In the opening of George Romero’s cult classic Night of the Living Dead (1968), a young man and woman are driving through a desolate countryside to a visit a cemetery. As Barbara and her brother Johnny are laying a cross wreath on their father’s grave, they are stalked by an old man who lurches awkwardly toward them, a twisted look on his face. After the man attacks Barbara, Johnny tries to defend her and is killed. Then the maniac chases Barbara to an old farm house, where she finds refuge with another man, Ben, who kills several zombies before boarding up the house and trying to save them from a growing horde of the undead that is surrounding the house and trying to break in. Later, when a mass of zombies attack the house, Barbara is killed by her dead brother.
Night of the Living Dead embodies one of the darkest themes in human pop culture—the living pursued by the dead, isolated and nearly defenseless against an unreasoning enemy we don’t understand whose sole aim is to kill us or devour our flesh. Ghouls, vampires, werewolves, demons, zombies, and the gigantic nuclear creatures of the 1950’s—in our collective nightmares, they are the instruments of our destruction, monsters who attack without provocation, as powerful and soulless as they are uncompromising and devoid of humanity. Among our fears, we fear the unfamiliar and the irrational. We fear losing our freedom and our sense of well-being. We fear being pursued by forces stronger than ourselves. We fear not knowing where safety lies. In short, we fear threats we do not understand and cannot control.
In the dark of night when we are most vulnerable, these fears manifest themselves in our nightmares, which are stories our subconscious creates to bring our fears into awareness, to let us play them out in frightening scenarios that evaporate when we awaken. Most of us have had the standard nightmares—being naked in public, being trapped or lost, being late for something important, being betrayed by a loved one, falling or being injured, or failing a test (popular among student dreamers). These nightmare themes are universal and probably common to all eras, but the stuff of nightmares also reflects the age in which we live. The monsters each age imagines, the monsters that gain broad social currency, are the archetypes for what the people of the age most fear. In the Eighteenth Century, the vampire archetype emerged in part as a clash between heathens and Christians in which the blood-sucking ghoul emerges from the grave to try to steal the Christian maiden’s soul.[i] Vampires also had their genesis in the fear of premature burial, which was a common fear at that time. The dead were supposed to remain dead, not reanimate, perhaps in some putrefied form, which would scare the dickens out of anyone. The religious theme is largely lost in Bram Stoker’s landmark novel, Dracula (1897), which appeared at the end of the Victorian era, but his novel depicts the erotic overtones that are central to Victorian angst—the fear of unwelcome seduction. As cast here, and in the 1931 film starring Bela Lugosi,
Count Dracula is a suave European aristocrat who steals into a young woman’s bedroom while she is asleep and defenseless and penetrates her body with his long, sharp teeth (phallic image intended). He deposits a fluid (saliva) in her, which causes her body and soul to change. What Dracula represents was an anathema to the early Victorians (circa 1840), who valued proper behavior and social advancement, but the later Victorians (Stoker’s audience) rebelled against conservative social norms, and Dracula was, in a sense, their guilty pleasure—embodying both their fear of seduction and, at the daring end of that era, the shameless pursuit of it.[ii]
The early-to-mid Nineteenth Century was the Romantic period in the arts, an era of unbridled emotional expression, and among the prominent writers of that age was Edgar Allan Poe, not the
inventor of the horror story but one of its most eminent practitioners. However, the High Priestess of horror in the Romantic era was Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818). In Greek mythology Prometheus was the creator of mankind. He stole fire from Mount Olympus and gave it to humanity and for that and other transgressions was punished by Zeus. In Shelley’s tale, Dr. Frankenstein uses electricity to give life to a manlike Creature fashioned from dead human flesh. Frankenstein’s crime was to usurp God’s power, as Prometheus had done, and the Creature he animated became a murderer and outcast disgusted by his own image. What’s notable about Frankenstein is that it paralleled the rise of modern medicine, humankind’s growing mastery of nature through science, where physicians could heal the sick through increasingly scientific methods and restore the living from the dead through, among other means, electricity (e.g., the defibrillator). Advances in medical science during the past two centuries have brought physicians closer and closer to the role of Prometheus.
