Friday, February 24, 2017

The Uses of Zombies

In the previous series on the origins of zombies in America, I asked the question, Why zombies? I provided some possible answers, but I'm not sure that I hit the mark. There may be even deeper meanings than what I proposed.

There is something about zombies that has lodged itself in our imaginations. You could say that zombies have devoured the brains of our entire culture. Academics are especially interested in them. That's probably as it should be, for the power of the zombie story and the prevalence of zombies in our culture make the zombie a legitimate object of academic interest. So zombies serve purposes in our popular culture, but they also serve purposes in academia. My next question is this: Academics are watching us, but who's watching them? If zombie-ology, or zombology, is a study, why don't we have a meta-zombology, a historiography of zombies, or a zombography ? Academics study zombies, but why don't they study their fellow academics who study zombies? They are so ready to examine the rest of us and to look into the putative reasons why we like zombies so much. Why don't they examine themselves or their colleagues and ask the hard questions about the academic interest in zombies?

A long time ago, in Mr. Cisco's sociology class, we read a paper called "The Uses of Poverty: The Poor Pay All" by Herbert J. Gans, originally in Social Policy for July/August 1971 (pp. 20-24). The point of the article is that there is utility or positive function in poverty or in the poor. You can agree or disagree with Dr. Gans' thesis. That's not the point. The point is to ask this analogous question: What are the uses of zombies, especially in academia? Why do academics study zombies? What does it do for them? How does believing the things that they believe about zombies satisfy their needs, not only their needs for advancing their careers, seeking tenure, publishing papers, and so forth, but also their psychological needs? What does the study of zombies do for the self-esteem of the academic, for his or her need for recognition and for winning the esteem of his or her peers? How does the study of zombies or the academic's conclusions about zombies signal his or her virtue, political correctness (in both the contemporary sense and the original sense), or moral or intellectual acuity, if not superiority, again, among his or her peers? What opportunities do zombies provide the academic to carry out his or her own conspicuous moral preening before the rest of academia and before a larger society? What does it do towards confirming his or her preconceived notions about the world, human nature, human activity (including political and economic activity), and the meaning of human existence? Academics in the liberal arts tend to be caught up in Marxism and its offshoots, especially critical theory. Their focus is on a relentless criticism of capitalism. But what if we defeat their attempts at misdirection and shine the spotlight on them? What if we examine them under the microscope? Academics may see zombies as stand-ins for the supposed exploited peoples of the world and/or see the human beings in the zombie story as capitalists or fascists. But aren't academics themselves exploiting zombies and the popular interest in zombies? Are they not using both for their own intellectual, moral, economic, and political purposes? Far more significantly, are they not using zombies to satisfy their own psychological or emotional needs, especially for self-esteem? And if they are, what does that say about them?

Copyright 2017 Terence E. Hanley


  1. Along that line, the ancient Greeks had a few classic fears that they articulated: return of the dead and incest, along with and number of taboos that we are familiar. Early on, unwanted babies were exposed (postpartum abortion anyone) and there was a fear that they might survive to return at some time. Arguably, this is a distillation of the old Return of the Dead thing that much earlier man seemed to fear with their (growingly more complex) burial rites.

    The incest thing, as well as patricide, appears a bit later in humanity, no one knows just when. Eventually civilization rears it’s ugly head and the concrete articulation of several classic fears and no-nos appears Greek tragedy as the play Oedipus Rex (hey dude, you seen my sandal?). Actually, baby Oedipus was sent out to be killed by a minion, much like the story of Snow White, rather than being exposed. Hey, does that make Snow White a kind of zombie-by-proxy story? In any case it’s a Return of the (inconvenient) Dead scenario, weather you’re King Laius or the Evil Queen of Snow White fame. Damned inconvenient, that. Mirror mirror, on the wall, where’s that baby, that’s evolved?

    I’d also think that studies of “Otherness” might be enlightening to those with a zombie interest. Zombies might be kind of melding of fear of the (returning) dead with a kind of doppelganger twist along with any other socio-economic baggage so popular in post modern thought. Zombies are interesting and they are a subject that just won’t lie down and die – they are not a one-joke sphinx, nor Delphic oracles giving self-fulfilling prophecies.

  2. CoastConFan,

    That's an interesting idea that the fear of zombies may be another in a long line of fears (or a recurring sense of guilt) about the return of the person who is supposed to have died (after being exposed) or to have been killed (by a minion, servant, or proxy). Sometimes the person who returns is ghostly and non-material, and sometimes he or she is bodily or incarnate. So I wonder, do some people feel some sense of guilt about zombies? Is the returning zombie a person who is supposed to have died or to have been killed but inconveniently did not or was not? If so, why was this supposed to have happened?

    Thanks for writing.


  3. One staples of zombies movies is having to put down a "loved one" who turned. Facing the possibility of a flesh eating entity inhabiting the dead but animated body of somebody you know has got to be daunting.

    The vampire and the zombie have some things in common. Both have a special way of being destroyed and both may appear as a friend or loved one. Vampires as a form of undead have a few more tricks up their sleeves and are certainly portrayed as crafty and cunning, but zombies have numbers on their side and a lot of hit points. Besides they can show up in the day! Vampires generally tend to be solitary with a minion or two as secrecy and fear are their features.

    The only good thing about zombies is that they are morally neutral, they don't hate anybody and are willing to let anybody join up. I've been thinking about the rationale and life cycle of zombies for a few years. Here's an old blog entry of mine on the subject

    I enjoy your blog greatly, keep it up. I'm a fan of weird fiction and the pulps so I'm glad you are spreading the word.


    1. CoastConFan,

      Thanks for your support. I read your blog posting. In that and in your comment here, you have covered some ground I haven't covered. It seems like there is no end to the interpretations of both zombies and vampires.

      Thanks for reading and for writing.