Thursday, June 27, 2013

Zombies again

David Denby reminds me of my previous speculation about zombies. As he says:
The undead really do keep on coming; they are taking over our bookstores, our movie theatres, our cable channels. Every neighborhood has a zombie or two. Are they what we fear we might become if we let ourselves go—soulless vessels of pure appetite, both ravaged and ravaging? Do they represent our apprehension of what hostility lies behind all those blank faces in the office, at the mall, across the dinner table?
He doesn't have an answer, but neither do I. (I agree with him about "Man of Steel" too.)

If you want other movie recommendations (I know you probably don't), I suggest Stoker and One Night in Mongkok. The first is by Park Chan-wook, the creator of the genre I think of as Korean revenge and a former philosophy major. It is marred by gothic cliches (a girl dresses a bit like Alice, a spider crawls up her leg, etc.) but when I watched it on a plane on my recent travels it was refreshing, even thrilling, to see a film made by someone who was actually thinking about how to take each shot rather than just following the usual script. The second is set in the most densely populated part of Hong Kong (and, in fact, of the planet, if memory serves), is an action/revenge film, and shows the attitude of Hong Kongers towards the mainland Chinese quite nicely. It's a sympathetic treatment in the end, but it's not hard to infer that a certain disdain for the unsophisticated poor (these days often rich) mainlanders is widespread.


  1. Why does the topic of zombies interest you?

    My inclination is to understand it against what I view as a very American kind of social loneliness and distance that people here experience without fully articulating it to themselves, and to anxieties of freedom and absence of identity and fixed social roles. My intuition is to connect it to a kind of apocalyptic mentality (another kind of movies), state of nature kind of existence, which makes people here buy guns, and which is probably just the other aspect of (American) “freedom.”

    But you put it alongside other things as well—more global themes that have to do not with America, but with the human condition. You put it against the desire to be afraid, and need to articulate and validate our fears. And you mention the fear that OTHERS (all, or many of them) might be dead inside, and that it will be contagious. And you then connect it to Descartes and soul-skepticism, and to Nietzsche and the death of God, and the disenchantment of humanity.

    It all strikes me as true (in an aesthetic kind of sense). But I almost feel it is too much.

  2. It sounds like much too much when you put it like that! But if it strikes you as true, then maybe there's something in it. Which might be what interests me.

    I'm actually not especially interested in the subject of the undead. What interests me is more the fact that so many other people are interested in it. I have friends working on an academic zombie project, so perhaps I hear more about it than most people do. But as Denby points out, zombies seem to be taking over books, movies, TV, etc. Maybe this is just a fashion and people will move on to something else. Or maybe the subject has always interested people. Indeed, I think it has, but not to this extent. So I wonder, or am mildly curious about, why it is so popular now. And Denby's review brought it back to my mind.

    The connection with the kind of American apocalyptic mentality you describe is interesting. Now I'm curious whether zombies are as popular worldwide as they are in the U.S. And, if so, whether this is the result of American culture spreading itself, or something else.

  3. I agree. Perhaps when the question of humanity comes up, it is bound to sound too much. I am too fascinated by this, even though, unlike you, I don’t have patience for actually watching any of those movies.

    Let me first detach the issue of zombies from the issue of horror films. Although this is perhaps the zombie natural habitat, I think they have now spread elsewhere. There is definitely a kind of zombie craze here. For example: We were talking about Jewish burial customs in class the other day, and although it is the Jewish custom to not burry in coffins, there are some places in the States that require caskets. I asked the students why they thought this was (for after all we don’t go about burying every deer, squirrel, or bird that dies), and one of the students said: “To prevent zombies.”

    My sense is that Zombies are especially popular here in America. Certainly more so than in Israel. They are here on people’s minds. Perhaps there is a special need here to articulate and validate our humanity, or a special need to come to terms with our relation with other nations or with each other, or a special need for reassurance of our own humanity. By the way, I think it used to be vampires and aliens when I was a kid. (Although zombies seem to be cooler than aliens. Star Trek is for nerd. Aliens are cooler when they are closer to mindlessness, as in Sigourney Weaver’s Alien movies.)

