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Zombies in Western Culture

John Vervaeke
Christopher Mastropietro
Filip Miscevic

3. The Four Symbols of the Zombie Metaphor

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1Following Christopher Moreman, we note that while there has been much academic discussion of zombie movies, there has been little examination of the zombie itself, prompting us to “analyze the zombie as a symbol in itself” (Moreman 2010: 264). Motivation is not all that the zombie lacks. As a symbol of the loss of meaning, the zombie embodies a plethora of vacancies, empty placeholders for the building blocks of meaning.

3.1 The First Symbol: The Semiosis of the Zombie

1. Zombies don’t talk.

2They aren’t mute or reticent. They simply have no language. They have nothing to say. They don’t transmit gists of conversation. Crucially, they do the opposite: they transmit their own vacuity. They communicate their incommunicability. The zombie’s most marked pathology is that it lacks intelligibility.

2. Zombies are communal.

3With a twist: they possess the momentum and self-organization of culture, without the narrative imagination that gathers common purpose. Hence, zombies are like culture gone awry. They are communal creatures in that they vaguely share proximity, but there is no accord among them (see also Webb and Byrnand 2008). They cannot read in or reach out to one another. They do not coordinate to achieve concurrence.

4They are in company, but not together. They are surrounded, but each alone. They lack culture.

3. Zombies are homeless.

5Zombies do not have lairs, nests, coffins, castles or caves. They do not retreat anywhere as sun breaks the horizon, as the moon breaks the clouds or as the spring breaks the winter. Zombies drift. They are equally suited, and unsuited, to the ground they occupy. They do not have province in any one space (see also Webb and Byrnand 2008). They do not have propriety for any one person. There is nothing whatsoever about a zombie that appears to belong to the world. A zombie simply “shuffles”, bungles absently from one place to the next. If zombies were human, they might be feeling a little uprooted. But perhaps we can understand a portion of their plight. Not belonging anywhere, being from anywhere… this is precisely part of the encroaching foreignness we described in section 2. Zombies lack home.

4. Zombies eat brains.

6The appetite of a zombie is a very particular kind of appetite. No matter how much a zombie devours, it will continue feeding for as long as it is able. Its gormandizing is indiscriminate and voracious, and its famishment apparently bottomless. But it is insubstantial. The zombie represents raw consumption. It does not seem to imbibe the things it consumes; it simply extinguishes them. A zombie never stops eating, but never grows or changes. In its insatiability, the zombie has put its face to the disorder of addiction. It craves with absolute singularity, and its craving becomes its nature. It wants to have, but never to be (see also Fromm 1976). It is constantly filling, but never gets full. The zombie’s lack has become a hunger (see also Webb and Byrnand 2008). In fact, in one pivotal scene1 in Day of the Dead,

the pointlessness of the zombie appetite [is made apparent] as one captured zombie continues to try to eat despite the fact that its internal organs have been removed and so the ‘‘food’ ’simply drops to the floor upon being swallowed. (Moreman 2010: 275)

7Zombies are a brain-oriented monster, in operation, appetite and vulnerability. Interestingly, in many accounts of the zombie, the only way to kill a zombie is by destroying its brain―if you will: obliterating mind to obliterate mindlessness. We can find a strange twist tucked into this pattern: that the mindlessness evinced by the zombie is begotten by its brain. Zombies are a perversion of mind precisely because they notably lack the properties of mind we think fundamentally human, yet they visibly want to acquire mind in the most literal sense of acquisition. Only by destroying their brains do you destroy the threat to your brains posed by their mindlessness. What is being intimated here is a very unsettling dependency between the threat of mindlessness and the possessing of mind. The brain is a symbol for intelligibility. The devouring of the brain indicates the devouring of that intelligibility and all it affords. The fact that brain is driving the consumption of brain is a deeply complex symbolic occurrence; culture is devouring culture, mind is devouring mind, humanness is devouring humanness. This evinces a deep presence of mindlessness within mind. Implicitly, it tells us that zombies are not an external threat, but an internal one. They are a symbolic villain that assumes most characteristics of humanity, and subverts them with decay. As one character in The Walking Dead points out to his fellow survivors:2We are the walking dead” (see also Goto-Jones 2015; Moreman 2010; Webb and Byrnand 2008).

5. Zombies are ugly.

8This is the operative difference between the zombie and most other popular horrors. Vampires are flushed with sex appeal, Frankenstein’s monster is endearing, and in its exotic way, even the werewolf is a beauteous animal. But zombies are ugly by definition: dead, rotting, stinking, without vitals, lacking the spirit that makes one human being attractive to another. A zombie is not guilty of concealment or duplicity. The ugly mug does not sheath any hidden depths. The essence of a zombie shares the visage of its appearance. Ugliness is the zombie’s nature. We cannot see the mind of a zombie because they have no mind to see. The vacancy in a zombie’s gaze provides a window to the absence of soul.

