Metaphor of the Living Dead:Or, the Effect of the Zombie Apocalypse on Public Policy Discourse
By any metric, the zombie genre has exploded in popularity in recent years, reflecting a variety of anxieties in the body politic. Surfing the cultural zeitgeist, a number of actors have adopted the zombie trope to advance their own political message. There are clear advantages in using the living dead as a hook for promoting political and policy ideas. The superficial homogeneity of the zombie canon, however, poses some problems for its use going forward. Constant references to the zombie canon can reinforce an apocalyptic perception about the future of modern society. The solution lies in an embrace of more heterogeneous zombie narratives.
whether one looks at films, songs, games, or books, the zombie genre is clearly on the rise. According to conservative estimates, well more than one-third of all zombie films have been released since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks (Bishop 2008). By any observable metric, the living dead have become the hottest paranormal pop culture phenomenon of this century. As the pace of zombie movie production has accelerated, the 2013 film version of World War Z has grossed more than half a billion dollars worldwide. Robert Kirkwood’s AMC series The Walking Dead has become a ratings powerhouse. Pundits, corporations, interest groups, and even government agencies have embraced the living dead as a tool for developing and advancing their own ideas and interests.
Why do zombies continue to ride so high in the cultural sky? And, frankly, is this good for the humans? The spread of the living dead reflects a variety of anxieties in an American body politic buffeted by asymmetric threats and economic uncertainty. Surfing the cultural zeitgeist, a number of actors have adopted the zombie trope to advance their own political message. There are clear advantages in using the living dead as a pop culture hook for promoting political and policy ideas. The superficial homogeneity of the zombie canon, however, [End Page 825] also poses some drawbacks for its use going forward. Simply put, zombies are unique in genre literature in emphasizing the breakdown of modern society in the wake of an external threat. In propagating this narrative, constant references to the zombie canon can reinforce an apocalyptic perception about the future of modern society. As interest groups also appropriate and exploit the zombie narrative to pursue their own political agendas, their millenarian rhetoric helps to lay the groundwork for the societal breakdown that they claim to fear. The best solution to this conundrum lies in an embrace of more heterogeneous zombie narratives.
THE ZOMBIE REVIVAL AND ITS MEANING
It does not take much effort to demonstrate that zombies have become increasingly popular in the twenty-first century. Even prior to the Great Recession, flesh-eating ghouls—as opposed to the more historically accurate definition of zombies as slaves (Wilentz 2013)—had become one of the most important sources of postapocalyptic cinema (Phelan 2009). The strong growth in movie production is merely the most obvious data point. The number of zombie books published annually has quadrupled over the past decade (Drezner 2011). A series of 1990s zombie video games, including the Resident Evil and Left 4 Dead franchises, served as a precursor for the renaissance of zombie cinema. These have been followed up by even more video games, including Plants vs. Zombies and The Last of Us. The undead have also spread to television in recent years, led by AMC’s The Walking Dead. In 2013, the television ratings for The Walking Dead beat all other shows in its time slot—including Sunday Night Football. In the decade after 2004, the annual mentions of “zombie” in the New York Times increased more than eightfold.1 By any metric of scholarly output, research on zombies has exploded (Bishop 2010; Christie and Lauro 2011; Drezner 2011; Phillips 2014). According to the digital library service JSTOR, the number of scholarly articles about zombies over the past decade is more than five times the amount published in the previous decade. As figure 1 demonstrates, since the start of the 2008 financial crisis, the zombie has supplanted interest in all other paranormal phenomena. [End Page 826]
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What is particularly intriguing about this surge in zombie interest is that it cuts against the disdain that cultural elites feel for the living dead. Thirty years ago James Twitchell (1985, 273) concluded that “the zombie is an utter cretin, a vampire with a lobotomy.” Despite the zombie renaissance in popular culture, these ghouls are still considered disreputable. Paul Waldmann (2009) observed that “in truth, zombies should be boring … what’s remarkable is that a villain with such little complexity has thrived for so long.” It is not hard to find cultural paeans to Harry Potter or The Hunger Games or Game of Thrones or even the Twilight series. Despite the popularity of the zombie genre, there are few cultural odes to the living dead.