    Perhaps there is a trajectory here: America thinking its own humanity by testing images of humanity, at varying distances from the human—the super hero, the sorcerer, the vampire, the alien, the gnome, the android, the werewolf, the zombie: all human-like, all at a distance from the human, all (imperfect) objects of comparison with which to shed light on humanity, to discover humanity, (to rediscover it?).

    Or perhaps there is just a need for discovering (validating, articulating) humanity in a very specific way: By putting it alongside the mindless, which would explain why zombies and mindless aliens are cooler than Vulcans and Hobbits, but is in need itself of explanation, which I don’t have. – Why the mindless?

    Connecting to what you said about Nietzsche and God in the original post, I should also mention that it all strikes me as pagan: Our cosmology now includes these super-, or rather extra-natural beings: the sorcerer, the zombie, the vampire…—like gods in a pantheon. Makes me want to ask: as opposed to that, what is the monotheistic way of asking about our humanity?

  4. Yes, it used to be aliens, or just UFOs, and that was supposed to be related to the Cold War somehow. Are zombies "mindless terrorists"? That doesn't sound right.

    Mindlessness can be a kind of ideal. For instance, it's related to passionless stoicism. The strong, silent type of man is silent because he has nothing to express, and this is internally related, I think, to his strength somehow. He doesn't just happen to be both strong and silent. That's not quite mindlessness, but it is the lack of a big part of most people's inner life. And then there's the ideal of being in the zone, which is another kind of mindlessness. The ideal person does not have to work things out or think things through: he or she just knows what to do, just does it. So mindlessness represents a certain ideal but is also scary. You (i.e. most people) wouldn't want to be up against an opponent like that, and you probably wouldn't really want to be like that either.

    It does seem pagan, yes. I suppose then the monotheistic alternative would just compare humanity with God, angels, and so on. Although there aren't a lot of movies featuring wars between angels and demons, are there? Maybe there are. I don't know why that wouldn't be popular.

    There might be some connection to be made with detective fiction, although perhaps that just muddies the waters with even more issues. I'm interested in the figure of the detective, and I was struck by these lines in Henning Mankell's Faceless Killers: "Somewhere in the dark a vast meaninglessness was beckoning. A sneering face that laughed scornfully at every attempt he made to manage his life" (p. 80). The first of those sentences is like something from Lovecraft. The detective is always embattled (divorced, alcoholic, alone, a mess) but still fights for what's right and manages to solve the riddle, to make sense of things, in the end. I don't think he's really a religious figure, but he could be some sort of father figure. He is always a man. (Miss Marple isn't, but she doesn't fit the stereotype anyway.)

    Detective stories are old-fashioned, like aliens. But if zombie stories are what has replaced them (and they might not be) then figuring out detectives, like figuring out aliens, might help in figuring out the appeal of zombies. Zombies are almost the exact opposite of detectives: detectives are full of (painful) emotion, do have to figure things out, are motivated by ideals rather than basic physical needs, never work in packs, etc. But this is probably a red herring.

  5. I remember the ‘aliens are Russians’ depth grammar theory, and I didn’t think much about it until you mentioned it now. But perhaps there is something to the ‘Zombies are mindless terrorists’ idea you suggest. Maybe it all connects to how foreigners are faceless, and how all Chinese people, say, or Somalis look the same. (This is one of those interesting cases where seeing, literally, requires learning.) Perhaps, however, the view of zombies as outsiders is not quite right, as you say. For the thing about zombies is that they usually invade “from the inside.” They begin at home. It seems to me that the zombie scare would lose something essential if it weren’t the case that I—me—could become a zombie. (Do we each have an internal zombie in us?)

    Another part of what you now say makes me think that we should distinguish between kinds of mindlessness. You mention passionless stoicism, which is a very different kind of mindlessness than the zombie’s. The mindlessness in stoicism, I think, is not accompanied by loss of humanity. (Or if it does, the ideal collapses. Namely, it is a criticism of stoicism that this happens.) The stoic is perhaps more similar to the single-minded predator alien, which is another form of mindlessness. But it is still different. First, both are single minded, not mindless. But second, the predator, like the zombie, is inhuman. Not so the stoic. The faceless foreigner is yet another kind of mindlessness. It is inhuman, but still different from the zombies in that it is connected to blindness on our part—we are morally to blame. Zombies are truly, objectively, mindless. There is nothing to see or care about. (It is, perhaps a form of racism to ascribe such mindlessness to foreigners.)

