Saturday, October 31, 2009

I've been pondering of late our cultural obsession with horror - and particularly zombies (at left, a Photoshop tutorial on how to turn yourself into one). These days, "zombie crawls" (like the one photographed below) are common occurrences in our cities and college towns, and Zombieland is a hit, hip movie - indeed the "zombie movie" has long since fractured into sub-genres, including, of course, gay zombie porn.

Behind the zombie zeitgeist, however, lies a larger story of the promotion of Halloween (or Hallowe'en, for you purists) into a holiday rivaling Christmas. When I was a boy, of course, Easter still outranked Halloween - indeed Halloween was a bit marginal, for kids only, somewhere slightly south of the Fourth of July in importance. But the Easter bunny has long since been left in the dust by the Great Pumpkin, even as the original Catholic inspiration for Hallowe'en, All Saints' Day, has vanished from our national consciousness (hence the apostrophe in Hallowe'en has vanished, too - it's not the eve of anything anymore).

So just as Christmas was stripped by the market of Christianity, so was Halloween - but still there's that odd fact of its new, massive appeal to adults. Why are we grown-ups so much more horrified than we used to be? Part of the answer, of course, is that horror is a consumable - it's easily produced and marketed across a broad public, and so it was; its ascension in our consumer-driven culture was inevitable. More interesting is the ways in which horror reflects consumer culture, and perhaps our society in general: it's no surprise, for instance, that in today's fearful economic times, Halloween should loom larger than ever - nor is it surprising that the adult embrace of the holiday began during the Reagan years, when the sense of economic security for the average American first began to be whittled away.

There is, of course, one obvious reason for the resurgence in zombie pop - you become a zombie through infection, and infection is probably the central anxiety of globalization and cultural diversity (the original pop zombies, almost always black, were sourced in Haitian voodoo, as at left - even as late as 1984, Michael Jackson was styling himself as a zombie). But then again, almost every type of monster - vampires, werewolves, et. al. - can "turn" you through infection. And via George Romero, zombies lost their racist taint - indeed were actually "flipped" onto the conservative white lower class, which in Night of the Living Dead was out to chow down on the black hero. Indeed, the new zombies are almost always white, and always mainstream; indeed, most white zombie fans would be horrified at identifying zombies with some other ethnic group. So why zombies, why now?

Well, one particular aspect of zombies is certainly unique: perhaps thanks to Romero, people (mostly white people) seem to identify with them - at least ironically. True, folks have always liked to pretend they're vampires, or devils, but always through obvious modes of fantasy (usually sex fantasy); that's why you never saw a disgusting vampire at a costume party, just as you only saw sexy black cats rather than fat, orange tabbies. Thus while the vampire remains a form of wish fulfillment, zombies represent the average Joe; le zombie, c'est moi, is what today's hipsters seem to be saying as they stagger past their local Starbucks.

Thus read, the current zombie plague becomes a comment on "whiteness" (note the all-Caucasian crowd at right), a form of anti-xenophobia in the Age of Obama. And needless to say, it's also an outgrowth of the "flash mob" phenomenon - mass public whimsies made possible by the Internet (perhaps not coincidentally a technology of choice for Obamanauts).

But I think there's still a deeper self-awareness moving within all that brain-deadness. For a time I wondered if the Obama zombies were meant as a subtle comment on their political opposition, with an emphasis on the mindlessness of Red State Republicans lining up behind an administration without a clue, or the libertarians staggering on with free market theory even after it had resulted in the Great Recession and its "zombie banks." Certainly our inability to adapt to our new economic and political circumstances - our habit of simply patching past "solutions" and tropes onto our current woes - is central to the zombie phenomenon.

But oddly, the "zombie crawls" actually feel like an embrace, not a critique, of that cultural failing. And I'm reminded that what's central to the zombie ethos is its pure materialism, its utter utilitarianism. Zombies have no guiding vision, no faith, no religion, indeed no ideas at all; they're not foreign invaders, or aliens, or even a nation or clan; they're us, only stripped of what makes (or made) us human. They are, as Romero wittily posited with his mall-walkers in Dawn of the Dead, purely and simply consumers, happy denizens of the free market in brain matter; so needless to say, they're non-judgmental and unprejudiced, indeed completely tolerant of each other as they stumble about, seeking their next fix - i.e. something that's still alive. In a way, zombie crawls are a bit like web crawls, in which we search for some new site, some new video, some new something to provide another micro-jolt of diversion - indeed, perhaps for the Internet generation, the zombie is not so much a threat as a kind of avatar.

What's weirdest, in the end, about the zombie craze is how it doesn't seem to have sparked any discussion among the chattering classes; for a generation all but addicted to "critical thinking," it's rather odd that zombies alone should be seen as just good clean fun. But then it's striking how often pop culture seems to unknowingly see its own shadow in the mirror, indeed enact its own critique before the professors can - much as the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers functioned so perfectly as both a scream of horror at the silent Red Menace and the stolid conservatives allied against it. Perhaps today's zombie crawls are meant in the same way - they're like tweets from the subconscious about The Way We Live Now.

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