What is it about zombies that explains their twenty-first century popularity? To appreciate the undead’s longer-than-15-minutes in the pop culture spotlight, one has to understand the ways in which the specter of the living dead touches on more concrete societal fears (Drezner 2011). Feffer (2013) concludes that zombies are popular because of the intersection of three trends: war, pandemics, and globalization. In an age of SARS, H1N1, MERS, and Ebola, the fear of epidemics is particularly acute. One commonality to all zombie narratives is that 100 percent of the people bitten by zombies eventually turn into zombies. Even the most virulent pathogens encountered in the real world—Ebola or HIV—have infection rates below 50 percent. The living [End Page 827] dead embody most facets of what Jessica Stern has labeled “dreaded risks” (Stern 2002–3).
The dreaded risk qualities of the undead matter. There is a modest correlation between zombie movie production and times of war, recession, or general unhappiness (VanDusky 2010). And even as traditional international security threats are waning, nontraditional threats seem to assault the senses constantly. The spread of spontaneous uprisings, from the Arab Spring in 2011 to Russia in 2012, Brazil and Turkey in 2013, and Ukraine and Venezuela in 2014, feed a perception that the political order is more fragile. Violent nonstate actors ranging from Somali pirates to the Islamic State have thrived in areas of state collapse. Concerns about terrorism have not abated since the September 11, 2001, attacks, despite a decline in actual terrorist attacks (Zenko and Cohen 2012). Indeed, concerns about “lone wolf” terrorist incidents, such as the 2012 Newtown school shooting or the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, are on the rise. Drug-resistant pandemics have been a staple of local news hysteria since the H1N1 swine flu swept across the United States in 2009. Scientists continue to warn about the dangers that climate change poses to our planet. If 2008 taught anything, it is that crisis and contagion are endemic to the global financial system. Public opinion polls in the United States show that Americans view illegal immigration as one of the most important national security threats (Drezner 2008). In 2013, US officials announced that cyberattacks were now the top national security threat.
All of the threats listed in the previous paragraph have something in common: they do not primarily emanate from nation-states. Traditionally, international relations has been concerned with interactions among national governments. Many current security concerns, however, center on nontraditional threats. In some cases, the threat does not even come from a conscious actor, but an impersonal force like a virus. In the most important ways, flesh-eating ghouls are an exemplar for salient concerns about the global body politic. Much like pandemics or financial crises, it is impossible to negotiate with the living dead. Similar to online or offline terrorism, it seems like just [End Page 828] a small outbreak of flesh-eating ghouls can wreak massive carnage. And a mob of reanimated, ravenous corpses is as inexorable a force as climate change. Zombies are the perfect avatar for the twenty-first-century threat environment: they are not well understood by serious analysts, they possess protean capabilities, and the challenges they pose to states are very, very grave. A growing concern in world politics is the ebbing of power from purposive actors to the forces of entropy (Haass 2008; Naim 2013; Schweller 2014). Zombies literally embody that concern.
THE APPROPRIATION OF THE ZOMBIE METAPHOR
The living dead have acquired cultural cachet because the zombie narrative resonates with twenty-first century fears. Concomitantly, a welter of private sector, civil society, and public sector actors has appropriated the zombie metaphor to advance their own ideas, interests, and products. College students are playing Humans versus Zombies on their campuses to relieve stress. Zombie fun runs have proliferated in recent years. The living dead are now standard fare in commercials advertising products ranging from cell phones to politicians. REI has marketed “13 Essential Tools for Surviving a Zombie Outbreak”—each available for purchase at its retail stores. The annual Zombie Safe House Competition challenges architects to design the best ghoul-proof home.
This appropriation of zombies further reifies their cultural significance. Because the living dead resonate so strongly in the current cultural zeitgeist, it should not be surprising that various provocateurs and policy entrepreneurs use the living dead as a hook for their own ideas and interests. It seems difficult for the New York Times op-ed page to go a week without a contributor bringing up zombies (Collins 2012a, 2012b, 2013; Wilentz 2012; Krugman 2013). Most of these commentators are using the term “zombie” to refer to the stagnant set of ideas propagated by their ideological doppelgängers. Indeed, John Quiggin’s (2010) Zombie Economics is predicated on the idea that Washington Consensus economic policies are essentially brain-dead at this point. Quiggin’s use of the zombie metaphor is the exemplar of this [End Page 829] kind of appropriation. In these venues, the uniform purpose of dredging up zombies is to accuse others of trafficking in “dead dogma,” as John Stuart Mill (1859) articulated the concept in On Liberty.
