Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Zombie Apocalypse is the New American Dream

Ah, another productive day, another increasingly devalued dollar. Time to log the hell out and go home. All things considered, it wasn't a bad day. I made improvements to a few lingering problems, rectified a minor user experience issue, and built a fairly horrible piece of pre-fab office furniture. Yup, I sure did accomplish stuff today. I am making progress. I can go home satisfied that I'm a contributing member of society who works hard and will someday be promoted to middle manage-- GET THE EFF OUT OF MY WAY, YOU LOITERING BOURGEOIS SIMPLETONS! Jeez. Don't these self-involved shitheads know that not everyone is a damned tourist? Some of us actually LIVE here and are trying to leave work. Fucking self-involved, entitled, brainless... WTF, did that dude just bite that other dude?!

Holy shit. These people aren't tourists, they're zombies! Well that explains a lot. It figures I would miss the advent of the zombie apocalypse because of overtime. Good thing I've been carrying this mannequin arm around in my laptop bag since I played Dead Rising that one time back in 2006. I mean, we've had this coming for a while. I can't say that I'm surprised, nor even upset. In fact, I think I'm rather enthused…

Intense, no? But also undeniably alluring. The western world has enjoyed a fairly enduring love affair with the zombie, from tales of first outbreak to the full-scale post apocalypse scenario. Zombie fiction, films, and in particular video games, have a rich and storied past. On a narrative level, zombie stuff combines the mysterious (if not a bit misinformed) allure of Voodoo and Santeria with the tantalizing self-replication of vampires, and contrasts this with the idea that our civilization is intrinsically delicate; when confronted with such a threat, humanity would ultimately sink or swim.

In other words, some folks look at this as a scenario that answers the age-old question: Are humans fundamentally good or evil? Such an event would undoubtedly test the limits of our ability to work for the greater good when the personal good stakes are so ridiculously high. I mean, it's not just death, it's UN-death. Shambling, limb-snapping, brain-eating un-death.

I, however, remain unconvinced that this is the sole reason for the popularity of zombie-related scenarios. Our love of all things undead and cataclysmic is more than just a rapture for the secular humanist crowd. Instead, I offer the following: The zombie apocalypse is the new American Dream.

That is to say, the "zombocalypse" is coming to occupy the same spot in our collective idealist consciousness that was once held by Daddy Warbucks and Little Orphan Annie, whose story is what popular lore would have us believe is exemplary of The American Dream. We hear these kinds of tales all the time: Person comes to America (or comes from America, but has a very humble background) works hard, achieves money, success, fame and/or glamor. From the "malnourished waif turned exotic supermodel" to the "shrewd street kid turned Fortune 500 CEO". There's a variant for every subculture and niche, from Frank Abagnale to 50 Cent and like so many folk-hero archetypes, the modest origins portrayed in these stories of success are often times a bit embellished, but we tend to gloss over that in the interest of Keeping the Faith.
"It's called the 'American dream'
because you have to be asleep to believe it"
-George Carlin
Cynicism as a counterpoint to naïve economic and egalitarian optimism is neither recent nor a particularly original sentiment, of course. Anyone who's been forced to read Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman in the 10th grade can attest to this. This type of disenchantment is taught to us with a grain of salt, as if to say "Hey kids, read this. It was written by a contemptuous misanthrope, and don't be like him". But hey, our motivation for putting up with the inanities of daily working life has to come from somewhere. If teachers didn't try to spin Camus' The Myth of Sisyphus, for example, we might have a nation of critically thinking, openly status-quo-bucking graduates who would rebel in ways other than experimenting with ironic sweaters and hiding a bong in the dormitory laundry room.

However, our desire to believe in some form of "American Dream" has not quite reached equilibrium with the reality of the U.S. economy, the job market, and the general sustainability of the lifestyle for which we are expected to strive. It could even be considered a kind of game in and of itself. Regardless of the buzzwords and trending phrases being bandied about- "bailout", "credit crisis", "Wall Street ass rape"- the fact is, it's getting increasingly difficult to "level up". The poor get poorer, the middle slips down to the semi-tolerable subsistence spot that was once occupied by the upper echelons of the underclass, and the rich... well, don't get me started. The obvious win-condition is damn near unattainable.

