Image from 'Shaun of the Dead'




Yes, vampires are still a hot media commodity, but zombies are vying to knock them off the cultural pedestal.

S. T. Karnick considers the terrifying facts.


With the rise of zombie movies as a cultural force while numerous books about zombies are hitting the stores, capped by the spoof novel Pride and Prejudice and Zombies having recently reached the top of the bestseller list, zombies are a definite fad. An article in the Chicago Tribune documents the phenomenon and suggests some reasons for it.

First the author suggests identification as the main factor: we are interested in zombies because according to the mythology, we could become them ourselves (should we die after being bitten by one):

"There’s a sadness," said S.G. Browne. "They used to be us. But they’re tragic and comical and they want to be friends, but we run. Vampires are Brad Pitts. Zombies are more like the Steve Buscemis. We can relate."

That natural sense of sympathy, however, conflicts with an even more fundamental urge: the drive to stay alive, as the latter absolutely requires that we kill every zombie we can find. That’s a rather poignant situation, and I think it does indeed account for some of the power of zombie stories.

Thus the Tribune story quotes Dr. Steven Schlozman, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School:

"What happens in zombie movies is important," he said, "because we shoot zombies in the head, then we start to enjoy it, then we feel sheepish. We can learn a lot from a scenario like that."

The Tribune story also considers the question of why the zombie phenomenon speaks to contemporary America in particular, suggesting that the answer is that people today are extraordinarily fearful, as a result especially of the 9/11 attacks (as I noted in 2004) and (much less persuasively or even plausibly) the recent reports of a coming swine flu epidemic. The Trib story quotes Max Brooks, author of The Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z as making that claim:

"Because with swine flu and everything else, it strikes a chord, it helps work out apocalyptic anxieties without getting too real," Brooks said.

In fact, "The Zombie Survival Guide" was born of pre-Y2K hysteria, he said, not unlike the zombies of George Romero’s zombie classics, born of Vietnam and racial anxieties ("Night of the Living Dead") and zoned-out American consumerism ("Dawn of the Dead").

Thus Brooks correctly observes that a widespread sense of anxiety has prevailed in American society for several decades–which coincides with the rise of the zombie as a cultural phenomenon, I would add. The phenomenon started with the unexpected popularity of the low-budget zombie film Night of the Living Dead in 1968, a year of great turmoil in the United States.

The Trib story goes on to quote the author of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies with his idea about what makes zombies especially fascinating today:

It may be a cringing irony that the current zombie craze coincides with a deadly outbreak of swine flu. But it goes beyond that, said Grahame-Smith.

"We live in a time when we think a lot about big faceless groups of people in the world who mean to do us harm and can’t be talked to, and so it’s not surprising we would take comfort in the zombie."

As opposed to other times when there weren’t big, faceless groups of people meaning to do us harm? No, none of these explanations gets to the essence and explains the enduring appeal of this cultural phenomenon over the past four decades.

I think the causality is the other way around. Both the zombie appeal and the swine flu fears are caused by two things: the news media’s increasing use of scare tactics in trying to lure audiences, and the socialists’ continuous use of fearmongering to press for political power. In their neverending quest to wrest more power by creating what H. L. Mencken correctly characterized as an endless series of hobgoblins requiring a socialist elite’s powers to destroy, the socialists and their media satraps continually raise fears of everything conceivable:

  • medical and public-health scares from Alar in apples to Gulf War Syndrome to Asian flu to swine flu
  • all-out nuclear war (it never happened because both sides indeed knew it would be catastrophic and wouldn’t get them what they wanted)
  • a housing "crisis" that could hit innocent homeowners and investors (as opposed to being the necessary consequences of irresponsible actions by lenders and borrowers) and bring down the entire economy
  • the earth overheating and killing all life on the planet

. . . and so on and so on for decade after decade.

This habit of the political elites and mainstream media is quite sufficient to account for the dominant sense of unease and constant fear one can see among much of the contemporary American public.

The irony is that for the public to give in to this scam would be the one sure way for the zombies to win.

S. T. Karnick