The Zombie Zeitgeist

By Glenn Ashton · 11 Nov 2011

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Picture: Sodahead
Picture: Sodahead

If you have not noticed that zombies are emerging everywhere, perhaps you are one of the undead. Many parts of the world are clearly in the throes of a zombie invasion. 

While it may be easy to reject this as not being a hard, serious news story, zombies have been subjects on council meetings and have even been the subject of a warning by the respected US Centre for Disease Control.  Zombies regularly go on walkabouts and even hold conventions. Zombies are everywhere from protests on the streets to children’s games in your home. Perhaps even you are a zombie?

So what is it with zombies? Do they epitomise some new zeitgeist?

Before we get to the guts of the matter, so to speak, it's useful to understand the historical roots of zombie. While popular fiction portrays zombies as the living dead, their roots are somewhat earthier. The origin of the word “nzumbe” can be traced to Africa, specifically in the Angola / Congo area. Voodoo or voudou is part of the traditional pantheistic religion practised across a vast swath, from Angola in the south to Ghana in the north west. Zombies are really magical acolytes, enslaved by shamans and wizards through practices linked to both good and bad magic.  

The slave trade spread voudou to the new world where variations are practiced in many countries including Brazil, Cuba and perhaps most famously in Louisiana and Haiti. It is from these latter locations that zombies entered the popular imagination. In Haitian voudou zombies are allegedly enslaved through the poison of the puffer fish (tetrodoxin) and plant drugs like datura. 

Beside references to zombies in western literature over the previous two centuries, they have became best known through cinema. The actor Bela Lugosi, famous for playing Dracula, popularised zombies in the movie “White Zombie” in the 1930’s. More recently George Romero brought zombies front and centre in his cult movie Night of the Living Dead and its sequels. There have subsequently been hundreds of other zombie themed movies.

Modern versions of zombies are far more likely to have been infected by aliens or epidemics than by sorcerers. But what underlies our apparent attraction to zombies?

We know that our world faces multiple crises – financial, environmental, social, religious and cultural. Most of us are, to greater or lesser degrees, in denial of these realities. Environmentalists continue to drive cars and travel by air. The obscenely rich continue to parasitically destroy the very economic structures upon which they depend. Ordinary people ignore the economic and political realities that erode social stability, blaming easy targets instead of the systemic problems. 

This is the first way the zombie meme has achieved contemporary social relevance; our collective denial is analogous to acting like zombies, lurching dully from one day to another. 

There are several other deeper and more powerful arguments that the zombie trope is relevant and applicable to our present reality. Consider the technological advances of our civilisation: Taming the atom, for peace and war; using medical technology for good and bad, like germ and chemical warfare; changing life itself through genetic manipulation and engineering; engineering at the atomic scale with nanotechnology; the exponential power and speed of information technology. 

The collective implications of these advances are almost beyond our ken, yet inequality increases, unchecked. Exploitation of our natural world, as well as of each other, appears integral to human behaviour.  

While technology could enable us to enjoy the highest standards of living ever, it has the simultaneous potential to almost instantly revert us to the Stone Age through human or natural means. This results in underlying social tensions and expectations which induce massive stress, mental illness and depression. 

In order to deal with these tensions we ingest vast amounts of medication. One in four mid-life US women take anti-depressants. So do more than 10% of children. Antidepressants blunt one’s sense of reality. Are we just taking the edge off or are we medicating ourselves into zombies? 

Legal and illegal recreational drugs are even more widely used than prescription medicines to alter our sense of reality. Alcohol and acid, antidepressants and amphetamines are all consumed to escape a humdrum and often depressing reality. The illegal use of prescription drugs is also a spiralling problem.

The more unequal a society, the higher the use of illicit drugs. Brazil, USA and South Africa are each cases in point. On the one hand excessive drug and alcohol consumption distracts the poor from the reality of under- and unemployment juxtaposed against consistently flaunted wealth. On the other it blunts the sense of responsibility of the wealthy.

Substance abuse cannot be trivialised. It may be triggered by underlying problems but the reality is that both legal and illegal drugs effectively induce zombie states in a significant proportion of the population. It is either a case of remaining in drug induced denial or living in anticipation of the next opportunity to take the edges off reality. What better metaphor for this than zombies? Or is our reality rather more literal than metaphorical?

