There’s no denying it – zombies have overrun the earth, and us humans have gladly allowed it to happen. If you switch on a TV, go to the cinema, open a book or even take an evening stroll outside, the living dead are out in force.
Unlike most trends (vampires, werewolves, wizards) zombies don’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon. In fact, the living dead seem to be going from strength to strength and are invading every cor ner of our culture. Why is this?
Take a look at this trend graph from Google Trends. This shows people in the UK who’ve been searching for zombies (red), vampires (blue), werewolves (yellow) and wizards (green) since 2004.
We thought that everyone was going crazy for vampires back when the Twilight Saga hit in 2006 (or 2008 if you’re into the movies). That’s nothing compared to how much zombie love there is in the world, and from the looks of things there’s no stopping the machine.
What’s going on? Why doesn’t the zombie trend behave like every other fad and slowly fade quietly into the good night? Psychologists, sociologists and a lot of other people whose professions end in ologist have tried to figure out why zombies are so popular, but I’d like to have a crack at it if I may.
Up from the rubble
Interest in zombies was on the rise, but The Walking Dead changed something. The zombie genre was no longer confined to the realms of horror; it needn’t be watched from behind the sofa like Romero’s fantastic Living Dead series or Boyle’s 28 Days Later (before the crushing weight of the Internet bears down upon me, I use the term zombie loosely in the case of the Boyle movies). Let’s take a look at those monstrous red spikes up on that graph. November 2010 and November 2012 – when the first and third seasons of The Walking Dead hit our screens.
Stories like those in The Walking Dead comics or TV show (or in the tie-ins by Robert Kirkman and Jay Bonansinga, Rise of the Governor and The Road to Woodbury) are, at their heart, survivor stories. The fact that reanimated corpses are feasting on human flesh is incidental; what enthrals us is the journey of the survivor.
The focus of The Walking Dead is on how this ragtag group of people manages to eke out a living in this zombie infested world, and we’re thrilled at the prospect of seeing them attempting to rebuild society from scratch.
There’s a quote in Fight Club that best sums this up. “It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything”, and zombie fiction gives us this opportunity to wipe the slate clean and become someone new.
In Alden Bell’s The Reapers Are The Angels, the protagonist Temple embodies that clean slate. As one born into the post-apocalyptic world, all she’s known is the desolation wrought by the zombie onslaught, and that’s what makes her such a compelling character – she has near-unlimited potential because she’s not bound by the restraints of the world that came before (Alden Bell expands that world in Exit Kingdom).
We want to see someone run through the gauntlet of Hell, to stare oblivion in the face and rise up from the ashes with the promise of a new world on the wind. That, I would argue, is what keeps the zombie genre going.
The most resilient thing about zombies
is that you can put them in almost any given situation and it works. Want a romantic comedy with zombies in it? Boom, you’ve got Shaun of the Dead. Want zombies in a period drama? Done; here’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. How about a sprinkling of zombies in your steampunk? Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century series is for you.
Zombies can infect (pardon the pun) any genre that you care to name because there’s a frightening whisper of reality about them. Of all the traditional monsters you care to name, zombies are by the far the most likely candidate to become a reality.
There already exist a handful of species of fungal parasite that infect and take over the willpower of insects, altering their behaviour drastically. It only takes a few steps of mutation to become something that can infect the human race, something that the video game The Last of Us uses as the basis of its story.
Vampirism and lycanthropy still have their roots firmly buried in the realms of fantasy and mythology. Zombies are by comparison a frighteningly real prospect, and that allows them to pervade any corner of our culture.
So why hasn’t the zombie fad gone the way of the vampire? I’d say it’s because zombies aren’t a creature or a monster – they’re an event, one that has the potential to become a reality and one that grants us the chance to create the world anew.
You can keep your vampires, werewolves and wizards. The zombie genre is where the greatest potential, and the greatest adventure, await.
Why do you think zombies are still so popular? Let me know your thoughts in the comments!
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