While these descriptions might apply to many of society’s current scourges (over-the-counter derivatives traders, Somali pirates, Central American street gangs and Islamist politicians come to mind), the most popular group to capture the culture’s imagination is a far more terrifying, if less realistic one: zombies.
“Urggggh. Braaaaaains…,” growled the blood-splattered, open wound-sporting, deathly pale-looking (but otherwise attractive) blonde, reaching for random passer-bys on a relatively warm Saturday afternoon in Manhattan. The blonde, along with several dozen of her stunningly gory companions, were participants in Zombiecon, an annual event that, since 2004, has brought together New Yorkers of all stripes for a day of drinking and acting like the undead.
This being New York, most pedestrians simply ignored the spectacle, which several participants noted was the most popular event of its kind in New York. Elsewhere in America (including Fort Myers, Florida where a local CBS affiliate noted a similar zombie event had brought out thousands Saturday), people are taking more time to notice. In books, movies, TV shows, as newscaster metaphors, even in academic papers, zombies are everywhere. Another example: the second season premiere of ‘The Walking Dead,’ a zombie apocalypse show in cable’s AMC network, was expected to be seen by over 6 million viewers this past Sunday.
It is not uncanny for a particular fictional monster to suddenly capture the country’s collective consciousness. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the era of Sputnik and duck-and-cover bomb drills, the monsters of choice were aliens: weird-headed beings from far away that threatened to rain death from above with their superior technology, not unlike the Soviets many expected could start the nuclear holocaust at any second.
The late 60s and early 70s, a time of national turmoil and generational schisms, brought the child-possessing demons of ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ and ‘The Exorcist.’ The late 70s and early 80s brought Hallowen’s Michael Myers, Carrie, Freddy Kreuger and Friday the 13th’s Jason, unstoppable psychopaths that mirrored the monstrous individualism of the ‘Bonfire of the Vanities’ era. In the 90s, an optimistic time where national anxieties were stirred up by the news cycle (killer bees! El Niño! the ozone hole!), the monsters were just as Blair Witch vague.
And let's not even get started on the psycho-sexual mind-warp around barely pubescent vampires.
“Anything goes with zombies,” explains Dominick Costello, a partner and President of Ricky’s NYC, a New York-based costumes and make-up chain that is bound to (pardon the pun) make a killing selling zombie outfits, corpse makeup and fake blood this Halloween.
His store, which has a marketing partnership with the ‘Walking Dead’ show, chose zombies as the main theme behind’s this year ad campaign in hopes of going for “something a little bit more dark.”
“We fell in a love with the concept,” Costello explains when asked why zombies were chosen for their most important advertising drive of the year, adding that in his business “it’s all about keeping it fresh.” Asked how exactly one falls in love with a putrid, mindless, flesh-eating monster, or how exactly said creature could ever be described as “fresh,” Costello laughs.
Not laughing is Drew Huskey, promoter and area rep for Zombie Squad, a group of individuals he describes as “an elite zombie-suppression task force ready to secure your neighborhood from the hordes of walking dead.”
When not busy exterminating the undead, which Huskey admits, is often, his organization uses the concept of a zombie apocalypse as a trope to teach people survivalist skills.
“If you can survive a zombie apocalypse, you can survive any kind of disaster,” he explains, citing as an example a yearly climb his organization sponsors up an undisclosed mountain ridge in Missouri “in the most ungodly, terribly bad heat” to show people how to live off the land for a week.
Asked why he thinks zombies have become such a popular theme as of late, Huskey says people are genuinely afraid of social collapse. “There are a ton of places that preach the upcoming apocalypse. A lot of it is just spook talk. But there is a real need to have disaster preparation,” he says.
A public service announcement campaign begun this past May by the federal Centers for Disease Control, which exhorted people to prepare an emergency kit and plan for the coming zombie apocalypse, seems to validate his point. “You may laugh now, but when it happens you’ll be happy you read this,” read the May CDC press release.
Huskey adds that the surge in interest for all things zombie, in contrast to the sudden popularity of vampires, seems to indicate people are in a pessimistic mood. Unlike the vampires in the popular teen fiction series ‘Twilight’, zombies do not have the ability to achieve personal redemption. No one, even a fiction writer, would ever sell a story about falling in love with a zombie.
“If there is somebody out there that falls in love with that,’ Huskey says, pausing, ‘that’s a whole different set of laws of nature they’re breaking.’
A request for comment on the matter sent to the Hachette Book Group, whose Little, Brown and Company imprint publishes the ‘Twilight’ series, was not returned.
Not that zombies are not a red-hot commodity in the literary, even academic worlds. A group of University professors in New Zealand, for example, is working on an interdisciplinary anthology tentatively named “Zombies in the Academy,” which, according to a call for papers “investigates the political, cultural, organisational, and pedagogical state of the university, through applying the metaphor of zombiedom to both the form and content of professional academic work.”
Otto Penzler, owner of the Mysterious Book Shoppe in Manhattan, and editor of a just-released compendium of 60 zombie stories (aptly named “Zombies! Zombies! Zombies!”) believes the current popularity of zombies could be seeded in the fact that, unlike vampires, they are overtly repulsive.
“Vampires perform in the real world the way real people do, you know, with the little exception that they bite people and suck their blood out. Zombies just don’t live like normal people do,” says Penzler. While not completely happy to be making broad statements about the rationale for zombie’s newfound popularity (“That’s a question for sociologists,” he states), Penzler does note the parallel between zombies and other trends in the wider society that push towards the extreme and relentless.
“Music, piercings, the world is becoming more and more extreme… and you don’t get more extreme than zombies. There is no saving grace,” he notes, later adding “They’re relentless. There are thousands of them. Eventually you’re overwhelmed, even if you have an automatic weapon that can blow its head off. It’s like fighting the Chinese army.”
Such feelings of powerlessness against an overwhelming force might be key to understanding why zombies are striking a nerve in current society. Back at New York’s Zombiecon, Jenn Luddin, dressed up in her “Saturday’s bloodiest” noted people can relate to being overrun by zombies, living in a world where all social institutions have failed because, for many, social institutions have already failed.
“The world is messed up as it is without zombies, everywhere you look, s—t is f—ked up already,” said Luddin. Carrying a blood-drawn protest sign, Luddin said she was planning on joining other people at the march on Times Square in solidarity with the “Occupy Wall Street” movement, where many would likely share her view. But before leaving, she had one more thing to add: “Urrrrrrrgh, Braaaaains.”