When you have a teenager in the house, there are certain smells and sights you encounter that you otherwise might not. As the parent of a high school freshman, I’m treated to the smell of Old Spice, Cheese Nips, and sometimes, feet. He’s a modern kid, and we modernized his reading delivery system with an e-reader a couple of years back. In the age of dwindling bookstores, it is hard to keep an avid reader stocked during a driving vacation, which is what facilitated our move from books to bytes. That also meant that I no longer had to look at the ugly book covers he was bringing home. His topics of interest are much different from mine at his age. He has a fascination with zombies. This unnerved me.
Zombies are the walking dead. That’s what they were when I was a kid, and I did not care for them. I put my head in the sand about his affinity for the undead for a time. Then ‘Plants vs. Zombies’ came out and he loved it. Now, I am no delicate flower, but GROSS–who wants to play a game with gruesome zombies in it? This is disturbing, I mentally wrung my hands. How will such a game affect my sunny boy? I will admit to learning more than I should have about which plants did what to each genre of zombie, thanks to my adolescent coach.
I know that my son is not me, and what he likes should be different. He’s not affected in the same way by Plants vs. Zombies as I am. I also believe that my son should be able to read what he wants to at 14. That’s what I did as a teen, and there were plenty of books that I sneaked into the house and read unbeknownst to my mom. Occasionally my husband and I would have joint hand-wringing sessions over the zombie fascination that dwelt within my happy-go-lucky, community-service-minded youngster. But hey, we all have a dark side, right? We all have a bit of the macabre in us, a touch of the rubber-necker. May as well take it out and let it run every now and then.
Lately, I’ve started to engage him in conversation about his books. After all, it’s not easy to find things to talk about with teenagers that will keep them in the room. You’ve got the best chance for a sustained interaction if you choose a topic they are interested in. So I dove into zombieland one morning. I asked about the plot of the book (‘plot’, hah). Blah, blah, blah, zombies, kill, virus, was what I heard. What? A virus? Zombies are the walking dead. I corrected him–teens like being corrected. No they’re not, mom. *rolls eyes* They’re people who got a virus and they’re being controlled by the virus. WHAT? This is not the zombie that I knew from my childhood, the zombies that roamed through that shopping mall in ‘Dawn of the Dead’. Which, by the way, was tremendously appealing in the idea that one could be locked in a shopping mall, but that little fantasy of mine was ruined by the pack of zombies locked in with me. Anyway, in ‘Dawn of the Dead’, those zombies are 100% reanimated dead that eat flesh. That is the zombie I understand, not the viral zombie that feasts on brains.
Then I remember watching ‘The Omega Man’ in my high school Futures class, and I can begin to understand the viral zombie. ‘Omega Man’ was a hybrid idea of sorts–it has some zombie elements and a viral component. It’s set in a post-apocalyptic world. The apocalypse of my generation would be brought about by nuclear war or by biological warfare. These days, it’s climate change or zombies.
My husband, the political philosophy major, brings me the historical perspective on zombies when I mention I am working on this post. I don’t care about that–I’m taking a top-line view of the zombie from my little, minimally informed window.
Zombies are everywhere in popular culture, as you know. When FEMA uses the zombie apocalypse as a vehicle for disaster planning, and there are zombie fun runs, it’s time to stop wishing it will end and turn to stare it in the face. For several years now, gruesome zombie imagery has prevailed. I’ll do another post on gruesome imagery in general some other time. There’s a pretty playful attitude towards all of this zombie stuff, and I’m not sure I like that. Increasingly ugly and offensive images in public spaces, such as one encounters in a large city, create fear and anxiety on some level for those who live with them. Parents of young children experience this for themselves and for their children as they go about their day. Taking a young child to the video store can be treacherous–take a look at what is at toddler eye level the next time you go in. Now remember a time when you were scared as a youngster, and you can bet there’s an image in your head, not a word or a number. Imagery is powerful.
