Monstrous Times

Issued: Tue, 01 Jul 2014 11:06:10 BST

Who are they, these zombies who have been lumbering so relentlessly through popular culture in recent years? What do they mean, sociologically speaking?

They are, to start with, not what they were. That, of course, is rather the point with zombies, only I don't mean individually, but as a whole. The category of the zombie has changed over time. Even the undead, as it turns out, do not escape history; they keep coming back to life, but they do so differently on each occasion.

The literary critic Franco Moretti, in a brilliant analysis of Frankenstein and Dracula, interpreted gothic horror as a kind of shadowy mirror of bourgeois society, reflecting back to that society fears generated within itself, about itself, which it could not face directly, but from which it could draw a pleasurable shiver once they were sublimated out and projected back on to figures that were safely, distantly supernatural. 'It is', Moretti wrote, 'a fear one needs: the price for coming contentedly to terms with a social body based on irrationality and menace'.

What then would be the social fear which draws from the ground these plagues upon plagues of 'walkers'? In their early incarnation in mass culture, in films such as White Zombie and Jacques Tourneur's I Walked With a Zombie, it was a fear whose roots lay in the unstable category of race in colonized societies and plantation economies. In these films the zombie is a figure emerging from a world of 'native' voodoo which appears to be threateningly alien to the white romantic leads, but one with which they are often revealed to be surprisingly complicit.

Those early films trafficked in a fear of black bodies, but it was a fear shot through with more than just a frisson of desire. On the surface, the fear was fear of difference, but more frightening and unspeakable still was what that desire implied: the instability of difference, the hybridity which continuously undid the order of 'race'. The limits of otherness.

Interesting, then, that otherness is precisely what our contemporary zombies so evidently lack. The bodies that shamble after the protagonists in The Walking Dead and in any number of other similar shows, films and games, are our bodies, they wear our suits and work overalls, jeans and dresses, they are of all shapes and sizes. These zombies are stripped of any exoticism, rendered absolutely ordinary or mundane, a fact which Shaun of the Dead turned into its central joke, but which also defines their threat. Because these recent zombies are, of course, zombies in the plural. In that earlier incarnation the zombie still retained something of the singular, aberrant quality of 'the monster'. Not now. Now they fill streets, they fill cities. Countries even. Their numbers can only be adequately taken in by crane shots or from helicopters, a tendency which World War Z took to its tedious, CGI generated limit. These zombies are, in short, a mass.

If this is our sociological lead, if the endlessly revisited zombie apocalypse speaks to us of some fear of mass society, what fear exactly? The answer, one might suppose, and as many critics have suggested, is something to do with consumption. After all, what other appetite is left to zombies apart from hunger? And what are these hordes designed to look like more than the crowds of 'black Friday' or 'Boxing Day' sale shoppers? The famous scenes in George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead, in which the undead wander aimlessly through an abandoned shopping mall, drawn back by 'some kind of instinct', as one character puts it, made this interpretation satirically explicit.

Yet, it seems to me, this is a misreading. Mindless consumption is only the symptom here, for zombies, as for us. The real plague, the real horror, is something otherwise. To know what, we need to take a look at them, a close look in those unfocussed, emotionless eyes: zombies, surely, more than anything else, are bored. Bored to death. Or, better still, trapped in boredom as a kind of un-death. Here's Henri Lefebvre, writing about the newly built, planned towns of the twentieth century: 'the everyday in them is [...] deprived of basic spontaneity. It wanders around stagnantly and loses hope in the midst of its own emptiness, which nothing technical can ever fill, not even a television set or a car'. Sound familiar? This is from 1961, so Lefebvre can't have seen those first 'mass' zombies breaking out of the ground in Night of the Living Dead. But perhaps he saw them coming.

So if we were to try to 'read' the zombie, sociologically, then surely the horror which their presence in popular culture expresses - in their weird ordinariness, in their utter disinterest in anything except the most mundane demands of appetite - is the abject failure of capitalism to create a day-to-day life which is in any way sufficient to, or aligned with, the rich, creative potential of human beings. If they are frightening, they are frightening in precisely the sense that Moretti predicts; not because of what they can turn us into, but for what they show us of what we already are: the dull-eyed boredom of capitalism's everyday, that sense of being fed-up and restlessly insatiable at one and the same time. The real horror of the zombie, it turns out, is not that they've come back to life but that they've come back to the same life.

In her history of the roots of modern racism, Hannah Arendt called boredom Europe's 'best-hidden disease', a disease which 'burst like an abscess' in the anti-Semitism of the Dreyfus Affair. With the zombies of mass culture this historical connection has played out in reverse. They started with a search for titillation and exoticism rooted in the racism of empire and slavery but lead us back, from that, to modernity's plague of boredom, giving it an undeniably apt but comfortingly ludicrous form.

What hope then, amid these continuously re-run endings of the world? Well, here I find myself departing a little from Moretti, because it seems to me that, as CLR James recognized, there is not just complicity in the creations of mass culture - not just an invitation to make our peace with the world through fear or laughter - but also something else, something which speaks to a popular refusal of the world as it is. One of the most striking but easily overlooked aspects of the recent zombie genre is what it makes of its non-zombie protagonists. And what it makes them is stateless. Tramping through a hostile world, surviving and travelling as they can, seeking some kind of sanctuary or resting place, these films, books and games cast their (usually first world) characters into the position of the refugee.

Occasionally, as in Gareth Edward's Monsters (not strictly a zombie film, but close enough), this is made more or less explicit. But even in many other, less politically aware films there is a very evident and extraordinary negativity in the portrayal of the state, which willingly and ruthlessly becomes the defender of newly erected borders against its own erstwhile citizens, and is assumed to be happy to use any kind of violence against them. In the 2010 remake of Romero's The Crazies, to give one example, this includes forcibly detaining citizens in detainment camps, and finally obliterating whole towns with nuclear weapons. Indeed in this, and many other examples, the state is revealed to be the root cause of the horror in the first place: the origin of the 'plague' lies in some experiment gone wrong within the secret bunkers of the military-industrial complex. Quite explicitly the capitalist state, in these fearful re-imaginings of our world, is complicit with what it is that the protagonists must seek to escape; the order which that state threatens to restore is as bad as horror which threatens to overwhelm it.

In this respect, then, is it not the case that, despite the gore, the violence and squalor, part of what draws audiences to these stories is the sense within them of possibility, the tantalizing idea of making a beginning? Another great Marxist humanist, Erich Fromm, famously argued that capitalist modernity was defined by its curtailment of the capacity of human beings to act in history, to create and recreate themselves and their meaningful world. He called this modern society’s fear of freedom. Yet the figure of the zombie in popular culture suggests that there might also be in some small, contingent sense a reaching towards freedom through our fears. Beyond and against the state, and fleeing the staggering figures of capitalism's everyday horror, there is a glimpse of the human freedom to remake the world and in the bare, stripped down sociality which the survivors defend, a recognition that our inescapable need of each other is the condition of that freedom.