    There is a whole taxonomy here. But it helps to sharpen the question: why THIS form of mindlessness?

    I feel I need more about the monotheistic form of asking about humanity. I mean, it is possible—perhaps even common—to worship Jesus as a demon, as one of the gods, perhaps the best god. Jesus could thus be a superhero with superpowers, and we could thus think our own humanity by comparing ourselves to that. It makes sense to me to think that this is part of the origin for the Muslim and Jewish worries about representations of God. I want to say that if monotheism is a true alternative, then it should be a COMPLETELY different way of asking about our humanity.

    I’m not sure I understand how the detectives you mentioned connect for you to this issue. Do you sense that the use people once had for detectives, they now make of zombies?

  6. I don't buy the 'zombies are terrorists' idea either, but if there was something to the 'aliens are Russians' idea, and if the increased popularity of zombies coincided with the 'war on terror' then it would seem to be a plausible hypothesis. And terrorists are often thought of as both mindless and faceless, since their motives are obscure, their identity secret, and they come from "over there" and wear "towels" on their heads. But there isn't the fear that I might become one, and even though my neighbor might be a terrorist, they come more from outside, as you say. So I think this is a hypothesis to set aside.

    The stoic is not meant to be inhuman, but I think this is a danger with the stoic ideal. At least I think it can seem to be a danger, so it's a criticism that stoics might, and perhaps should, think about, and have an answer to. I think Martha Nussbaum suggests that a true stoic could not love, which would surely be a problem. And even if real stoicism can avoid this problem, the less rigorous, popular version of it (the passionless tough guy) could become inhuman, e.g., perhaps, Jack Bauer in 24 or, indeed, James Bond in the novels (both have a tendency to torture people), and some figures from the fantasy world of rap music, e.g. Ghostface Killah (I'm just going by the name) and MC Tunes boasting that "ice-cold water races through my veins." Being basically psychopathic seems to be an ideal for some people, perhaps because it's associated with being tough, perhaps as an adaptation to the emotional environment (Pink Floyd and Linkin Park sing about having become numb, although only the former sound it). This is different from mindlessness, as you say, but it seems possibly connected to it. It is a form of internal deadness, and one might extend this in imagination to reach zombiehood as a kind of logical conclusion.

    So, the question: why this form of mindlessness--passionless, thoughtless, psychologically completely dead, and predatory? And why are armies of them coming for a dwindling number of us?

    [continued below]

  7. One obvious possible answer would be that it's because of a sense that "the they" is an increasing threat to our individuality. I don't know whether standardization and conformity are increasing, but perhaps it feels that way to a lot of people. Or perhaps other people seem more like black boxes, possibly because we interact with them less than we used to (especially if we spend a lot of time online or playing computer games). Another possibility is that we sort of want to be zombies, we don't want to have to think and feel. That could be because of the bad economy or because of a lack of conformism--if it isn't clear what you are supposed to do then it might be unpleasant to have to make a choice for yourself. And it seems a bit unclear these days--there doesn't seem to be the kind of uniformity in fashion that there was in, say, the 1970s (but I might be quite wrong about that--I probably have a much more stereotyped view of life in past decades than of life today).

    I have seen Jesus depicted as a superhero, along with God the Father and the Holy Spirit in a spaceship. This was not meant as parody, but of course it was ridiculous. So some people think that way, but I don't know how many think anything like this. I agree that serious monotheism shouldn't be anything like that, but I don't know what it would be like in terms of giving us a way to think or ask about our humanity.

    The detectives idea, as I said, is probably irrelevant. I just wonder. The figure of the detective is so particular that it seems it must answer to something in our psychology, or the psychology of our culture. And I have a similar, though not the same, feeling about the zombie phenomenon. The (feeling is that) there must be some reason why this particular kind of story appeals so much to us today. But perhaps that's just wrong. Perhaps there's nothing to say except that we do like this kind of story. That's not very satisfying though.

    1. I think I’m more stereotyped about the present, than about the past. In class, when I say something I’m not sure the kids got, I get this stare from them. They don't ask. they just stare. I’ve never felt they might be vampires or aliens, but on more than one occasion in such moments I certainly felt they might be zombies.

