Saturday, October 4, 2014

A Monster for the Twenty-First Century

When I started this series, I didn't have an answer to the question What is the monster of the twenty-first century? The answer has occurred to me along the way. I say the answer. What I should say is an answer.

There is reason to believe that zombies are the monster of the twenty-first century. If that's true and our current situation persists, then zombies should have some real staying power, even if they are rotting to pieces. Richard Matheson of all people threw a wrench in the works of that idea though. In I Am Legend (1954) he wrote:
Historians wrote of bubonic plague. Robert Neville [Matheson's protagonist] was inclined to believe that the vampire had caused it. 
     No, not the vampire. For now, it appeared, that prowling, vulpine ghost was as much a tool of the germ as the living innocents who were originally afflicted. It was the germ that was the villain. The germ that hid behind obscuring veils of legend and superstition, spreading its scourge while people cringed before their own fears. (1)
So are zombies merely victims of disease? Do we have them because we fear contagion? Or does the omnipresence of zombies mean something more? A fear of contagion is certainly legitimate, for plague brings death to your door. But if the fear of zombies is the fear of disease, then in past plagues there should have been monsters, each for its own time. In 1919, as the Spanish influenza ravaged the world, Der Orchideengarten, the world's first magazine of fantasy, horror, and weird fiction, was published in Germany. I would attribute the appearance of that magazine to war, decadence, and a certain nostalgia, and not to a fear of germs. The same is probably true for the horror and monster movies of the 1920s and '30s. But what about witches and the Black Plague? Some people believe there is a connection between the two. And what about other past plagues and past monsters? Is there a connection there? It's an interesting idea and one worth delving into, but if I go too far with that, I'll wander off track.


I was tempted early on to think that zombies are the monster of the twenty-first century. After all, they are extremely popular and in all things today. I think they're even more popular than vampires, the monsters that preceded them. Even the Federal government and public universities have studied the idea of a zombie apocalypse, all to do with the spread of disease, an idea that might be inseparable from the idea of zombies. By necessity, zombies move in masses. Their goal is to feed, but by feeding, they also reproduce. In those two things, they're like bacteria or viruses, and we're back to where we started.


As I thought about it more, it occurred to me that zombies might be only a representation of the monster of our times. One way to look at them is that they represent the hordes of hungry, murderous people who would wander the earth after a societal collapse, that is, after an apocalypse. (2) They look human (in a monstrous way) and they ape human behavior, but they are no longer human--they have literally been dehumanized--so they're fair game. You can shoot them down without any compunction or guilt. In that way, zombies become part of a fantasy about a return to primitivism and chaos, the opposite of dystopian progress and perfect order. That fantasy may not be something wished for exactly, but it can be fun to entertain the question of What would I do? For some, the fantasy stops there, or with movies, TV shows, comic books, or video games. For others, the fantasy extends to preparing for apocalypse. Prepping itself has gone beyond a hobby and has become an industry and a way of life. A while back, a man in Florida ate another man's face. People planning for and fearing an outbreak jumped at that. Now we have Ebola in America and our thoughts go to survival.

Whatever the case may be, the fantasy of the zombie apocalypse may reflect a discontent with civilization, a longing to test oneself in a primitive struggle for survival, or a desire of the individualist to resist mass living. It goes without saying that zombies are not human and not individuals. They lack souls, minds, and emotions. They can no longer love. They no longer have free will, individuality, or human identity. They travel in hordes or masses with the sole aim of killing you and eating you, thereby converting you into one of them. "Always more of us, fewer of you." You can say that zombies have a mass mind (if any mind at all), like the Borg from Star Trek: The Next Generation. They are a force for conformity and against individuality, in favor of man as an enslaved mass and against man as a free and individual human being. We all seek to assert our freedom, our individuality, and our humanity. Zombies are against us and all that we are.


If you were young in the 1980s, movies were made for you. There was The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink, Some Kind of Wonderful, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and many more. No one will ever make movies like that again, but at least we have them in our past. Teen movies had their villains. Usually it was the arrogant popular kid or snotty preppy girl. I remember asking myself when I watched those movies, "Do the jerks at school recognize themselves in these movies? Or do they identify with the protagonist?" I think they probably identified with the protagonist, just like the rest of us. Today, when we watch zombie movies or TV shows, we see ourselves as the human beings and not as the zombies. But what if we are the zombies, or at the very least, what if there are zombies already among us? Do the zombies among us recognize themselves as zombies? Or do they still identify with the human beings? As I've said, we all have a totalitarian impulse within us. And because we live in a democratic society, we all have the power to oppress, enslave, and prey upon our fellow human beings. I think some are more inclined to do so than others. But if you have any desire to control the lives of other people, to dehumanize other people, to force them to conform, to deny their humanity or individuality, to render them a mass--if you have ever subscribed to the formula I cannot be happy if you are free--you might be, to paraphrase Jeff Foxworthy, a zombie.

