Episode 138: Zombies – 6 Reasons Why We Are So Fascinated By Them

Image of zombiesAfraid of zombies? Heard about the coming zombie apocalypse? Have you watched the TV show The Walking Dead or ever seen a movie about Zombies (perhaps Zombieland or Dawn of the Dead)?

Zombie Fascination
What is so fascinating about the undead? Why do many of us get a strange pleasure out of seeing a zombie get killed? In this episode I explore that strange part of ourselves which seems to enjoy watching the undead get really dead.

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Zombie Fascination

  • Film-goers have always loved a good scare, and a shambling collection of neuron-challenged corpses make a pretty terrifying story. And if my zombie-obsessed 14-year-old son is a representative sample, blowing the undead away with heavy weaponry has a solid adolescent demographic appeal. But there’s no question, at least in my mind, that zombies (and Godzilla) are an allegorical representation of our fear that science and the technologies it spawn will lead to our destruction. – James Turner, Forbes Magazine article

  • People are fascinated by phenomena such as ESP, psychokinesis, communicating with the dead, ghosts, vampires, and zombies in part because [they] allow for the possibility of some essence or aspect of us surviving beyond death. One could speculate that these forms of the supernatural are growing in popularity, along with their positive counterparts, superheroes, because of lessened faith in traditional religious conceptions of the supernatural…

    Zombies also deny the finality of death – here are these beings who are functioning after they have died. It’s not a pretty afterlife, but if this is possible, better forms may also be out there.

    …because zombies are “already dead” we can be guilt free and gleefully watch them killed in every way possible no matter how grisly, vicariously aggressing against this substitute source of our fears with complete abandon.”


    Comments

    1. Very cool Chris thanks. I see how important the capital G in Godzilla really is. Looks like Godzilla is still more popular than I thought.

    2. Great topic!
      I always thought that zumbies were… well… boring. There’s a lot of “mythical” figures that I like, but never zombies.
      Some days ago I was just wondering why the hell people “like” them so much, but I didn’t got very far. You showed some interesting points.

    3. Devil's Advocate says:

      Hi Michael: I also viewed this series and enjoyed the different approach to the zombie genre. One comment on this episode is that you seemed to confound two separate issues and by switching back and forth between the questions of why we are interested in zombies and why it is okay to kill zombies. Hence, the different perspectives often addressed different questions.

      To me that the entire zombie genre links back to the Frankenstein theme about the soul less nature of science. Presumably, man (generically, and politically incorrectly) is more than animated tissue or reanimated tissue in the case of the monster and walking dead.

    4. You make a good point about how I switched back and forth between why we’re fascinated by Zombies and why want to (or feel that it’s okay to) kill zombies. A couple of days after I released this episode I was thinking back on it and it was then that I realized that listeners might get a little confused about this. Sorry about that. I agree with your thoughts about how zombies could represent the “soulless nature of science”.

    5. Hey Michael,
      Great episode – very close to something I’ve been wondering about, which is our fascination with vampires, with things like Buffy, the Twilight stuff, Vampire Academies, True Blood, etc. The reasons behind that might be a bit more obvious (eternal life, maintaining youth, power, sex, etc) than zombies but very different too.

      I agree with Devil’s Advocate about the conflation of ideas and the reference to the soul, but I wasn’t so convinced by some of the reasons for our interest that you offered. I liked the Dirty Harry and in-built aggression (Freud) ideas but the evolution one didn’t strike me as that plausible. We have a natural interest in dead things, as is clear from young boys, but I think that’s more to do with our innate curiousity about how things work and our nature as tool makers and users, and the interest in the forbidden (“Oh, that’s gross,” and staring at car crashes, for example).

      I didn’t relate to the just world idea at all – people fight and kill the zombies because they’re being attacked by them and killing them is the only way to stop them. Once they’ve established their own safety, they might start developing a just world belief, but I think that would be secondary (bearing in mind I haven’t seen the Walking Dead show you talk about).

      Fear of science is a fair idea, and especially made me think about the Reavers in Firefly and the 28 Days/Weeks/Months Later films.

      Finally, the terror management idea was very interesting but not the whole answer, for me.

      I have one zombie movie to recommend to you, in case you haven’t seen it: Shaun of the Dead, with a whole cast of great actors in it (Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Dylan Moran to name a few). I found it hilarious and thing you might find it amusing too. Kind of a love story with zombies.

