Eternal Youth and Living Death: An Essay on Zombies for Claremont Review of Books

The grand obsession of modern culture is to ban the problem of mortality from human consideration. But mortality is fundamental to the human condition. We have fled the churches to evade confronting mortality. America’s morbid obsession with zombies betrays our deep fear of mortality. At Claremont Review of Books, I explain why you can’t take your eyes of rotting semi-animate corpses. Some extracts are below:

Ten years ago the horror genre, thrillers with an expressly supernatural element, supplied one out of 25 film industry products. By 2013 the proportion had risen to one in eight. Horror films touch a number of sore points in the American psyche. Vampires embody a perverse eroticism, which Anne Rice was tasteless enough to make explicit. Satanic apocalypse stories address a more generalized fear. The Frankenstein monster and his emulators speak to our fear of technology. Intelligent scripts and artful acting occasionally have found their way into these themes.

But the strangest thing about the horror boom is the popularity of zombies. Of all the Hollywood monsters, zombies were last to break into the big time. Starting in 1932 with “White Zombie,” a minor Bela Lugosi vehicle, zombies featured in just six films during the 1930s, eight during the 1940s, thirteen during the 1950s, and fourteen between 1960 and the 1968. Zombies filled a tiny niche within a niche, when horror itself was an exotic genre….

All the stranger, given that zombies are utterly boring. Monsters may hold our interest for any number of reasons—but why, among all the monsters, do we prefer zombies? Interview with the Vampire was a bestseller. “Interview with the Zombie” would be a Saturday Night Live sketch…

Apart from zombie films, only pornography repeats the same plot, requires no acting skills, and is watched obsessively by a mass audience. The story is irrelevant, the dialogue pointless. The fascination lies in the image, not in the characters or a narrative arc. The act holds viewers’ attention, and continues to fascinate when one actor after another performs it.

People don’t watch the same thing again and again unless it evokes an inner need. Watching porn does not stimulate sexual pleasure. On the contrary, prolonged exposure erodes the capacity to feel pleasure. But the voyeuristic obsession with fecund young flesh feeds our inner need to regenerate our physical existence, especially as we approach our use-by date.

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Zombie films—death porn—complement the worship of eternal youth, which is a kind of living death. We may have replaced Being-unto-death with Being-unto-Botox, but we can’t fool ourselves forever. We no longer encounter the terror and horror of death in churches, now that we have become “spiritual” rather than religious. But the terror and horror remain, and have erupted into our popular culture. We are as obsessed with death as were our medieval ancestors. Somerset Maugham’s story, “The Appointment in Samarra,” comes to mind: we have fled the churches to avoid pondering Death, while Death awaits us in the cinema.

The zombie invasion shows what a bill of goods we were sold by the psychoanalysts, the false messiahs of a substitute religion. To replace revealed religion, which offers man a response to mortality, the psychoanalysts diverted our attention. “We cannot, indeed, imagine our own death; whenever we try to do so we find that we survive ourselves as spectators,” wrote Freud. “The school of psychoanalysis could thus assert that at bottom no one believes in his own death, which amounts to saying: in the unconscious every one of us is convinced of his immortality.” We only think we fear death, in other words, when we really fear abandonment, castration, and sundry unresolved conflicts. That was flummery. We cannot imagine ourselves dead, because it is we who are doing the imagining, but we can picture ourselves as a rotting carcass without mind and purpose—in a word, a zombie. We are obsessed by the fear of death, but we are cut off from the traditional means of assuaging this fear. In its place we watch death porn.

The closest thing to an actual zombie among prominent Americans was, of course, Michael Jackson, whose face began to fall off after too many surgeries. Jackson’s 1983 zombie video, “Thriller,” gave us the defining image of late 20th-century America: Peter Pan as zombie, the perpetual youth as a walking corpse….

The zombie plague is a side effect of the great transformation in culture that erupted in 1960s, which left us in thrall to one idea: freedom for self-discovery, -definition, -invention, and -reinvention—artistic, spiritual, or even sexual—is the highest societal good, and the dead hand of tradition the supreme societal evil. …ortality without recourse to the past and access to the future is a living death….

The substitution of “spirituality” for religion and narcissistic sexuality for family life has had horrific consequences. The youthful flesh that surges with hormones will, we know, turn morbid with age and eventually rot….he sexual revolution of the 1960s transformed women from prospective wives into sexual commodities, leaving them to choose between protracting their youth as long as possible or accepting consignment to a human scrapheap.

No wonder so many American women have come to abhor their bodies…We know that the object of our narcissism will look a little worse in the mirror each day no matter how much Botox we inject.

Modernity tells that nothing in the universe cares whether we exist or not. Where the meaning of our lives is concerned, all of us are on our own. We are enthralled by the same images, but in reverse: the walking dead in place of the dead awaiting resurrection, decaying corpses instead of wholesome priests and uncorrupted saints, the zombie herd instead of the happy pilgrimage of God’s people to the holy courts of the Temple.

Read the whole essay here: