In the past two decades, there has been an explosion of zombie fiction in American popular culture. In addition to the exponential rise in zombie films, The Walking Dead has gone from being a highly-acclaimed comic book series to one of the most watched television shows in the country. Merchandise from coffee mugs to baby clothes can be easily found that bear the gruesome images of their rotting flesh. As zombies have become a central pillar of horror fiction, the most obvious way to attempt to understand this cultural phenomenon is to examine fear.
Of course, much has been written about the cultural significance of fear; as far back as Aristotle’s Poetics, thinkers have noted the interaction between art and powerful, shared emotions. In addition, much has been written about how horror movies reflect the fears and insecurities of the culture that devours them at the box office. Thus, if we want to understand a phenomenon like the incredible proliferation of zombie films, comics, and fiction, it makes sense to look to cultural phenomena. Often, 9/11 is credited as the cause of this meteoric rise. In an interview in February of 2014, Noam Chomsky claimed that the popularity of zombie fiction might be “a reflection of fear and desperation. The United States is an unusually frightened country, and in such circumstances, people concoct, maybe for escape or relief, [narratives] in which terrible things happen.”
However, I will argue that, in addition to valuable cultural explanations for the rise in its popularity, we must attend to a deeper, more existential fear if we are to understand the fascination with the horrifying figure of the zombie in popular culture. After all, it makes sense to inquire into the underlying causes of our fascination with the zombie itself before we hypothesize as to why that fascination has seen such a sharp increase recently.
Our fascination with zombies is not to be reduced to the reasons we are fascinated with other horror genres because this fascination is somewhat unique: Our fear is that zombies are us. We are horrified by the idea that in facing a zombie, we are facing a terrible truth of human existence. Zombies are not aliens or monsters or demons; they do not come from the "beyond.” One of the most powerful moments of The Walking Dead comic is when Rick Grimes painfully declares to his fellow survivors: “We are the walking dead.” Zombies are us, but robbed of those qualities that we like to believe make us special in the animal kingdom. Zombies are us without thought, love, imagination, art, religion, hope, charity, etc. Zombies fascinate, disgust, and terrify us because we are afraid that maybe, just maybe, that is all we truly are. Perhaps humans are just eating, defecating, meat-machines stumbling through the world. Maybe we are just this flesh, and the rest is an illusion. This realization is horrifying. Humans have a deep need to believe that we are more than just body – specifically, that we are both body and spirit or soul. By looking at the work of Ernest Becker in The Denial of Death, and the “Terror Management Theory” (TMT) that his work gave rise to, we will be in a position to understand the depth to which the zombie horrifies us.
Secondly, I argue that we must also understand how it is not just the rotting, shambling flesh of the individual zombie that terrifies us, but further the global nature of the zombie apocalypse, which is the setting of most zombie fiction. The fact that zombies present us with soulless bodies, and thus pose an existential threat, is well known; however, by analyzing this existential dread through the work of Becker, I will argue for a deep connection between this fear and the threat to our democratic ideals. Part of the reason American culture is inundated with zombie fiction is that the zombie represents an offense against centrally American values. Our fear of our own fleshy, death-bound existence drives us to cling to what Becker calls “Death Denying Illusions,” such as religion and patriotism. In the zombie apocalypse, we encounter a nihilistic, anarchic, and dark vision of our world, and our nature. Zombie fiction horrifies us by threatening not only to expose the “lie” that we are something more than mortal, physical creatures, but also by presenting us with the fragility of our democratic social and cultural institutions; we cling to these institutions precisely in order to bolster that “lie.” Thus, our understanding of the fascination with zombies is deepened if we agree with Becker and the TMT’s claim that our attachment to American social and political institutions serves to obscure from us our own fleshly, mortal nature. Zombies, and the apocalypse they bring, thus present a one-two punch to the “founding illusions” of any nationalistic or religious identity structures; this point is especially true of founding “illusions” that emphasize freedom, rationality, and individuality, as does American ideology.
Thirdly, I argue that along with these fears, zombie fiction presents a dark picture of human nature; specifically, with reference to The Walking Dead comics, and films such as (the original) Dawn of the Dead and 28 Days Later, I argue that other surviving humans are often the real threat and antagonist in the post-apocalyptic world. The protagonists are constantly seen struggling with their own desire to become selfish, animalistic, and monstrous in order to survive. Again, in these stories we are faced with a horrifying vision of our own deeper nature, stripped of the flimsy, ideal structures of society that govern our destructive, thanatic drives. Thus, our democratic ideals are again threatened; that is, we want to believe that our ideals of rights, honor, dedication to the common good, and commitment to communal, democratic decision making to be rooted not merely in cultural fabrications, but in the fabric of human nature. However, in zombie fiction – as in TMT – once the familiar structures of societal enforcement are removed, the inner core of human nature reveals these ideals to be cultural fictions.