      BTW, I thought it was rather amusing (though I felt very sorry for you) trying to describe how the wife character does away with her zombie husband in the Walking Dead. You were trying so hard to avoid the word ‘decapitation’, so I laughed out loud when you said she ‘destroyed’ his head (I simply imagine a great deal of blood was spattered around) instead. I appreciate it’s a very tough job trying to describe such awful things while maintaining the family friendly nature of the show. :)

      Anyway, keep up the great work and I’d love an episode on our fascination with vampires. :)

    6. Good analysis Derek. I think I agree with you most about the “just world” idea – probably a weak explanation for our fascination with zombies. Good to see that you’re a Firefly fan – I’m a huge fan of that show. So sad it went off the air. I think I saw “Shaun of the Dead” a while back. I’ll have to watch it again. Pretty funny as I recall. Vampires eh? Gotta think about that one..

    7. Hallo Michael,

      Something i always associated with zombies, is tragedy. It has something to do with the way we (ironically) are fascinated and are drawn to tragedy.
      The zombies where ones living beings, with their flaws and merits, yet now all that is left is a mindless monster that in most cases turns against the very people he / she loved.

      Its a throwback to another excellent episode of the psych files (although i can’t remember which) in which you discuss the way we are drawn towards drama.

      Like yourself i am a gamer, and i found this video very interesting. Using the world of warcraft engine and story, someone made a music video to the song: “here without you by 3 doors down”
      Its a great example how tragedy is used to entertain or fascinate, describing a zombie’s (in the game they are called the forsaken) life and death and resurrection.

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fb5LIo6HE6Y

      Great podcast, find myself going back and listening to previous episodes a second time, keep it up!

    8. Nice topic!

      I’d like to raise another idea from an anthropologist point of view:
      Claude Lévi-Strauss pointed out that people tend to construct and arrange the reality around them in categories that has a binary (or maybe a better word would be dichotomous) oppositions.

      This idea is not unlike George Kelly’s “Constructive Alternatives”, that basically says people maintain bipolar constructs in effort to understand their surroundings.

      Studying mythology, Lévi-Strauss also stated that what different cultures tend to view as sacred, and/or impure, are those entities that ‘mash’ together categories that are opposite to each other in that culture’s point of view. These entities defy the way we construct reality and naturally call for special treatment and stir strong emotions.

      Not surprisingly, the binary life/death construct is a very common, very important issue in many mythologies. Thus, Zombies, dead and alive at the same time, seems to spur the emotions that unnatural things do in all cultures – they are repulsive but we are attracted to them at the same time.

    9. In this episode (and in a previous one) you mentioned that humans are unique in that unlike animals, we know we are going to die. I have heard this before (I think the first time in scripture class as a young child), but it puzzled me.
      Although not exhaustive, I did a quick Google search and was not able to find a single scientific reference that supported the idea. There are numerous anecdotal references to animals wandering off to die, animals changing behaviour when their mate dies and examples of animals engaging in what appears to be mourning. As I said these are mostly anecdotal and the scientist might warn us about anthropomorphising, but equally we could warn the scientists not to take a chauvinistic approach that assumes (seemingly without evidence) that we are superior to animals in this regard.
      I would be interested to find out about any scientific studies that support the idea that animals have no knowledge of death. (Or does that fall into the ‘trying to prove a negative’ category.)

    10. Chelle Marley says:

      Minor point – Nicolas Cage is not in Zombieland…it’s Woody Harrelson. :)