So in answer to the question What is the monster of the twenty-first century? I would suggest that we are that monster. (3) Rather, those people over there are the monsters and we are the human beings, for we always see ourselves as special and others as unworthy or contemptible. In any case, we have refused the supernatural monster as not being scientific. On the other hand, science has fallen short in providing monsters equal to the supernatural monsters of the past. That leaves real life and a revelation I had many years ago that the only real monsters in this world are human.

And so ends this series.

(1) From the Berkeley Medallion edition (1971), p. 87.
(2) In The Road by Cormac McCarthy (2006), those groups of men are, like zombies, cannibalistic. Implicit in Mr. McCarthy's view is that there isn't any need to resort to zombies as monsters when human beings play the part so well. The old saying is "Man is a wolf to man." I wouldn't impugn wolves in that way. It's more accurate to say that man is a man to man.
(3) We, the title of Yevgeny Zamyatin's book. I wrote above on the possibility of microbes as monsters. Here is a quote from We: "[The elections] remind us that we are a united, powerful organism of millions of cells . . . ."

Copyright 2014 Terence E. Hanley


  1. The Australian poet A.D. Hope found a different monster for our time, to be:
    ... a symbol to describe.

    The secret life of Technocratic Man,
    Abject desire, base fear that shapes his law,
    His idols of the cave, the mart, the sty -
    No lion at bay for a beleaguered clan,
    No eagle with the serpent in his claw,
    Nor dragon soter with his searing eye,

    But the great, greedy, parasitic worm,
    Sucking the life of nations from within
    Blind and degenerate, snug in excrement.

  2. Roger,

    I had never heard of A.D. Hope. I just found and read his very powerful poem "The Kings," which you have quoted here. An apt monster for our time. It reminds me of a quote from Camus:

    "The worm is in man's heart."

    A worm of a different kind and in an entirely different context.

    It also makes me think of Nietzsche's Last Man and of T.S. Eliot's Prufrock who asked himself:

    "Do I dare to eat a peach?"

    I wrote down a quote for this series but never used it. The author was Cicero:

    "A nation can survive its fools, and even the ambitious. But it cannot survive treason from within. An enemy at the gates is less formidable, for he is known and carries his banner openly.

    But the traitor moves amongst those within the gate freely, his sly whispers rustling through all the alleys, heard in the very halls of government itself. For the traitor appears not a traitor; he speaks in accents familiar to his victims, and he wears their face and their arguments, he appeals to the baseness that lies deep in the hearts of all men.

    He rots the soul of a nation, he works secretly and unknown in the night to undermine the pillars of the city, he infects the body politic so that it can no longer resist.

    A murderer is less to fear. The traitor is the plague."

    I'm not sure exactly what A.D. Hope meant by "Technocratic Man." He probably wasn't referring specifically to the movement Technocracy of the 1920s and '30s. Like socialism, communism, and totalitarianism, Technocracy dehumanizes and makes man into a mass to be used according to the Technocrat's scheme. I suppose it's a branch of Scientism. By weird coincidence, the term itself was coined in 1919.

    Thanks for reading, writing, and bringing "The Kings" to my attention.


  3. I think Hope used "technocratic" as an analogy of democratic or aristocratic- meaning "governed or ruled by technology". The idea is that technocratic man lives inside his technology and feeds off it just as a tapeworm lives in the guts of its host. Rather like the four-walled personalised television in Fahrenheit 451.

  4. Roger,

    We speak of this technocratic man dependent upon technology with some sense of superiority even as we write our thoughts on a computer and spend (or waste) our hours and our lives in front of one kind of electronic screen or other. The real danger in technology may be that we see ourselves and each other as pieces of technology, as mere machines, and not as full, ensouled human beings.

    Thanks for writing.


  5. Great article! Lots of food for thought. I love monsters for the philosophical ideas behind them, but I've never undertstood the zombie. You've sparked something for me. Thanks.

  6. Dear Thomas,

    I hope I didn't overstate my case on the meaning and popularity of the zombie. Call it just one interpretation. I think it's key, however, that zombies look like but are no longer human beings, and that they travel in hoards or masses. That suggest to me that they represent the monstrousness in us. In any case, thanks for your comments. I'm always glad to spark thought and further research.

    Terence Hanley