In light of the fact that many of us still believe deep in our hearts that the amount of monetary success we attain is directly proportionate to the amount of hard work we do, frankly it's a lot of pressure to prevail, possess and profit, and there's a fair amount of stigma we attract if we don't. Where we once longed to hear the rags-to-riches tale of a self-made millionaire who adopts a plucky ginger orphan, only to have both of their lives irrevocably changed for the better while seeking adventure and excitement all over the world, we now want to see the population decimated by some catastrophic accident, brought about either by the actions of a select few or some cruel but uncontrolled mutation, thereby absolving the general populace of responsibility. Most become zombies, and the rest of us are left to band together, become self-reliant, and fight the mindless monsters fate has made of our neighbors, teachers, and firefighters.

Assemble Your Crew and Fight

Evidently, some of us have been craving Armageddon for a while. Look at the doomsayers and street-corner wing-nuts who preach "The End is Nigh" until hoarse. Look at the survivalist stockpilers of guns and canned goods who build underground bunkers. Sure, maybe some of that particular sentiment was inspired by the Cold War and Cuban missile crisis, but that stuff has long since passed, and the threat we've officially used to replace it (the ever-nebulous "Terrorism") isn't realistically wide-spread or organized enough to truly justify the kind of disaster-paranoid mentality that is displayed in some cases.

It's true that, if asked, most of the survivalist crowd will probably tell you that they're anti-terrorist, anti-government, or both. Though it may seem far-fetched on the surface, the underlying fear has very much to do with the feeling of loss of autonomy, and the post-apocalyptic scenario restores that autonomy with newer, more flexible social rules.

However, in mainstream culture, social acceptance of a survivalist mentality is not all that prevalent (unless you live in rural Michigan, apparently), so for the rest of us, there are things like Left 4 Dead, 28 Days Later and zombie parades. In fact, the popularity of zombies in various forms of entertainment has influenced our collective psyche so much, that many people actually have an Emergency Zombie Preparedness Plan, or have at least given some thought as to what they would do, or where they would go in the event of a Mass Zombification Event.

If you do not believe that normal, respectable people think about this pervasively, consider this: On Halloween of 2006, there was a zombie walk in Bloomington, Indiana. A woman witnessed the zombies twitching and moaning their way up the street, took leave of her senses entirely, and phoned local law enforcement to report an outbreak. Later, when ridiculed mercilessly by zombies, and cops alike, she claimed that she was merely afraid that the zombies' makeup would damage her car's paint job. Suuuuuure.

Doomsday reset-button cravings and undead police line-ups aside, there may be a few more possibilities that explain the appeal of the zombie. Jonathan Barrickman of hypothesizes that the desire for zombie-induced communal living has much to do with our limited capacity for managing a social network. If the vast majority of the population turned into thoughtless, crazed cannibals with no further regard for human life (I mean literally, as this has already happened on a metaphorical level. See "Startup, Marketing Dept." for details), the survivors must form units and work together. As Barrickman says:
"We come from tribal communities, where those in the tribe look out for each other, and in doing so, gain a sense of purpose and fulfillment by working for a greater community. Those outside the tribe are met with suspicion, at best, and open conflict otherwise"
So basically, this tendency to round up the posse and screw everyone else might already be buried deep within us. We have a limited bandwidth for empathy, sympathy and compassion, and when we fill all the available job slots with candidates, everyone else might as well be a zombie, because we don't care about them.

This may seem pessimistic and crass, but think about this: Almost every holiday season, we hear some tragic tale of someone being injured or trampled to death because everyone has been made to wait in line for the release of some important, new limited edition toy. Mom X does not give a rat's ass about Mom Y, if Mom Y is not in her tribe. Thus, Mom Y will get stomped as soon as those Wal-Mart doors reopen on Black Friday because Mom X is providing for her own and no one else. Of course, Mom Y is probably thinking the same thing.