    11. This episode inspired me to write about zombies for my ExPhil exam. Really excited to start writing:D Thanks

    12. As a psychoanalyst, I have been thinking a great deal about this lately.
      I think zombie themes, but in particular the series The Walking Dead, mirror or in some way express how people are already feeling about their lives, with a clarity untrammeled by the daily-ness of getting to work, cooking dinner, or doing the laundry. In our culture, particularly at this historical moment, there exists a desperation which robs us of “human-ness”, liveliness, ordinary enjoyment. Witness the lively sales of anti-depressants and increasing suicide rates, as the economy fails to recover and endless, vague wars multiply. Even the sense of orderly progression of the seasons, one of our oldest metaphors for predictability and safety, something from which human beings have probably taken comfort since the moment we first recognized them, can no longer be trusted given global warming. Safe places are not safe, they flood, continents catch fire and burn, water is poisoned beyond rescue by searches for fuel. Safe jobs are not safe, pensions evaporate, health insurance becomes harder to get (at least in this country) and even when one can get it, frequently doesn’t cover treatment for fatal illness, much less illnesses which rob life of its quality. Religion is undependable: witness the horrible sex-abuse scandals in the Catholic church. I(t’ would perhaps be interesting to correlate the rise of New Age philosophies and the constant outbreaks of pop psych “solutions” with the rise of zombie-fascination).
      So I think that the zombie genre, particularly in the humanly nuanced, emotionally layered form we see in the AMC series, presents us with a portrait of the state of mind, pervasive but largely unspoken, of much of the population, at least here in the United States. People are frightened, desperate, helpless and demoralized.
      Zombie stories be analyzed in classical Freudian manner as one would a dream. Freud would ask his patients what went on during the day preceding the dream. References to this material was called “day residue”.
      The rest of the dream can be seen as metaphorical staging of the “problem” in the dreaming mind, the train of thought triggered by something in the day’s events. One could say the mind writes a play: the cast talks about aspects of the issue, and they discuss or express it, largely through action, rather than dialogue, as in any good piece of literature.
      What goes on in the day of the average person in this country involves a constant struggle against de-humanization. Here in New York City, at least, those of us lucky enough to have jobs walk to them past homeless people, many of them war veterans, elderly, adolescents, or the mentally ill, who sit on the sidewalk with signs begging for help. In order to hold on to what we need to pay our own bills, we ignore their pleas.
      Thank god we don’t have to stab or shoot them in the brain, but they do just keep coming, as do the fears (and the real risk0 of becoming one of them.
      So I believe that the zombie genre is comforting, in that it expresses the inexpressible in the collective psyche of the moment. All art that reaches us serves this purpose: it talks about something basic in experience best expressed through metaphor, speaking for us where we can not speak for ourselves.
      As an addendum, I would like to point out in the Walking Dead frequent discussions of moral right and wrong under desperate circumstances, including the most recently introduced specter of the charismatic governor/dictator of a walled city, and suggest that anyone interested in the psychological/political aspects of the zombie phenomenon keep a close eye on this particular aspect of the “dream”, what American anxieties are being acted out here is, I suppose, obvious, but still worth watching.

    13. Jean Lehrman, L.C.S.W. says:

      As a psychoanalyst, I have been thinking a great deal about this lately.
      I think zombie themes, but in particular the series The Walking Dead, mirror or in some way express how people are already feeling about their lives, with a clarity untrammeled by the daily-ness of getting to work, cooking dinner, or doing the laundry. In our culture, particularly at this historical moment, there exists a desperation which robs us of “human-ness”, liveliness, ordinary enjoyment. Witness the lively sales of anti-depressants and increasing suicide rates, as the economy fails to recover and endless, vague wars multiply. Even the sense of orderly progression of the seasons, one of our oldest metaphors for predictability and safety, something from which human beings have probably taken comfort since the moment we first recognized them, can no longer be trusted given global warming. Safe places are not safe, they flood, continents catch fire and burn, water is poisoned beyond rescue by searches for fuel. Safe jobs are not safe, pensions evaporate, health insurance becomes harder to get (at least in this country) and even when one can get it, frequently doesn’t cover treatment for fatal illness, much less illnesses which rob life of its quality. Religion is undependable: witness the horrible sex-abuse scandals in the Catholic church. I(t’ would perhaps be interesting to correlate the rise of New Age philosophies and the constant outbreaks of pop psych “solutions” with the rise of zombie-fascination).
      So I think that the zombie genre, particularly in the humanly nuanced, emotionally layered form we see in the AMC series, presents us with a portrait of the state of mind, pervasive but largely unspoken, of much of the population, at least here in the United States. People are frightened, desperate, helpless and demoralized.
      Zombie stories be analyzed in classical Freudian manner as one would a dream. Freud would ask his patients what went on during the day preceding the dream. References to this material was called “day residue”.
      The rest of the dream can be seen as metaphorical staging of the “problem” in the dreaming mind, the train of thought triggered by something in the day’s events. One could say the mind writes a play: the cast talks about aspects of the issue, and they discuss or express it, largely through action, rather than dialogue, as in any good piece of literature.
      What goes on in the day of the average person in this country involves a constant struggle against de-humanization. Here in New York City, at least, those of us lucky enough to have jobs walk to them past homeless people, many of them war veterans, elderly, adolescents, or the mentally ill, who sit on the sidewalk with signs begging for help. In order to hold on to what we need to pay our own bills, we ignore their pleas.
      Thank god we don’t have to stab or shoot them in the brain, but they do just keep coming, as do the fears (and the real risk0 of becoming one of them.
      So I believe that the zombie genre is comforting, in that it expresses the inexpressible in the collective psyche of the moment. All art that reaches us serves this purpose: it talks about something basic in experience best expressed through metaphor, speaking for us where we can not speak for ourselves.
      As an addendum, I would like to point out in the Walking Dead frequent discussions of moral right and wrong under desperate circumstances, including the most recently introduced specter of the charismatic governor/dictator of a walled city, and suggest that anyone interested in the psychological/political aspects of the zombie phenomenon keep a close eye on this particular aspect of the “dream”, what American anxieties are being acted out here is, I suppose, obvious, but still worth thinking about.

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