Over the last few years we have seen plagues and infection gain a regular place in popular fiction – arguably this is due to ‘infection hysteria’ in news stories about ‘swine and avian flu’, ‘SARS’ and earlier ‘HIV’ panics. This is certainly true with those stories that claim to be realistic (e.g. ‘Contagion’ 2011) but these are outnumbered by more fantastic and grotesque representations of infection. Foremost amongst these is the proliferation of zombie movies, recently joined by the acclaimed zombie soap, ‘The Walking Dead’ (2010). There is more going on than simple reflections of ‘real life infection’. These stories remind us that monsters from fiction are not nearly as scary as what is happening in the real world.
The figure of the infected zombie follows a set of relatively consistent and recognisable ‘rules’ – they are mindless, repulsive ‘un-dead’ automatons, remorselessly driven to eat living human flesh, yet are never satisfied. They are damned to continuous and repeated consumption even though this never seems to quench their dreadful desires. They bear a resemblance to humans, but are in varying stages of (literal) disintegration: have lost all traces of their former personalities; and they are indifferent to pain that they cause. Anyone unfortunate enough to be bitten is ‘infected’ and ultimately doomed to zombiedom.
Tales about people horribly losing their identity and ‘falling apart’ will certainly strike a chord, and are an obvious metaphor, for anyone who has lost a loved one to dementia. The zombie craze speaks to both the horror of having a family member melt away into living unawareness and the dread that this fate might await us as we grow older.
Of course, linking people living with a serious illness to monsters from a horror genre is highly damaging to those diagnosed with a condition that is already stigmatised. However, the scholarly, medical and supposedly serious literature on dementia and Alzheimer’s disease has long been littered with references, both explicit and implied, to the zombie trope. These references and representations should be challenged as corrosive, oppressive and fatuous. Fictional depictions of the zombie are often well-nigh innocent and sympathetic in contrast.
But stories of zombie infection, and horror more generally, also often contain an element of subversive political censure. The fascination with the current zombie genre is because they voice critiques of the largely unrestrained capitalist market economy and its present long drawn-out crisis.
Others have already commented that governments, markets and banks are like zombies – endlessly shuffling through the motions of repeated ‘solutions’ that fail to work while still justifying the all-consuming zombie competitive capitalist markets in need of relentless expansion, consumption and growth irrespective of any consequences or human cost. Additionally we (at least those of us in affluent countries) are all implicated as ‘infected’ zombies driven to an unthinking, inane consumption that can never be fully satisfied – ‘mindless consumption of the unnecessary by the un-needy’. And just like the zombie fictional stories, the most damning aspect is that there is ‘no way out’ – we face ‘a being that is only body, without empathy, without respect for life: very like the marketplace, in fact’. In this context, fictional monsters are indeed tame in comparison to the demons that are currently pursuing us.