Intriguingly, it is government agencies that have gone the furthest in appropriating and exploiting the zombie genre, particularly those focused on emergency preparedness and contingency planning. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has been one of the savviest at exploiting the living dead. In May 2011, the CDC posted a small item on one of its blogs about what to do if the dead should rise from the grave to feast upon the entrails of the living (Khan 2011). Nine minutes after the CDC tweeted out the item, the CDC’s web server hosting that blog crashed from the upsurge in traffic (Kruvand and Silver 2013). Recognizing a good thing, the CDC quickly developed a web page replete with eCards, widgets, and buttons on emergency preparedness and the zombie apocalypse.2 It subsequently released Zombie Preparedness 101, a comic book designed to educate readers in how to prepare against a zombie attack—which, not coincidentally, requires the same steps as preparing for natural disasters (CDC 2011). The social media campaign was so successful it became a case study for successful strategic communications (Kruvand and Silver 2013).
Other government agencies have followed in the wake of the CDC’s public relations triumph. The Department of Homeland Security picked up on the CDC’s success and incorporated zombies into its planning and publicity operations; in September 2012, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) held a webinar on zombie awareness and promoting emergency preparedness. As Kruvand and Silver (2013, 51–2) observe, “a number of state and local government agencies adopted the zombie apocalypse theme for their own public service campaigns.” In April 2011, war planners based at US Strategic Command (2011) produced a contingency plan entitled “Counter-Zombie Dominance,” or CONPLAN 8888. The plan contained such details as an eightfold typology of zombies, an assessment of the environmental and legal effects of combatting the living dead, and a multiphase plan designed to contain, dominate, and then stabilize operations in a [End Page 830] zombie-infested world. Options discussed included the use of nuclear weapons, the deterrence of other great powers from exploiting the zombie threat, and coping with counterproductive emotions of the living dead’s human relatives. Three years later, Foreign Policy magazine reported on CONPLAN 8888, generating approximately 50,000 links to it via social media (Lubold 2014). Governments outside the United States have also embraced the zombie trope as a way to promote disaster preparedness.
THE SOCIAL UTILITY OF THE LIVING DEAD
None of these actors are acting irrationally in trying to use the zombie narrative to advance their own policy or political interests. There is a growing social science literature on the ways in which popular culture matters in policy circles (Weldes 2001; Nexon and Neumann 2006; Carpenter 2014). Nexon and Neumann (2006) posit a number of ways in which references to popular culture can aid in policy formulation. Pop culture can have an “informing effect” of calling attention to and framing a particular problem. Popular culture can also have an “enabling effect” of providing shorthand references that trigger awareness of a problem. As Nexon and Neumann (2006, 18) phrase it, “popular culture may lend metaphorical strength to the appeal of a certain policy and so take on enabling importance for political action.” By bringing up zombies, actors can prime their audience to think about a problem in a particular way that is amenable to their preferred solution.
Without question, the CDC exploited both informing and enabling effects in their zombie awareness campaign. The author of the CDC’s initial blog post noted the informing effect after the fact (quoted in Kruvand and Silver 2013, 44–46):
Zombies have been a really good way to get people to engage with preparedness… . [I]t served as a great bridge to talk about public health in general. All of a sudden, people are willing to hear about public health and how interesting it is, because we’ve mixed it with something they already want to hear about, zombies. [End Page 831]
By exploiting the living dead, the CDC could push its message of emergency preparedness—stocking up on reserves of food, water, flashlights, a first aid kit, and a secure shelter in case of catastrophes, such as hurricanes. Public health advocates have embraced the zombie metaphor in particular. Melissa Nasiruddin et al. (2013) conclude that
zombies can be used as a powerful tool for increasing awareness of issues of public health significance. The popularity of the CDC piece on preparing for a zombie apocalypse has been instrumental in teaching how to prepare for disasters like the Tohoku earthquake in Japan. We propose continuing these efforts, building on the popularity of zombies to increase public health awareness in the general public, and explore additional issues that may have not been considered in the past, such as infection control, mental health issues, ethics of disease, and bioterrorism potential.
