbaric.
As is killing hoards of our neighbours in open warfare. Combat is considered a brutish enterprise, not a natural extension of being human. We don’t even vilify and dehumanize our enemies anymore. Where they were traditionally painted godless, baby-eating heathens, now they are merely misguided and desperate, in need of our help as much as our bullets.
But this fundamental change in society’s attitudes is relatively new. It’s only been in the last sixty to eighty years that violence against man and beast has gone from an acceptable necessity to commonly frowned upon. Yet we humans still have millennia of instinct behind us driving our innate, repressed blood lust. So when we’re given a perfectly dehumanized (arguably not even animal) enemy such as zombies, it’s the ideal fodder for our most violent, primal fantasies.
3. The cult of individuality
Even with their innate cheesiness, we’re genuinely frightened of zombies. They’re rotting and they’re relentless. No matter how many you dispatch, they’re going to kill you because eventually you have to sleep and they don’t.
But there’s another aspect to the shuffling undead which strikes a chord of terror. Western society—especially North American society—is so entrenched in the cult of the individual, there is nothing scarier than the idea of losing your individuality and becoming a mindless automaton.
From a young age, we’re taught to do what’s best for ourselves, not what’s best for the community or the tribe. We’ve lost the hive-mind in favour of a tenuous agreement between lone-wolves not to steal the others’ dinner — today. This is a by-product of the free-market, capitalist system. It’s much easier to sell to a mind in-tune with individualistic desire than one devoted to communal responsibility.
This is why communism was such a scary concept for the West. It wasn’t just a fear of nationalized resources, but of a population more interested in the public good than slaking their own desires (It’s ironic that capitalists tend to take a more romantic view of communism than actual communists and socialists ever have).
In order to sell products, you need a public which indulges all seven sins. Individuals make purchases based on avarice (HD TVs), pride (fashion, cosmetics), envy (your neighbours’ SUV), lust (Maxim, Viagra, music videos), gluttony (McDonald’s), sloth (motor vehicles, microwave ovens), and even wrath (guns, legal services). If you can satisfy more than one of these desires in a single product, you’ll be rich. But you’ll only make a fortune within a society where the individual is the king or queen of their own private castle. We’ve spent so much effort on creating miniature monarchies in every city lot that the sense of individual entitlement is pervasive and entrenched.
Losing this unique sense of individuality has surpassed death as the key fear that keeps people up at night. It’s why we fear the rage virus; it’s why we fear the Borg, the Reavers and the Body Snatchers. Becoming a hollow-shell, lacking uniqueness and free-will is the fear that drives people to wear ties and GAP khakis, sit at a computer performing mindless tasks from 9-to-5 and kowtow to the whims of their superiors in order to escape the fate of the zombie.
Truthfully, there’s dozens of other reasons people have developed an insatiable hunger for zombies in the last decade, but the above highlights what I see as the three main factors — Irony, instinct and individuality. They’re also icky. And people love them some icky, especially this time of year.