Spooky SZN III: The Zombie
According to the Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction, ‘in the iconography of horror, the zombie stands for the exploited worker’. It is ‘inarticulate, dangerous, deprived, wishing only to feed on those who are better off’. It is, in short, a metaphor for the blighted masses.
In Marc Forster’s World War Z, the imagery of the zombie hordes climbing on top of each other like crabs in a barrel is, in the age of border crises and mass migration, politically evocative. But such such imagery has been evoked since at least the advent of industrialization which caused sudden surges in population. In his book Culture and Anarchy (1869), poet and cultural critic Matthew Arnold speaks of the ‘festering masses’ that threaten to overwhelm genteel society:
the mere unfettered pursuit of the production of wealth, and the mere mechanical multiplying, for this end, of manufactures and population, threatens to create for us, if it has not created already, those vast, miserable, unmanageable masses of sunken [and ignorant] people
Today, the situation is a lot less stable. The proletariat of Arnold’s time have transformed into the ‘precariat’, which Guy Standing describes as a ‘dangerous’ new social class consisting of ‘many millions around the world’ all ‘floating, rudderless’ ‘without an anchor of stability’. The volatility that created (and characterises) the precariat corresponds well with the switch from the classic, slow, lumbering zombies of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead series, to the swift, twitching zombies introduced in the film that arguably reinvigorated the genre: Danny Boyles’ 28 Days Later.
Among the precarious millions described by Standing are the stateless migrants most often described using dehumanizing epithets like ‘horde’, ‘mass’, — even in some cases, ‘invaders’. This is the case in the cult-classic novel of the far-right, The Camp of the Saints, which is about a fleet of ships carrying over a million refugees from the third world to the shores of France. In it, the narrator ruthlessly dehumanizes the refugees, stripping them of their individuality and portraying them like the zombie masses in Forster’s ‘wall scene’: ‘they began to edge forward, slowly at first, in a single, solid mass, like some gigantic beast with a million legs and a hundred heads’ (Raspail).
The zombie metaphor for the disenfranchised masses is an oversimplification (as all metaphors are). It saves one from having to confront these groups as a mass of individuals. However, there is an element of truth to the unsavoury behaviour of large crowds. In one of the most influential texts on this topic, Gustave Le Bon’s controversial The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind (1896), Le Bon argues that the crowd member acts in an mindless manner; one characterised by ‘impulsiveness, irritability, incapacity to reason, [and] the absence of judgment’. Similarly, Carl Jung argues that:
A group experience takes place on a lower level of consciousness than the experience of an individual. This is due to the fact that, when many people gather together to share one common emotion, the total psyche emerging from the group is below the level of the individual psyche. If it is a very large group, the collective psyche will be more like the psyche of an animal, which is the reason why the ethical attitude of large organizations is always doubtful
Despite the apparent truth of these observations, they have been subject to much critique. A relatively recent example is Cliff Stott and Steve Reicher’s book on the 2011 London riots: Mad Mobs and Englishmen? In this book, they claim that control is not lost in crowds, it shifts:
De-individuation and ‘mad mob’ theorists suggest that people lose identity and control in a crowd. Our research on crowds suggests that people shift from thinking of themselves as individuals to thinking of themselves as members of a social group. Correspondingly, control isn’t lost, but rather shifts to what we believe and value as group members as opposed to as individuals. In other words, we act in terms of our social identities
To me, it appears as though they are all saying the same thing. Crowds are monomaniac. Control, like responsibility, is dispersed and non-attributable. Crowds are instinctual in that they are not consciously coordinated. Stott and Reicher are right to object to the caricatures of mass movements, but to say that control shifts from the individual to the group is to state the obvious. It is like Raymond Williams’ water is wet claim that ‘there are no masses, only ways of seeing people as masses’.
The term ‘zombie’ is used to describe mindless and violent crowds, but it is also applied to a different type of mindlessness; a passive, rote type, most often attributed to corporate office workers. David Graeber outlines this phenomenon well in his book Bullshit Jobs. According to Graeber, there is a subtle form of violence in this metastasizing uselessness: ‘The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound. It is a scar across our collective soul’. This sort of zombie reminds me of the ‘psychic vampire’, Colin Robinson, from the show What We Do in the Shadows. In a modern twist on the vampire myth, Robinson drains people of energy by being boring and frustrating.
Zombies are almost always portrayed in large groups, probably due to the fact that a single zombie is not so much of a threat, but also because zombies represent the horror of epidemics.
At the beginning of the covid crisis, many people were compelled to watch (or re-watch) films like I am Legend, which depict semi-realistic zombie epidemics. I see this as substantiation of Eugene Thacker’s theory in his Horror of Philosophy series. In Vol. 1, In The Dust of This Planet, he writes that ‘the world is increasingly unthinkable — a world of planetary disasters, emerging pandemics, tectonic shifts, strange weather, oil-drenched seascapes, and the furtive, always-looming threat of extinction’. Accordingly, ‘the genre of supernatural horror is a privileged site in which this paradoxical thought of the unthinkable takes place’. H.P. Lovecraft, the author of many noteworthy works of horror fiction, once noted that the ‘oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is the fear of the unknown’. Thus, it makes sense that, in times of uncertainty, we would seek refuge in the knowable plane of predictable zombie horrors.