9The enduring disconcertment is the fact that zombies look like us. They do not just happen to look like us; therein froths the real potency of the metaphor. Zombies are something inhuman in human form―not just ugly, but ugly in the image of person. Dehumanization makes the zombie more destitute than the ugliest orc, that they are a debasement of cosmetic sensibilities. And the zombie upends all cosmos in human nature. Physical ugliness is its deformity of dignity. Mindlessness is deformity of the intelligible. The human guise of a zombie aborts human feeling. It reviles contact. It brings us to a dead end.

6. Zombies are not evil.

10Unlike the conspiring alien, the deceptive vampire, or the malevolent spirit, the zombie lacks the defining characteristic of monstrous villainy: it lacks evil. Because of its mindlessness, the zombie does not possess malevolence; even as it drags itself forward in consumption, it is merely scrabbling to satisfy a base instinct of its own craving. But it does not do so with the awareness of malintent. The destructiveness of the zombie’s impact is no more known to it than a bacterial infection is known to the culpable bacteria. The zombie, dangerous, hideous and destructive though it is, intuitively defies the category of evil. Despite the twisted resemblance to its living counterpart, the zombie is no more evil than a rabid animal.

7. Zombies are heedless.

11Zombies are fierce and threatening, but not self-preserving. They give no thought to defending themselves against harm. In this sense, they lack the defining feature of a living organism. They bear no fundamental relationship to their survival. In pursuit of consumption they will destroy themselves (see also Webb and Byrnand 2008).

8. Zombies are untouchable.

12Their ugliness is catchable, and they have a 100% rate of contagion. If you come into contact with a zombie, infection follows inevitably. We don’t want to be ugly, mindless, homeless or incommunicable, so when confronted with a zombie, we take care to keep our distance. But the deprivation of closeness is severely consequential. If we are to suppose that the monster really has been created in our image, then it poses several complications to our yen for touch.

13Our penchant for touch is, ultimately, what distinguishes intimate relationships from non-intimate ones, not only relationships with people, but with animals, objects, and concepts. The more “in touch” we are with something, the closer and more connected we are to that thing. Touch is the medium of intimacy. Without it, it is hard to imagine that intimacy could exist at all. However, intimacy is not the only casualty of the zombie’s untouchableness.

14Our being in the world is heavily dependent upon touch to keep a continuity of contact with our surroundings. Experience is deemed “true” when it impresses us through contact. We come to believe something as a result of having touched it, literally or otherwise. We come to be affected by it once it has “touched us” in turn. And of course, we don’t consider our relationships to be loving relationships until we feel comfortable with touching one another.

15Touch is the arbiter of “real”. Assertions of verity are always made with permutations of a touch metaphor. Those with whom we are intimate are more real to us. Objects we have handled are more real to us. Emotions we have felt are more real to us. Losing touch costs us our grasp on reality.

3.1.1 Intensifying Meaninglessness: Zombies as a Threat to the Three Marks of Realness

16Realness is a multivalent term. Conversationally, it is often used in reference to qualities of lucidity that are not captured by its ontological definition, which refers strictly to truth and falsehood. When an individual says that something feels “real” she is seldom referring to whether something is verifiable. Instead, she refers to a sense of connection, a way in which her felt experience relates to patterns or events in the world. This relating is often described with reference to propositions of truth and falseness, but this is only a reference in metaphor. A “sense of realness” is a psychological experience, not a metaphysical principle.

17Our sense of touch is an apt analogue for this psychological experience, and the symbol of the zombie has appropriated it. The contact implied by touch represents a quality of relation that is integral to feelings of connection; meaning. Metaphorically, touch is a versatile enough source domain to represent both cerebral and physical forms of relating. The zombie co-opts this versatility. The felt sense of realness is not a single impression, but a series of marks that relate to (i) the intelligible, (ii) the interactional, the (iii) interior and (iv) the insightaffording connections that orient our actions in the world. The nature of the zombie undermines each of these marks. It poses a paradox that undercuts intelligibility, it has an inter-categorical nature that confuses our interaction, it vacuums our interior presence of mind, and it bankrupts us of a promised capacity to use insight to transcend the boundaries of outmoded perspectives. We will discuss the first three marks in this section, and the fourth in section 3.4.1. The Zombie is Paradoxical; It Defies Intelligibility

18Intelligibility as an explicitly discussed concept began in many ways with Plato’s dialogues. It refers to the rational confirmation of reality and its contents, the form in which the world is represented reflectively in human cognition. To the degree that our minds grasp the form of something, can identify it notionally based on distinguishable properties, we would say that the thing is intelligible; readable by our minds.