There are other means through which zombies in particular can be exploited to highlight matters of public policy, however. One of the strengths of the horror genre is that it allows people to talk about present-day problems without addressing them directly. Instead of droning on about the specter of climate change, one can highlight the problem by changing the threat to the living dead. As Michael Vlahos (2013) argues, “Pondering the zombie apocalypse is a form of shared emotional preparation—a collective therapy—for facing bad things to come. It is also, ironically, society’s only working pathway to real-world, worst-case strategic analysis.” Both informing and enabling effects highlight the positive ways that the living dead can be expropriated as a metaphor to spark interest in new ideas. The moment zombies are added into the mix, a dry public policy problem suddenly becomes a rollicking argument accessible to ordinary citizens.
The planners at US Strategic Command (2011, 2) were certainly aware of these phenomena. In their introduction to CONPLAN 8888, they noted that [End Page 832]
We posted this plan because we feel it is a very enjoyable way to train new planners and boost retention of critical knowledge. We posted this … so that others who were interested in finding new and innovative ways to train planners could have an alternative and admittedly unconventional tool at their disposal that could be modified and updated over time. We also hoped that this type of non-traditional training approach would provide inspiration for other personnel trying to teach topics that can be very boring….
If you suspend reality for a few minutes, this type of training scenario can actually take a very dry, monotonous topic and turn it into something enjoyable.
This explanation also highlights another advantage to popular culture metaphors: drawing from popular culture allows for greater creativity in the response to new challenges or new situations. Indeed, the very act of referencing fiction encourages policy entrepreneurs to use their narrative imagination to tackle problems in unorthodox and fruitful ways. Little wonder, then, that the planners at U. S. Strategic Command (2011, 1) determined that “the hyperbole involved in writing a ‘zombie survival plan’ actually provided a very useful and effective training tool.”
THE DRAWBACKS TO THE LIVING DEAD
It is undeniable that public policy actors have adroitly used the zombie metaphor to promote their own agendas. It should be pointed out, however, that constant references to the living dead in popular culture also have more problematic features. This became clear after a bizarre attack in May 2012 in Miami, in which one man tried to eat another man’s face and was not easily subdued despite multiple police gunshots. The Miami attack triggered a massive spike in Google searches for “zombie apocalypse.” After the attack, the CDC was forced to publicly deny the existence of a zombie virus (Campbell 2012). Subsequent television documentaries about the undead suggested that the Miami attack could have been a government research effort gone awry. [End Page 833]
There are several conceptual problems with reliance on the living dead as a metaphor. First, there is the problem of contagion—not of a zombie virus, but of the fear of the paranormal. Beliefs in the paranormal have a viral quality (Sparks, Nelson, and Campbell 1997). Sociological research suggests that exposure to other people’s beliefs increase the likelihood of accepting that same belief regardless of its logical plausibility (Markovsky and Thye 2001). The more that zombies bleed from their own subgenre into the mainstream media, the more people that will come to believe, fear, and dread their existence. Fear is a powerful emotion that can profoundly affect policymaking across several dimensions (Crawford 2000; Gray and Ropeik 2002; Moïsi 2007; Strong 1990). Furthermore, once myths or misperceptions enter public discourse, it is very hard for them to be eradicated (Nyhan and Reifler 2010). Even if public policy actors try to downplay the actual existence of the living dead, they might find such efforts to be counterproductive.
A more serious problem is the analytical weakness of using analogies to motivate public policy actions (Snidal 1985; Neustadt and May 1986; Khong 1992; Houghton 1996). Policy entrepreneurs have understandably analogized myriad concerns to zombies so as to capture public attention. The idea behind analogical reasoning is that if there are enough parallels between two situations—one that’s ongoing and one where the outcome is known—then analysts can infer what should be done from the completed situation. Ergo, if the initial conditions of a threat seem to match those of flesh-eating ghouls, this will prompt acute policy responses. This makes sense if the goal of the CDC and other agencies is to promote emergency preparedness.