      I don’t know why this is my impression, but I feel as if my students--who for me represent the present generation--live in a social blur. I heard an NPR show about a month ago about some new movie, and a claim was made there that for the present generation of college students there is not always a distinction between a friend and a lover. The categories somehow merged. I feel as if they just don’t know how to care, and that their default is just not caring. They seem to me as far away as possible from the revolutionary generation of my grandparents. They are beyond frustration--beyond goals and purpose. It seems that they feel powerless. But more than that, it seems that they have no idea what it would even mean to know what you want, or to try to figure that out. So I like what you say about the possibility that they might want to be careless emotionless zombies--but not out of laziness. It makes more sense to me to say that they feel overpowered into zombieness. They seem to be expected to think in simplistic slogans that don’t mean anything to them, about their careers, their religion, their love-life, their education. They don't allow themselves to say "I think", but only "I feel" in order not to offend, and as a result they get a world of peers who never expose themselves, who are forever absent. It is as if they are expected to attempt non-existence, and they don’t know how to rebel. I really don’t envy them.

      So perhaps the reason why people are so attracted to zombies is that the invading zombie mob scene is just an apt depiction of the social world they feel they live in. Perhaps it just gives expression to the way they feel the world around them. It might also partially explain why so many senseless mass shootings here are possible: They are just killing zombies anyway.

    2. I think that must be right about mass shootings. You couldn't really do it if you had a strong sense of the humanity of your victims. It also seems, at least some of the time, at least a bit, as if that kind of violence directed as it were against the world is an attempt to wake the world up, like slapping someone in the face. Perhaps that's just my imagination. It reminds me (another terrible pop culture reference is coming) of the song "Bring Me to Life" by Evanescence, which describes feeling frozen inside (echoing Kafka on the frozen sea within). The song says "there's nothing inside" and talks about needing to wake up (echoing Wittgenstein, sort of). My point is that some sense of inner deadness, emptiness, frozenness, or sleep seems to be widespread (I assume the song would not have been so popular if few people could relate to its lyrics). I might well be merging different things together, but they come together in this song, and I think they belong together (which is not to say that Wittgenstein's waking to wonder remark means the same thing as Kafka's "art is the axe for the frozen sea within," although I think they bear a resemblance).

      As for students as representative of their generation, I think that our students are not quite representative. It's hard to say exactly where they go from being typical to being unique though. From what I've heard they are sleepier than typical students, and also allegedly suffer from learned helplessness. Both of which could make them somewhat zombie-like. I wonder about cultural or character-based differences too. If loyalty is especially important to you, then you might be inclined to stick to slogans rather than think, "selfishly," for yourself. Some churches actively discourage what we might call thinking, I have been told (by a philosophy professor who said that some students tell her explicitly that this is why they do not want to take her courses). My mother might have thought this way, actually. She once gave me a Bible and told me it was all the philosophy I would ever need. Students raised like this might be reluctant or even unable to think much about their lives. Loyalty to God (if that's the right way to put it) might require not thinking much about your religion. Loyalty to family might mean not thinking much about your education or career.

      I don't know how love-life fits in, but I think there is a kind of ethic of going with the flow, of conforming to the practices of one's social group, and of not causing trouble, making a fuss, or taking things too seriously. American attitudes to love and sex are a mystery to me, but I think that there are roughly three kinds: the conservative (who don't always practice what they preach, of course, but probably do most of the time); the more casual (who might not always feel as casual as they think they should, but who probably tend to behave as if they do); and the middle group who are less evident but might even be the majority, who are somewhere between the two. I'm thinking of people who think they should be virgins until they marry (conservative), people who don't distinguish between friends and lovers (casual), and people who fall into neither of those groups (nothing wrong with sex before marriage, but only with your girlfriend/boyfriend). There is a tendency for people to talk as if the casual group is the majority, but I don't think statistics bear this out. Not that I actually remember any of the statistics I've read on the subject. Of course these groups are only very rough categories, and alcohol complicates the picture, but I think these are roughly the ideologies out there.

      The tendency to say "I feel" rather than "I think" in order to avoid offending people seems pretty universal, though, and with it the issues of absence that you describe.

