Before chairing a panel at Creatures, Crimes, and Creativity that was largely devoted to zombies as a focus of speculative fiction, I had promised to return to the topic, so here are some further thoughts. The first thing that struck me from talking with John Maberry, Lester Yokum, F. J. Talley and Sandra R. Campbell (and at an earlier panel on the topic with Weldon Burge an Belinda Gordon) was that zombies, or more properly neo-zombies are now ubiquitous, just folks you might meet around the neighborhood. I'm surprised they haven't been taken up by Sesame Street. Americans have become so inured to them that there are now whole sub-genres of fiction devoted to zombie romance, zombie comedy, etc. Their role as agents or creations of an impending Apocalypse is so mundane in American culture that it no longer gives rise to disputes or surprise. Indeed, that familiarity may eventually begin to breed a certain contempt, since according to the adage tout beau, tout nouveau, a fad that ceases to draw a spark of recognition is often doomed. Will zombies soon become the new kid in town who loses his cool when people start to take him for granted?
Maybe not yet, because zombies have rooted themselves deeply in the sub-structure of American capitalism, below the personal level. The former Wall Street operative become Wall Street critic Michael Keyser often lambastes zombie banks and zombie finance that rise from the apparent death of insolvency to feed off the flesh of the living citizens, fashioning the bizarrely counter-intuitive economy that has progressed over the past two decades. Behind the "too big to fail" approach to debt and banking is the same haunting attraction/fear of death that spawns the zombies of page and screen. Americans have existed for decades now on the edge of a financial precipice, always conscious that the tilt of a recession, a housing crisis, sudden workforce downsizing, medical emergency, a credit disaster, or other series of unfortunate events could set off a dizzying social descent that can dispel family cohesion like a mist and send the proudest middle-class wannabes straight to the homeless shelter without passing go. Apocalypse is all too obviously now.
The Christian heritage fuels zombie angst. After all, wasn't Lazarus the original neo-zombie? Didn't Ezekiel prophesy that the Valley of Dead Bones would rise again? Wasn't Jesus himself a kind of zombie forerunner as he grasped the hand of doubting Thomas and thrust it into the wound in his side? Doesn't nearly every liturgy include a Credo calling for faith in the resurrection of the body? And what sort of body? What Sunday School teacher has not had to deal with a child's innocent question about whether they will emerge from the grave with rotting flesh? What has been a sure path to canonization in the Roman Catholic Church, if not the capacity of a dead body to unnaturally refuse to decay? It is somewhat ironic that, apart from Ancient Egypt, it has mainly been our Christian churches and the Communist Party that have given undertakers and embalming a glorified role. Afraid of death, we recoil against our own organic condition, reluctant to let go of that dear fleshy karma and distrustful of even the most perfect dharma that could await us. We sing about that strength of faith in the final verse of Luther's mighty hymn ("let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also..."), but how many quaver at the difficulty of putting it into practice?
We have to face it: zombies have, in a way, become cozy. While zombies have to be initially horrifying to elicit the desired chemical response in the audience, making them willing to pay $12.00 (not counting over-priced concessions) to sit and be scared for 120 minutes in a gigaplex theater, the end effect is to desensitize the public to death. Especially when so many pathetic characters deserve it. As with any other sort of violence and gore, this ultimately serves the purposes of the State by making for a compliant citizenry. More willing to step out into harm's way if ordered to do so and not complain about the VA hospital. To live placidly on top of a toxic waste dump. To shelter in place as the tidal surge approaches, when the lawgivers have forgotten to implement an escape plan. To accept to be collateral damage. To take for granted that those pills might have side effects. Zombies might actually be the ideal subjects. Give them a Good Conduct Certificate.
It is significant that the popularity of zombies has come at the expense of the good old staple of horror, the ghost. What trick-or-treater, besides Charlie Brown or ET, dresses up as a ghost? I think I can tell you why: ghosts are unforgivably individualistic and downright scornful of the flesh. They are ectoplasmic anarchists. Ghosts don't just stumble about in crowds, they think, they plot, they are selective, they have definite preferences. They care very much about how humans perceive them, or don't. I remember the affable ghostly couple in the old television program "Topper" who were always playfully manipulating the feckless Leo G. Carroll, alternately thwarting and protecting him. Who ever heard of a ghost without a personality? A ghost is nothing but an individual who persists once the body is gone, while a zombie is a (partial) body that persists after the individuality has gone. It says something about the United States as a culture that we have all but forgotten about the ghosts of individualism to embrace the depersonalized fungibility of the zombie.
This lamentable truth does not, I maintain, mean that the zombie is inevitably doomed to be dismissed as an insignificant character type. Indeed, I believe the future of the zombie genre lies in a further development -- the anti-zombie. The very differentiation of zombie literature into sub-genres such as zombie romance and zombie comedy promises that zombies will regain that which they lost, that is ti say, personalities. I would foresee zombies who become conscious of the limitations of their zombified state and search for an anterior consciousness, rather like some of the latter-day Borg in the Star Trek universe who had to deal with the anguish of having to function without the mindless conformity of The Collective. Seven of Nine in "Voyager" showed that, with the requisite pectoral development, a zombie could actually manage to steal the show from less interesting human characters. The anti-zombie could then join many other mass culture phenomena such as the X-men, the Watchmen, and Spiderman, who have do adapt to their sheer freakishness through understanding, self-discipline, and cunning.