And while we're on the subject of family units, just imagine being thrust, due to circumstances beyond your control, into a scrappy, eclectic band of survivors. Each of you has a particular skill set, and you are forced to make those skill sets work with one another to ensure your continued success as a group. It has the appeal of a game and those three magical qualities we humans need to feel fulfilled: There's autonomy (probably more so than in our current daily lives, even), challenge, and a very direct connection between effort and reward. The reward is that you're not bitten by a zombie, thus dooming you to aimlessly roam the surface of the earth, writhing hither and yon like something out of a Svankmajer film.

Indeed, this is the mechanism by which Left 4 Dead operates: It's not just that you're playing with other people, you NEED them. Let's be honest, in some games, co-op mode is a joke. You're maybe only doing it to show your significant other that all the quality time you have with the 360 is not necessarily better spent at a movie or having a long, romantic walk on along the beach (I just threw up in my mouth a little while typing that sentence). But unless you have no friends and are forced to play with bots, Left 4 Dead requires you rely on the actual human judgment of your 3 co-players for healing, fighting, and locating you when you respawn in a stupid closet. This often amounts to a good deal of tense yelling and name-calling, which I imagine is pretty damned realistic, all things considered.

Viva la Zombolución!

Furthermore, the onset of a zombie apocalypse would mean that all the old societal rules are toast, and we get to pick and choose which ones we want to keep, if any. Suddenly, the rich are no longer necessarily in a place of privilege. Sure, they might have fancy gates, but they're eventually going to run out of food in their ivory towers. Conversely, the poor and working classes are valuable, because they are used to surviving on less, and are more resourceful with regard to acquiring the necessities. The standard of living pretty much everywhere will be far less comfortable than that to which most of us are accustomed, except for the guy that has already been sleeping comfortably in the elevated space between the dumpster and the laundry vent.

Because there will essentially be anarchy, the rules by which we acquire property will change completely. This is merely an aureate way of saying "Now it's okay to steal shit". Who among us hasn't glanced at "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" and not been just a little envious of the luxury contained therein? Well, with the onset of a zombie epidemic, survival of your tribe is the only win-condition, so go ahead and hijack that cruise ship for your floating pirate city. Find one of those privately owned islands with fancy generators and invade the bejesus out of it.

It won't be all that difficult - any tribe that is successful in surviving the initial zombie fallout is probably capable of overthrowing a few wealthy old folks and their housekeeping staff. Or, "adopt them and put them to work in their own gardens," if you're uncomfortable with the term "overthrow".

That's right. The zombie apocalypse is its own kind of Marxist revolution. And while this sounds a bit scarier than some of the other ideas put forth here, it's not entirely without appeal in light of recent events, am I right? When we indulge in a zombified alternate reality, no one needs admit to any closeted socialist tendencies. Tea Partiers may not want to pay taxes, but I'm willing to bet they'd be happy to "redistribute" someone else's wealth the second the free-for-all begins.

Humans, Confront Your Nature

And to further open the can of worms, most of us who live in westernized, developed nations are aware that there are norms for which the majority of people strive. Though they may vary slightly across cultural regions, there is a common thread of heteronormative, child-rearing, monogamous coupledom. I'm neither condoning nor condemning, but merely stating that this is what we often view as a successful life.

There is no doubt, at least, that life is easier when this is the master plan. However, a lot of folks who DO manage to achieve "house, car, spouse and 2.5 children" status are finding that it's not as satisfying as they were led to believe. Though it seems obvious, it isn't always: There is a difference between what we're supposed to want, and what we actually want. Just take a look at Death of a Salesman again (and is it a coincidence that Miller wrote it in 1949, a mere 5 years before Richard Matheson wrote I Am Legend, which is considered by many to be the seminal work of the zombie and post-apocalyptic genres?). While marriage, family, and nice things ARE actually what a lot of westerners want, it seems there are just as many who work towards these things on auto-pilot, because it is easier than figuring out what would be truly fulfilling to them.

