Zombies are everywhere. Ok not (yet) on the streets (so far as I know); but in our cultural imaginary they are everywhere. You can find them (in small groups and hordes) in high budget nail biting thriller movies like Brad Pitt's World War Z (2013), on television, and all over print and digital reading material, much of it spoofing both our literary and political histories (including Zombies in Jane Austen and Abraham Lincoln).
For those of us engaged in probing America's culture of fear and its highly toxic institutionalizations like mass incarceration and mass deportation, zombies seem to be a potentially important proxy for the demons that haunt contemporary society. But what do they tell us? Actually, I think, quite a lot, and the news is mostly good.
First consider the ugly truth about zombies, at least the kind that have appeared in popular culture since1968's Night of the Living Dead . Zombies form an undeniable symbolic stand in for the twin racialized fears that have helped fuel our punitive culture of control producing both mass incarceration and mass deportation.
One is fear of violent crime and riots, which were reaching one peak in 1968, and were mostly linked in the popular imaginary to African Americans (director and co-writer George Romero may have subverted this by casting a black male as the heroic protagonist of the movie). While the riots mostly subsided, sustained high homicide rates in inner-city neighborhoods during the 1970s and 1980s shaped an image of violent youth who did not respond to normal human incentives; some criminologists called them "super-predators" because "zombies" would have led to self parodying. The crack epidemic further crystallized this association, with its imagery of stick-like figures shambling toward anyone who could feed their craving.
The second image channeled by the contemporary zombie is that of the "illegal" or "undocumented" immigrant. Starting in the late 1970s and early 1980s, fears of economic decline and national weakness fused with images of "out of control" illegal immigration. This has always had an undeniably racial cast, associated with migration from the South, Cuba, Mexico, Central and Southern America.
The zombie films from the 1ate 1960s through the 1980s played on and sometimes subverted the fears of suburban, middle-class Americans that their security and life style were under assault by predatory others, whose claim on our humanity was both troubling and potentially treacherous. Raced without race, the undead took on the otherness that dared no longer be precisely named.
Therein the good news. The zombie genre is changing in directions that both suggest and support a shift away from the punitive culture of control.
The fact that so much of the genre is now satire suggests and audience prepared to laugh its fears, with a sense of greater mastery. Even in its latest scary forms, like World War Z, the zombie has morphed from drug-deranged criminal or rioter to virus carrier. While this new medical model of the undead may not lead to a cure, it suggests, as those who have seen the movie know (no spoiler here), different ways of coping with them.
Indeed the author of the novel World War Z has also written The Zombie Survival Guide , which offers, in its own way, a scathing critique of the culture of control, suggesting (among other things) that:
Cross-posted from Jonathan Simon’s blog Governing Through Crime .