There have been many analysts who have made mention of the complex psychological aspect of horror films, and with yet another movie in production slated to follow a group of survivors though the inhuman wasteland, it’s time to take another look at why we need zombies, what role they fill, and why they’re so wildly popular. The idea of a real life killer monster that occupies the same vessel that a human once did is a very interesting symbol. Why are they getting more popular, and what does this tell us about our own spirituality?
The idea of the zombie is a complex idea that could be directly related to our desire to exorcise a deeply rooted fight-or-flight impulse. In a society where violence, excitement, and danger seem limited, we find ourselves drawn to a situation where we will be expected to make split second decisions and fight for our own survival. But fight whom? As our species develops, we come to realize that the days of arbitrarily fighting one another for no reason are limited and meaningless. A war scenario with other people is a very specific and unfriendly reality; one that many have had the unfortunate task of facing. So why not take the very essence of death and turn it inside out? Take the world you consider altogether too mundane and populate it not with today’s human beings, but rather create a dichotomy between them and label them “survivors” and “zombies.” The partition in this genre serves to dehumanize not only the zombies, but those who survive the initial outbreak as well. And the goal is not only survival, but to find a way for the “survivor” archetype to return to any semblance of a normal life and live as a person once again.
Unfortunately, the “survivor” has to contend with a whole world gone mad. Those who were once considered friends suddenly turn out to have gone the other way in the form of zombies, and the hero must make the heart wrenching decision: are they going to indulge their peaceful nature and in essence be eaten by friends or loved ones and become themselves a zombie? Or do they, through enacting their fight or flight, turn their back on this new inhuman creature and go forth to carve out a human living somewhere amongst others like them?
The symbol of the zombie is a powerful image of the ultimate adversary. Their most defining characteristic is that they’re slow moving and alone ineffective, but have somehow through the passage of disease via the mouth, found confidants to amass with and wage an eternal war on their enemies. This symbolic use of the mouth to pass the infectious disease seems set up almost perfectly allegorical to those with whom we may not agree with. Or perhaps it is a fear of change overall.
Before we get too comfortable, however, thinking the zombies have been explained away, there are very real sources of visceral fear within the symbol of a specific undead person as well. We fear those with mysterious motivations, but even more those with motivations that are immutably at our expense. On the contrary, the “survivors” are often the real source of trial in zombie movies and stories as their motivations are less predictable, and their capabilities far greater.