19The zombie defies rational confirmation because it lacks the coherence of properties that allow us to form rational definitions. The nature of the zombie is beset by paradox; it is human and non-human, living and not living, cultural and non-cultural, natural and supernatural, suspended between fundamental binaries that most definitions presuppose.


20The zombie not only eludes a definition of its own, it also disrupts the definitional integrity maintained by the binaries it is suspended between: if the zombie is both alive and not alive, what now does it mean to be “alive”? And if it is both human and non-human, what then does it mean to be “human”?


21Intelligibility allows us to see the world with conceptual clarity. The definition of the zombie is unintelligible, which means that any likeness associated with the zombie is distorted by that association, like an image that has come too near the fracture line of a broken mirror. The contradictions of the zombie provoke a disconfirmation, a kind of black hole within its intelligibility that vacuums any elements that have been tethered to its likeness, including and especially its humanity. The zombie’s influence disrupts the binary relationship of the human and non-human. This raises the question “what is the difference between the human and the zombie?” Our sense of realness in our humanity can quickly be destabilized by the zombie’s presence.

22The zombie paradox is not just problematic from the safety of its fiction. The zombie is very nearly human, enough to be a moniker for certain human states and behaviors. Consider, for example, how frequently we use “zombie” to describe stupors of illness, fatigue or mental dysfunction, and consider the similarities to the destitution of the monster. Like the alien, the zombie walks a line between natural and supernatural, and our incredulousness toward it seems tentative enough for the monster to be hypothesized as a genuine biological terror. Therefore, the paradox of the zombie not only rests upon the question “is it human?” but also upon the question “does it exist at all?”

23This paradox is the prime potency of the zeitgeist, the axle upon which all other symbols of the zombie rotate. The likeness and unlikeness to humanness are both uncanny. The zombie is not only a paradox by definition (or lack thereof), but also in its epistemological intrusiveness: the monster cannot be disconfirmed. We cannot be sure that such a thing exists, or does not exist. Moreover, if it does exist, we cannot be sure it is not simply ourselves, a distorted reflection in the pond on the other side of the non-human spectrum. The paradox of the zombie defies the intelligible. It defies a consistent, conceptual sense of realness. The Zombie is Inter-categorical; It Defies Interaction

24The zombie’s paradoxical place on the spectrum between human and non-human, existent and non-existent, and natural and supernatural, undermines a second mark of realness. The zombie is an inter-categorical monster―it is perpetually in-between categories, neither one thing nor its opposite. Intelligibility is required for rational confirmation, but for something to seem real, representation is not sufficient. Simply put: we need to know what things are so that we know how to encounter them. We need to be able to place them before us. There is a sensual dimension to realness. Understanding is not enough; we need to be able to interact with the world.

25The kind of contact provided by interaction is not an intellectual kind, but the kind that relates to action. The sense of realness is an embodied sense, not simply a cerebral one. The world must not only make sense, it must have sense. It must not only be represented, it must also be reciprocated. It must be touchable, and it must touch us in turn.

26This is where the inter-categorical nature of the zombie interferes with our sense of realness: it encumbers our ability to interact. We noted in the previous section that contagion is among the zombie’s more salient features, and within the monster’s narrative, survivors who encounter a zombie must avoid touching it at all costs. The more multitudinous the zombies become, the more this danger is compounded. In a world inhabited by the zombie, the physicality of touch becomes an undying hazard. Ordinary humans are constantly at risk of exposure, and are therefore zombies in waiting. This is a world that discourages contact in all of its forms and bucks the rituals of interaction. For this reason, the zombie represents a crisis of intimacy. We treat everyone like a stranger in this world because it is the only way to avoid infection. In this world, we are surrounded and yet stranded, inundated while utterly alone. This simultaneity of the zombie’s presence and absence is an inter-categorical problem laid over the paradox of its unintelligible definition. Not only is the zombie―and by extension, its human foils―unclear and disconfirming, it is also profoundly alienating. The Zombie is Vacant; It Lacks Interiority

27Of the many paradigmatic influences that have trained our sense of realness, Cartesian has been perhaps the most pivotal. Much of the Western philosophical tradition continues to lean on the metaphysical and epistemological framework laid by Descartes treatises. The cogito ergo sum of Descartes’ Meditations is one of those maxims in Western philosophy distinguished by its rare notoriety; its philosophical import on the question of “what is real?” is still the prime reference for enlightenment philosophy, not just within the annals of academic work, but for the broader culture and its epistemic presuppositions.