This dissatisfaction is not just personal observation (because I suspect, as a denizen of one of Seattle's more libertine neighborhoods, my cross samples of population might be slightly skewed towards the non-traditional), but the data does show an increase in divorce rates over the past 50 years, as the concept of divorce has become more socially acceptable. In fact, according to the most recent statistics, almost 30% of marriages that happen between the ages of 20 and 30 end in divorce, with rates jumping up to 50% and 75% for 2nd and 3rd marriages respectively. Now, I know quite a few people that really are happily married, so this is obviously not in reference to them. But 30%! That's an awfully large chunk of malcontents for a nation that is supposedly built on dreams, true love, and the pursuit of happiness.

When people allow themselves to become immersed in the alternate reality of the zombie apocalypse game, it is a convenient and blameless "opt out". If people are in happy marriages/relationships, they will still imagine being with their partner, and the survival of the relationship will figure into their ultimate scenario. However, this is the one instance in which even the most austere and morally upright of the monogamous will allow themselves to deviate a bit and fantasize about someone else under the guise of contingency planning. "What would I do if Brad/Helen were eaten by the undead right in front of me? I would have to start over completely!" And like magic, an antagonistic interaction fraught with banter and sexual tension materializes with an intriguing fellow survivor. Admit it: one of the best moments in any zombie media ever is when Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy declare their undying love and then wipe out an entire field of the walking dead in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith and Jane Austen. Yes, I read it. So what?

Is it Really Vengeance if the Target is Already Dead?

Finally, a rapid mass-zombification crisis would allow us to get rid of individuals we particularly dislike. This is a no-brainer (pardon the pun) in that some jerk being eaten by the animated post-living masses does not involve any accountability for us whatsoever as individuals. Surely the best of us can admit to occasionally disliking another human, even if we don't actively wish that human harm. The ass-hat from the sales department? He'd never last. He probably can't even see over the popped collar of his oxford shirt, let alone handle a crossbow.

However, this is not just a scenario for us, it's a full-blown narrative in which we are the protagonists. A rules-free role-playing game. Just as each of us assumes that we would be among the survivors, we also often allow ourselves to kill off any lingering jackasses as painfully as we like. Perhaps we grimace as we watch from behind a wire-embedded plate glass wall as Sales Douche is strangled with his own intestines in the chaos of the feeding frenzy. Better yet, perhaps he escapes, or so we thought, but is later discovered to be concealing a bite that is slowly turning him. BANG! It had to be done.

This applies to any unlikeable human, really. Since anyone can become a zombie, it's not outside the realm of possibility that one might see any number of targets for poetic justice. Zombie Pol Pot, zombie Sarah Palin, zombie Mel Gibson: BLAM, BLAM, BLAM. The zombified cast of Jersey Shore: FIRE IN THE HOLE! I do not advocate the concept of vengeance, but hey, if they're already zombified, it's something that needs to be taken care of anyway.

Zombocalypse Now?

What I am trying to say here is that we openly crave infatuation, intrigue and peril, and we secretly or unconsciously harbor desires that may be out of accordance with the norm, or in conflict with the lives we have made for ourselves with the best of intentions. We want to fend for ourselves and our loved ones to the exclusion of others, and we want a scenario in which these things are possible without necessarily being responsible for the advent of the scenario. To top it all off, we want it all to mean something. And just like those times when we respawn in the closet, these things can make us antsy, frustrated and mean. It's always more noble to be the victim, or to struggle in spite of bad circumstances that are imposed on us than to be the person who openly voices dissent and tries to change the rules.

And here is the crux upon which my hypothesis balances: Assuming that these ideas are true to some extent, that the reason for our enduring fascination with the Standard Zombie Apocalypse Scenario is because we no longer want to achieve all the goals that we have agreed upon as worthy and committed to achieving, why aren't we doing something about it?

Reality Bites

I don't believe we need Armageddon, but if we don't start acknowledging some of this pent-up underlying crap that drives us to mistreat each other and our surroundings, maybe we deserve it. Have we become so lost in the land of bland that we've forgotten that it's actually an indication of privilege to be bored with our lives? Is it just easier to live the vicarious romance and danger of Resident Evil than to, for example, leave an unhappy relationship, find a job that does not involve being Sales Douche's bitch or start a vegetable garden?

