Conjecture Z

I’ve been thinking about zombies, as one does in my line of work. Why is so much of popular culture dedicated to the threat, the horror of the undead? The answer lies behind a heavy door that perhaps should have been left shut.  It is obvious and inescapable.  It elated me to find it, and then (appropriately enough) it terrified me.  Then I looked in the mirror, but that is another story for another place.

My conjecture is that zombies in popular culture represent the ineffable dread of what we have done to ourselves as a species: we have prolonged life without prolonging vitality. The old will swamp the young, and we are all inexorably infected.

So, you may ask: what substance produces these nightmares and where can you get some? A little bit of thinking easily brings together the pieces of the puzzle. And locks them into place. Locks them.

The first piece of the jigsaw is a memory of something explained long ago in a Reith lecture, back in the 1980s, or maybe another sort of formal BBC lecture. When Captain Cook landed in what eventually would become Australia, the good people living there were genuinely curious as to where he and his men had come from.  The other side of the world was the response, eliciting much hilarity and then worry about the mental state of the pale clowns: in those little boats? You crossed the ocean in those little boats? Or words to that effect.  Cook, through his interpreters, kept trying to explain he meant the big boat, anchored out in the bay – in plain sight. The good people saw nothing. Much bafflement on all sides. Days later, when the sailors took a party of aborigines on board the Endeavour, everyone saw the big boat. Once it was apprehensible by their bodies, it was visible. Troubling, unexplained, but visible.  Apparently, this is a known feature of our psychology: if we register something through our senses that is so far out of our experience, so removed from any frame of reference, then it simply does not register – it is invisible.

The Reith lecturer was using that example to explain why in those days, the prospect of nuclear war, ‘the Bomb’, was such a pervasive presence.  A threat so big, with consequences so vast, that it became “invisible”, in the sense that people did not engage with it directly, but only through simpler symbols and conventions. But they were still scared to death. His point was that we urgently needed to understand ‘the Bomb’, in order to avert disaster. Once the Berlin Wall fell, the urgency was removed.  We still have not dealt with that piece of ineffability and it may return.

The inexpressible fear of ‘the Bomb’ had been with us for at least quarter of a century, up to that point. Through this period, popular culture was awash with UFOs. Sure, aliens and their flying machines had been postulated long before and explored in a few popular tales. Now we had sightings often and almost everywhere, we had alien abductions, we had vast conspiracies, particularly government conspiracies. Many commentators drew the parallel: UFOs allowed us to rehearse a deniable terror in the face of the ineffable Bomb. After the fall of Berlin Wall, UFOs disappeared with a few exceptions – such as the brilliant designer treatment of all the old tropes in the likes of the X-Files. The bounce of a dead cat.

A few years later, the zombies started to multiply.  Yes, they had always been with us in literature and film.  Now they exploded into popular culture. Sometimes humour was used to keep the fear at bay: “Sense and Sensibility and Zombies” was not written by Jane Austen, but you can buy it.

What could possibly be as big, as inescapable, as global as ‘the Bomb’, as invisible as the newly arrived Endeavour? The answer is: the science and the material goods that have extended old age. A cruel joke dressed up as longer life, cheating death. In what period of history have so many middle-of-the road, nice people campaigned for legalising euthanasia? It’s mind-boggling but perfectly reasonable. In the wrong frame of mind, there may be no hell greater, so devoid of hope and strength, as old age. We, who were beautiful once, trapped, powerless, suffering, needing the young who become fewer. We infect them with the need to provide for their own zombie-hood. Contagion. Pills, cyborg attachments, rapid response teams. Artificially alive. They become zombies before the mirror reveals it to them.

The inexpressible and inadmissible terror of being kept alive by our own civilisational disease, or perhaps more accurately – undead, drives the popular culture’s fascination with zombies. The terror of knowing that one day that state will also sneak up on you. You who are beautiful, strong, and so desirable that the gods weep for you, consider Tithonus…