Zombies are everywhere these days.
Barnes and Noble has called the decade from 2003 to 2013 a “Golden Age for zombie fiction.” In May, CNN reported that the Department of Defense had come up with an elaborate, if fictional, zombie-based contingency plan for a military response to “a planet-wide attack by the walking dead.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has posted a Zombie Preparedness page on its website, meant to be “a tongue in cheek campaign to engage new audiences with preparedness messages.”
But when it comes to zombies’ hold on our collective imagination, AMC’s The Walking Dead, now in its fifth season, is in a class by itself. Based on Robert Kirkman’s long-running comic book of the same name, the show chronicles the efforts of a small group of survivors of a zombie apocalypse to stay alive in the ruins of civilization. Ratings were good for the first season (2010) and have grown every year since, making The Walking Dead a cultural phenomenon. According to Variety, 17.3 million viewers watched the Season 5 premiere — a record not just for AMC but for basic cable.
Why so much enthusiasm for a show filled with gruesome violence and almost unbearable tension? Why all the interest in the end of the world?
Though the zombies are integral to The Walking Dead’s plot, they’re not what the show is really about. As creator Kirkman has said, The Walking Dead is “about us. It’s about how we respond to crisis.” Director George Romero, who kicked off the zombie genre with his 1968 horror classic Night of the Living Dead, said much the same about his film. “Zombies could be anything,” he told The Big Issue magazine. “They could be a hurricane or a tornado. It’s not about the zombies. The important thing to me is the way people react to this horrible situation, misbehave, make mistakes and screw themselves up.”
Kirkman’s dystopia swarms not only with the walking dead but also with bands of desperate — and sometimes predatory — survivors, competing with one another for dwindling supplies or food, ammunition and defensible shelter. Everyone left alive learns that distrust is essential. In the new season’s first story arc, a seeming sanctuary for the living, Terminus, turns out to be a trap run by survivors who have resorted to organized cannibalism. Yet, even forced to spend their lives in survival mode, the characters of The Walking Dead still yearn for meaning. There’s a wish-fulfillment aspect to the story, which anyone who has ever fantasized, even idly, about living through an apocalyptic event will recognize. The last people on Earth can reinvent themselves into something better, or more powerful. Society begins to reinvent itself, making The Walking Dead a study in primitive politics. Different models of government emerge — all more or less based on the chieftain model that humans lived under during their prehistory. Nobody builds bridges, founds nonprofits or splits the atom in The Walking Dead. No one mentions the United States Constitution.
Most important, The Walking Dead is a morality tale that disdains easy answers. How does a civilized person behave in a world where civilization has collapsed? Decency is still possible, the show instructs us, but ruthlessness is needed as well. To save his son in one incredibly tense episode, Andrew Lincoln’s Rick, the show’s protagonist and a decent man, has no choice but to act like a zombie himself, ripping out the jugular of a dangerous marauder with his teeth. The characters constantly face brutal moral dilemmas, none more horrifying than in the Season 4 episode called “The Grove.” An 11-year-old girl, Lizzy, can’t accept that zombies are dangerous; she’s convinced that they’re just “different.” To prove her point, she kills her younger sister with a knife and tells everyone to wait and see — Mika will be fine, only different, when she rises as a zombie. What can you do with a child like that in the post-apocalyptic world? You can’t send her to therapy or to a juvenile-detention facility; you can’t wait for her to outgrow her madness — she is dangerous. “She can’t be around other people,” says Carol, who has cared for Lizzy after the death of her parents. Carol makes a gut-wrenching decision to shoot the girl, but the viewer is left wondering: Did she go too far?
It’s probably no coincidence that the zombie craze began barely a year after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, with Danny Boyle’s hit film 28 Days Later. Boyle’s zombies weren’t the shuffling “walkers” of The Walking Dead but living people, made rabid with a virus called Rage, who ran — fast — making them especially terrifying. The film’s depiction of a London transformed into a post-apocalyptic horror show resonated with a public recently shocked by the abrupt realization that Islamic terrorists posed a serious threat to prosperity and order.
The fascination with the zombie apocalypse, I believe, is a cultural reflection of the new age of anxiety that opened on 9/11, with its fear of social collapse. As Penn State professor Peter Dendle puts it, the zombie is a “barometer of social anxiety” — and we’re plenty anxious. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America claims that anxiety disorders are now the most common mental illnesses in the country, affecting more than 40 million people.
Anxiety disorders are, by definition, neurotic, and it’s true that the world is, in many ways, better than it has ever been.