Frankenstein represents our fear of scientific advancement without moral restraint, and this fear really blew up (pun intended) after the development of the atomic bomb and its use at the end of World War II. In the 1950’s, the adolescence of the nuclear age, our universal nightmare was our fear of the unintended consequences of nuclear power. We imagined that radiation from nuclear testing would genetically alter creatures we had little reason to fear otherwise and turn them into monsters, including ants (Them!, 1954), crabs (Attack of the Crab Monsters, 1957), spiders (Tarantula, 1955), snails (The Monster that Challenged the World, 1957), octopi (It Came From Beneath the Sea, 1955), prehistoric beasts from the ocean (Godzilla, 1954), and many other species in films about irradiated nature grown large, vicious, and deadly.
The monsters we conjure reflect our fears. Werewolves emerged from our fear of being contaminated by nature and losing our humanity in the process. Specifically, it’s our fear of animal-borne diseases like rabies, of being bitten by infected animals and becoming rabid and uncontrollably vicious ourselves. But in a larger sense, it’s our fear of losing possession of our higher faculties and having our baser passions and instincts unleashed. Having been bitten or infected, we lose ourselves and become monsters, Jekylls turned permanently into Hydes. At the mildest level, this fear is revealed in our concern with athletes using performance-enhancing drugs, making them stronger and more powerful than they should be. At the more extreme level, we see it in our paranoia about genetically altered crops, cloning (especially of humans), and the prospect of doctors using genetic manipulation to create designer babies. As with Frankenstein, we fear science run amok as well as nature’s ability to strip us of our humanity. Mummies (The Mummy, 1932) illustrate our fear of digging up the past and disturbing the dead, of not leaving well enough alone, while invisible beings (The Invisible Man, 1933; The Entity, 1982; and Poltergeist, 1982) portray our fear of the unknown and unseen, both externally (malevolent spirits) and internally (the beast within—depicted best in 1956’s sci-fi classic, Forbidden Planet, but also in 2000’s Hollow Man).
The latest manifestation of our collective fear is the zombie—a mindless, infected, rotting ghoul whose sole compulsion is to kill and eat living people. Zombies have their origins in Africa as far back as the 1600’s and later in Haiti, where zombies were usually depicted as mindless drones, virtual slaves who, while grotesque, were not always aggressive. With Night of the Living Dead, however, zombies became flesh-eating ghouls, which is the characterization of them in almost every subsequent zombie film and story. The zombie as a monster archetype is not new, but zombies have rapidly grown in popularity and significance in the past fifteen years. As Michael J. Totten noted in a Dallas News article, “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. . . . 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.”[iii]
Our world changed instantly and dramatically with the terrorist attacks on 9/11 in much the same way our parents’ and grandparents’ world changed overnight with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Our angst about these attacks is not just that we were attacked and suffered horrendous loss of life but that our collective sense of safety and security could vanish so suddenly. In an instant, our world was more dangerous and threatening, our government weaker and less able to protect us, and our enemies more vicious and determined. What the zombie apocalypse represents, then, is an almost total collapse of the safe and secure world most of us have known and expect to continue. If a Walking Dead–type of zombie apocalypse ever actually happened, the world we know would collapse. We would lose not only the basic social, political, and economic means by which we live our lives—government, law and order, borders, banks and the monetary system, communication, commerce (and the resupply of basic goods), social and infrastructure services, access to resources, jobs and opportunities, and so on—but also our psychological safety net and the fabric of social discourse—our shared values, the principles of civilized behavior we normally adhere to, and the trust we have in others to treat us with equanimity and respect. As Totten observes, in the post-apocalyptic dystopia that would follow the collapse of society, we would confront not only a zombie horde but also “bands of desperate and sometimes predatory survivors competing with one another for dwindling supplies of food, ammunition, and defensible shelter. Everyone left alive [would learn] that distrust is essential.”[iv] Following a zombie apocalypse, every survivor would be reduced to seeking and competing for the lowest levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs—water, food, shelter, sleep, clothing, and physical safety.