There are, however, general disadvantages to analogical reasoning, as well as some disadvantages specific to the zombie canon. In general, analogies focus on the similarities between cases without considering whether the differences are more important. It is precisely the power of analogies to discipline causal reasoning that caused the Johnson administration to assume that the Vietnam War would follow the pattern of the Korean War (Khong 1992)—or, more recently, that the US military surge in Afghanistan would have the same effect as the [End Page 834] surge in Iraq did a few years earlier. If carried too far, the improper use of analogical reasoning can lead to flawed policy outcomes.
Actors like the CDC or FEMA are primarily relying on zombies for strategic communications, so this problem with analogical reasoning might seem overblown. However, the specific disadvantage to the zombie analogy is the superficial homogeneity of every narrative about the living dead. In almost all zombie films and fiction, the plot is depressingly similar. Flesh-eating ghouls are introduced in minute one. By minute ten, the world is a postapocalyptic hellscape. The implication is that if zombielike threats emerge, both the state and civil society will break down almost immediately. Indeed, the assumption is so baked into the traditional zombie narrative that some of the most prominent examples in the genre—28 Days Later, The Walking Dead—do not even bother to show how society breaks down. They simply flash forward to the end of the civilized world.
One could argue that interest in the living dead has shifted from a focus on zombies to a focus on the zombie apocalypse. The television shows that have been inspired by AMC’s The Walking Dead do not necessarily have flesh-eating ghouls, but rather a postapocalyptic setting. Such series include TNT’s Falling Skies and The Last Ship, Syfy’s Defiance and Z Nation, and FX’s The Strain, as well as National Geographic’s reality show Doomsday Preppers. Similarly, when the film World War Z premiered in the summer of 2013, the end of the world was also captured in at least five other films: Joseph Kosinski’s Oblivion, Guillermo Del Toro’s Pacific Rim, M. Night Shyamalan’s After Earth, Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen’s This Is the End, and Edgar Wright’s The World’s End. By the summer of 2014, Entertainment Weekly had to release an “Apocalypse Issue” in order to cover all of the salient new summer blockbusters set in a postapocalyctic era. It is not merely zombies that have crested culturally—it is the end of the world.
Obviously, disaster cinema belongs in the realm of escapism. Apocalypse narratives matter, however, if people implicitly accept the notion that some threats are likely to trigger a societal breakdown. Perception plays an important role in maintaining national resilience [End Page 835] and public order. While the state can provide some of these goods, governments function better with cooperation from strong civil societies (Putnam, Leonardi, and Nanetti 1994). Public goods such as social trust and public safety possess a tragedy of the commons quality (Hardin 1982). In game-theoretic terms, if citizens develop a common conjecture that the state’s ability to provide public order is not robust, then they might take actions that reify that very conjecture. In other words, if citizens think that we’re teetering on the brink of chaos, the apocalyptic mindset can, in and of itself, help bring about the very disaster it fears. Social scientists have observed similar “cascade effects” in diverse socio-political arenas (Schelling 1978; Lohmann 1994; Helbing 2013). A lack of social trust can magnify a small perturbation into a larger societal panic—even though past evidence suggests that the likelihood of panic in response to disasters has been overstated (Solnit 2009).
