Zombies and the New York Times

What do zombies and the New York Times Book Review have in common?  Until recently, I’d have said absolutely nothing.  Why would one of the most prestigious book reviews in the English speaking world start talking about zombies?

But last week my wife fired up her Kindle, went to her subscription to the NYT Book Review and was astounded to see an article titled, “Zombie Resurrection,” by Terrence Rafferty.  Apparently zombies have gotten so big that even the New York Times can’t ignore them, and vampires are just so last year.

But while Rafferty makes a few good points, his leap that the rise in the popularity of zombies is a reflection of society’s anxiety with the “planet’s dwindling resources” is off the mark.  In fact, his statement is one of the reasons zombies are popular.

I’m too young to remember the Cuban Missile Crisis, but I do remember the late seventies and early eighties, when everyone from my teachers to politicians to media pundits stated with great certainty that we were on the brink of nuclear obliteration.  I remember our school showing a particularly gruesome BBC drama called Threads, which followed a couple of families through a nuclear holocaust and the collapse of society afterward.  It ended with rape and the birth of a deformed child.  Now that was horror.  I was shaken to my core and wondered why my parents weren’t moving us out of the city.

How does a kid deal with this extremely gloomy prediction of the future?  Why I delved into post-apocalyptic fiction, of course, which was very popular back then, and it was oddly reassuring: I’d be the one emerging from the bomb shelter, fighting the mutants and surviving.  Post-apocalyptic fiction was actually less pessimistic than the TV news because it showed that there would be an “after,” and indeed invented the concept that something as final as the apocalypse was in fact not the end of humans, but a fall of civilization more like the end of the Roman Empire.  New governments would form, but it would be chaos and dark ages for a while.

Anyone watching TV news these days must be feeling about as frightened and depressed as I was as a kid in the late seventies.  The Center for Disease Control in the last few years has issued terrifying pandemic warnings about SARs, the Bird Flu and Swine Flu, apocalypses that were about to take place and didn’t, however they might just reappear next fall.

The world is burning up and sea levels are drastically rising according to environmentalists; the economy has crashed and burned forever according to just about everyone.  Society is on the cusp of great disaster, no matter where you look.  Gold keeps hitting record highs while the stock market reels.

So how does an avid fiction reader react to all this doom and gloom? Why they read about the zombie apocalypse, of course.  Suddenly so many problems are solved.  The debt crisis goes away and so does your credit card balance.  Global warming is not a problem anymore since you can’t even find gas for your car.  The pandemic prophesies of the CDC turn out to be correct, but it’s one manageable disease: just don’t get bit by a zombie and you’re good.

Better yet, you get to do something about all the trouble.  You can shoot as many zombies as you want without guilt and without fear of incarceration.  Life becomes an exciting, first-person shooter game.

Rafferty of the NYT is right about the zombie craze being a reflection of our fears, but he’s missing that point that he and his fellow media pundits are responsible for that fear with their endlessly pessimistic predictions of the future.

Since the end of the world is coming anyway, people want to read about what happens after the presses of the NYT stop running.  It’s actually a very interesting world.

And you get to shoot zombies.

Share this:

3 comments, add yours.

Jim Bottomley

As a futurist by profession, I say we are in the greatest time of change in human history. Change causes stress and a feeling of being out of control; we feel zombie-like. Although the media will never report that Iraq had a happy day – we are all rubberneckers – i am optimistic about our future.

Melodie Campbell

This post hit home, Mike. I was in health care for much of my career, and contracted both SARs and Swine Flu. When the world around me was too scary to think about, there was comfort in those vampires and aliens; something you *knew* couldn’t really get you was where you could escape to.

Joan

Hey guys! Think big. We are in the middle of a revolution. Think THE PRINTING PRESS. What is really happening is a slow, painful adjustment to instant communication. And a world more physically connected by air travel. It’s painful and bewildering. Some parts are wonderful and some (riots, SARS) horrifying. But who would want to be without books or computers or airplanes?

Maybe the zombie craze is residue of worst dream scenarios, of fear of implants and the Borg. But who would want to be without imagination?

Leave a comment