In zombie books and films of the past few decades, people become zombies through a variety of causes: a biological contagion (28 Days Later, 2002, and World War Z, 2013), an irradiated space probe (Night of the Living Dead, 1968), a manufactured virus set loose by sabotage (Resident Evil, 2002), a comet (Night of the Comet, 1984), and an unknown pathogen (the wildly popular series The Walking Dead, which opened in 2010 and is now in its seventh season). Once transformed, the new zombies literally lose themselves. They have no volition, no free will, no family or interpersonal bonds, no capacity to make conscious choices, and no ability to love—or hate for that matter. Lacking reason and emotion, they become mindless creatures driven by base instincts, human in form only. It is this complete loss of self that is most terrifying about the prospect of being attacked and overrun by the walking dead.
Fighting zombies would also be terrifying because zombies are utterly unlike traditional human foes. In familiar human conflicts killing is a means to an end, not the end itself. The enemy wants to conquer territory or prevent you from conquering territory, or they want your resources, or they want to weaken you so you can’t oppose them elsewhere. But zombies have no goals or motives except to kill or eat you or convert you by biting you and turning you into one of them. In traditional conflicts, the enemy can sometimes be reasoned with. They may see that further conflict is pointless and seek a truce, or they may be willing to negotiate, or, seeing that they are about to be annihilated, they may simply surrender. But zombies are mindless and cannot be reasoned with. They are hell bent on your destruction, and the only way to stop them is to kill them. They murder indiscriminately, and their methods of murder are primitive. Alarmingly, the zombie who
tries to kill you may recently have been a friend or neighbor, someone you knew and liked and trusted. Even worse, it could be someone you loved—your brother or sister, son or daughter, your spouse or your parents.
Does any of this sound familiar? We’ve been seeing it on the evening news and reading about it in newspapers for years. A man or woman who appeared to be an ordinary family member, neighbor, colleague, or friend suddenly opens fire on a crowd of strangers or sets off bombs in a nightclub, subway, or sporting event? An invading army that murders relentlessly in the most terrifying ways? A horde of killers overrunning territory, leaving mass casualties in its wake? People in those stricken territories having to convert or be killed? Cities rendered uninhabitable? Monuments and historic treasures looted or destroyed? The zombies envisioned in Night of the Living Dead and The Walking Dead are a physiological impossibility—you can’t reanimate decomposing flesh—but ISIS is very real and very deadly.
The so-called Islamic State is the most virulent and horrendous collection of murderers the world has seen since the Nazis operated Auschwitz and the Japanese invaded Nanking. Like the zombie hordes, ISIS murders people without remorse or moral restraint. They have crucified people, burned and buried people alive (including children), conducted mass beheadings, planted people’s severed heads on spikes, televised executions, raped captured women, sold women and children as sex slaves, and given captured people the choice of either converting to their perverted form of Islam or being killed. In their wanton disregard for human life and contempt for anyone who does not share their beliefs, ISIS has demonstrated that they want not only to conquer other people but to consume them as well. Their intent, they say, is to extend their caliphate throughout the Arab world and then to all other countries. They want to turn the entire world into an Islamic state governed by their strict interpretation of Sharia law. You only have to look at images of the cities they’ve destroyed, the museums and irreplaceable art they’ve demolished, and the mass graves of their victims to glimpse what a horrifying prospect that would be.
In an article entitled, “What Makes Zombies So Frightening?” Andrew Bloom observed that, “The survivors in a zombie film are not simply waiting for the storm to pass so things can return to normal. They’re trying to figure out what kind of life they can have in a world where they’re under a constant, mortal threat.”[v] We have seen this existential despair in the breakdown of society in territories ISIS has conquered. The people ISIS hasn’t murdered during its invasions live in constant fear. Some are executed immediately after an ISIS takeover. Some join ISIS, just as some people overrun by zombies are bitten and become zombies themselves. Others are raped and sold into slavery. Some huddle in their homes, not knowing when death will come for them, trying to make sense of the new order outside their homes, fearful of appearing at odds with the new governors of their lives, living in a time bomb without knowing how much time remains. Those who can, flee, leaving behind their possessions and their former lives, including some family members. It is difficult, in fact, to look at fictional films of areas overrun by zombies and see much difference between them and news videos of areas overrun by ISIS. The degrees of horror and social destruction are practically indistinguishable.