There is at least some prima facie evidence that doomsday prepping and the apocalyptic mindset have already influenced public policy debates in the United States. The response to the Ebola pandemic in West Africa during the summer and fall of 2014 demonstrates an eroding lack of trust in public institutions. Democratic political consultant Naomi Wolf speculated that the US military planned to exploit the pandemic to militarize Africa and justify military quarantining of civilians in the United States (Fisher 2014). Meanwhile, on the conservative side of the spectrum, 2016 GOP presidential hopefuls and right-wing pundits have both questioned why Americans should trust either the CDC or the Obama administration’s information about preventing Ebola from spreading in the United States (Nather 2014; Scott 2014; Fournier 2014). Not surprisingly, public opinion polling in September 2014 showed that between one-fifth and one-fourth of Americans were worried about catching the disease, despite the extraordinarily low probability of an uncontrolled spread in the United States (Gallup 2014b). One op-ed columnist concluded that “American Ebola panic is a putatively nonfiction apocalyptic-contagion story, heavily indebted in both its form and its popularity to the zombie plague narratives that proliferate in our fiction” (Rotella 2014). [End Page 836]
For another example, consider the recent rhetoric from gun rights advocates, particularly the National Rifle Association (NRA). Over the past four decades, the gun rights movement has toggled between two rhetorical strategies to advance its opposition to gun control and spread of private gun ownership (Lio, Melzer, and Reese 2008). The NRA’s libertarian rhetoric warns that gun control measures restrict individual freedoms at the expense of more government power. The NRA’s millenarian rhetoric warns that in a world of violent actors, the state will be unable to defend Americans. The millenarian line of argumentation became more prominent after the September 11 terrorist attacks. As Lio, Melzer, and Reese (2008, 10) observe, “rather than rely on law enforcement (the government) for protection from crime and firearm violence, the NRA supports citizens arming themselves for self-defense.” The millenarian rhetoric has matched a steady post-9/11 erosion in Americans’ trust of most public institutions (Gallup 2014a; Douthat 2014). This rhetoric is far from the primary cause of the decline of trust in institutions—but it has surely abetted the trend.
It would seem that as zombies have acquired more cultural cachet, the NRA and its supporters have leaned even more on the millenarian argument to protect gun rights (Patrick 2014). For example, in the wake of the December 2012 shooting tragedy in a Newtown, Connecticut, school, National Rifle Association executive vice president Wayne LaPierre (2013) stridently and publicly opposed any new gun regulations. This is hardly surprising, but his rationale explicitly rejected libertarianism in favor of millenarianism:
Hurricanes. Tornadoes. Riots. Terrorists. Gangs. Lone criminals. These are perils we are sure to face—not just maybe. It’s not paranoia to buy a gun. It’s survival. It’s responsible behavior, and it’s time we encourage law-abiding Americans to do just that….
Responsible Americans realize that the world as we know it has changed. We, the American people, clearly see the [End Page 837] daunting forces we will undoubtedly face: terrorists, crime, drug gangs, the possibility of Euro-style debt riots, civil unrest or natural disaster.
Gun owners are not buying firearms because they anticipate a confrontation with the government. Rather, we anticipate confrontations where the government isn’t there—or simply doesn’t show up in time.
In his address at the National Rifle Association annual meeting a year later, LaPierre (2014) doubled down on millenarian themes:
We know, in the world that surrounds us, there are terrorists and home invaders and drug cartels and car-jackers and knock-out gamers and rapers, haters, campus killers, airport killers, shopping mall killers, road-rage killers, and killers who scheme to destroy our country with massive storms of violence against our power grids, or vicious waves of chemicals or disease that could collapse the society that sustains us all.
I ask you. Do you trust this government to protect you?
We are on our own.
In essence, LaPierre’s argument was that the current state of the world is so apocalyptic that it is perfectly rational for individual citizens to prepare for the end of days. What is particularly odd about this argument, however, is that it does not jibe with the empirical evidence. The data show a sustained decline in both violent crime and property crime in the United States (Waters et al. 2013; Wilson 2014) as well as gun-related crime (Yglesias 2014). The millenarian rhetoric also contradicts long-run data suggesting a secular decline in both interstate and intrastate conf lict (Mueller 2009; Goldstein 2011; Pinker 2011). While the external threat environment to the United States is less certain than [End Page 838] during the Cold War, it is also far less threatening (Zenko and Cohen 2012). The prevalence of the millenarian argument, however, suggests that the NRA’s strategic communications does not necessarily need to be tethered to reality—just collective misperceptions of that reality.