I. “If I get bit, you know what to do;
I don’t want to end up like that.”
The true horror of the zombie is not fear of pain or even the terror of facing death, nor can it be reduced to fear of being eaten, since there are plenty of monsters that are quite happy to consume us. No, the deepest fear is that once bitten, we become a zombie. No amount of will power, no amount of prayer, and no amount of human ingenuity can save us. Once bitten, the flesh takes over, and we become a threat to everyone, and everything, we have ever loved.
How then, does it differ from lycanthropy? Put simply, the lycanthrope’s bite fills us with life. An animal life and an animal spirit, surely, but animus nevertheless. Who could compare the slow agony of turning into a zombie with the depiction of the effects of lycanthropy on Jack Nicholson in Wolf, for example? It is in the fear of zombification – cursing us with a violently animated yet soulless mockery of life – that we uncover the horrifying fascination with zombies. In fact, the zombie is driven to consume life, ignoring other zombies. In addition, the lycanthrope is still herself most of the time and can actively seek ways to combat her affliction. The zombie has no such recourse.
Zombies are not some alien Other – they are not a mystical, magical werewolf or vampire, nor an aberration of science like Godzilla, nor a xenomorph, as in Alien. Rather, zombies are horrifying because they are us. This fact explains what we experience when watching a scene in which our “heroes” gun or hack down a group of walkers. We do not experience the elation of an enemy conquered; in fact, the final scene of very few zombie films depict such a victory in battle, scenes that are ubiquitous in other horror films. This difference is very telling: Why isn’t the slaughter of the ostensible enemy the climactic moment of zombie fiction? Why do we not experience relief and exhilaration, but rather horror and disgust when zombies are killed? It is because we are, at one important level, watching women, children, and other innocent human beings having their brains destroyed. This occasions horror because we see, through the shambling gate, necrosis, and blank stare that these beings are still human, at some level.
An excellent example of this phenomenon can be seen in the treatment of the “walkers” by Hershel in both the comic and the TV show The Walking Dead. When asked why he keeps the walkers alive in his barn, he replies, “That’s my son in there!” In the television version of this conflict, Shane demands that Hershel face the fact that the walkers are no longer human, releases them all from the barn, and we get one of the most powerful scenes in the entire show. The “heroes” then all begin gunning down Hershel’s family and friends as they stumble out of the barn, and we are forced to watch through Hershel’s eyes. We do not experience anything like what we would if simple monsters were being dispatched by the protagonists. We experience the nausea of horror and disgust (amplified by the final moment). Thus, in order to understand the fascination with zombies, we have to take into account how they differ from other horror movie genres in that they present us with a terrifying image of our own nature, not with a threat from some Other. Additionally, there are numerous other examples of survivors treating zombified loved ones with special care – from Helen being unable to kill her daughter Karen in the original Night of the Living Dead to Shaun’s keeping Ed “alive” at the end of Shaun of the Dead. Romero’s Survival of the Dead, hinges on precisely this issue. It is thus central to the genre that in facing the threat of this monstrous antagonist, we are presented with a dark image of ourselves.
In The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker presents a revolutionary theory of mortality salience in understanding human motivation and psychological life. Becker draws deeply from various theories of the centrality of death. His work is indebted both to the existentialist philosophies of Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and others, and equally to the psychoanalytic theory of Freud, Otto Rank, and Norman O. Brown. For Becker, as for the TMT which he inspired, our shadowy awareness and active denial of our own mortality and physicality is the essential motor of human life, both on the individual and cultural levels. It is as catharsis of this powerful horror at our physicality and mortality that we will understand the enduring fascination with zombies. We can see, therefore, why it makes sense to treat this explanation of the rise in the popularity of the genre as more “fundamental” than any political analysis rooted in current events.
Becker argues that we can understand the stages of human psychological development in terms of coming to grips with our physicality and mortality. For example, he describes the anal stage, and a child’s fascination with playing with its anus and feces, as the process by which the child comes to grips with its embodied nature: "This is a form of universal play that does the serious work of all play: it reflects the discovery and exercise of natural bodily functions; it masters an area of strangeness; it establishes power and control over the deterministic laws of the natural world; and it does all this with symbols and fancy. With anal play the child is already becoming a philosopher of the human condition. But like all philosophers, he is still bound by it, and his main task in life becomes the denial of what the anus represents: that in fact, he is nothing but body as far as nature is concerned."