Probably. But life is short. Question yourself. If you're already fulfilled, then you'll be fine. Good on you. A little gaming-induced escapism never hurt anyone. However, if you find these ideas unsettling, maybe it's time to put down the controller and search your brain for some answers before your mailman claws through the door and eats it. Besides, in all honesty, a zombie apocalypse would suck. We'd lose mass communication, transportation, and after a while, all forms of snack food.

Most of us would do exactly two things in the event of Zombiegeddon: 1). Die a horribly painful death, and 2). Taste delicious. Not necessarily in that order. So enjoy your rats and shortwave radio, unlucky survivors. If anyone needs me, I and my iron fist will be ruling over my inexplicably sustainable floating pirate city populated exclusively by engineers, hydroponic farmers, medical personnel and extraordinarily loyal soldiers.


Bats for Blogs said...

Brilliant article. Many wonderful observations. I'd like to build upon Ms. Wright's thesis by saying that Westerners have gotten to the point where the idea of a zombie apocalypse has become so ingrained that we wouldn't even need an outbreak to trigger it. Just the appearance of one would get the more trigger happy in us a shootin'.

My biggest beef with this kind of thinking is that for all the initial excitement and self reliance, ultimately, most zombie scenarios end with the bunker mentality. More of them, less of you. More tension and more turning on one another. As though this has all been a Plan 9 plot from outer space to destroy our civilization without dropping a bomb.

Great article Annie! Can't wait to see your follow up with the machine apocalypse!

Alex said...

This is why Gamer Melodico is my favorite video game blog. Keep on being awesome.

Annie Wright said...

Thanks, guys! Re: machine apocalypse- Not safe to discuss. Zombies haven't happened yet, but the machines are already here, AND THEY CAN HEAR US.

Kirk Hamilton said...

God, this post. I feel I should point out that that amazing Wal*Mart picture was found via a google image search for "women fighting over black friday." At no point did the word "zombie" enter the equation, and yet... that picture turned up.

They're already here.

Jay said...

Wow, awesome essay! You make a legitimately strong case here (very well-written too, if I may add), and your hypothesis is dead-on :p

Seriously though, it's hard to argue against your case when you have people like Mr. and Mrs. Apocalypse out there basically reinforcing every point you make (also note the first commenter on that link, who sums it up kinda perfectly). Our society may not be on the cusp of a literal zombocalypse, but this whole 2012 nonsense only seems to gain more and more momentum as the date looms ever closer.
*cue evil thunder & lightning*

However, I have to say that any romantic notions I may have regarding a doomsday scenario involving zombies have pretty much been obliterated by Robert Kirkman's The Walking Dead series. Sure, it might be your dream come true for those first few weeks, but what happens after a year or 2 of living off the zombie wasteland? If it's anything like Kirkman describes, we're pretty much all fucked one way or another, zombie bite or not.

Great piece, Annie!

Annie Wright said...

Lol, Mr. and Mrs. Apocalypse...

You know, this is the second time today that someone's mentioned The Walking Dead series. The minute I have actual time to read for fun, I am picking this up.

Jay said...

If you wait a couple months, you can check out the new TV series AMC is debuting in October.


Jay said...

Holy bejeezus, they really are here.

ps - zombie babies appear as silhouettes in pics, apparently.

Annie Wright said...

Holy hells, that is terrifying.

Chloe Adeline said...

Wow. That was very well put together and thought-provoking ^_^ cereal.

You rock. Thank you Annie.
] chloe [

VFazzi said...

Just ran across this during a 'zombie' search. Terrific post.

Annie said...

Hey, thanks! It was really fun to write! said...

Brilliant work Annie! Absolute pleasure meeting you. I hope your photo gig was excelent today and that all of your tomorrows are filled with joy!! Take Care ~ Kelly, your Baroness street corner small talk friend