Reposing on my generation’s sizable backside, I have to say the view from here is entertaining. Popular culture is certainly not stagnant. The past years have seen the flux of aberrant human archetypes from admirable superheroes and immortals to the fearfully and mysteriously strange. Vampires made their first appearance in literature in Polidori’s The Vampyre, in 1816. The first book in English that deals with lycanthropy and blood lust is Sabine Baring-Gould’s The Book of Werewolves, published in 1865. The first film featuring a vampire is Nosferatu, a silent film from 1922 and the first feature film to use an anthropomorphic werewolf is The Werewolf of London, 1935.
The zombie as an undead made its first appearance in The Epic of Gilgamesh, circa 18th century BC. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein , published in 1818, while not a zombie novel, heralded the idea of the resurrection of the dead. Victor Halperin’s White Zombie , released in 1932, is often cited as the first zombie film, although the 1910 film, Frankenstein features a reanimated corpse. Why are zombies so popular? They’re hardly glamorous, as the vampires and werewolves are depicted, with superhuman strength and no conscience. Zombies are frightening because of how horrible it would be to become one. Their decomposing bodies are repugnant; they eat human flesh; they spread disease and they don’t have any intention of sharing the planet with the living. So, why are these nasty creatures enjoying widespread popularity?
One theory suggests that zombies are in vogue because of society’s perception of the uncertain times we’re living in, with climate change affecting weather patterns; economic uncertainty and the terrorism threat. The public is often bombarded with talk of global disasters which manifests itself in anxiety and fear. People need to explore the apocalyptic scenarios and the zombie apocalypse fills that need. Even the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) have assuaged that need and have based their disaster preparedness plans on the zombie apocalypse (http://www.cdc.gov).
A global disaster that would create infected, flesh-eating, walking dead has been often revisited by film makers. However, Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, 1968, is credited with originating a new type of zombie, one that is not created by magic as in the Voodoo religion, but one that is more contemporary. I am of the opinion that Resident Evil, first a video game and then a series of films beginning in 2002, spurred the current interest in zombies, which is popular now over a decade. The television series, The Walking Dead, first aired in 2010 and based on a comic book of the same name, has popularized the zombie apocalypse as have films such as Zombieland (2009), and most recently, World War Z
Let’s suppose that some event, accidental or intentional, could actually cause the creation and unleashing into the world a formidable army of mindless, flesh-eating, zombies . Just how would they get a strangle hold on a technologically advanced country like the United States? Zombies would have to cover the continent to be a significant military threat. They could overcome us through the back door by carrying some highly virulent disease that acts quickly and travels all over the globe in the blink of an eye. Can you see holes in this theory? There are some theories out there that suggest a zombie outbreak could not endure. Cracked (http://www,cracked.com) promotes several reasons:
- They have too many natural predators, from maggots to wild animals drawn to rotting corpses.
- They would suffer putrefaction, a stage of decomposition in which the corpse’s tissues break down and most of the organs would be subject to liquefaction and in high temperature environs they could actually blow up from the build up of gases.
- They can’t handle the cold. With enough exposure a zombie could freeze.
- Biting is an inefficient way of spreading disease.
- They can’t heal from day-to-day damage.
- The landscape is full of zombie-proof barriers.
The most important reason a zombie outbreak could quickly be contained has to do with weapons and the people who use them. There are nearly 15 million people hunting with a licence in the U.S. (total based on licenses issued, 2011). That’s not counting the hand guns and home-made bombs and explosive devices many civilians could improvise . Counting the military and the police there are another 3 million or so armed people. And that’s on the ground. There are also the Air force and the Navy. Mindless, rotting corpses walking into traffic; falling off bridges, cliffs, roof tops; run over by trains etc. are a threat to themselves as much as to the living.
We still don’t have an air-tight reason for the popularity of zombies. Here’s what I think. I don’t believe the popularity of zombies is an indicator of society’s perception of uncertainty in the economy or even what teams will be in the next World Series. Vampires have enjoyed the same popularity for much longer and is reflected in the followers of the Twilight franchise and Anne Rice’s books. Look how long we’ve been infatuated with aliens and everything in the science fiction genre. For years the video game market has been focused on combat games. With each generation come new fads, franchises and followers . The Twilight franchise has pulled in nearly six billion dollars in total sales. Merchandising alone has made sales of almost $400,000,000 (http://www.statisticbrain.com). How about the Simpsons ? The Simpsons has been around for 23 television seasons and the franchise has pulled in over $12 billion with merchandising of $4.5 billion (ibid). How would social scientists explain the success of the Simpsons? Society’s need for stupid? Our lives are complicated so let’s watch a stupid cartoon in which the main character is a reactionary and consistently misunderstands everything. My guess is that it’s entertaining and backed by shrewd marketing.
It all comes down to crackerjack marketing and clever public relations. The Walking Dead has captured the coveted 18-49 age bracket and is highly successful as an apocalyptic television series. I think that’s the key for determining the popularity of zombies: apocalypse. It’s all the rage due to quirky religious predictions of The Apocalypse of Christian Bible fame. And marketing that has been brilliant. A lot of people are sensitive to the preaching of doom and destruction and predictions that all the signs indicate the biblical apocalypse is near. The zombie apocalypse premise gives people the opportunity to see what could happen and how one could survive destruction of all humanity’s material and intellectual achievements, not to mention a considerable percentage of human life. I wager that if Christian writer Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind books became a television series, there would be a sizable following. Why? Because people want to know what could happen if Biblical prophecies were to come true in their lifetime. In lieu of that, a zombie apocalypse fills that niche. And, let’s face it, who doesn’t like a good disaster move in which one can shoot, burn, and blow up monsters, zombie or otherwise, and have justification for doing so? Teenage and young adults have done just that for years with video games. So, the reason for the popularity of zombies? Sometimes a rose is just a rose.