The rise of the zombie metaphor both reflects and reifies collective perceptions of societal breakdown. Communications scholar Brian Anse Patrick (2014, 25) explicitly argues that “the zombie phenomenon represents a profound disturbance in the Western collective unconscious caused by anxieties over the decline of Western civilization.” This same anxiety also explains the surge in gun sales that continued into 2014 (Sherfinski 2014). In this sense, it is the anxiety about twenty-first-century threats that is the underlying cause for both the rise of the zombie phenomenon and the gun rights rhetoric. Just as government agencies have exploited the popularity of the zombie narrative, however, so have gun rights advocates. Zombies have become a prominent part of the NRA’s annual convention, and gun manufacturers are now following trends in zombie culture by promoting weapons that feature prominently in the zombie canon (Patrick 2014, 94–97). Multiple commentators have echoed Jeffrey Goldberg’s (2012) observation about The Walking Dead that, “its position on gun-control, while unstated, is obvious” (see also Savan 2013; Yuhas 2013). As Patrick (2014, 92), who is also a gun rights enthusiast, points out:
[Z]ombie consciousness proselytizes for gun culture. Anxiety brings people into the fold. Feelings of social decay, decline, inundation, the presence of the apocryphal but presumably growing “47 percent” who subsist off the work of others, lurid crimes of cannibalism; all these and more unsettling elements likewise contribute.
Patrick (105) goes on to observe:
Guns protect against lone predators, burglars, rapists, gangs and hordes of various sorts, zombies or otherwise. As [End Page 839] a practical matter there is little difference between a zombie who wants to eat your brain and a criminal who would bash it in with a brick. Guns either repel them or dispatch them to an appropriate destination.
This theme of needing additional firepower recurs in conservative political discourse more widely (Bob 2012). At one congressional hearing, Senator Lindsey Graham worried aloud about inadequate firepower if, say, “chemicals have been released into the air and law enforcement is really not able to respond and people take advantage of that lawless environment” (quoted in Collins 2013). This is, as it turns out, the exact plot of Dan O’Bannon’s 1985 film Return of the Living Dead. Similarly, a Florida bill was proposed to have allowed residents to carry firearms without a concealed weapon permit during times of emergency. In response, a Florida state senator proposed amending the bill’s title to read “an act relating to the zombie apocalypse” (Deslatte 2014).
When elected officials muse aloud about a Return of the Living Dead scenario, it suggests the ways in which zombies have seeped into political discourse. It also suggests, in the future, a way in which politicians will be able to engage in “dog-whistle politics”—using multivocal rhetorical appeals that have distinct meanings to distinct audiences (Albertson 2014). Politicians can lean on millenarian rhetoric about an impending societal collapse—including references to zombies—as a way to signal their policy preferences to gun rights groups. Even if such statements are looked upon as bizarre by most of the population, they are also discounted by them. To targeted audiences, however, dog-whistle messages continue to resonate.
The renaissance of the zombie apocalypse in popular culture may be in and of itself feeding a cultural zeitgeist that rejects cooperation and assumes society will be collapsing at any moment. As Heather Havrilesky (2012) noted in her review of the apocalypse genre in television and fiction: [End Page 840]
These characters rarely choose to join a large community and cooperate peacefully within its boundaries and bylaws for the common good. Because as long as it’s all fantasy, why subject yourself to the same compromises and restrictions you tolerate in your real life? What kind of an imaginative exercise is that? The species of author who favors an apocalypse isn’t typically interested in relating the adventures of an optimistic team player.
Survivalists and gun rights advocates would counter that by arming themselves, Americans are simply building more resiliency into a complex, adaptive social system that is vulnerable to state collapse. While this logic might hold at the individual level, the combined effects of such behavior can be systemically catastrophic. Consider the observations of a survivalist instructor (Bowser 2014):
The “defend what’s mine” mentality states that the moment “shit goes down,” every other human in the world instantly becomes either a resource to be used or a threat to be eliminated. Whomever you designate as “your tribe” are the only people with any value—all others are simply mindless sheep to be picked off with your shiny new AR-15. Proponents of this mentality frequently either have or wish to have underground bunkers ready to hide in and defend themselves from “invaders,” often with such brutal methods as landmines, flame-throwers, electrically charged fencing, and of course, big guns….
With such volatile, compounding factors of the dominant “defend what’s mine” mentality, the incredible amount of guns in the U. S., and the inherent violence of our culture, it is understood that our country would quickly turn into a bloodbath in the event of a catastrophic incident. [End Page 841]
Or, to use the language of systems theory (Helbring 2013, 52): “fundamental changes in the system outcome—such as non-cooperative behavior rather than cooperation among agents—can result from seemingly small changes in the nature of the components or their mode of interaction.”