28The Cartesian tradition sets out the third of our fundamental marks of realness: clear and distinct intellectual perception. At the center of this mark is the phenomenon of metacognition, the mind’s ability to recognize and reflect back on itself. This self-recognition of consciousness is the individual’s awareness of himself, his existence, and his capacity to think and, therefore, to be. To Descartes, this fundamental criterion was a kind of charter with reality, an ontological base camp from which to brave the wilds of a potentially duplicitous world. The interior of the camp was the individual’s certainty of his own realness.

29The zombie defies this mark of realness perhaps more obviously than any other, and in so doing it builds upon its paradox from the previous marks. A lack of human consciousness is definitive of the zombie, particularly because it is otherwise so strikingly human in appearance. It is because of this trait more than any other that the zombie becomes the source domain for human debasement―the literal lack of consciousness is a symbol for states of mental absence, fugue and fatigue that have become idiomatically synonymous with zombification. The most common reason we refer to someone as a zombie is that he doesn’t seem fully conscious. He is not aware of himself. He does not notice the world go by.

30The zombie lacks an inner life, an interior presence of mind that is commensurate with thought, intention and direction. The zombie’s inner vacancy is symbolized by a blank stare and shifting movement, driven by unreflective, sub-human cravings. The lack of interiority means that the zombie cannot connect to the world, it cannot affirm its own realness by the Cartesian criterion, and it cannot affirm the realness of its environment. Turned on the individual, this lack is wholly destructive. Her connection with the world is severed at the stem, and she cannot even be sure of herself, let alone a world beyond her. An existence without interiority is a disconfirmed existence. It lacks even the most basic constituents on which to build the foundation for a sense of realness.

31It is important to understand that the zombie symbolically undermines each of these marks of realness. The zombie is a participatory symbol. By this we mean it invokes and invites action. It does not simply refer to but also instantiates the object of its reference, whether the object is paradox, destitution, homelessness or alienation. A participatory symbol is more active than a regular symbol; a valentine heart and a kiss are both common symbols for love, yet the shape of a valentine heart plays no causal role in love itself, whereas a kiss instigates intimacy. Similarly, the zombie is a participatory symbol because it enacts the phenomenon to which it refers. It does not only stand in for these degenerations, it also demonstrates them. In our own enactments, we in turn demonstrate the zombie.

32Activities like the urban zombie walks speak to all that is participatory about the zombie symbol. The simulations in which humans deliberately undermine their own humanity add salience to the zombie’s defiance of realness. While such playacting may be dismissed as frivolous, it is also possible that these acts are trying to draw attention to a resemblance. When we take our attention away from the mindless walkers long enough to look around at their human counterparts, we are perhaps meant to genuinely wonder the difference.

3.2 The Second Symbol: The Name of the Zombie

33This brings us to our next observation of zombies in popular fiction, though in fact it is more of an observation about our survivors. You may have noticed that zombies are almost never “zombies”. No one in film (save the more comedic renderings) ever refers to a zombie as a zombie. They refer to “walkers”, “the dead”, “the undead”, “corpses”, “flesh-eaters” or “the infected”. But they never use the most common cultural term. In fact, they seem wholly unfamiliar with the concept of a zombie until the apocalypse befalls them. They are ignorant to the tropes associated with the genre of their distress. It is often remarked strange and amusing that no one in a zombie movie―set in the same time and world we live in―seems ever to have seen a zombie movie.

34There have been few exceptions to the absence of the term “zombie”, but each of these exceptions demonstrates the instability of how the term is used. Once again, even in name the zombies communicate their incommunicability. The first exception is World War Z. Uncharacteristically, zombies are here referred to by name, but the characters are quite reluctant to use the term. When they find themselves speaking the name of “zombie” the heroes are ill at ease. Why this reluctance? Traditionally in horror movies, characters are reticent to utter the name of the monster because of the sheer disbelief in supernatural agents. However, coming to believe in the vampire or the werewolf is often the first step in empowering the resistance to the monsters (as soon as the hero knows she is facing a vampire, she knows to arm herself with a crucifix and wooden stake). In contrast, the zombie is not supernatural, nor hard to detect. In World War Z (as in most films of the genre) the protagonists are surround by hundreds if not thousands of zombies, so there is no cause for disbelief. Nor does naming the monster provide any empowerment. Absent these traditional reasons, an alternative explanation for the reluctance is needed. Using the term of “zombie” opens a gap in the intelligibility of the world, a vacancy that cannot thereafter be filled. In a traditional horror movie the monster disrupts the order of the characters’ world, but in acknowledging the monster’s existence, the characters are able to reorder the world to accommodate the supernatural disruption. The evil of the monster becomes a normative guidance; it inspires the effective righteousness of the protagonists. This accommodation is not a passive acquiescence, but an active and effective resistance. The characters can now fight back. However, acknowledging the zombie―who is not evil―brings no accommodation, and yields no empowerment. To use the term is to despair.

