Zombies are Everywhere
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Zombies are Everywhere

For lots of reasons this sentiment – the idea that in the face of the same themes, the same ideas, the same stories showing up again and again – one ought to strive as much as possible for something different and fresh…this sentiment has stuck with me since childhood.

So I grew up (others have done that), got married (folks have been there too), got me a family and a fun job (still nothing all that original but certainly highly recommended) and then I went and wrote a zombie book.

Zombies, I thought. Sure, a few people know about zombies, but perhaps this I can make at least a little bit mine. When I started the book, I admit that I had much less understanding of how much zombies mattered. There is (pardon the pun) a rabid following of this once cult genre. I had no idea! I know I have people like George Romero and Max Brooks to thank, and I know that there were zombie movies and stories before Max and George, but what about the hidden zombies of literature and culture?

If Ecclesiastes is correct, if there is in fact nothing new under the sun, then where can we find these elusive zombies of literature and art? As the Bard reminds us, “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”, so I figure there’s got to be stuff out there that look an awful lot like zombies but were just never labeled as such. I figure I owe it to my creative soul to ferret out some examples before my book hits the shelves.

I offer these possible examples, but please do not hold me to them. Feel free to add or detract as you see fit. A dialogue on this particular topic would certainly be fun and elucidating.

Example #1 – Literature
Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener

If you haven’t read this short story, please do. It is one of the very best of Melville’s impressive career, and it serves as much as anything to portend the mindless behavior that industrialization was set to engender near the end of the 19th century. A Scrivener, it turns out, was a human Xerox machine. Attorneys and other business types employed men with sturdy hands and the dogged perseverance to keep their minds blank whose entire job it was to copy, word for word, lengthy and likely incredibly boring legal and business documents. Scriveners sat at their desks, dipping their pens in ink, and wrote what had already been written, copied what already had been said, punched their clocks, got a bite to eat, and went home.

In Melville’s story, a rather pleasant and mild-mannererd lawyer hires a Scrivener named Bartleby, and Bartleby stares at his employer with neither anger nor affection. His eyes are blank, his body wasting, his gait unnatural, and Bartleby’s only words, when asked to do anything at all, are always the same:

“I would prefer not to.”

Bartleby is never angry and never pleased. He might as well be talking to a wall or to a boulder. His interactions have nothing to do with his boss, and his disconnected passivity, the incongruency of appearing to be human but acting instead like a tired reptile, drives his employer to cruel and guilt-ridden responses. The once kind attorney is filled with rage at Bartleby’s refusal to refuse anything outright. He notes that Bartley will state only his “preference” (“I would prefer not to”), but a man who replies with the same sentence no matter what the question might as well be grunting and moaning. In fact, a grunt, a zombie-like growl for example, might even have been a welcome expression from Bartleby for his exasperated boss.

So, I’m going to posit Bartleby here as an early zombie prototype. He is the shell of something human, first infuriating and then ultimately terrifying in his relentless inaction and passivity, and the response of the humans around him are characterized by malevolence and ill will. Doesn’t that remind you of folks in the basement of the farmhouse in Night of the Living Dead?

Example #2 – Pop Music
I did a lot of thinking and was initially stymied until I perused my old CD’s and came upon The Grateful Dead’s St. Stephen. In that tune, Stephen sure sounds like he could be a zombie. The real St. Stephen was accused of blasphemy and stoned to death sometime in the early middle ages, but the one in the song by the Grateful Dead? He wanders “…with a rose, in and out of the garden he goes. Country garden in the wind and rain. Wherever he goes the people all complain.”

Sounds like he wandered aimlessly around the garden trying to remember what he was doing no matter how inclement the weather. Reminds me of Bid Daddy in Romero’s Land of the Dead, that aimless walking back and forth at the gas station trying to recall the vestiges of human life. And why, in the song, do people complain? Does the Stephen about whom Jerry Garcia sings smell? Does he somehow unsettle his neighbors?

Then, the best line from the song, really one of my favorite lyrics ever:

“Talk about your plenty. Talk about your ills. One man gathers what another man spills.”

Now, that is potentially zombie behavior. Zombies are sick, potentially some horrible plague has changed them, and there are increasingly plenty of zombie to go around. One man is eaten, spills his guts and the zombies gather it up. I’ve seen that scene in a thousand zombie movies.

I know – it’s a stretch, but find me a better example in songs. I’m open for suggestions.

Example #3 – Popular Television
For this I will avoid any show that overtly calls anything a zombie. I want to find a show or an episode of a show wherein zombie-like behavior is recognized, whereby we dispatch the zombie-like things by bashing in their heads, but where no one in the script calls them zombies.

The Borg. Remember their motto?

“Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated.”

These cyborg creatures from Star Trek: the Next Generation, are horrifying because, let’s face it, they’re essentially zombies.

Isn’t mind numbing assimilation the ultimate fear of every remaining human in every zombie story? We can resist for a while, but at some point, given the relentless and mindless pursuit of the zombies themselves, we will be caught, eaten, assimilated and ultimately de-individualized. We will lose art and poetry and love and bad TV and none of it will ever matter to us again once we’ve changed. I’d fight a zombie for lots of reasons, not the least of which is preserving my capacity to enjoy The Simpsons and Freaks and Geeks.

Now, the purists among you will note that one particular Borg, the one who befriends the crew of the Enterprise and changes his name from “Third of Five” to “Hugh” gets dezombified, and dezombification is strictly against the zombie genre rulebook. However, I will argue that Hugh is the exception that proves the point. If we forget for a moment the Deep Space Nine series, Star Trek is always optimistic, and it makes sense to me that the writers would have an escape from the apocalyptic scenario that the Borg otherwise promise.

So there you have it. “There is nothing new under the sun.” The construct of the zombie – the mindless, hungry, staggering hominid- has been dancing around stories for a long time. We didn’t even get into mythology or mysticism (look up the Golem, for example) but we know that all these characters, whether we call them zombies or not, are incredibly compelling to humans. Why is this?

Perhaps we need to contemplate the shell of our humanity to remind us how precious we happen to be.

This post was originally posted in Psychology Today.

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