It was my first visit to Disneyland. I had been on numerous rides and was overwhelmed by the general atmosphere of the place (actually, I pretty much hate Disney, but will still go along with my friends and if I can get in for a steeply discounted price). I was almost to the front of the line of “Pirates of the Caribbean,” talking to a friend about our current cultural milieu, and somehow zombies came up. Not sure if it was because of the undead pirates we were about to see, but I suddenly had a thought that struck me like a light bulb turning on, or however that metaphor goes: why are zombie movies so popular? Why are some people obsessed with “prepping” for a doomsday? I came to the conclusion that many of us are, in fact, either epistemic or behavioral zombies but don’t realize it.
First, I have to answer a question you probably now have: what do I mean by “epistemic?” I don’t mean in a strict philosophical sense, as relating to consciousness and the problem of other minds. I simply mean that, relating to our cognitive abilities, it’s quite possible that we’ve been zombified. So, I don’t mean that no one but you is conscious, or that you can’t know that they are. But, instead, I mean that something has gone radically wrong in our thought process, and many of us generally realize this may be the case without knowing the exact nature of the problem.
Here, let’s turn to main features of a zombie in popular culture. Whether you are watching World War Z, Night of the Living Dead, or 28 Days Later, some key features must be present for a creature to be recognized as a zombie. Epistemically, the main feature of a zombie is its lack of cognition: the zombie thinks about nothing . Behaviorally, one feature is the desire to consume humans. This desire is never satiated. Another is the herd mentality: zombies are always in groups, seeking to devour anyone who is not like them. A last feature is that zombies are disfigured, shadows of healthy humans. They are always destructive.
Let’s consider the epistemic feature. How do we relate to zombies? Well, generally speaking, everyone thinks very similarly, lacking uniqueness. For example, in the workplace, unique thinking is reprimanded and the standard thinking is encouraged (I worked in a warehouse once where I was trained to circle and cross numbers off at specific times in the order-filling process). Our thoughts are excessively shallow; we care mostly about the surface of things. We’re obsessed with body image and body shaping and not with character formation.
Our thoughts stay on the surface of a debate and never delve into the deeper things surrounding an issue (consider Presidential debates here). In reality, things are far more complicated and messy than we have the ability to consider these days. Shallow, messy thoughts are usually the best we can do.
Now, consider the first behavioral feature: the insatiable desire to consume others. This might be a bit of a stretch, but bear with me. That our culture is consumptive is no new revelation. My contention is that we no longer consume only products, but rather consume both products and each other.
Here I could point to social media (it is based on your desire to project a consumable image and consume news from others) and the exorbitant amount of time spent on it. But, I will refrain from this cliché and rather point to a general work environment, in which gossip is the norm rather than the exception. News travels quickly, is absorbed and given to individuals who are waiting for the next juicy tidbit. We care little for how destructive this is and how much it harms our fellow coworkers. We consume then move on.
Another feature is a herd mentality in which anyone outside the group and not like the zombie is instantly noticed, pointed out, and either destroyed or turned. The most recent election cycle has made this problem demonstratively larger than most of us would have seen as little as six months ago. We stay in our groups, and anyone who is outside that group that disagrees with us is attacked, maligned, and hopefully shut up fairly quickly.
Search algorithms have made the boundaries more pronounced between groups, allowing only that information to get into the group which it will agree with. This is why a dissenting voice cannot be tolerated by those within the group, even if that dissenting voice is itself a member of another group. The voice is seen as alone, isolated, and thus ripe for attack and destruction; and, when the individual ceases interaction, the group believes it has carried the day and successfully either turned or destroyed the opposition.
The last feature is how disfigured a zombie is: it’s a joke at Halloween parties to have your eye or arm missing as part of a costume. Obviously, those we interact with on a daily basis aren’t physically distorted. No, rather, they are missing immaterial pieces that are integral to what it is to be human, one of which is properly formed emotions.
CS Lewis, in The Abolition of Man, points out that to have poorly formed emotions is to be a man without a chest. This is a problem that he saw inherent within modern man. For example, our reaction to natural beauty has slowly been impacted by our distractions with other things. It’s difficult to attend to a sunset the way it should be, much less rain, fog, or a butterfly’s wings. All of these things require a particular posture towards them, a way of attending that most of us are either incapable of doing or we simply don’t care.
This inattention is a misshaping of our desires and pleasures. So, the average person isn’t missing a literal, physical eye; but, he has indeed lost the ability to perceive the world around him and respond accordingly.
In the end, I admit that this analysis stays on the surface of how I’m seeing the world in which I find myself. And, I’m sure those who read this will point out that I am assuming some things and not making an argument for them: I assume that natural beauty should have a particular response, as an example. Most of what I point to has been said by others, and so I don’t find the need to make those types of arguments. My only intention is to point to the similarities I see between my society and the worlds depicted in zombie movies; and it is these similarities which I believe make the genre so popular.
We all have an unnamed anxiety that something is wrong with our society, and zombie films depict in a grandiose and metaphorical way some of what has gone wrong. In the end, zombies reflect for us what we have each become. Not entirely, but enough that it gives us pause. Hopefully, reflecting on this will help us see some areas where we need to change.