35Another exception is the film Only Lovers Left Alive. It was directed by Jim Jarmusch and released in 2013 to critical acclaim.3 The film features two centuries’ old vampires, Adam and Eve, languishing uneventfully through eternity. When the term “zombie” makes its appearance, it is used not by a human hero, but by one of literature’s oldest horror monsters. The vampires use it disdainfully, not in reference to the usual undead creatures, but to ordinary humans. These fanged beings, whose lives appear as meaningless as they are enduring, find the lives of their human contemporaries even more meaningless. Their contempt for our zombie behavior is casual and matter-of-fact. The malaise of human life is, at least to the vampires, an obvious and unquestioned fact. The name of “zombie” is used explicitly and without reluctance only in this case: when it is made to describe human life. We are the walking dead.

36When we examine this closely, we begin to realize that the zombie zeitgeist is not a single symbol, but a dynamic constellation of interlocking symbols. The creature of the zombie is the icon of the zeitgeist, and as we have explained, the name of the zombie also carries a symbolic conveyance that embellishes the phenomenon. We might say that these are the first two symbols in the constellation. The next two symbols are more diffuse in their representation. The third symbol is the relation between the viewer and the zombie genre as she encounters it. The fourth symbol is the apocalypse, which is often paired with the zombie, and has given rise the conjoined catchphrase, “zombie apocalypse”. Independently and in concert, these symbols speak for the meaning crisis.

3.3 The Third Symbol: The Failure of the Metanarrative

37As she follows a story, the viewer integrates two different perspectives in order to gain both involvement and reflection. The viewer has the perspective of the characters in the story, but also a “godlike” perspective beyond that possessed by any character. The relationship between these two perspectives can be called the metanarrative of the story. The interplay between these perspectives affords the viewer a kind of participatory insight. This insight in turn inspires a transformation in the viewer. The metanarrative binds the viewer to the meaning of the story. However, in the zombie story there is no transformation. In the zombie story, the two perspectives clash. In the zombie story, the metanarrative fails to bind.

38The first stage of any outbreak story is the survivor’s struggle to overcome her disorientation and create a profile of her adversary. The viewer’s distress of a zombie film is to watch the inevitable unfold―the story begins by focusing on a single character through a window of momentary normalcy. The rising action begins with a very sudden appearance of the outbreak, which the character narrowly manages to escape. After a period of isolation, the character meets other escapees who share information, and the survivors converge on a working perspective of the crisis and their predator. They find some advantageous haven with renewable means of sustenance, and they attempt to fortify it. They delegate roles and try to live as a community.

39But it’s never to be, because the survivors quarrel. They dissent over trivialities and their tenuous order fails. Conflict divides them into factions, and selfishness breeds mistrust. Usually by some oversight, the wayward survivors alert the zombies to their whereabouts and once again become overrun. Their tentative home disintegrates. They struggle to escape and go on the run, and zombies follow in pursuit. The film reaches its climax as the survivors become desperate and overwhelmed. Most of them fall. The film ends either with the death or infection of the remaining survivors, or with a suggestion of the peril’s ceaselessness: that there will only ever be more of the same: fighting… evading… trying to outrun the inevitable (see also Moreman 2010; Webb and Byrnand 2008).

40The final revelation of the film extinguishes the last feelings of hope. The survivor feels―as the viewer knows―that there is no land left untouched. There is no one immune from infection. There is no garden to flee to, no island of retreat. There is nowhere left to hide, and there is nothing more to tell. Much like the zombie, the story drifts off as we realize the outbreak is unending. The credits roll ambiguously thereafter.

41Stories of the zombie always begin close in and zoom out gradually. We follow a single character as she intakes more and more of her situation’s horror. As the camera and story pan, the situation darkens. Chances of survival become less and less likely, and the prospect of salvation becomes bleaker. The story ends as it began, with calamity. But it does not grant us a final understanding. The story ends, but it refuses to conclude.

