Teachable moments from the living dead

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What accounts for the unrelenting zombie craze that finds perfect prime-time expression in the American Movie Channel’s The Walking Dead and in the distraught, if otherwise perfect, visage of Brad Pitt, hero of the summer blockbuster World War Z?

Let us say the scholarship on the subject is diverse.

According to one Todd Platts, a researcher at the University of Missouri’s Department of Sociology, “It may be tempting to brush zombies aside as irrelevant ‘pop culture ephemera,’” he writes in a recent edition of Sociology Compass. “Zombie infected popular culture, however, now contributes an estimated $5 billion to the world economy per annum. In addition to movies, comics, books, and video games, individuals routinely don complex homemade zombie costumes to march in zombie walks and/or engage in role-playing games like Humans vs. Zombies.”

None of which should surprise anyone, says Daniel Drezner, a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Tufts University and the author of Theories of International Politics and Zombies.

“Zombies thrive in popular culture during times of recession, epidemic and general unhappiness,” he writes in The Wall Street Journal. “Traditional threats to U.S. security may have waned, but nontraditional threats assault us constantly. Concerns about terrorism have not abated since 9/11, and cyberattacks have now emerged as a new anxiety. Drug-resistant pandemics have been a staple of local news hysteria since the H1N1 virus swept the globe in 2009. Scientists continue to warn about the dangers that climate change poses to our planet. And if the financial crisis taught us anything, it is that contagion is endemic to the global market system. Zombies are the perfect metaphor for these threats.”

Still, this doesn’t explain why zombies are more suitable, metaphorically speaking, than other types of monsters to represent our scared-stiff times.

When I was a kid, growing up in Toronto and Halifax, the preferred creatures of the night included Frankenstein, Dracula, Wolf Man, Godzilla, and even Mothra. These were physical and spiritual mutations, solid incarnations of Cold-War dread. They reminded us of the existential threat – nuclear annihilation – we were not quite powerless to control. But just about.

These bad guys also had personality. Some of them even had rhythm.

Ever see a zombie dance? It’s not a pretty site.

But, of course, that is the point.

There is nothing especially charming or quaint or ingenuous about life on Earth in the breaking decades of the 21st Century. More often than not, mobs, not individuals, enlist our attention. Good ideas are becoming indistinguishable from bad ones as the steady feed of information from the world’s 650 million websites fries our neurons.

Eventually, facts become no better than opinions. Meanwhile, the weight of one’s opinions grows only in direct proportion to the number of “absolute unique visitors” to one’s blog.

In 2013, zombies are the monsters we deserve. We don’t see them coming, though they are slower than molasses in winter. They are lousy conversationalists, and yet they always move in packs. And like members of any mob, they are at their most annoying when they swarm.

We didn’t see the dotcom bubble of 2000 until it was too late. Ditto about the financial crisis of 2008-09.

We didn’t notice the chorus rising up against science (evolution versus intelligent design; global warming versus climate conspiracists) and cheering on folksy, everyday heores (tea partiers versus “elites” of any and all persuasions).

As Mr. Drezner notes, “there’s a real downside to constant references to the living dead. The most serious problem lies in the suggested analogy. Policy entrepreneurs piggyback on zombies to capture attention, but they too often overlook a key element of zombie stories: They are relentlessly, depressingly apocalyptic. In almost all of them, the living dead are introduced in minute one, and by minute 10, the world is a wasteland. The implication is that if zombielike threats emerge, the state and civil society will quickly break down.”

But this is neither the time nor place for yet another dissertation on Toronto Mayor Rob Ford.

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