A few weeks ago The Walking Dead tore into its sixth season of human/zombie apocalypse. It has been a big couple of years for the show. A spinoff series debuted this summer to the biggest numbers ever for a cable program, and the mothership continues to beat all comers, including Monday Night Football. (Chew on that, Chris Berman.)
The series has also spawned any number of knockoffs, from the unlikely rom-com “Warm Bodies” to the BBC’s “In the Flesh” and FX’s vampire variation “The Strain.”
But even before “The Walking Dead” lurched into our living rooms in 2010, zombies were heading into the sparkly vampire/kid-wizard heights of pop culture. The comic book upon which the series is based has been shredding hearts and wallets since 2003. Novels about zombies have been not only popular movies but New York Times bestsellers in recent years, including the Jane Austen parody in 2009, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which spent 50 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list (and led to what may be the best book-title suggestion I have ever made to James Martin, S.J.: My Life With the Saints and Zombies).
Going farther back, our society had been feeding on a steady diet of zombie themed stories since at least the 1940s. Really, no matter what the era, the undead just keep shambling on. But why?
Despite their many variations, monster movies, alien invasions and other apocalypses are almost always attempts to speak to social anxieties. Annihilation, climate change, race, sexuality, the breakdown of families—if we are afraid of it, there is an evil beast or disaster story about it.
Many biblical stories emanate from a similar idea. Rather than attempting to describe our actual origin or predict our final future, creation stories and apocalypses were intended to address the questions and fears of the present. Is our god really God (i.e., the all-powerful one)? Why do we find ourselves battered and broken? And how are we supposed to live?
Within the genre of the horror or monster movie, zombie stories usually speak to a fear of being out of control. Zombies are us, without the guidance of our will or reason; so they become ways to express our fears of what terrible Id monster might lurk within. Contemporary films like “28 Days Later” or “The Purge” imagine us turned into beings of unquenchable fury; others offer metaphors for human greed, consumerism or the effects of unbridled ambition.
Or they can communicate anxieties about illness, our bodies against ourselves: in the 1980s becoming a zombie was sometimes a metaphor for contracting AIDS; in the ’50s and ’60s for radiation poisoning. Sometimes today it is used to talk about aging or Alzheimer’s.
More broadly, zombie stories express our deep fears of being overwhelmed as a society. Zombies have been used as parables of immigration or nuclear holocaust, the threat posed by younger generations or transnational corporations. They are the overpowering flood that we fear will someday soon come crashing down.
“The Walking Dead” is certainly a contemplation of our fear of the monster within us. Week after week we watch all-too-ordinary people face not only the undead but the violence that they are capable of—a potent, post-9/11 anxiety.
It also speaks to that first-world anxiety of being dragged into the poverty and misery experienced by so many people. It is a spin on climate change concerns or global financial threats, rich and poor all together now, trying to survive the toilet-bowl world that we have created and/or allowed.
But there is another way of thinking about the show that is particularly interesting. If you go back to movies of the ’60s and ’70s, you find lots of stories about people discovering that different social institutions are untrustworthy. “All the President’s Men,” “M*A*S*H,” “The Graduate”—the list is endless.
At the same time, many of those films had a childlike sense of surprise. They are not the tales of the world-weary but of young people discovering there is no Great and Powerful Oz. The atheistic cynicism and fury follow.
In one sense “The Walking Dead” is the distillation of that fear of institutional decay. On the show there are no organizations left to rely on; even institutional affiliations among the characters become burdens that need to be stripped away.
But with that, cynicism also becomes a thing of the past. There is no longer anything beyond ourselves to point to and be disappointed in. All individuals can do is put themselves together out of the rubble around and within them.
If that doesn’t sound familiar, it should, because it is pretty close to the way sociologists describe young people’s formation of identity today—cobbling together a sense in self and beliefs not from affiliations but experience and relationships.
Such a possibility can seem nightmarish to older generations, but it brings new possibilities as well. At its foundations cynicism can also contain hope. The attitude consists in more than just disappointed expectations. It’s not only a sense that Mommy and Daddy aren’t who we thought they were but also the belief that they should or could be more.
Raised in a world where that curtain has been pulled asunder, young people may end up more able to consider institutions and elders on their own terms. Our parents, our institutions are not perfect, and they don’t know everything. But they do know some things. And we can value them for that.
In society and in the church, we can look upon the present as analogous to “The Walking Dead,” moral ruins through which we iPhone-undead stumble while we hashtag, comment and emoji.
But the example of our younger people also reminds us that there is life among our ruins, shoots growing up even from the stumps of what came before. Perhaps like some trees, our institutions even require the occasional decimating fire for new life to begin.