It is logical for purveyors of emergency preparedness like the CDC or FEMA to exploit the rise of the zombie narrative. They are not the only actors drawing on the informing or enabling effects of the zombie genre, however. Because the zombie canon focuses so squarely on the apocalypse, its spread into popular culture can erode faith in the resiliency of civilization. The zombie narrative, as it is traditionally presented, socially constructs the very narrative that agencies like the CDC and FEMA are trying to prevent.
The spread of the living dead into every nook and cranny of American popular culture mirrors societal fears about the amorphous, asymmetric threats in the world today—the “unknown unknowns,” as former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld put it. The zombie’s cultural cachet has caused a welter of private and public sector actors to appropriate the metaphor to promote their own ideas. As a form of strategic communications, agencies like the CDC have had success in utilizing the living dead. This success is counteracted by other actors that have exploited the zombie apocalypse to spread a millenarian message of imminent societal collapse. In spreading this meme, gun rights advocates and their political allies are helping to propagate the very threat that ostensibly frightens them.
Commentators across the political spectrum have observed this phenomenon. As conservative Matt K. Lewis (2014) noted during the Ebola outbreak in the summer of 2014:
Things have changed so much in the last 20 years that the recent movie World War Z, about the zombie apocalypse (originally misidentified in the book and movie as rabies), felt scarier—seemed more like real life—than the 1995 film [End Page 842] Outbreak did at the time. It might seem extraordinary that a movie about zombies is easier to identify with than a film about a real-life virus. But am I wrong? The country has changed—and not in a good way. We are more prone to fear today than we were then. And our political and media leaders aren’t exactly easing our worries—they’re stoking them.
Part of the problem lies in the superficial homogeneity of the zombie narrative. Is there a cure to this millenarian cul-de-sac? The solution, perhaps, is the infusion of more creative zombie narratives. There will always be a place in zombie lore for the grim, unrelentingly dour postapocalyptic visions of George Romero’s zombie films and Robert Kirkwood’s The Walking Dead. That said, popular culture also needs more stories in which the adaptability, ingenuity, and creativity of human beings is also put on full display. These narratives do exist on the page and on the screen. Max Brooks’s (2006) novel World War Z, for example, posits a world in which the living dead post a global threat—but national governments eventually find ways to adapt and overcome the threat. Isaac Marion’s Warm Bodies (2011) posits a group of zombies that are capable of evolving back into something approximating humans. A key question in Marion’s novel is whether mankind can recognize and adapt to that change. Dominic Mitchell’s television series In The Flesh is even more subversive, dealing with a postzombie world in which humans and posthumans are trying to find ways to coexist. M. R. Carey’s The Girl With All the Gifts (2014) probes the ethical dilemmas of experimenting on sentient zombies. Perhaps the best example of this genre is not, strictly speaking, a zombie film—Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion (2011). This film goes the furthest in demonstrating how a pandemic could lead to severe societal disruptions in a globalized economy. At the same time, however, Contagion also demonstrates how the ingenuity of public health officials can counteract and triumph over the forces of panic and disinformation. [End Page 843]
Most of the zombie canon underestimates the ability of human beings to adapt more quickly than any nonhuman threat (Drezner 2011). Any species that invented duct tape, smartphones, and Twinkies stands a better-than-fighting chance against the living dead. Narratives about flesh-eating ghouls will always be scary, but they can also remind audiences that humans have an enormous capacity to adapt to new threats and overcome them. We will only learn to combat the policy problems created by the metaphor of the living dead in public discourse by bringing the brain back in.
DANIEL W. DREZNER is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He is the author of five books, including Theories of International Politics and Zombies (2011).
An abridged version of this essay appeared as a chapter in the revived edition of Drezner (2011). I am grateful to Gary Rosen, Lenny Simmons, Max Brooks, Charli Carpenter, Ana Marie Cox, Bethany Albertson, Arien Mack, and Eric Crahan for their encouragement, assistance, or advice during the drafting of this paper. The usual caveat applies.
1. “Chronicle,” New York Times. Accessed at http://chronicle.nytlabs.com/?keyword=zombie&format=count. Accessed September 23, 2014.