Eating Brains:

Zombies and Dystopianism

In 2013 I was at SDCC meeting Julian Darius for the first time. After a long, harrowing comic-con experience we both went to the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund after party. There were famous people among us, though I didn’t seem to notice. But I did see Grant Morrison. He was standing next to me. And then Julian said, “Hi.”

We talked for a good while, probably an hour or so. He was very nice and pleased to see us again, Julian especially. Two comic scholars bantering side by side. It was an interesting moment of my life. To see a creator as engrossed as his fans and admirers in his own work, and the works of others (including, even, Alan Moore). But there was one thing I did catch him say, something that has stayed with me. It was an offhand comment, a part of a longer rant dealing with American obsessions with the fall of their civilization and consequential genres: dystopic and post-apocalyptic. The wording is not necessarily gospel, but I clearly remember Grant’s distaste in his voice over zombie literature. Some two years later, I am still recalling that conversation, and marveling at how right Grant was.

My knowledge of zombies in other cultures around the world is fairly limited. But enculturated paranoia is elicited through popular fiction in all societies, East and West.  Elements of the supernatural, such as ghosts, vampires, werewolves, and Frankenstein’s Monster, are reactions to and deconstructions of particular aspects of culture at particular times in human history. Vampires, classically depicted by Bram Stoker, prodded Victorian sensibility, which meditated on physical and spiritual purity. Ghosts, fairies, and other specters preoccupied Celtic and Scandinavian cultures, and helped to produce syncretic cosmogonies, folk emendations to the Late Medieval “Great Chain of Being,” and several popular holidays. Even Frankenstein’s Monster, perhaps a prototype for the classical zombie archetype, wherein a dead body is reanimated by natural or supernatural means, was the product of Mary Shelley’s cynical meditations against the rationality of science and empiricism. Her final fears are encapsulated in The Last Man, a post-apocalyptic science fiction novel! (Look out, H.G. Wells.) While zombies have origins in Caribbean witchcraft, the American derivative has caught fire in popularity since George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead.

The popular significance of zombies in American culture withstanding, the cultural deconstructions surrounding zombies are varied. Zombies in their hordes represent mass hysteria, claustrophobia, xenophobia, and chaos; which in early religion was the antithesis of order and civilization. In this capacity zombies are a primeval representation of disarray, the unending of the spirit. Likewise, modern interpretations favor deconstructions closer to our time, that is, our fear of other classes of people. Racism, rich-versus-poor, and urban upheaval are among the chief offenders. Everyone is suspect under this interpretation, and such paranoia has given rise to gated communities, home owners associations, and enforced curfews. Conservative deconstructions, in which a wave of change suddenly encroaches upon the status quo, emphasize the impact of recreational drugs, implementation of technology, and consumerism. No longer is education a value to an individual, but a product which has no lasting value or lifespan. Every year a new phone, gadget, or technology appears only to be replaced, and replaced once more, indefinitely.

Given the varied interpretations available to the modern American consumer, the principal mechanism that preoccupies the use of zombies in popular culture is change. Change being a watershed moment, black swan event, or a sudden cultural paradigm shift. Grant’s spiritual awakening in the New Age has been assaulted by the transition from LSD to LCD, which is ironic given that Grant’s own youth culture was reacting against the norms of post-war/Thatcher England.

I don’t want to blame Grant though. I love Grant. And I understand the precision of his words and sentiment, which have moved me so. The pathological adherence to “proven” narrative formulas, tropes, and genre conventions represent a greater trend that has engrossed, and enthralled, American millennial culture. Within this larger culture, there is currently another cultural trend obsessed with stopping change: specifically, the unruly paranoia of #GamerGate and #ComicGate. A minority of people are seeing their world changing too fast. Rather than accept it, they see zombies to be destroyed. In fact, they seem to want to rape and kill zombies.

#GamerGate and #ComicGate fanatics feel backed into a corner. They foresee a wave of uncontrollable change, which they seek to demonize and attack, fearing that an aspect that they see as intrinsic to their social identity will change. Just like zombies lack humanity and are dismembered savagely in zombie genre fiction without empathy, #GamerGate / #ComicGate constituents are reduced to survivalist and reactionary tendencies, manifesting their need to prove dominance by threatening women with rape, and somehow thus protect their culture by eliminating what they deem to be foreign elements threatening that culture.