For Becker, much of human psycho-social development is a reaction to this basic truth of the body; of course, the reaction primarily takes the form of denial. However, as Heidegger and Kierkegaard realized as well, anxiety reveals the flimsiness of our structures of denial. We might also consider, with Heidegger, how the zombie faces us with the uncanny [unheimlich] nature of the world. Our everyday involvement in the things of the world – our “lostness” in the “they-self” – cannot maintain itself in the face of mortality. With the appearance of the zombie, no one can be truly “at home” in the world any longer. For Becker – whose work draws Heidegger and Kierkegaard’s observations about anxiety into psychological analysis – the child matures faced with what Becker calls the “tragedy of man’s dualism,” as a result of facing this scatological ground of human experience. This is the “ludicrous situation” of being able to imagine infinity, yet being trapped in a decaying, defecating body – and thus facing the inevitable: death.
Becker deepens his account of the threat of physicality by attaching our desire to be spirit as well as body to our desire to be self-determining, free beings: “The anus and its incomprehensible repulsive produce represents not only physical determinism and boundness, but the fate as well of all that is physical: decay and death.” Here, Becker helps us to understand how the threat of becoming a zombie, and thus being unable to control our own actions, strikes at an important aspect of our existential anguish over mortality: If we are merely physical bodies, do we possess free will?
The original zombies, of Voodoo mythology, are the perfect exemplar of this fear. The victim is “brought back to life” and is convinced that now, lacking a soul, they are under the control of the Voodoo priest. Given the effects of the drug and the trauma of experiencing themselves buried alive, they are easily convinced that they now lack a soul, which has been stolen by the priest, and now must do his bidding. A more terrible fate is difficult to imagine, especially if one were to be made to harm loved ones.
Of course, we are faced with this image of ourselves as determined by our physicality, our genetics, and our chemistry quite often in scientific discourse. The materialism of the vast majority of contemporary academic discourse threatens what we hold to be most precious about ourselves. We are faced with this image when we hear about Phineas Gage or the tumor in Charles Whitman’s head, and are forced to consider the possibility that such horrific actions are the result of physical damage to the brain, and not of “evil,” nor the decisions of a free being. We are forced to ask ourselves: Is it only brain chemistry that stands between me and an ailment that would cause me to harm the people I love? Tragically, this image of our frailty is made apparent if we have the misfortune to watch a loved one die of Alzheimer’s, or another ailment that, in attacking the brain, destroys the soul. Such tragic events attack the flesh, but seem to rob us of more than health; they seem to rob us of personality, of our humanity.
Such a vision strikes at the heart of what we take to be most special about ourselves. We want to be more than bodies, and we essentially want to be free. Only insofar as we have ascendency over the body are we free. Only as a transcendent consciousness can we have control of our own actions and our own life. The zombie apocalypse horrifies and fascinates us because it represents the final victory of the body over the spirit. As Becker says: “all man’s creative life-ways, are in some basic part of them a fabricated protest against natural reality, a denial of the truth of the human condition, and an attempt to forget the pathetic creature man is.” Zombie horror reveals the deep fear that, as Becker phrases it, “human life may not be more than a meaningless interlude in a vicious drama of flesh and bones that we call evolution." In the zombie, we face the human body in all its gory decay; this “human” shambles and hungers and strives, but has no soul. What does that say of our own shambling, hunger, and striving?
The zombie is us, it shares our body, our face, even some of our memories and basic drives; as such, it presents us with the horrifying vision of ourselves as mere meat, as a walking organic machine under the total thrall of our biological drives. There are many excellent examples of the zombie retaining memory and desire in zombie fiction. Obviously, one locus classicus is the original Dawn of the Dead, in which the survivors ask why so many zombies have descended on the mall. Peter, our protagonist, answers: “They don’t know why, they just remember, remember that they want to be in here.” Then – in response to Francine’s question “What are they?” – Peter continues: “They’re us, that’s all.” In this blatant anti-consumerist message, we are presented with the fear that modern commercial society has turned us all into zombies, shambling after the newest iphone instead of brains. The fear and horror of being zombified is more intense than the fear of simply dying, because of the terrifying resemblance we bear to this soulless monster.
