Zombies and Sociobiology

Some might remember me posting a link regarding a call for papers on the zombie for an interdisciplinary collection?

Well, today (Hallowe’en!) is the deadline, and even though I’m a good half-day ahead of the recipient, I got it tidied up and decided to send it off now. The gist of my proposal is that zombies work in a couple of ways: on one level, zombies are the ultimate tabula rasa — they don’t speak or seem to think, their motivations or internal experience (whatever it may be) is inscrutable, and thus they can be seen as figures for everything from mindless consumerism to communism to suburban mindlessness or the effects of future shock upon a populace.

But at the same time, despite these various (potential) metaphorical “meanings” for the zombie, the zombie itself appeals to a broad number of people, and the appeal remains whether one’s politics differ, whether one is aware of the politics at all (youngsters get a huge kick out of zombies whether or not they grasp that it’s all about communist Russia or Islamic terror or mindless consumerism). I theorize that this is because the few characteristics that are consistently present in zombies (and their typological spinoffs, like the Body Snatchers, Stepford Wives, and Star Trek‘s Borg) very specifically target elements in the human psyche — that is, evolved adaptations that underpin human sociality. A sociobiological perspective can suggest how human psychology as a product of evolution interacts with a literary trope like the zombie — how such literary tropes both express the faultlines in the various systems of human cognition and human sociality, and exploit them to literary effect in their audiences.

Of course, my proposal is a lot more compressed than that, so some of that signal gets lost. Ah well, we’ll see what they say.

In the meantime, for those of you celebrating Hallowe’en tonight, well, have fun, enjoy, and so on. Me? I’m taking a well-deserved break, and doing not much of anything. Though I think I will make some spicy chicken burritos. Because it’s about that time…

7 thoughts on “Zombies and Sociobiology

  1. Baltimoron,

    I dunno. I’m not sure that most of them don’t already do that. Buffy the Vampire Slayer dealt with that, on one level.

    It strikes me as a point that most people are pretty aware of by now, and one that is kind of… well, old news? (Though in a sense in The Land of the Dead this is what’s explored, as we see the humans increasingly like the zombies — murderous, hateful, ravenous, unthinking, and inhumane. Or that’s how I remember the film.

    What I’m more interested in is the deeper cognitive structures that make people imitate one another, and make people react negatively to people who’re imitating someone else… and how those get represented, valorized, or demonized in film.

  2. Doesn’t the trope, though, absolve persons of their responsibility because the agent is often a vector, a natural force, or another person?

    Most modern “zombies”, like the vampires in I Am Legend, leave me flat, because they’re victims of a scientists’ ambition. I think it would be more insightful to sketch a plot where 10 events led to zombie-like behavior. In nine the situation created a crisis, but in one the cause was defeated, by one significant picayune detail.

    Looking at political events, why didn’t hysteria lead the US to elect Huey Long, not FDR, as a dictator, but the Germans elected Hitler?

    I would be interested in your conclusions. But, I’m skeptical about how a deus ex machina trope can really inform. It seems like a radical means to confront a phenomenon no one understands.

  3. Baltimoron,

    Doesn’t the trope, though, absolve persons of their responsibility because the agent is often a vector, a natural force, or another person?

    Well, I suppose if you require the stories to be explicitly political and critical, yes. Then again, part of the point I’m getting at is that zombie movies function as they do because the zombie isn’t truly a figure for mindless consumerism — not even in a film where the zombies take over the mall.

    Because, let’s face it, lots of people who watch zombie movies will miss that. For example, teenagers; or, for example, 1970s Japanese zombie fans for whom the subtext doesn’t quite translate. When I was a little kid, and I watched The Stepford Wives, I was horrified without really understanding the commentary on feminism, sexism, suburbia, or the rest. It still pushed buttons in my head, and I suspect that it’s those buttons that give the film the bulk of its communicative power — not the political/intellectual paintjob.

    When a pimply teenager watches a zombie movie, he or she can relate to the heroes fighting the zombies just as when a grad school philosophical anarchist can. The grad schooler identifies the zombies with the mindless masses who take the political status quo for granted; the teenager sees the majority of his or her schoolmates — anyone more popular than himself or herself. I’m pretty sure if you’d shown zombie movies to people living in Soviet Russia, they’d have seen it in different ways, too — the intelligentsia, the dissidents, the masses, all in different ways.