I work in a school, and one day during my middle school woodwork class students began remarking that the woodwork room was the ideal place to be in case of a zombie attack. It has good views and great weaponry, they posited. Much discussion of plans ensued. All I could think was Zombies. EW. Why is there so much interest in zombies now? How did they become the apocalypse of the moment? What do they represent in our collective psyche? And now that I’m thinking of it, are zombies popular elsewhere? A quick search for ‘zombie buecher’ turns up some German fans and this unique tome: Die Abenteuer von Huckleberry Finn und Zombie Jim (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Zombie Jim). A similar search in Dutch confirms zombie affection in that country as well. I’m not ready to take on zombie-affinity in multiple countries, and I’m out of languages I know. I’m not fully informed about zombie traits, habits, and culture to do thesis level work here. I choose to generalize and skim the surface as an observer, not a participant.
So now let’s open out the lens and generalize about how this fits into the American collective unconscious. I think the differences I’m seeing between what I call the Original Zombie (reanimated flesh) and the Optimist’s Zombie (zombie created by virus in living human) are what is meaningful here. The Original Zombie is a flesh-eater: it will come and eat the body you’ve worked so hard to create. It’s going to make sure you feel prolonged pain as it’s eating you because it’s not a brain-eater like the Optimist’s Zombie, whose dietary preference means a quicker death for you, the entree. The Original Zombie shows us there is no afterlife. All there is after death is a walking death, aimless, uncontrollable, and unfeeling. In this walking death, you will persecute the living. This type of zombie can be the fear of depersonalization manifested. In short, this zombie is the mundane, the routine, the crush of the day job. You will be soulless and restless, yet you will still be ambulatory. It’s the day at the office that never ends. *sigh* Those were simpler times.
Now let’s talk about today’s zombie: the Optimist’s Zombie. This is a living human who’s been taken over by a virus. There are some variations and subtleties in this genre, but in general, this zombie of today is curable. My son argues this point with me and says that a vaccine is possible, but not a cure. I stand my ground and reiterate to him that a vaccine still gives this generation a way out of the zombie apocalypse. All my generation had was some quick thinking and fast moves for their defense. Yes, I think my Original Zombie is superior, and today’s zombie is a spineless sot.
The Optimist’s Zombie is a fear of losing control. This zombie lets us explore what losing control of ourselves might be like. When we lose control, we create circumstances for ourselves that often have unpleasant consequences, but here there’s a difference because in this story we can control the outcome. It’s common to fear losing control, but the idea that the Optimist’s Zombie can be cured anytime we’d like means we might also be able to avoid consequences since, essentially, we were always in control. We can dial this story back when we need to, when things get too scary. We don’t have to accept our fate, because the virus can be cured. This gives us control, which we badly need since we aren’t good at sitting quietly with fear and fate. On the whole, we haven’t become a more zen nation, we’ve become less so. We’re see ourselves as the world’s police, maintain a military presence around the world, and are international meddlers. Our national news is obsessed with sickness and cures, as if it were every American’s inalienable right not to die. We’ve got to control as much as we can of our own lives but especially of everyone else’s. We’re pretty busy telling each other what to do or not to do, and there isn’t a lot of ‘live and let live’.
I could look at the Optimist’s Zombie in a positive light, and spin it that they hope for good outcomes: they are willing to go to the dark places and believe that they’ll come out just fine. But building in a way out doesn’t allow us to sit in those dark places for long. Many Grimm’s Fairy Tales were changed in the English translation because someone decided the original German tales were too dark. We’ll never see Snow White’s stepmother dance in those red-hot shoes, but those shoes were her consequences, and I want her to wear them. The happy ending is a little too prevalent in the U.S. It’s now our expectation, one of our rights. If we think the ending should always be to our liking, we’re less able to compromise, to meet each other halfway. We become poor losers who don’t see the beauty and value in facing adversity with grace. Many of our children have the path in front of them swept a little too vigorously because it can be hard for family members and friends to watch loved ones be upset or disappointed. But those upsets can teach empathy and build resilience. Yes, this is what happens when I have a conversation with my son about his books. I’ll let you know when he chooses another genre.