42We watch all of this happen as knowing spectators. We know the walkers are zombies and we know better than to confuse them with humans. We know they eat insatiably and we know they grow in number. We understand the threat before our fictional counterparts experience it, and we look for the firearm long before the survivors acquire it. We anticipate shelter before the survivors find it. We know it will be fruitless as the survivors brace it. We know the survivors will not sustain community. We know the zombies will win by attrition. We know these things as we would of any other fictional horror, but there is a discrepancy in that the survivors know none of it. There is a vast distance between us and the survivors because they are incapable of sharing our references. This is another clue that the human survivors are not quite equal in elevation to the culture that authors them. We know more than they do. We see as they do not. Like watching Oedipus Rex, we have the expectation of incoming tragedy. We have the feeling of dramatic irony. We can predict the failure of the survivors before they fail.

43And yet… it’s not really like Oedipus. It’s not a tragedy. Because while we can predict the survivors’ failure, we are no better at understanding it than they are. We certainly cannot predict anything beyond it. And we cannot quite call it ironic either. The absence of a conclusion breaks the pattern that defines dramatic irony, namely comparing the character’s apprehensions against the coming of a contrary result. But the zombie has no final result. It has no finality at all. Only drift. Tragedy is marked by a metanarrative, an overseen conclusion that makes sense of the events leading up to it. Metanarratives provide a frame for the story, but the zombie outbreak cannot be framed. We don’t know where it has come from, and we don’t know where it is going save that it will continue to consume, continue to engulf, delete, and die. Zombies bring not just death, they bring interminable death. The waves of a zombie apocalypse are always falling, without purpose, and without end. Tragedy is an afterword ascribed to events of dramatic suffering, a denouement that dignifies the events of suffering by giving them significance. The zombie apocalypse is the anti-tragedy. It immerses us in a story and denies us closure. It invests us into the face of character and has us look on as the face deforms. It has us watch as the eyes of our protagonists glaze and go blank. It has us hope for the redemption of the human survivors, and ever so slowly, it takes that hope away. The zombie is an aesthetic for the deepest despair because it chokes on a meaningful story. It pushes us into the position of a metanarrative, and then withholds the metanarrative from us.

44Even though we identify the tropes, our savvy is otherwise unhelpful because nothing of our irony would assist a survivor in the long run. We can predict the failure of the narrative and the absence of conclusion, but we have nothing to offer in its place. And that, more than anything, is a cause for despair. We cannot transpose ourselves into the crisis and be sure of a more meaningful experience. Even at a safe distance, our anxiety and uncertainty disable us because against all reason, we cannot help but to dread the absurdity of their predicament, and to wonder how distant it really is. We cannot integrate the perspective of the characters with the perspective of the viewer. There is no participatory insight or transformation. There is no meaningful connection.

3.4 The Fourth Symbol: The Zombie Apocalypse

Fig. 4: Ludwig Ferdinand Schnorr von Carolsfeld’s depiction of the Apocalypse with Jesus (ca. 1831).4

  • 5 For further reading on the topic of apocalypse see also Lisboa (2011).

45Today, the term “apocalypse” is applied extemporaneously.5 It usually refers to the end of the world, of human civilization, or a range of calamities and disasters. This is a telling inaccuracy. The definition of apocalypse as a synonym for destruction only captures one axis of its biblical origins. The Christian apocalypse was never simply the end of the world: it was the resurrection of the body, and the revelation of final truths. Just as the zombie’s mug distorts the cosmos of human likeness, the zombie zeitgeist distorts the cosmos of apocalyptic revelation, by offering resurrection without rebirth (see also Moreman 2010).

3.4.1 Intensifying Meaninglessness II: The Zombie is Bankrupt; It Lacks Insight

46The Christian apocalypse is the breaking of an old worldview to afford the emergence of a new worldview. As such, it represents the mutual transformation of mind and world. In the everyday, this transformative process refers to the shifting of perspectives to accommodate an unforeseen exposure, the sudden, spontaneous emergence of comprehensions that deepen our understanding of reality. These so-called light bulb moments are instances of “insight”, and the phenomenology of this experience gives us the fourth and final mark of realness.

47This mark of realness is best described as a sense of wonder. When the world cedes us something from beyond the frame of our existing perspectives, our sense of ontological surprise is deeply significant. While it is crucial for us to have a grasp on the world, it is also crucial for the world to escape that grasp so that our mapping of reality can be recast and recaptured. The feeling that there is more to reality than what we know of it strengthens its integrity, and its independence from our subjectivity makes it more trustworthy. While it is necessary, as discussed above, to feel that the world is consistently intelligible, it is also necessary to have our sense of the world pulled periodically from underneath us. Insight emerges from the wreckage of this experience. It allows our perspective to reframe itself around a fuller appreciation of reality, like stepping out from behind a camera, or losing your footing only to regain it with more traction.