    3. I think you're right to be suspicious of the "zombies as surrogate terrorists" idea. Terrorists hide in the crowd, but zombies are the crowd. However, there might be some mileage in linking zombies to the nations which the terrorists claim to represent. Isn't there a feeling (amongst some) that America and/or the West is surrounded by implacable foes who share none of "our" core values? The claustrophobia of the crowd on a geo-political level.

      The trouble with that idea is that these implacable foes are not generally seen as being dead inside. On the contrary, they are depicted as being filled with a terrible passion. I suppose that might equate to the zombie's hunger for flesh, but it still seems a stretch.

      Actually, now I think of it, that "terrible passion" idea might be linked to the fact that over the last 10 years or so zombies have become fast. They no longer shuffle and moan, they rush and snarl. (The first such depiction that I can recall was in 28 Days Later which, intriguingly, came out in 2002 - ie, the year after 9/11.)

      And [slaps forehead] there is at least one film that tries to make the zombie/terrorist link explicit: Osombie, the rather daft 2012 flick about a zombified Osama bin Laden. Hmmm, this idea might have legs after all.

      So now let's try to make a link between those ideas and the notion of the mindless crowd surrounding us at home. I think it can be summed up in one word: immigrants. I don't know what it's like in the US, but in the UK the fear of (or hatred of) immigrants has become an obsession. We have no fewer than three organisations (UKIP, the BNP and the EDL) whose popularity relies substantially on their harsh anti-immigration rhetoric (or, to put it bluntly: racism). And for such people immigrants are a kind of sub-human mass. They don't look, think or talk like "us", they don't share our commitment to "freedom" or democracy and therefore they are all potential terrorists.

      So here's the theory: the post-9/11 world, with its War on Terror, has re-invented (or at least modified) racism. Previously, the "other" was seen as a cultural and/or economic threat. They were dumb, but there were so many of them that they might prevail through sheer weight of numbers. Now, however, they're seen as actively, violently hostile. Beneath that (suspiciously) quiet exterior lurks a furious anger towards you and everything you represent.

      Two films to consider in this context:

      1) Night of the Living Dead. This came out in 1968 - at the height of the Civil Rights Movement and the year of Martin Luther King Jr's assassination. It ends with a black guy being shot dead by a redneck. Ironically, the black guy (Ben) wasn't a zombie and none of the zombies in the film are black. But we're dealing with the sublimation of a cultural fear here, so that doesn't matter. The pod-people in Invasion of the Body Snatchers didn't talk with Russian accents either.

      2) Cockneys vs Zombies. In this 2012 British comedy-horror London's East-End is overrun by zombies. It's down to a bunch of old-style (ie white) cockney gangsters to save the day. Ostensibly, the zombies in the film represent the "yuppification" of the East End. And when head-gangster Ray delivers a stirring speech at the end about clearing out the zombies and reclaiming the area we are invited to think that it's middle-class developers who are the "real" enemy. Frankly, in 2013 this doesn't ring true at all. Let me put it this way: one of the most striking things about the film is that, despite being set in the East End, there are ZERO Asians in it. Not one. I can't help feeling that's a significant and disturbing omission.

    4. BTW - I'm not claiming that the makers of those two films were consciously trying to say anything about race. In fact, in Romero's case he was probably trying to deliver an anti-racist message. But we all share the deep-rooted fears of our times more than we'd care to admit. And, in any case, the cultural significance of a film tends to be decided by the audience rather than its makers.

    5. You should definitely read the essay j. linked to:

      There is anti-immigrant sentiment in the U.S., certainly, but I don't think there's much of a sense that immigrants are all potential terrorists. They are regarded as other, though, of course, and that's always bad. (Slightly irrelevantly, this makes me think of The 300, which as I recall (not very well) treated British people, Americans, and Greeks as all the same thing (homogeneous Westerners) and Asians of all different kinds (and gay people) as a heterogeneous mess. But that's probably irrelevant and wrongly remembered.) I do think that racism, conformism, and fear-induced authoritarianism are all involved in this though.

  8. All sorts of fears, tensions and taboos seem to collide messily here, don't they?

    For a start, there's the uncanniness of the dead body. If you've ever seen someone die (of natural causes) you'll know what I mean. One moment you are next to a person and the next... just a collection of stuff. The body is still warm to the touch and yet it is not at all the thing that it was just a few moments ago. The sadness of bereavement aside, it is a profoundly disturbing, disconcerting experience. Zombies take this uncanniness a step further and grant the "collection of stuff" a nightmarish life of its own, blurring what it once was with what it now is.

