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26 October 2009
Zombies as cultural artifact

The literary mashup Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is a bestseller on; Michael Jackon’s “Thriller” video is as awesome and creepy as it was 25 years ago; even hacked road signs are getting into the act, and with All Hallows’ Eve right around the corner, zombies are apparently more popular than ever. We find this both fascinating and disturbing—which is kind of the point with the undead’s current pop-cultural moment. From Africa to rural Haiti to post-modern suburbia and back again (by way of, maybe, James Bond and New Orleans cult spiritualism), zombies touch on all sorts of things: high and low culture, life and death, freedom and slavery, fear and control, comedy and horror, race and religion, bodies and brains. So we ask, what do zombies, or rather our culture’s multiple fascinations with the idea of zombies, make of the world?

—Nate Barksdale

1. What do zombies assume about the way the world is?

Well, there are several kinds of zombies, including the pop culture zombies of films like “Night of the Living Dead” and the medicinally-induced zombie state of voodoo practiced in several regions of the world. For this discussion, I will stick with the former, i.e. pop-culture zombies of page and screen. (Though I did hear some first-hand accounts of the latter during my travels in Nigeria in 2005. Pretty scary stuff.)

Zombies cannot assume, because to assume requires cognitive ability, which zombies reportedly lack. However, I suppose the case could be made for zombies assuming that if they can catch you, they can eat you.

Popular zombie folklore, as opposed to voodoo-related zombie lore, assumes that death and subsequent burial is not the end of mobility.

—Christy Tennant

We will never escape death: be it fast or slow, it is an impending doom.


I think our fascination w/ Zombies comes from our culture’s current love for the ironic. Zombies are cheesy. So making zombie movies is ironic - and therefore funny and hip.

The zombie movies of today are light-heartedly poking fun at the older, more serious zombie movies of 20 years ago. I think the Zombie trend lately is part of the larger trend we see of rehashing stuff from the past and making it hip and cool in an ironic way:

Other examples include:
_70’s aviator glasses (we made fun of them in the 90’s, now they’re cool),
_bright colored sunglasses from the 80’s (they’re ironic).
_Beards (beards are from the 70s & 80s, were lame/non-existent in the 90’s - now they’re back).
_Sweat bands.
_mustaches (less so, but still on their way back - in an ironic & therefore hip sorta way).

Jesse Phillips

That people will find it thrilling to be survivalist in a world gone cannibalistically mad. That people would find darkly humorous to see strangers in a state of decay. And that people would find it fascinating to be stuck in a world that the only way to survive is to destroy humans void of all their humanity.
Recently we saw Tarantino create a film that mocked Nazi’s in every way and ultimately gave us that cathartic moment of seeing Hitler brutally assassinated. Substitute most any other character in that scene being killed, and it is a cringe moment, I watched as two septuagenarians cheered. Confusing and understandable.
People like watching evil get destroyed, Hitler was a historical human monster, zombies are the fantastical human monsters.
Another interesting undercurrent of the George Romero breed of zombie’s is the idea that the only reason zombie’s seek to eat the flesh of the living is that their is some deep primordial urge of man that roots back to their progenitors need or desire to resort to cannibalism. Basically it is a deep human instinct that comes apparent when one is stripped down to their animal instincts. I find this fascinating; I think it is our deep seeded desire to devour others from our forefathers like Adam and his marked son, Cain. 
Also it assumes that we fear viruses that inhabit zombies like we use to fear demons that inhabit vampires, which are suddenly romantic, whether they are Angel or emo vampires. Sort of like Frankenstein’s monster or the behavioral modification of Mr. Hyde was a product of the enlightenment, we now are in the age of microbiology, mad cow, and H1N1.
Zombie’s are not just a fad, they are the definition of frightening and macabre entertainment to an apathetic generation.
I could go on, but I will move on to the next question.

Jay Walker

That, at bottom, we are beings with an insatiable desire to consume.

Mark Roeda

For me, zombies are a metaphor about the way we live. They don’t have cognitive ability, and we act like we don’t. They don’t have souls, and we act like we don’t.

Look around most churches on Sunday morning and you see a fair number of zombies.

