Updated: Jul 15, 2019
I've been thinking about zombies this morning. I’m not into the whole zombie thing, but I realized this morning I should’ve been paying closer attention because the meaning of the word zombie, even used metaphorically, has changed.
I really enjoyed the episode of Castle last night and one of the things I liked was that the writers used the “classic zombie” concept. Talking about it this morning I realized that even “classic zombie” doesn’t mean what it used to. When I said “classic zombie” the response was “Oh, yeah, where they were surrounded by zombies.” “No, that’s still contemporary zombies. I mean classic zombies: the person is turned into a zombie by a drug and they lose their own will and are completely under the control of another.” That is the zombie of Fear Theater which I watched in the afternoons as a kid, a lurking sinister figure who would stop at nothing because they had lost their humanity and were under the control of someone, usually someone evil. They were called euphemistically “the living dead” because although they were alive and to all appearances looked alive (unlike contemporary zombies which look like animated rotting corpses) the life they knew had been taken from them and they merely existed. The horror of the classic zombie was the same type of horror as the pod people in Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Stepford Wives. The horror of becoming a zombie was a loss of self, a loss of identity, having no free will, existing only in a very basic way, capable of nothing more than obeying your master and carrying out that person’s will. A zombie was a slave, a tool, a non-human because their humanity — along with their very identity — had been stripped away in a voodoo ceremony with the ingestion of a drug that wiped out one’s will and knowledge of self. In contrast, many zombies in contemporary zombie lore (which is often tied to the idea of infection) retain some sense of who they were before they became zombies. They are infectious, decomposing, cannibalistic, and usually have poor motor skills, but they often know who they are and aside from murderous impulses act of their own volition. At the very least, they are not under anyone’s control. In contrast, the classic zombie, is a slave, a drone, has no consciousness, often looks unhealthy but sometimes can retain the physique of a thug. They do menial tasks, carry out evil plans, spy on people. They never speak, as I recall. They are sinister and silent, stealthy.
It occurred to me this morning that the change in the pop culture image of the zombie means that without realizing it I’ve probably been misunderstood on a number of occasions. “Zombie” entered my vocabulary at a young age and my use of the word hasn’t changed much. Since I have no occasion to use the word “zombie” literally, it slipped in as metaphor, but my metaphor probably isn’t yours. When I say, “I’ve been walking around like a zombie all morning,” what I mean is that I’ve just been going through the motions, hardly aware of what I’m doing or what’s going on around me. But what does “walking around like a zombie” mean to most people now? The only thing I can think of is that they think I’ve been shuffling around slowly. But if I wanted to say that I was moving slowly and shuffling, I’d say, “I’m moving like an old woman this morning.” (Which is usually the result of sore muscles, not zombification.) “I feel like a zombie” no longer means that you feel like you have no will to do anything or no will of your own, or that you feel like you’re just going through the motions. It means what? That you feel cannibalistic?
While the idea of infection and a rapidly spreading contagion is one that resonates with modern society in this age of exotic deadly diseases and rapid global travel, let’s not forget that other ages had plagues which wiped out a significant part of the population: we are not unique in dealing with such things. On the other hand, feeling that one is just going through the motions and being a pawn of more powerful people, as well as problems of identity and sense of self are more prevalent as modern psychological problems. (Or is it just that we’re less aware of this historically?)
I think we’ve lost something culturally significant with the change in zombie lore. In the 21st century the idea of the classic zombie still has a place. Who doesn’t sometimes feel like they are just going through the motions, that they exist at the command of some master, albeit usually a corporate overlord. In a society in which people are reduced to data and marketing statistics, and individuality just throws off the graph, the loss of self and identity remains a concern, as does the concern that sometimes our choices are taken away from us by business, government, or anyone with enough money and power to impose their will. We still have the metaphor of the rat running the maze, but that metaphoric rat gets a food pellet when he does everything right. Sometimes you can do everything right and there’s no reward, just more maze to run. The classic zombie can be used as a potent metaphor for disenfranchisement, having no choices, doing what corporate overloads say, or simply having a bad day and just going through the motions.
Let’s revive the classic idea of a zombie. (Better yet: don’t be one.)