“The average Botswanan,” science writer and columnist Matt Ridley points out in The Rational Optimist, “earns more than the average Finn did in 1955.” Americans in 2014 can afford luxuries unthinkable even for the rich in the 1950s. We’re safer, too — less likely to die violently than at any time in history, Harvard professor Steven Pinker observes in his recent book, The Better Angels of Our Nature. Still, the world is providing a lot to trouble the sleep of even the non-neurotic — Islamic terrorists beheading innocent captives, debt bombs, financial meltdowns, mass shootings in schools — all of it trumpeted by around-the-clock media.
The omnipresent media regularly remind us that natural calamity remains a possibility, too, even in the developed world. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina overwhelmed local, state and federal governments and almost destroyed New Orleans. The massive 2011 tsunami in Japan, triggered by a magnitude 9.0 earthquake, wiped out whole towns and caused the Fukushima nuclear disaster. A huge solar storm missed Earth by a week’s rotation back in 2012, which, had it hit the planet, could have crashed communications and electronics globally, taking us all back temporarily to the 17th century. The worst outbreak of Ebola in history is ravaging West Africa as I write, killing thousands and spreading fast.
With such cataclysms, man-made or natural, comes the risk of social breakdown that makes us so apprehensive. Shortly after Hurricane Sandy struck the East Coast in 2012, residents in parts of New York City armed up with booby traps, baseball bats and bows and arrows to protect themselves from potential looters. As it turned out, New Yorkers managed the aftermath of that storm, which tested the cohesion of some neighborhoods, with patience and lots of community spirit — but New Orleans during and immediately after Katrina was nearly up for grabs.
Perhaps another reason that zombies haunt our cultural imagination these days is that, for more and more of us, the neighbors are everywhere. Hardly anyone fears healthy, prosperous and orderly cities, but when urban areas break down — New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina or, more dramatically, Baghdad after the fall of Saddam Hussein — nothing is more anxiety-producing than other people. And a zombie contagion is the ultimate urban-disaster scenario. The trailer for 2013’s The Dead 2, a hit film in rapidly urbanizing India, evokes the country’s crowded cities: “1.2 billion people,” it warns, “and one infection.”
Romero made the point explicit in an interview with NPR. “I took [zombies] out of ‘exotica’ and I made them the neighbors,” he said. “There’s nothing scarier than the neighbors.” In August, CNN interviewed members of Iraq’s Yazidi religious minority, who were fleeing Islamic State terrorists — Islamist killers so psychopathic that al-Qaeda disowned them. “They join them,” one of the Yazidis said, “and they kill us.” “People you know?” asked CNN. “Yes, people,” the man responded — “our neighbors!”
Yet we also fear life without the neighbors. Humans prosper economically today, Ridley argues, because we have become so interdependent and outsource almost everything in a global web of exchange. We exchange our income for other people’s expertise every day. If we had to do everything ourselves, most of us would be miserable and dirt-poor. Ironically, people who lived 200 years ago were better prepared to survive in a post-apocalyptic environment, and, on some level, we all know it.
It’s thus unsurprising that preparing ourselves for disaster became a more popular topic just as zombies began their cultural ascent. Author Max Brooks — son of comedian Mel Brooks — first made a name for himself with his 2003 best-seller, The Zombie Survival Guide, a parody that nevertheless contained an exhaustive set of survival tips. The steps outlined on the CDC’s Zombie Preparedness Web page are no different from what you should do to survive any disaster that might prevent emergency services from reaching you soon. Amazon now devotes whole categories to survival gear and kits.
The most striking example of the trend is science writer Lewis Dartnell’s best-seller, The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Our World From Scratch, covering the basics of agriculture, mining, chemistry, communications and medicine — a how-to manual for things most of us don’t know how to do. “People living in developed nations have become disconnected from the everyday processes of civilization that support them,” Dartnell writes. We would need survival skills of some sort if a cataclysm strikes, and books like Dartnell’s, if studied and taken seriously, reduce our general incompetence.
Most of the world may be richer, healthier, freer and less violent than at any time in history, but the anxiety about social collapse that has made The Walking Dead and other post-apocalyptic stories so popular isn’t absurd. Our unprecedented prosperity is disturbingly vulnerable to systemic shocks. On an increasingly urbanized planet, global pandemics are terrifying. And as my work as a journalist has often shown me, residents of cities like Baghdad and Damascus can relate all too well to the predicaments that characters face in The Walking Dead. Even Beirut, an advanced city where I once enjoyed living, sees spasms of violence during which neighbors wake up one morning and start shooting at one another.
Sometimes, in other words, breakdown is more than just a dark fantasy. Learning how one can survive and — just as important — remain a decent human being in such a crisis might be worth thinking about, even if it never happens.