How comic, and how tragic, that this beast pretends to mind, soul, and higher humanity. Of the mystification at the power of hypnosis, Becker writes that it forced people: “to deny the big lie upon which their whole conscious lives were based: the lie of self-sufficiency, of free self-determination, of independent judgment and choice.” He then fortuitously gives strength to my case here by adding: “The continuing vogue of vampire movies may be a clue to how close to the surface our repressed fears are: the anxiety of losing control, of coming completely under someone’s spell, of not really being in control of ourselves.” With zombies, of course, the fear strikes even closer to home than the thrall of a vampire since it is not to some Other that we lose control; rather, it is a loss of control to our own bodies and our own deeper drives – which reveals in even more stark relief the “lie” of conscious freedom.
II. The Zombie Apocalypse and Democratic Values
I am distinctly American. More broadly, people are largely defined by the social groups in which they are raised. There are a thousand ways this statement is true, but to an important extent our psyches are rooted in the abstract ideals on which the institutions of our communities are founded. It is impossible to understand my own identity without reference to the ideals of equality and rationality that are the lifeblood of the American body politic. To lose America – to watch those ideals crumble, or be exposed as the hubristic illusion of a deluded animal – would be to lose myself. I argue that the image of the zombie deeply threatens this social sense of self, and that this fact is doubly true for any community that roots its self-understanding in conceptions of individuality and freedom.
For Becker, as well as for social scientists and psychologists who subscribe to TMT, people cling to their national (or religious) identity in order to assuage their own anxieties concerning mortality. Terror in the face of death is so basic to human psychological life that any cultural structure that is to maintain itself – whether it be religious or political – must provide members of the group a way to deal with, to manage, that terror. According to Rosenblatt, Greenberg, Solomon, Pyszczynski, and Lyon, “The conception of reality espoused by any given culture is thus the basis of a cultural anxiety-buffer that serves to protect the individual from the anxiety that results from awareness of his or her vulnerability and ultimate mortality.” Culture and religion thus function as death-denying mechanisms.
The individual who has status within a particular culture (which I will discuss in the next section) is granted symbolic immortality in that community. For example, if I am a valued member of my political community – that is, if I see myself as making important contributions to “America,” or to “Communism,” or to whatever community I adhere to in order to understand my own communal identity – then by helping that community to live on long after my own death, I gain a measure of immortality; as long as America, for example, lives on, so do I. There is thus an added existential terror to watching these communities crumble under the pressure of millions of animated corpses. Jim, our protagonist in 28 Days Later, for example, remarks: “Of course there’s a government. There’s always a government.” His entire worldview begins to crack when he realizes that the rule of law and guarantee of order represented by the political organization under which he has lived every day of his life is essentially a fiction that can be wiped away, leaving us alone with our animal nature.
It could be argued that zombies who are presented as specifically supernatural in origin could have a different effect. Specifically, I might find my religious identity, and belief in the supernatural, bolstered by a clearly supernatural phenomenon. After all, it would seem that my faith in something more than the physical is justified by the existence of a power or force that could raise the dead. However, there has been a growing trend of depicting the zombie threat as explicitly biological in origin. There is, of course, the “green goo” of the Return of the Living Dead movies, as well as the “rage virus” of 28 Days Later and the “T virus” of the Resident Evil franchise, among other such biological and chemical causes. The vast majority of the films that make up the recent increase in zombie stories provide such a pseudo-scientific cause for the phenomenon. With these clearly materialistic explanations of the zombie “infection,” the threat posed to religious identity upon seeing animated, yet clearly soulless, corpses is obvious. There is much more to be said about the effect on our religious cultural identity. Here, let if suffice to say that the shambling flesh sharing some of our memories is enough to leave little place in our ontology for a soul that could survive death. In addition, the cruel and violent nature of the apocalypse leaves little room for a loving God.
Moreover, the threat posed by zombies to our values as Americans is doubled since, in addition to threatening the stability of our political world, the zombie presents us with a threat to the philosophical foundations of the values on which our society is founded. De Toqueville remarks in Democracy in America that all Americans are naturally Cartesians, without ever having read Descartes. His explicit point is that we are individualistic, but this conception of individualism is rooted in enlightenment rationality. Historians have noted that some of the founding ideals of American political life are rooted in a conception of rational freedom; liberalism has been frequently attacked for these presuppositions about human identity – not just from Marxists, but also from communitarians, Catholic social theorists, economists, social psychologists, and others. The Cartesian fabrication of the rational, transcendent mind or “spirit” lies deep in the roots of our political and economic ideologies. Belief in the transcendent, rational Cartesian mind is thus deep in (broadly) Western, socio-political DNA. By attacking the image of humans as both body and rational spirit, the figure of the zombie indirectly threatens these ideologies. Thus, at the same time as these works of fiction often explicitly depict the crumbling of these institutions they also trigger a doubt in their philosophical foundations.