    Then there's the social dimension. We spend much of our time surrounded by thousands of strangers. They crowd our streets, our roads and our shops; they live next to us and below us and above us. It's how we live, but we don't often stop to reflect on what a strange situation it is. For many, many thousands of years strangers were the exception rather than the rule in people's lives. Now it is the other way round. On the whole we cope with it rather well, but it does produce a certain tension - a kind of anthropological claustrophobia - and zombies are (at least in part) an expression of that tension.

    This, I think, is also linked to how we cope with all these strangers who surround us. In one sense they are just things to us: obstacles to be negotiated. Yet in another sense they are not. For unlike a lamp post or a phone box they are potentially personal. At any moment one of them might ask you for something or introduce themselves for some reason (and just think of the change in attitude you experience when you see someone suddenly fall over in the street). But they might also - just might - hit you over the head. That's true of a friend, of course, but at least with a friend you have some chance of seeing what's coming ("he's angry with me because I stole his girlfriend" etc). But who knows what thoughts or motives might lurk in the hearts of these thing-people? So their potential to become a person to you includes a certain amount of danger. From this point of view, zombies are a kind of "worst case" scenario: what if, suddenly, all these strangers turned out to be implacably hostile?


    1. At a more philosophical level it seems to me zombies are linked to solipsism. In particular, the solipsistic temptation presented by our modern tendency to explain everything in terms of systems and processes. We are not vital, living creatures but collections of neurons, genes, the products of social conditioning, etc. Now, these systems apply just as much to us as to everyone else but we tend to make exceptions for ourselves more readily than we do for others. Whatever science might say, I'm pretty sure that I have a mind. You on the other hand... [Reaches nervously for the chainsaw.] Put this together with some of the factors mentioned above and you can see how our modern way of looking at things can help alienate us from other people - even our friends (think of the moment found in almost every zombie movie where a "good guy" has been bitten and suddenly turns from one of us into one of them).

      It is worth remembering that all these factors (assuming I'm right about them) are not neatly slotted together in a way that makes for a satisfyingly coherent analysis. They are just kind of thrown together in dark leaps of the imagination. They work not because they make sense on a logical level but because they resonate with us. (Consider in this context the strangeness of Greek myths - Althaea and Meleager, for example - where after reading them you can't quite see the point or "moral" of the story and yet it most definitely speaks to you.)

    2. Thanks, although I don't know that I have much to say in return except that I agree with you. I had to look up the Althaea and Meleager story, but it's a good one.

      I wonder whether philosophy contributes to our modern way of looking at things or whether it's the other way round. Probably they go together. Like Anscombe on whether moral philosophy corrupts the youth: no, because our youth and our moral philosophy think the same way, and for the same reasons. Consciousness can look like the final great mystery for science because science is not designed to deal with that kind of phenomenon. No reason why it should be, but this tells you something about science as we have created it, about our concerns and ways of thinking. And if those concerns are all directed away from consciousness then perhaps we feel that this is the direction we're moving in too. Slouching towards zombiehood.

    3. I would agree that the cultural outlook comes first and the philosophy follows after - but it seems a recursive relationship to me. At the very least philosophy lends a certain respectability to the culture by taking its questions seriously.

    4. Or: at the very least if philosophy does not challenge the culture's questions and assumptions, who or what will?

    5. See my forthcoming and almost certainly never-to-be-written blog post "Why Wittgenstein is Important". :)

  9. The living dead are taking over not only bookstores and movies, but philosophy blogs too, I see. For more evidence, have a look at my latest post -- and there's more to come over here, I'm afraid.