Later in his article, Bloom makes the following observation: “More frightening than the fall of society is the fall of the self. Zombies, with their insatiable hunger and single-minded focus, represent the idea of our base instincts taking over our better natures. They are, in fact, pure instinct, a tribute to and a caution against the mindless beast lurking beneath the surface.”[vi] It goes without saying that ISIS’s brutal brand of murder, rape, and sexual slavery and their videotaping and broadcasting of executions ranks among the most vile acts human beings can commit. Furthermore, one of ISIS’s most disturbing weapons is the suicide bomber, which they’ve employed in Iraq and Syria in abundance and in other parts of the world through lone wolf attacks (e.g., San Bernardino, Nice, and Orlando) and suicide teams like the ones that staged attacks in Paris, Brussels, Istanbul, and Dhaka. Throughout human history, soldiers have known they may die once they enter a conflict, but that doesn’t negate their instinct for self-preservation. Indeed, throughout all of the animal kingdom the instinct for self-preservation is a primal driver. By brainwashing young people into wearing suicide vests and blowing themselves up in crowds, or by exploiting individuals who are vulnerable, isolated, lonely, or mentally ill, or by coercing them into sacrificing their lives, ISIS has, I would argue, effectively stolen their suicide bombers’ selves. Once these disturbed individuals have followed orders and committed themselves to that self-destructive course of action, they have lost their freedom and volition, denied their normal human hopes and desires, and sacrificed themselves in the ultimate self-denying act. In effect, they have become zombies, more of the walking dead. Moreover, since Islamic law prohibits suicide, they have committed a major sin against God, something their ISIS handlers conveniently ignore.
ISIS is a plague on humanity. It is a manifestation of humankind’s darkest and basest nature, the beast within that we have striven for thousands of years to subjugate and control through civilization, humanity, laws, mutual respect,[vii] and faith in a Higher Power. We cannot negotiate with ISIS or find compromise with them, just as we could not negotiate with zombies if they were a real threat. The only way to save ourselves from the ISIS horde is to kill them, and that takes its own toll because, as Friedrich Nietzsche warned, “Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster . . . for when you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.” Our struggle in this post-apocalyptic world is to maintain our humanity and not descend into the inhuman madness ISIS inhabits. “Decency is still possible,” Michael Totten writes regarding the survivors’ struggles in The Walking Dead, “but ruthlessness is needed as well.”[viii]
The zombie archetype is the monster of our age. In our nightmares, the zombie apocalypse dramatized by numerous zombie films and by AMC’s hit series The Walking Dead represents the total breakdown of society and humankind’s descent into the darkest pits of our nature. It represents the awful struggle we would have if our society suddenly disintegrated and the challenges we would face not only to survive but to maintain our humanity and our moral center. Zombies would be a horrific enemy and threat to our existence. But we don’t need Hollywood to conjure the monsters of a zombie apocalypse. They’re already here.[ix]
[i] This is why in most vampire stories and films the vampire is afraid of and recoils from the Christian cross.
[ii] The Victorian era saw the invention and rise of photography and, at the end of the era, motion pictures. Not surprisingly, many of the tintypes, daguerreotypes, stereoscopes, and moving pictures produced around the turn of the century featured nudes or partially clothed models, sexual situations, and mild porn.
[vii] The Golden Rule is a simple and longstanding example of a moral principle we have adopted to live with each other peacefully. Indeed, the Golden Rule, which is the foundation of mutual respect, is one of the moral bases of civilization. In virtually everything ISIS does, they violate this fundamental principle of civilization.
[viii] Totten, Ibid. Some people have argued that our use of unmanned drones and the consequent collateral damage of innocent civilians who are killed by drone strikes is inhumane and a violation of the laws of war. Drone supporters argue that it’s a safer way for us to conduct this war on terror and that if we had boots on the ground instead of drones civilian casualties would still occur. This ideological conflict reflects our desire to remain decent, on the one hand, with the need to be ruthless, on the other.
[ix] As I write this, ISIS’s second-in-command, Abu Mohammad al-Adnani, has reportedly been killed in a drone strike. El-Adnani was one of ISIS’s chief strategists and spokesmen, and there is some thought that with his death—and with ISIS’s recent defeats on the battlefield, the Islamic State will decline and could soon be defeated and dissolved. But this is unlikely. The conditions that brought about ISIS have not changed, and ISIS still has a lot of money and supporters. The group is likely to be more resilient than people expect and will remain a plague on humanity for years to come.