Of Zombies VI: The Rise and Fall of the Zombie Threat

By way of Boing Boing, the io9 site has created a chart correlating the production of zombie movies with social upheavals in America and the world.  The inference one is expected to make is that Zombie movies are a symptom of unrest, either as a mirror to them or as an attempt at escapist self-therapy.

This narrative follows well known pop-analyses of Invasion of the Body Snatchers as a response to Cold War fears and George A. Romero’s Living Dead movies as a reflection of mind-numbing American consumerism.

What the chart reminds me most of, however, is Alan Wolfe’s book The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Threat which begins with a quote from Ronald Reagan:

“Let’s not delude ourselves,” Ronald Reagan said in 1981.  “The Soviet Union underlies all the unrest that is going on.  If they weren’t engaged in this game of dominoes, there wouldn’t be any hot spots in the world.”  Not since the cold war began, and perhaps never before in American history, has an administration come to power with as insistently hostile an attitude toward the Soviet Union as that of Ronald Reagan.

Wolfe’s thesis is ultimately an inversion of the Zombie = unrest argument.  Wolfe’s book was immensely popular in political science departments in the 80’s because it attempted to demonstrate that the American perception of the Soviet Threat moved independently of the “actual” Soviet Threat at any point in the 50 year history of the Cold War.  He argued for the lack of correlation between the perception and the reality of our fears.  Bear in mind that this was a welcome argument in a time when the left still suffered from mal foi following Solzhenitsyn’s publication of  the third volume of The Gulag Archipelago. The ground for this sort of argument may also have been prepared by Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (claiming that our perception of science as a continuous progression does not conform to the historical reality) which had achieved a broad cross-discipline appeal by the time that Wolfe’s thesis came out. 

Today Kuhn is mostly remembered for burdening us with the phrase “paradigm shift,” though in his day he provided the model (perhaps unintentionally) for a broad range of arguments that attempted to demonstrate that reality is not what it seems, but instead is something constructed (a word that naturally entails that we must at some point de-construct it, of course) by social forces.  Reality is a manifold of social constructs.

The Zombie literature is interesting, among other things, because it attempts to go the other way.  People who write about the horror genre are always tempted to take what falls clearly within the realm of subjectivity and personal taste and find some sort of correlate for it in the “real” world.  This is true of many fringe interests, for instance sci-fi, pop music, prime-time television, software programming.  We all want to find deep meaning in the things we recognize as subjectively meaningful for us.

The summum bonum would certainly be achieved if each of our personal interests were acknowledged as universally meaningful.  Why shouldn’t we spell words the way each of us prefers to, or use grammar in the way we think best?  Why shouldn’t zombie movies have the same cultural status as the novels of Dostoevsky?  Why shouldn’t Ayn Rand be found next to Rousseau at the local book store?  If a thing has meaning for us, shouldn’t this meaning be reflected in the world?

The notion that the meaning of a name is the thing in the world that it points to (its referent) was originally formulated by J.S. Mill and is known as Mill’s Theory of Names.  It is also sometimes called the “Fido”-Fido theory, for obvious reasons.  Fido, in turn, is a 2006 movie about the efforts of a small band of survivors to reconstruct society along 1950’s lines following a major social upheaval.  The social upheaval, of course, is a zombie epidemic.  Coincidence?  I think not.