    My point is that all of that — the “political significance” of zombie tropes– is just foam on the deep black coffee of how these images interact with fundamental modules in the human mind — how we think about others, how we form in- and out-groups, how we think of out-group members (and fear them, as we’re often in their out-group), how we think of death, how we model agency in non-humans, and so on. Zombies push buttons inside us that are way more fundamental than any of the specific politics you’re talking about, is what I mean.

    (So it’s kind of like arguing the politics of natural selection, in a sense.)

    I agree that the use of science as a scapegoat for zombie films — that it’s scientific ambition that births the zombies — is distasteful on one level. It smacks of “things man was never meant to know.” On the other hand, while I think that zombie plagues are unlikely, all kinds of other massive, bad effects are possible now. I just wish that the role of big business in those messes were better represented.

    But in a sense, it’s just Gernsback backlash, still prevalent in Hollywood. In Gernsback, science and gadgets do all the neat stuff. In the backlash, it causes our doom. It’s a cheap, easy way to “explain” things that cannot be explained. (And in that way is exactly like Gernsback gadgets, which always “somehow” have the needed effect for the story, be it faster-than-light travel, time travel, or whatever.)

    And really, I’m not sure an “intellectual” zombie movie is possible. Like, in the sense you want to see. The explanation for the zombie is always a silly throwaway — a new disease from some lab or tropical hell, a bioweapon, a cancer-cure gone wrong. There’s a reason: if you intellectualize it, and try to do hard-SF zombies, you’re going to look silly, because it’s just not plausible to cause millions of people to turn into mindless-yet-active cannibalistic monsters. That’s exactly why the conceit is always so stupid, and also usually so peripheral: because a smart conceit for why there are zombies is pretty much impossible.

    As for political history, it’s all complex, but I do think that if the patterns of voters seem zombie-like, there’s probably a lack of fine-grained detail in the picture. Humans are almost all mentally modelable, in a way zombies aren’t. People voted for Hitler — a disgusting choice, sure, in hindsight especially — but I had we access to time machines or retrotemporal viewers (with, say, advanced MRI machines and so on) we would find that they weren’t behaving in a zombie-like manner at all, or at least no more zombie-like that those who have voted in other elections around the world with disgusting results and consequences.

    The use of the “zombie” figure to villify those whose politics disgust us is all too common. (It was even used to describe the demonstrators this past summer, just as demonstrators hinted those who think American Beef is safe could be transformed into swiss-cheese-brained zombies — so on both sides, it was used!)

    I’m not sure I really understand your last couple of comments at all, except to say that I don’t see zombies as “informing” us of anything.

    The zombie is a literary/cinematic construct that games the human psyche in a particularly interesting way primarily because it cuts through the politics, the implied reading, conscious reactions, and the rest, to the fundamental fractures between the modular elements of human cognition. It messes with the borderlines of how we deal with people of differe groups, of our own group, living and dead, and with modeling the agency in other humans as well as nonhumans. The incomprehensibility of zombies — the impossibility of guessing what a zombie thinks or feels, if indeed the original personality is there anymore at all — is a specific and important part of all of that.

    BTW, if I sound snappy or snipey, it’s not you. Partly this is really hard to articulate, and partly it’s other stuff on my mind.

  4. “And really, I’m not sure an “intellectual” zombie movie is possible. Like, in the sense you want to see.”

    Consider another example from another horror genre: Frankenstein. I was just reading about the new publication of Shelley’s ur-text (and even Shelley’s novel derives from other texts). Now here’s an ur-text that has spawned an industry, some of whose products would clearly have offended the author. Sometimes the title is all that ties these films and interpretations together. But, Frankenstein is a good example of how to push didacticism wrapped in a narrative frame story and still keep fabulistic elements. It’s one of those books that seems not only to be dense with multiple interpretations, but also to invite argument intentionally.