48The traditional apocalypse is the religious macrocosm of this perspectival shifting, but the zombie apocalypse bankrupts it. The world of the zombie decays but there is no revelation to redeem the fall. When the frame around reality is shattered, it is left asunder and never reformed. The realness marked by insight is foreclosed by the utter limpness of the zombie’s world, where there is no longer sustained vitality or the ethos of industry. There is some property to this world that lacks the dynamism for creation and reinvention. Nature overgrows but nothing cultural grows from it. There is no cosmic insight that pulls back the veil on the working of reality. The zombie apocalypse breaks the world without enhancing the view, and resurrects the body without bringing the abundant life that Jesus promised.

3.4.2 The History of the Zombie Apocalypse

Fig. 5: Depiction of the Martian invasion of H. G. Wells’1898 classic, The War of the Worlds. Illustration by Alvim Corréa, from the 1906 French edition of the novel.6

49The zombie is not fiction’s first instance of a secular apocalypse. It has evolved from a modern zeitgeist that has toyed with the aesthetic of apocalypse while gradually abandoning its Christian matrix. Ostwalt (1995, 2000) argues that the secular apocalypse is one that can be averted by human ingenuity and science. The genesis of this tradition was perhaps H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, published in 1898. Notably though, Wells’ novel is not completely secular; in the afterword of its epilogue, the plague that kills the Martians is declared to be the providence of God. The first true secular apocalypse instead emerges halfway through the twentieth century from deep within the wariness of the Cold War. Unlike in War of the Worlds, the threat of nuclear annihilation is completely manmade, and in the absence of an interloping villain, this apocalypse withholds the opportunity for any classic form of human heroism. Perhaps no film depicts this new variety of bleakness more potently than Stanley Kramer’s 1959 film On the Beach.7 This atomic-age story about the end of the world is one of film’s first tragedies without deliverance. Crucially though, while the world depicted on screen perishes into the atomic cloud, the film retains a noble consciousness. The characters accept their fate with affirmation and dignity in their humanity. More importantly, the film arcs to a higher order purpose that transcends the frame of its narrative―it implores us, the viewers, to heed the warning of its tragedy and intervene against the corresponding threats in the real world. In its depiction of humanity, and the drive of its metanarrative (in contrast to the zombie films), the story of this apocalypse retains a vital kind of intentionality. This is where the zombie narrative differs. The zombie apocalypse exhausts the remains of hopefulness, however frail, found in these preceding stories. It is the culmination of unhallowed endings; gone is the providence and heroism of Wells, and gone is the dignified finality of nuclear twilight. As Moreman (2010: 271), following Charles Mitchell, argues, “[t]he zombie apocalypse is one that allows for the success of no human ingenuity”. We have already discussed the viewers’ impotence in the face of the zombie apocalypse―there is no metanarrative imperative inspired by these stories and no swell of human fellowship to offer emotional resonance. The ending is not punctuated by informed irony or moralism. It is simply the end.

  • 8 From Google N-Gram Viewer, smoothing factor of 3 (Michel et al. 2011).

Fig. 6: The concomitant rise in usage of the words “zombie” and “apocalypse” from 1930-2008 in predominantly English books published in any country.8

50As Fig. 6 suggests, the zombie and the apocalypse are independent symbols that have magnetically found each other over the course of the last half-century. The modern zombie apocalypse is the co-emerged pairing of a certain kind of creature to a certain kind of world. The world depicted within the zombie apocalypse is an analogue to the zombie itself, causative of the creature, and created by it. This complex dynamic has been conditioned by a generation of successive films that have resewn the genre into the tropes we now recognize. Three of the earliest zombie films mark this transition significantly:

  • Night of the Living Dead―1968: George Romero’s classic is the birth of the modern zombie proper: mindless, undead corpses that move laboriously and devour human flesh. Though radioactive contamination is implied, the cause of their animation is unclear and ultimately peripheral. Apocalypse threatens, but does not ensue.9

  • The Omega Man―1971: Based on Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel, I am Legend, this Boris Sagal film further integrates the appearance of the zombie and the event of apocalypse. After biological warfare extinguishes most of the planet’s population, a plague turns a small group of survivors into a ghoulish horde of darkness-dwelling sub-humans. Here the zombie-apocalypse causality becomes more pronounced. Yet the zombification is not complete. The zombies are murderous but not mindless, anti-cultural but not yet acultural. Though it follows Romero’s perversion of Christian resurrection, the film does not altogether abandon its sanctity, and ends by grasping at the symbol of a Christian sacrifice.10

  • Dawn of the Dead―1978: Romero’s sophomore effort gives us the first fully-fledged zombie apocalypse. By now, the nuclear overtones have faded away, and there is no exterior witness to intervene. The cause of the zombie outbreak is unknown and the fate of the human survivors, far from hopeful, is also unknown.11