To understand the depth to which zombies are a threat to democratic values, however, we must look beyond the explicit threat to social order. That is, while it is true that an apocalypse removes the social structures that guarantee voting rights, fair trials, etc., that is not the extent of the threat. Rather, the very existence of the zombie makes the rationality that is the basis for democratic consensus and self-governance appear to be a fiction. If we are nothing more than flesh, then our decisions – including political decisions – are in fact controlled completely by genetics. If I am not free, then I am not free to rationally decide what laws, systems of governance, etc., are best. The image of our nature presented by the zombie shows our rationality to be just as much a self-deceiving fiction as our morality and free will. The democratic process of deliberation and debate, leading to a rational consensus, would then be nothing more than a cultural structure, denying the truth of our nature.
The reality of this threat can be detected in the current trend of scientists claiming that political affiliations are the result of genetic factors. Chris Mooney has gotten a lot of attention for arguing that there is a difference in brain chemistry that explains why Republicans in America tend to ignore scientific evidence. Also in 2012, The Economist published a piece on this trend titled: “The Genetics of Politics.” In that piece, the author asserts, “Slowly, and in some quarters grudgingly, the influence of genes in shaping political outlook and behaviour is being recognised.” The article is a short summary of some of the more startling claims being made by neuroscientists about the true arational sources of human political belief formation. However, such a view of political decision making should give us pause. Democracy requires that our political beliefs are amenable to reason. In order for rational consensus to be reached, and in order for the democratic process to function, my beliefs must be mine, and I must be held accountable to reason for how I vote on policy decisions. Thus, I must be free to form beliefs according to rationality. If democracy is to work, it has to be possible for people to be open to the arguments of other viewpoints, such that through discussion and debate the best course of action can come to light.
However, if I am simply a body that is determined by my genetics, and if there is nothing more to my identity than the physicality that the zombie faces me with, how am I to believe that my decisions are free? What seems to us, introspectively, to be freedom falls to the same fate as our illusions of free will and morality, as I argued earlier. Thus, just as the zombie poses an existential threat, it also threatens our cultural identity. In the zombie apocalypse, our democratic way of life is revealed to be based in lies and comforting illusions; in the same movement, we are forced to watch the external symbols of that life crumble and fall before the onslaught of reanimated corpses.
III. Identity and Self-Esteem without Culture
According to Becker and TMT, we do not simply receive a buffer against death anxiety by attachment to “death denying illusions” such as religion and culture, we also find our self-esteem rooted in our ability to be valuable and productive members of a community that espouses the death-denying worldview. A threat to that worldview is thus experienced as a threat to our own identity and sense of self.
In The Walking Dead, our protagonist is Rick Grimes, a man who continues to wear his police uniform long after the society that gave that uniform meaning has crumbled. It is in no way a coincidence that this character is also the one who clings to (according to Becker) culturally based systems of morality and cooperation in the face of repeated admonitions that he is “living in the past.” He is constantly faced with the demand to become more ruthless in denying help to fellow survivors who are not part of their group.
According to Rosenblatt, Greenberg, Solomon, Pyszczynski, Lyon, and TMT, “protection from anxiety requires that one achieve a sense of value or self-esteem within the cultural context. This is because the culture promises security only to those who live up to the cultural standards of value.” By developing a sense of our own import in a system that is guaranteed to live on beyond our own life span, we gain what these theorists call “symbolic immortality.” (Of course, in the context of many religious cultures, it is not only symbolic immortality that is promised. Christians, for example, expects real escape from the terror of death by living on in heaven if they uphold the values of their cultural identity.)
