The World Ended: Didn’t You Get the Memo?: AMC’s The Walking Dead and the Allegorical Zombie, Part II

By Kate Daley-Bailey

Kate Daley-Bailey continues her exploration of AMC’s The Walking Dead, “the latest embodiment of the apocalyptic zombie phenomena in American popular culture.”  In Part I of The World Ended: Didn’t You Get the Memo?, Kate explored rapid globalization, economic anxiety, cultural and religious pluralism, and moral relativism.  In Part II, Kate explores the American zombie phenomena as symbolic of the realities of physical decay, mortality, and the ethics of war. 

The Brutal Reality of Physical Decay and Mortality:

If the human body is representative of the social/political body, as some social anthropologists might argue, then mutilated and diseased corpses are symbolic of social and political corruption and decay. Perhaps on a personal level, these reanimated corpses not only represent destructive, yet helpless masses, in the social sphere but also represent the abject corpse in the intimate personal realm.  The body, the site of “self”, becomes nothing more than a husk of the self which once had personality and agency of its own.  Whether this decomposition of self agency happens in hours (as with zombies) or over a lifetime, in American culture where self determination and choice is so greatly coveted, there is an underlying fear that the body will eventually betray its master, the self.

Despite the ever-expanding gulf between the historical zombie and the American culturally colonized version, the image of the possessed body is one that continues to haunt the Western political mind. In his chapter, Zombies of the World, Unite: Class Struggle and Alienation in Land of the Dead, John Lutz remarks that “… the metaphorical significance of the zombie as a representation of a victim of exploitation can be traced back to its origin in Caribbean folklore.”(125) Lutz alludes to Mimi Sheller’s version of the Haitian zombie as

‘a living-dead slave deprived of will and physically controlled by a sorcerer,’ [which] functions as ‘the ultimate representation of the psychic state of one whose body/spirit is consumed’. (1126)

According to The Harper Collins Dictionary of Religion, “Voodoo, or Vodou, is the African-Christian new religion born in Haiti, whose followers ‘serve the divine spirits’ in life and rituals and accept possession by those spirits for healing and spiritual guidance”(1125)  and it has been somewhat subversive, at least from the perspective of imperial powers, from its advent. According to this same source, “voodoo served as the organization and sustenance of the slave revolt leading to Haitian independence.” (1126) Spirit possession occurs when practitioners “invoke the intermediary spirits for intercession in human affairs” and “the intermediaries- identified individually with Christian saints or sacred places” will “descend to “mount” their “horses,” their followers during possession rituals.” (1126) According to this source, colonialism and slavery played an influential role in the creation of the political dimension of this religious phenomenon:

“Novels, films, and newspaper reports have sensationalized Voodoo or ‘hoodoo,’ falsely identifying it with cannibalism, sorcery, and evil potions. Scholars suggest that the lurid image of Voodoo is the expression of racist hatred of the oppressors for their victims, shaped by their fears of reprisals and revolts.”(1126)

 The Ethics of War: Zombies as politicized Other?

In their book, Reframing 9/11: Film, Popular Culture and the “War on Terror,” Jeff Birkenstein, Anna Froula and Karen Randell make some compelling arguments that “popular culture provides an important space for lively, relevant, and essential debate of such matters.”(2) Radical changes in media have restructured how knowledge is authorized and “news” is disseminated. The popularity of blending “news” media with entertainment (i.e. John Stewart, The Colbert Report, etc.) reflects a complexified epistemological structure in American media. David L. Altheide’s chapter, Fear, Terrorism, and Popular Culture, explains the function of mass media information as providing “a context of meanings and images that prepare audiences for political decisions about specific actions, including war.”(11) Altheide continues this line of thought by stating that:“news reports and popular culture depictions about the ‘War on Terror’ (WOT) were grounded in a discourse of fear”(11). If American media and entertainment are dominated by a discourse of fear, should we be surprised by a surge in popular culture’s interest in apocalyptic scenarios?

Apocalyptic narratives often order the world by relating everything to the “cataclysmic” event. The apocalyptic genre champions “anarchy” as the new “order.” There is a new center but strangely that center is a non-center, a center that is “everywhere”, much like the language used to explain Postmodern existence. Altheide’s chapter points to an interesting correlation between the language used to frame the events of 9/11 and the rhetoric commonly used in apocalyptic fictions: “… the ‘crisis’ of the 9/11 attacks was artfully constructed through news accounts as the ‘world has changed’ and that future survival would depend on giving up many basic civil liberties, particularly ‘privacy.’”(11) As Mathais Nilges explains in his chapter, The Aesthetics of Destruction: Contemporary US Cinema and TV Culture, if Americans are creating narratives around the events of 9/11 and if American voices are trying to reorient themselves in the face of a rapidly changing and anxiety producing existence, disaster films provide a compelling medium in which to explore the limitations and strengths of communities in crisis. Perhaps T.V. shows, like The Walking Dead, can provide American popular culture a platform for fleshing out these complex social and moral quagmires. Anna Froula, in her chapter Prolepsis and the ‘War on Terror’: Zombie Pathology and the Culture of Fear in 28 Days Later…,extols the ethical challenges that zombie fictions might pose to their audiences:

Whereas the rhetoric of war-making insists on demonization of the Other and state propaganda delineates the opposition between “us” and “them,” zombies negate those differences. They blur the boundary between life and death by pitting us against ourselves by confronting us with the abject corpse we will all one day become whether we benefit from empire, suffer under its rule, or both. As contemporary allegories of global trauma and unrest, zombies dramatize our social anxieties, fears, and sense of helplessness through violent encounters with soulless monsters that look human. To watch a zombie movie is to watch humans try to kill recognizable human forms, often with more barbaric and brutal tactics than the zombie possesses, whether it lumbers to or frenetically charges its intended victim.” (196)

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