Some Thoughts about Zombies
One could argue that American popular entertainment has invented nothing more bizarre than zombies. Zombies show up in comics, movies, television shows, novels, short stories, and even academic papers. The zombie idea—the reanimated dead person or “undead” person—has roots in Haitian rural folklore and perhaps further back in West African legends. As one would expect with such a frequently used idea, there are significant variations on the zombie motif. The Haitian voodoo zombie was reanimated by a sorcerer’s magic, and the sorcerer controlled the zombie. In many later versions, zombies are the result of science gone rogue; an infection of some sort reanimates dead people. A recent version of zombie, perhaps the most familiar to television audiences, is the kind depicted in The Walking Dead. (Fascinatingly, in The Walking Dead, “zombie” is never used; the undead are “walkers.”)
As I say, there are variations on the zombie motif. Sometimes zombies are intelligent, self-aware characters, as in the 1993 film, My Boyfriend’s Back, where the teenage zombie confesses his love for his girlfriend as well as his love for human flesh. The humor of this comedy arises partly from its contrast with the typical zombie.
The “standard” zombie, if I may use that word, is a familiar idea. Either by magic, disease, radiation, or pollution of some other sort, dead persons are reanimated. The standard zombie walks, usually in a stumbling, halting gait. Zombies are monomanically motivated: they desire to eat human flesh. They never sleep, they never talk (although they may utter groans or grunts), and they are always on the move, hunting for humans to eat.
In many of the zombie stories, though not all, zombie nature is an infection. Human beings attacked by the zombies die—and become new zombies. (Apparently, zombies have no desire to eat each other.) This feature produces the “zombie apocalypse”: civilization disappears as zombies overwhelm ordinary human beings. The number of hunters continually grows and the number of the hunted dwindles.
Epidemiologists have actually played along with the zombie apocalypse theme. In epidemiological scenarios, the zombies eventually turn all the living people into undead people. The zombie myth doesn’t say what happens then. Apparently, zombies can’t starve. Do they just wander the earth forever, seeking no longer available human flesh? More on this later.
Zombie stories are popular. Depending on the author or filmmaker, they feature magic, science fiction, voodoo control, end-of-the-world returns to the state of nature, and terror. You can mix in romance, friendship, comedic elements and what have you. The apocalyptic versions of zombie stories, like The Walking Dead, seem particularly appealing to 21st century audiences. Of course, people like to read or watch other sorts of post-apocalypse stories too: climate change (The Day After Tomorrow), comets hitting the earth (Deep Impact or Armageddon), viruses that wipe out most people (The Last Ship or Survivors), and thermonuclear war (The Day After or Alas, Babylon!) have all been civilization enders. Maybe our fascination with apocalypses says something about our civilization. I’m not going to comment on that possibility.
Instead, I want to ask what the standard zombie can teach us about humanity. The question to ask is: Are zombies people?
Of course, zombies were people. But are they persons now? Some of the more terrifying aspects of zombie stories revolve around the transformation of a human being into a zombie. The protagonist in the story sees one of her close companions infected by a zombie bite and then has to watch the progression of the disease as it kills the person she knew—and then the dead body reanimates as a zombie. The protagonist sees the body of a person she loved, but now… What is it now?
As undead beings, zombies are immune to most attacks. Living people can shoot them, cut them, and smash them without stopping them. Depending on which zombie story you read/watch, there are few or no reliable methods for stopping them. The only way to “kill” the undead is to destroy their brains, or perhaps by burning them.
In zombie apocalypses, such as I am Legend or The Walking Dead, living people feel no compunction at killing zombies (if and when they can). One gets the impression that the living people do not regard zombies as human beings. They were human beings, but now they aren’t. Thus there is no moral stricture against killing them.
Most zombie stories portray zombies as other-than-human and less-than-human. And I think audiences buy into this conclusion. There is never any suspicion that zombies ought to receive mercy or respect or any other positive moral consideration. Sometimes a human character in the story will be tempted to have compassion on a zombie, but this is because she somehow confuses the person who used to have this body with the zombie that is this body now. Once the character recognizes that the person she used to know is gone, she regards the zombie as other-than-human.
Zombies are not like enemy soldiers in war. With the exception of pacifists, most people think it is right to kill enemy soldiers in war, but that does not eliminate all positive moral consideration for enemy soldiers. As soon as the enemy soldier surrenders or is wounded or otherwise “put out of action,” most people agree that we owe him some standard of human care. In zombie apocalypses, the zombies get no such consideration. They are utterly beyond moral concern. And this is because they are no longer human.
But there’s the question. Why aren’t zombies human? What is it that we’ve got that they don’t?
Lots of things, actually. Human beings laugh; zombies don’t. We sleep; apparently zombies never do. We love our neighbors (sometimes anyway); zombies don’t. We think about mathematics, science, poetry, art, and philosophy; zombies think only about finding human flesh.
Now I’m going to put the question as a philosopher would. Is any of these features, features we exhibit that zombies don’t share, essential to being human? I ask this question because there is a widely held view of human beings that pretty clearly implies that none of them is essential to being a human being. The view I mean is materialism. Materialism, as I use the word in this context, says that human beings are physical things—bodies, to be precise. All the essential features of human beings are physical features. Materialism need not deny that in addition to physical features human beings display mental or “spiritual” features, such as interest in art, love for neighbor, and a sense of humor. Such things are real features of human nature, but they are epiphenomenal. That is, the mental or spiritual features of human nature arise out of physical features of human nature, and not the other way around. On a materialist view, the real human being is the physical body; it just so happens that human physical bodies generate a wide range of mental states (which are really just states of the central nervous system). If some human body does not generate interesting mental states, it is still a human body. So then, on a materialist view of human beings, zombies are human beings.
This conclusion ought to trouble materialists. I don’t suggest that zombie stories provide a conclusive argument against materialism, far from it. Rather, I think the zombie myth illustrates a troubling feature of materialism, a feature that some materialists have noted. Charles Taylor, in A Secular Age, notes that some thoughtful 20th century people have rebelled against the way materialism pictures human beings. Such people want to say that the spiritual aspects of human life are important. They may be secularists and atheists, but they resist the idea that science, art, love, etc. are really just superfluous accidents floating on a sea of neurotransmitters. There is a depth and richness to human life that we ought to cherish and that may slip away if we think of ourselves as material things only.
I noted above that the epidemiologists, when they run their computer projections, say that the zombie apocalypse ends with the death of the last human being. (Sorry, Walking Dead fans; it’s going to end badly.) This raises the question of what happens to the zombies after they’ve turned everyone. Apparently, zombies don’t die (unless they are killed) and they only want one thing (human flesh), and in the end there won’t be any human flesh to eat. The zombie apocalypse gives us a new picture of hell: the eternal mindless pursuit of something that does not exist. The situation turns Sartre’s “hell is other people” on its head; it turns out that hell is the eternal lack of people (to eat).
Copyright © 2015 by Philip D. Smith.
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