    This seems like global phenomenon. Zombies are invading Norway too, supported by American pop culture. Kids, boys in particular, certainly are preoccupied with them. But unlike in the US(?), this hasn’t caught on with adults. The undead do not resurface too often in Scandinavian film industry, and I am having a hard time trying to think of examples where this is meant as more than a joke. A case in point is Dead Snow. Featuring Nazi zombies, this horror film fits virtually all of the hypothesises mentioned in this thread -- the scary lack of passion, the thought- and mindlessness (all of which fit the charicature of the Nazi, of course), the scary political and/or military enemy, and so on –- but it is all done tongue in cheek. (If vampires count, then Let the Right One In, might be one exception. Vampires settle down in Swedish suburbia. They look human and behave much like us too, except for their peculiar eating habits, and they are born to human parents. This could possibly be an expression of the fear that one might be(come) one of them oneself. But it is difficult to see what this fear amounts to in this case, because in this story ”they” are not evidently any worse than ”we” are. After all, it is the human father who does all the vicious killings in order to supply his vampire child with blood.)

    Trolls used to play the role as the scary unknown in Scandinavian folklore. What people feared most back then were dense forests and ruthless mountains, in short, the untamed nature surrounding them. Though grotesquely deformed, these lumbering giants were humanlike in many respects -- they walked upright, wore clothes and mastered (or "mastered") language -- so one might just possibly read some uncertainties about human nature into this as well. Nowadays, trolls are rather old fashioned, though not quite dead as a cultural reference. A few years back, Trollhunter was a smashing hit here in Norway. (If you haven’t seen it, I recomend it to you. Some scenes require knowledge of Norwegian fairy-tales, but the movie also refers to films such as The Blair Witch Project, and conspiracy theories about the US gorvernment keeping Aliens a secret.)

    If it seems to you that zombie stories might take the place of crime novels in the US, then there is a wide difference in interest. In Scandinavia, crime and mystery is very much the number one genre. I have no good explanation for this apparent cultural difference. Perhaps it connects with differences in religiousity, perhaps it reflects different levels of preoccupation with terrorism. But I like your ”pet theory” about the zombie boom in the US, ”that we are afraid that our own society is being taken over by people who are dead on the inside, and that this internal death is contagious.” And I honestly see no reason why this fear should be any weaker here.

  10. I saw your pictures, yes. Wish I could draw like that!

    The question of age is important. It certainly isn't only kids in the U.S. who are into zombies, but it probably is mostly younger people. Crime novels, on the other hand, seem to appeal to more mature people (I don't mean old people, although of course age and maturity are related). I'll try to say something about them in a second. Fantasy and science-fiction are not necessarily childish, but they do seem to appeal mostly to people who liked them as children (or teenagers, anyway). So part of the appeal of zombies could have to do with the appeal of childhood, or the things of childhood. I don't have anything to say about that but it seems worth noting, and I've overlooked it until now.

    I don't know whether zombie stories might take the place of crime novels in the U.S., but perhaps they might. They seem different to me, but I wonder who is reading novels like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and whether these people might have read Henning Mankell instead a few years ago. Perhaps they read both. And then there's Fred Vargas, who combines the supernatural with crime in her novels. I really have no idea who reads what, but fantasy seems to be on the rise, and crime seems somehow old-fashioned. This could easily be a passing fad, though, or a mis-perception on my part. My suspicion is that the world is retreating into fantasy, but I can't prove that at all.

    I liked Dead Snow, and loved Let the Right One In, but I haven't seen Trollhunter. It sounds much more interesting than I had realized. Thanks for the tip!


    1. Thanks! That's pretty persuasive. For anyone who hasn't read it, here's a short bit: "Slow-zombie movies are a meditation on consumer society—on a certain excess of civilization, as it were; and fast-zombie movies are pretty much the opposite." Actually that's misleading--it's all about fast-zombies, Hobbes, and terrorism. A very good read.

  12. And now there's this interview in The New York Times with Max Brooks, the author of The Zombie Survival Guide and W.W.Z..

    Some quotes:

    "“Since 2001, people have been scared,” he explained. “There’s been some really scary stuff that’s been happening — 9/11, Iraq, Afghanistan, Katrina, anthrax letters, D.C. sniper, global warming, global financial meltdown, bird flu, swine flu, SARS. I think people really feel like the system’s breaking down.”"

    "These are the zombies that Brooks believes in: the ghouls that come for you, that you can’t fight. The zombies are his mother’s cancer. They’re the fear that his wife and his son won’t be O.K., which makes him check his phone every few minutes when he’s apart from them. They’re the car that killed a friend of his in high school as they walked across the street, Brooks just a few steps ahead. The zombies are anything that comes into your life, without prejudice, and destroys it. The zombies are: Life’s not fair."