By becoming wealthy in a capitalist culture, individuals are inflated with a sense of their own importance; they become something more than the shambling flesh of an inconsequential animal. As Becker phrases it, they become more than a “meaningless interlude in a vicious drama of flesh and bones that we call evolution.” They gain symbolic immortality by putting their name in lights across the top of a building, proclaiming at once the dominance of capitalism as well as their own value in contributing to that system. In this process, Rosenblatt et al. argue, we gain security from our anxiety: “Cultures provide this security in two ways: first, through conceptions of the world as a just place; in a truly just world bad things would not happen to good people. Second, cultures promise real and symbolic immortality to those who live up to the standards of value." Capitalists are able to bolster their own sense of self-esteem by concluding, with the reality system of their worldview, that the good people prosper and get rich (and concomitantly, poor people are seen as bad). His own impotence in the face of the dangers of animal life is managed by his belief in a system promising his protection – since his success reveals him to be good and just according to the values of this culture.
For Becker, “Nature’s values are bodily values, human values are mental values, and though they take the loftiest flights they are built upon excrement, impossible without it, always brought back to it.” With the loss of the vital spirit in the face of an animated yet soulless corpse, what remains of our values? The reality system that was the source of our self-esteem has failed, taking with it the system of values by which we have guided our lives and have understood our meaningless finite struggles. This point shows why so many protagonists cling to their pre-apocalyptic identity and value systems.
However, the struggle to maintain that tradition of values is put under absolute stress in this world. Protagonists are often faced with the choice of whether or not to share their resources with fellow survivors. In a large percentage of zombie plotlines, it is not the zombies, but rather fellow survivors who pose the real threat. Survivors are often faced with the terrible decision of whether or not to steal or loot from others in order to protect their own group, and often their own children. There are, of course, numerous examples of this struggle in zombie stories; I think one of the best examples is seen in the dynamic of Rick Grimes – still clad in his police uniform – and his ex-partner Shane Walsh (who has abandoned his uniform). Shane advocates embracing the “reality” of the new situation, which for him has revealed the insubstantiality of law, order, and justice. He consistently presses Rick to become more ruthless and “make the hard decisions” in order to keep his family alive. Jason Walker contrasts the stance of Rick Grimes to that of Chris, the leader of a group of cannibals who have completely abandoned any traditional systems of morality and taboo in the post-apocalyptic world. In issue #63, Chris states: “There is an order to how things work now, and it’s unfortunate for some...the way things work...But my friends and I didn’t create this situation, we’re just living with it.” Chris sums up his position by saying: “I hate to say it, but it’s me or you...and whenever that’s the situation – it’s very easy to choose me.” Rick Grimes, on the other hand, clings (neurotically, as Becker would have it) to those shreds of morality and justice that are his only hope of maintaining his sanity. We can also look to the tensions between Ty, the nihilist, and Michael and Anna, who try to help others and who cling to their moral identity in the remake of Dawn of the Dead.
It is certain and obvious that if our society is the foundation of values and morality, then the apocalypse brings them tumbling down. If this is the case, then there is no more reason in that world to help a “fellow American” than there is to obey traffic laws. However, many philosophers want to maintain a much deeper basis for morality. For example, a Kantian would argue that rationality is the basis for moral imperatives, not society. Insofar as we are still rational, we are still bound by the categorical imperative, not just the hypothetical ones that promise us success in a supposedly stable and “just” world. However, on what ground can we base our faith in such values in the face of the zombie horror? Again, for Becker: “Nature’s values are bodily values, human values are mental values, and though they take the loftiest flights they are built upon excrement, impossible without it, always brought back to it.” Thus, we are forced to ask: can our values take flight above the excremental vision of humanity presented not only by the presence of animated corpses but also by the way humans treat each other in that world?
Thus, wrestling with zombie storylines raises some of the most profound questions facing human beings. What is the ultimate foundation of moral value and self-worth? Are we something more than mere bodies, more than mere animals? Is our democratic society built on transcendent, enduring principles like justice, or are such claims just another attempt for this amazing animal, cursed with fore-knowledge of its death, to pretend to immortality? I am certainly not willing to endorse Becker’s dark vision of human nature; nevertheless, his theories help me understand my own fascination with the genre, and could be an excellent ground from which to understand why the twenty-first century, post-9/11 world has seen such a spike in zombie films, television shows, novels, and comic books. It could easily be argued that a recognition of our mortal nature need not bring with it terror and a need to deny fleshly existence. It is equally possible for someone to be driven to embrace life and to find a sense of freedom and enjoyment rather than terror when they develop a resolute awareness of their physicality and finitude. Whether or not Becker is, in the final analysis, right about human nature and finitude is not the ultimate point. The fact remains that every human being wrestles with these questions and encounters a feeling of anxiety when the lights dim and that first zombie staggers on to the screen - craving flesh.
From guest contributor Jesse Bailey, Sacred Heart University