    BTW, is there a xombie ur-text, like frankenstein, or Polidori’s Vampyre? Or, are zombies a celluloid creation only? Also, didn’t The Serpent and The rainbow try fairly well to deconstruct zombies? I think you’ve discussed this before, but that seems to be an obvious example of mixing good science with narrative and horror, a thinking entertainment.

  5. Hmmm. I see what you’re saying, but I think Frankenstein and the zombie are utterly different beasts. The thing about Frankenstein is that he is utterly human. Many of the films neglect that completely, but even in those horrid black-and-white films, there’s an element of Frankenstein as a suffering creature alone.

    Frankenstein has an internality, and an experience we can all to readily model via our human-centric imaginations. He is really Romantic Man stuck in a world where science has created him and abandoned him. The zombie is quite the opposite of that: shaped like us, behaving like an animal, and completely inaccessible to our agency-modeling “software,” such as it is.

    I don’t know to what degree Frankenstein is “wrapping didacticism in a frame story,” though. I seem to remember a lot more going on in that text than that. There’s a great deal of horror at Adam’s nature, but also at Dr. Frankenstein’s; there’s a feminist subtext, I think; there’s a fascination with and fear of science and the message of science about human beings; there’s so much all wrapped together in an anxious package.

    But those things are in the text. If someone were to try retell Frankenstein in the absence of those Romanticist tropes about the passionate soul in the world being encroached upon by science, or the relationship between Man and His Uncaring Maker, or so on, I think you end up with a narrative stripped oif its essential point. But in the zombie, I find the central point to be the inexplicability, the absence of access to its innerness. The zombie IS horrifying, destructive inexplicability in a human form. Whether you dress it up in arch criticism of suburbia, paranoia about Commies, anti-consumerist critique, or whatever, you’re still mostly talking about humans confronting Others whom they believe they will never understand…

    That’s a great figure for adulthood as seen by children, for Islamic terror or Cold War Communism as seen by paranoid Americans, for sexism as seen by liberated women, and so on… but the zombie film is never truly bound by that. The horror in all these cases is derived by the confrontation of the “human” with something that ought to be human (or dead) but isn’t — with, in a sense, nature in malfunction, or with one’s own cognitive templates in (understandable) malfunction. (And of course the fact that anyone can become one — and that this can be fended off by killing them before they do — only adds to the horror.)

    I liked The Serpent and the Rainbow, and I think it was somewhat intelligent and interesting, but it wasn’t so much about zombies as I’m discussing them. It was a Hollywood treatment of a real story about a man who was fed drugs that induced zombie-like and mind-controlled states, but there wasn’t necessarily anything supernatural in the movie. (All the supernatural stuff could be attributed to drugs, if I remember right, and at least, it’s like, was attributed to naturalistic causes in the text on which the film was based.)

    I think my thinking diverges from yours when we reach the question of what is necessary for a work to qualify as “thinking entertainment.” Not all genres are suited to all kinds of questions. For example, the Frankenstein narrative can be modified or retooled to talk about a lot of different things, but not to discuss, say, social responsibility, or some partisan political stance. If the thing that lends the zombie its most shocking, significant power is its unbreakable incomprehensibility, and its fundamental inhumanity, then you do no good trying to tell themes that water that down with comprehensible factors. (Though if you can tease people around it, and then shove them into it face-first, you can pull it off. American Zombie did that by casting zombies as another put-upon minority group in America fighting for decent treatment and recognition… but, well, I won’t spoil the end except to say that at the end of the day, a zombie is a way for humans to confront inexplicability.

    (Though maybe if I read the Matheson novel I Am Legend, which differs significantly from the film — I might think that zombies could be retooled. But the cannibalistic horrors seem to me most interesting when they’re least explicable.

    (I’d be happier putting my money on other ways of metaphorizing political behaviour among humans. Plagues, yes, but not zombification plagues.)

    As for ur-texts… there’s some info on that here, for what it’s worth. It seems Romero has indeed defined zombies in a way nobody else has done, before or since, for better or worse.

    (Which is why the zombification in The Serpent and the Rainbow is another thing altogether to me. Post-Romero zombies aren’t the result of voodoo or magic or even moral injustice. They’re as unpremeditated and incomprehensible as the black plague. Perhaps they are, in a sense, the echoing figure of plague Europe passed on through generations?)

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