A few days ago The Atlantic published a great article by Mike Mariani on zombies. Mariani’s piece discusses the origins of the zombie on colonial sugar plantations and the cultural evolution between sign and signified which has befallen the zombie over the years. I highly recommend you take a look at the piece, which you can find here.*
I found one passage of Mariani’s article particularly fascinating.
For a brief period, the living dead served as a handy Rorschach test for America’s social ills. At various times, they represented capitalism, the Vietnam War, nuclear fear, even the tension surrounding the civil-rights movement. Today zombies are almost always linked with the end of the world via the “zombie apocalypse,” a global pandemic that turns most of the human population into beasts ravenous for the flesh of their own kind. But there’s no longer any clear metaphor. While America may still suffer major social ills—economic inequality, policy brutality, systemic racism, mass murder—zombies have been absorbed as entertainment that’s completely independent from these dilemmas.
This makes a certain kind of sense when we think of zombies as an independent cultural phenomenon, but I’m not sure we can argue that. The rise of zombie fiction (and zombie runs and planning for the zombie apocalypse) has been part and parcel of a rise in supernatural fiction of all kinds. For every zombie love story there’s a vampire love story. For every zombie show there’s a vampire show. I haven’t done a comprehensive survey of the media but I get the general impression that there is vastly more vampire media than zombie media.
However, Mariani’s focus on zombies makes perfect sense given the fact that I own a book on how to survive the zombie apocalypse and the CDC addresses it (with tongue firmly in cheek). I wonder if he prevalence of vampire media is downplayed because it’s most voracious consumers are demographics which, while powerful, are often downplayed as serious players: teenage girls and romance readers.**
That said vampires and zombies are two sides of the same coin. They are both undead humans which need to consume live humans. In either case it is a dark, pseudo-cannabalistic nightmare. Zombies are brainless. They are devoid of rationality and often even the ability to articulate (although that is changing in some less canonical zombie fiction). Vampires are always educated. In some vampire fiction vampires pursue education as a way to while away eternity and hold advanced degrees. However, even if vampires do not actively seek out education they know a great deal about history and culture by virtue of their long lives. Zombies exist in mass. Vampires typically exist as solitary creatures or in small families. Zombies face the ravages of the elements. Vampires are confined to, but also protected by, in door haunts during daylight hours.
It seems to me that the real difference between zombies and vampires is a difference of class.
I often wonder if the explosion in zombie and vampire fiction has to do with the recognition that we are killing our planet through consumption and, in a short time, any humans remaining would be deemed un-dead according to the standard of living now enjoyed by some on this planet. The zombie apocalypse is still a metaphor for our social ills, even if the metaphor is less coherent and explicit than in previous times. It is a metaphor for ecological crisis brought on by human arrogance and errors.
When there are no longer enough resources for everyone there will be a few, at the very top, who have accrued a great deal of resources and who have shelter from the ecological damage in controlled ecosystems away from the sun. Their lives, like those of vampires, could very well be incredibly lavish and incredibly boring. All they would have to entertain them would be the pursuits we see in a great deal of vampire fiction: internal politics, family drama, and sexual intrigue.
Most of the rest of us will be zombies. Left out in the wilderness to become the ultimate embodiment of the unwashed masses scavenging what we can for survival. Lives would be nasty, brutish, and short. With all skills focusing on survival there would be no time for the production of art or pursuit of reason. Indeed, would there be much need to talk?
Mariani argues that the drama of The Walking Dead is in the fact that the lives of the human characters automatically have value because they are the only human lives there are. I wonder if the lives of the humans in TWD help us imagine an ecological and economic crisis in which there is a sliver of room for the middle class.
*If you like Mariani’s work you should look up Adryan Glasgow’s stuff. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that her book will be published soon.
**I am SO not an expert on this stuff and IN NO WAY have done a media survey. This is just my general impression from being a nerd who loves fantasy, sic-fi, romance and does some girl studies sometimes. I would love for people who look at this more directly to share their thoughts.