Others gain solace through embracing Marx’s opiate of the masses, religion, anticipating nirvana. Those prepared to steel themselves against reality may instead choose to believe establishment lies spread by dominant corporate media. Surely anybody remaining in denial of the dismal reality of economies built on war and exploitation are virtual, if not actual zombies? 

At an insidious level each of us is trapped in a web of conflicting, media-fed lies. These reinforce the received wisdom, inculcated in most industrial societies from school going age, that we are powerless to change the way things are. 

Political power is not retained so much through elections as by misleading zombified populations, reciting the mantras of brother leaders. From Ahmadinejad to Zuma, are there any honest leaders left out there, or is it just easier to remain clueless, in denial? Are we not just apathetic zombies in ignoring the excesses of corporate CEO's and their political henchmen – our modern shamans?

Julius Malema provides an excellent case in point. Here is a youth leader who promises the world – economic liberation, nationalisation of the mines, land and employment for all. His message is uncritically accepted by acolytes whose present reality is so dismal that any alternative is an improvement. 

This political shaman, oozing capitalist excess, gloatingly exhorts followers to lurch toward a populist revolution tailored to his agenda, not theirs. What better example of the zombie zeitgeist than a liberation leader in Armani jacket and bloated ego sized watch, who jets off to lavish bashes on tropical islands for R&R after exhausting economic liberation marches? Malema echoes his role model, Robert Mugabe, zombie shaman extraordinaire.

Malema differs little from the conservative “tea party” right wing in the USA, who utter polemic to downsize government and not tax the rich, who are themselves responsible for instigating the entire sorry sideshow. Demagoguery of all stripes is founded on illusory promises. Roll on, zombie revolutions. 

Conservative momentum is maintained by the misleading positions perpetuated by Murdoch’s Fox News Network, playing the role of witch- rather than spin-doctors. The tea party zombies naively consider themselves beneficiaries rather than fall guys. 

And so it goes. Berlusconi controls zombie Italy through his media. The Murdoch News of the World revelations in the UK was but a momentary peek behind the veil. Disinformation pays better than reality. 

When Communism collapsed in Poland less than a third of residents believed anything the media published. The capitalist message is better funded, researched and more addictive to impressionable, zombie minds than the tired old Soviet propaganda.

These examples illustrate why those still able to perceive Plato’s shadows on the wall of the cave have chosen the symbol of zombie to protest our illusory reality. We are enslaved by the powerful. Rejection of our reality makes portrayal of ourselves as zombies a potent protest. When zombie studies enters the academic curriculum, the metaphor must have flesh on its bones.

We are taught, and would like to believe, that social structures have changed radically since feudalism, where the one percenters of the royalty and nobility controlled the wealth and power, energetically abetted by institutional religion. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Despite the knowledge and information revolution, we may as well be zombies. We work unquestioningly for those we despise, who exploit and benefit from our virtual enslavement. Wage slaves, office serfs or zombies – is there any real difference? Surely there are few better synecdoches than the zombie to symbolise our present enslavement to a system which benefits few and disadvantages the majority?

The Zombies amongst the Occupy Wall Street protestors, or shuffling in their thousands through Brighton or anywhere else, jar us, serve as reminders. An awareness of self-destructive behaviour and patterns inoculates us. Surrounded by zombies we are less likely to fall victim ourselves. 

Zombies are not the enemy. Instead, it is the masters, the wizards and the witchdoctors of spin who use every means to maintain their control. Zombies clearly resonate with the zeitgeist of our dystopian reality. The real question we need to ask is whether the popularity of zombies is only a manifestation of a zombie zeitgeist, or does it perhaps herald the arrival of a zombie spring, with zombies rising up against their masters?

Ashton is a writer and researcher working in civil society. Some of his work can be viewed at Ekogaia - Writing for a Better World. Follow him on Twitter @ekogaia.

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10 Nov


Fantastic piece.

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Free thinker
12 Nov


That is why it is so important to teach our children to question, why do you say they, how can we do this, how, all these little words that carry dynamite when asked of our leaders BUT then we go out and vote for them without holding them accountable. We have only ourselves to blame, especially those who think they are educated and remain ignorant of the true nature of democracy.

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