Marcus Goodyear

Zombies embody our greatest fears about ourselves. Our bodies can betray us. Our minds and souls will not exist.  Our bodies will survive beyond any sentient manner of control, but be subject to desires and actions alien to who we are. Once we are taken over, we will betray and hurt those we love. Even if we are not subject to any of these things, but somehow survive, life will be unbearable and a constant struggle. There is no escape because man is the ultimate predator, and there is no place that man has not or cannot be.
Of course, there are positives for survivors or consumers of the zombie genre. The enemy is clear and can be eliminated as opposed to real life. It is a symptom of a culture that feels helpless in the face of big business and big government. Even “alternative” culture gets assimilated into the mainstream, so there feels like there is no escape. “Shaun of the Dead” makes this point hilariously: there is no difference between daily life and the apocalypse. You’ll still get the paper, try to make up with your girlfriend and hang out with your friends at the local pub. The only difference is that you will not be dubbed a loser for not having a job or more lofty goals. You just need to survive.

—Sarah G. Vincent

For vampires and Christians alike, blood is the vital, life-giving force.  But for zombies (and secularists) the desire is for brains and brains alone.  Thus zombies seem to be expressions of a sort of cultural rationalism or materialism.  The vampiric craving for blood, at least in its pre-modern origins, turns the Christian eucharist on its head.  But zombies do away with blood altogether.

Therefore, zombies assume that the brain, not the blood, is what imparts meaning and life to the world.  Zombies are the expression of the deepest fears of the secularized mind.

2. What do zombies assume about the way the world should be?

In the end, the undead always win.

—Christy Tennant

It should either be a consumable resource itself or make such resources available and preferably slow-moving.

Mark Roeda

The undead can’t save themselves. They have to be brought back to life—something that is impossible with out a deus ex machina.

Marcus Goodyear
3. What do zombies make possible?

Necrophobia, Kinemortophobia, and a sudden ability to perform a perfectly choreographed dance routine with the King of Pop (may he rest in peace).

—Christy Tennant

Life without pretense.

Mark Roeda

A resonant expression of the dead-life that many feel plodding through a consumerist, capitalist world

—Ben Rous
4. What do zombies make impossible (or at least a lot more difficult)?

The blessed assurance that burial is the end (at least, until Jesus returns).

—Christy Tennant

The idea that our culture is becoming progressively more secular. Our ultimate horrors and our ultimate hopes keep reappearing just when rationalists think they’ve been safely laid to rest (very much like a zombie, come to think of it). Of course, you could say that most people attending horror movies don’t actually “believe” in zombies. But we keep needing, and therefore producing and consuming, stories like these. Why?

Andy Crouch

A release from anxiety.


It strikes me that many pundits, bloggers, etc. are interested in primarily, not in understanding differing views, but in ridiculing and dismissing them. Take Glenn Beck’s Arguing with Idiots (please!), for example.  Zombies provide an occasion for us to project the left’s hostility toward right or the right’s hostility toward the left onto the undead.  Who are those people at that Tea Part or protesting the G8 summit?  Zombies.  And deep down, rather than arguing with those idiots, we want shoot them in the head.

So, in that sense, maybe the recent resurgence of Zombies reflects our cynicism about the possibility of dialogue and mutual understanding.

Mark Roeda

To not own a crowbar.

Jay Walker


—Ben Rous
5. What new culture is created in response?

For those who observe the holiday, cheap Halloween costumes (rub dirt on some beat up old clothes and in your hair, apply some simple ghoulish make up, and walk with a stilted, stiff gait.) Also, fodder for films (both horror and zom-com), computer games, and sleepover horror stories galore.

—Christy Tennant

A new folklore to explore.

Jay Walker

Cornel West said something along the lines that we create culture to keep from killing ourselves.  I don’t know if Zombies create culture as much as they call culture into question.  Is it enough to merely keep from killing ourselves?  Does that mean we’re really alive?  Or are we just the living dead?

—Mark Roeda

Someday I will write a Christian zombie novel, you just wait. (Loved this series of questions!)

Marcus Goodyear

The Christian zombie novel may have already been done, if you count the Left Behind series.


Via Mother Jones (

“Zombies are an apocalyptic threat, we are living in times of apocalyptic anxiety (and) we need a vessel in which to coalesce those anxieties,” he says.

In fact, I’ll go out on a severed limb and take it further: If zombies specifically represent the apocalyptic downsides of immortalized mindlessness, then today’s zombie zeitgeist is not merely a result of scary quandaries created by stupidity. It is a reaction to both those problems and the sense that they can never be thwarted.

Here we are, a year after a financial implosion that should have driven a stake in the heart of free market fundamentalism. Here we are, a year after an election that was supposed to pour holy water on Wall Street vampires, exorcise the economy’s demons and challenge the ancient mummies of neoconservative foreign policy. Yet here we are, with virtually nothing changed, watching the same zombie crises indomitably stumble forward.

And so what do we do? We flee to entertainment venues that let us enjoy the campy thrill of confronting the undead—even though we’ve lost the ability to do that in real life.”