51As though magnetized to one another, zombies and the apocalypse have been drawn into an unholy marriage despite their unrelated origins. Their affinity is now so deeply cast that storytellers are hard pressed to invoke one without attracting the other, like flies to rotting food. Even two more recent post-apocalyptic films, whose conceit had nothing to do with the undead, featured startling, accidental depictions of human zombification: The Road (2009), based on Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, and Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) both take place in a post-apocalyptic future, and although neither of these films include the resurrection of corpses, both give us a glimpse of a non-literal, human zombification―in The Road, the degenerating of the species into barbarous, subcultural cannibals, and in Mad Max, into scurrying, insect-like creatures that gather to idols of a primitive religion. The semiotic adjoining of zombies and the apocalypse is beginning to seem automatic, and emergent. The two elements couple to create a backdrop genre so iconic and palpable, that to plot your narrative in the not-so-distant future of the zombie apocalypse is now akin to―and the precise inverse of―beginning your story with the line “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away”.

52The term has become a common object of cultural reference that is as casually recognized as The Beatles, Star Wars or Harry Potter. The clime of fiction of course has a permeable membrane, and the zeitgeist has already moved beyond it. The zombie apocalypse is now the mise-en-scène for the popular theatre of survivalism and disaster preparation. Outdoor survival camps and fitness programs frequently use zombie apocalypse as their chosen terrain. Governments have even used the zeitgeist as a tableau to drum up interest in evacuation policy and disaster management procedures. Yet, the theatre of a zombie apocalypse is not so much about donning the attire of a fantasy as it is removing the attire of civility. Despite the elaborate makeup, the theatrics of zombie walking are more about stripping down the world than they are about dressing it up. There are no interesting accessories or architecture that helps to raise the pretend world from fantasy because the world of the zombie apocalypse is less, not more, adorned. The zeitgeist is altogether ugly, and that makes even the more tasteful zombie enactments an effacing kind of art form.

3.4.3 The Ecology of Worldview

53The relationship between the zombie and the apocalypse is the obverse relation of a dynamical system that exists between an individual and the world she inhabits. This dynamical system is what the cultural theologian Brian Walsh (2006), following anthropologist Clifford Geertz, calls a worldview. A worldview is two things simultaneously: (1) a model of the world and (2) a model for acting in that world. It turns the individual into an agent who acts, and it turns the world into an arena in which those actions make sense. A worldview typically structures the environment to provide affordances for an agent; situations in the world are foregrounded with implicit guidance as to how an agent should address and interact with them. Meanwhile, the worldview typically structures the individual into an agent; it foregrounds and configures the behavior of the individual into coherent action that resonates with the affordances of the world. Fit together, the agent and arena mutually make sense of one another, and ratify each other’s existence and intelligibility. The configuring effect of a worldview is present even in the simplest of actions: a man cuts some flowers and carries them to his dwelling. He gives the flowers to the woman who dwells there with him. Under the acuity lens of their worldview, an otherwise rudimentary act becomes the prism for a transfiguration that deepens the nature of their relation to one another. With the giving of the flowers, many significations take place: the man is transformed into the lover, she into the beloved, their dwelling into a home, and the flowers into a celebration.

54The worldview is the cultural analogue of an ecology. The attunement between the agent and the arena mirrors the Darwinian fittedness between an organism and its ecological niche. A fluid worldview is akin to a healthy and balanced ecology. Just as there is the possibility for an ecological crisis, there is also a possibility for a worldview crisis. The zombie apocalypse represents such a crisis.


1 Scene available at

2 Season 5, episode 10 is available on YouTube at

3 A trailer is available on YouTube at

4 Wikimedia,,_Ludwig_Ferdinand_-_Apocalypse.jpg

5 For further reading on the topic of apocalypse see also Lisboa (2011).

6 Wikimedia,

7 Available on YouTube at

8 From Google N-Gram Viewer, smoothing factor of 3 (Michel et al. 2011).

9 Trailer available on YouTube at

10 Trailer available on YouTube at

11 Trailer available on YouTube at

Table des illustrations

Légende Fig. 4: Ludwig Ferdinand Schnorr von Carolsfeld’s depiction of the Apocalypse with Jesus (ca. 1831).4
Fichier image/jpeg, 100k
Légende Fig. 5: Depiction of the Martian invasion of H. G. Wells’1898 classic, The War of the Worlds. Illustration by Alvim Corréa, from the 1906 French edition of the novel.6
Fichier image/jpeg, 316k
Légende Fig. 6: The concomitant rise in usage of the words “zombie” and “apocalypse” from 1930-2008 in predominantly English books published in any country.8
Fichier image/jpeg, 99k


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