I don’t think I need to overstate how incredibly inappropriate this is, and that this constitutes terrorism and articulates the same kind of attitudes organizations like Al-Qaeda and ISIS have towards the West. These are reactionary movements concerned with stemming change and equal rights, in favor of some kind of artificial “purity” that probably never existed. Western education, like feminist critics in geek circles, are treated like a zombie infection that must be eliminated in order to preserve “civilization as we know it.” These groups refuse to permit civilization to evolve, and their desperate attempt to preserve an artificial status quo from change leads to shocking inhumanity against those deemed a threat, which are dehumanized as a kind of zombie Other.

The cure for zombification in most genre fiction is usually death. Rarely are zombies curable, even if zombification is the result of a deadly virus or fungus. Warm Bodies, a zombie romantic comedy, is one of the few in which the zombification is cured… by love, which preserves necrotizing flesh apparently. Despite its unruly premise, the outcome emphasizes reconciliation in the face of a greater universal evil. This is unique among zombie fiction. Usually, in works like Robert Kirkman’s Walking Dead, the enemy is humanity, which is reduced to brutality on par with the zombies. (This is a cynical deconstruction of humanity’s capacity to hope and work in collusion with one another.) Our culture is saturated with, obsessed with, death, which is casually exalted to pop culture sensation. iZombie on the CW features a forensic scientist who has been turned into the undead, but eats brains to maintain an otherwise normal life. Only when she is given to passion does she “turn.” Where does this all lead?

Geek culture has become Zombified.

A big fear among Americans is the fear of being usurped by a greater world power. Americans seek control, and savor it. We have a reasonably stratified society (though not perfectly distributed in urban communities), possess clean drinking water, infrastructure, and a relatively low rate of civil unrest, in comparison to most of the developed nations. We live on a very large island (essentially), separated by thousands of miles of water from developing nations and squabbling continental powers. All this, and yet zombies and literature of the apocalypse are fetishized in popular culture. They are the antithesis of everything American culture represents: individualism, liberty, armament, etc. Yet Americans are zombies themselves: consumers, subject to group think, trends, and movements, and remarkably fragile (physically and spiritually).

This applies equally to Geek culture. Television shows like The Big Bang Theory depict nerd archetypes firing quips and one liners, but are without substance and intellect like the programs that geeks enshrine, such as Dr. Who and Star Trek (both stemming from a golden age of cinema and science-fiction). Comic books are sanitized with shoddy writing and predictable plots, sold for staggering prices, and feature incomplete stories which are completely inconsequential. The Marvel Cinematic Universe, while terrific in spectacle, has little in the way of philosophical provocation. (The Marvel cinematic Universe operates on Silver Age enthusiasm, just only without the groundbreaking icebreakers like Neal Adam’s revolutionary stories featuring Green Arrow’s sidekick, Speedy, hooked on heroin.) All these signs seem to point toward the zombification of popular media, the rise of serialized consumerism; and at any sign of opposition, the mob rises and strikes down the dissident voices in an effort to conserve the status quo, which they themselves have deluded themselves into believing are “right,” despite lacking critical training and insight.

So, in an unwitting twist of irony, our fetishizing of zombies (among other genre tropes) has contributed to the negative impact on creativity within a subculture of media that once stood out from the crowd as groundbreaking. Science-fiction, which often introduces technologies before their real-life conception (the submarine, for example, in Jules Verne and H.G. Well’s civil engineering predictions in Anticipations of the Reaction of Mechanical and Scientific Progress Upon Human Life and Thought), provokes the mind but also meditates on the consequences of technology and human advancement. Zombification, likewise, is a self-fulfilling prophecy, a manifestation of mob-rule that engulfs dissonance. Our sad fate is that we live in a dystopian world ourselves: consumerism has engendered a culture of zombified patrons. We have caught the outbreak. We are the infected. We stand in line for every movie that Marvel, DC, and Twentieth Century Fox put out and never ask ourselves, “why?” What paranoia produced this creative malaise? We ought to find out quickly before a group of wasteland wanderers come along and drive axes into our skulls.

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Stuart Warren is the former managing editor and webmaster for Sequart Organization. Stuart earned a BA in English with an emphasis in Early Modern Studies at University of California Santa Barbara. An avid reader and historian, Stuart researches Nordic mythology and paganism and is self-taught in the Norwegian language (Bokmål). He is a novelist and comic book writer. Spirit of Orn, his breakout Science Fantasy epic is now available for purchase via Amazon Kindle and iBooks.

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