|Image: Alexandra Loizzo’s zombatar. Create your own here!|
As you all probably know, zombies are in right now. And I mean really in. Beyond Michael Jackson’s Thriller kind of in.
Even if you haven’t watched The Living Dead or read World War Z (which I haven’t), I'm pretty sure you’ve at least heard of Jane Austen’s “newest” novel, the wildly popular Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Personally, I know all the words to the Plants vs. Zombies theme song. But that’s about as far as I’ve gotten into this new trend. Well, that and taking the quiz on whether or not I will make it through the Zombie Apocalypse, scheduled for 12/22/2012 (FYI: I will survive!).
In discussing this new fascination for everything undead, I’ve heard several people say that these supernatural fads, whether they be for zombies, vampires, wizards, or anything else, come in cycles. Or, if you prefer a different metaphor, in waves. The interesting thing about this new zombie obsession though, is that the mythology around the creatures seems to have changed.
What Wikipedia terms the “original zombies” were connected to voodoo. This version of zombie lore was popular at least through the 1940’s, and you can see a representation of it in the 1943 film I Walked With a Zombie (postcolonial theorists shouldn’t have any trouble constructing a fruitful analysis even from just the trailer of this film).
Of course, being an old woman inside, this was the myth I was familiar with. At first, I thought the Plants vs. Zombies zombies were weird in their fascination with brains (AKA “braaaaaaaaaains”) and eating flesh. But, as I found out this past Thanksgiving, apparently this is not the case. This whole brain-eating thing is just part of the new construction of zombies. Generally, zombies are no longer people under a powerful voodoo mind-control spell. They are, as Wikipedia so aptly describes it, “victims of a fictional pandemic illness causing the dead to reanimate or the living to behave this way [as zombies].”
This new incarnation of zombies, perhaps surprisingly, has also leant itself to academic analysis. Now that zombies are seen as a potential health threat and not just creations of some strange form of magic (most similar to the imperius curse in Harry Potter), academics can analyze what our fears of zombies really mean. We can think about what a response to a zombie apocalypse would look like and compare it to how we should respond to other cataclysmic events. We can analyze ourselves, our societies, and our politics through this pop-cultural fiction.
In his recent book Theories of International Politics and Zombies, Daniel W. Drezner (also author of the Chronicle article that partly inspired this post) says that he “realized that zombies are a great synecdoche for a constellation of emerging threats […] I looked at the literature on ‘zombielike events,’ calamities akin to an army of reanimated, ravenous corpses. This meant researching the sociology of panic, the political economy of natural disasters, and the ways in which past epidemics have affected world politics. […] Applying international-relations theory to a zombie-infested world was a way of affectionately but satirically tweaking the field's strictures.”
I don’t know if this method would work for every field or for every scholar, but I think Drezner’s decision to take something that is currently so ingrained in our culture and use it as a lens through which to analyze his subject’s concerns and current or pending real-world problems is brilliant. These kinds of books may be somewhat satirical, but satire is also engaging (I mean, hey, if it was good enough for Jonathan Swift it should be good enough for us, right?). And using such a broadly-known topic as a starting point allows academics to draw more people into the conversation. Maybe now it won’t just be the author’s colleagues who read the book; everyday people (AKA zombie enthusiasts) might pick up the book for different reasons and learn just as much.
I’m sure there are other books like this out there, and perhaps we just don’t hear of them as often, but maybe that’s because it’s not as normal. Or accepted. Or even encouraged. Personally, I’d love to see more people do this. And not just with zombies. Though I do think a book analyzing the shift in zombie lore would be fascinating.