Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Aaahh!!! Real Monsters: “Monster Theory” and On-Screen Zombies [Guest Poster: Kelly]

Zombies seem to be all over the place lately. On screens, at least. You know what the typical zombie threat looks like: a mindless, brain-addicted horde, bent on your destruction. Zombies can do only two things: destroy you, or, in failing to do so, make you one of them.

This is the kind of zombie portrayed in The Walking Dead, a show so popular it spawned a franchise, complete with a spin-off and a Universal Studios theme park attraction. Zombies are particularly compelling because they make it possible to see a monster in something that was once human. Safety in zombie narratives depends on dehumanizing the zombies. That torso crawling toward you with bloody fingernails? Maybe it had a girlfriend. Maybe it used to like pizza and romantic comedies and farmer’s market peaches. But you’re sure not going to stop to think about that. Humanizing zombies can literally get you killed. And the ones making the fatal mistake in zombie narratives are the hesitaters, the sentimental ones, the ones who can’t shoot that zombie just because it was their mom like THIRTY SECONDS AGO, OKAY? From the perspective of the humans, the survivors, zombie narratives prioritize cold unsentimentality, efficiency and lack of empathy.

In some ways, zombies (traditional zombies, at least) are a fantasy — a fantasy that we can see the people who might harm us, that their threat will be easily legible. The dude with the gray pallor and half an arm missing? Zombie. Clearly. Better shoot it fast. In a zombie movie, you know what to look out for, and you know what you’re fighting. In order to stay safe, you have to draw clear lines: what counts as human and what doesn’t.

Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, in a paper titled “Monster Culture (Seven Theses)” believes the monsters that show up in a culture can give us a lot of information about what that culture fears and prioritizes: “The monster’s body quite literally incorporates fear, desire, anxiety, and fantasy... the monster signifies something other than itself.”

So for instance, early vampires — as aristocratic blood suckers in spooky castles — might teach us something about what people thought of the aristocracy back then. Cybermen, who started assimilating people on Doctor Who in the sixties, might have had something to do with the spread of communism, and the way that made Brits fearful and uncomfortable. But it’s not just fantastical monsters; groups of people can be made monstrous too. Cohen points to portrayals of Native Americans as “unredeemable savages,” a tactic that enabled and legitimized westward expansion into Native American lands.

In the last few years though, zombie narratives are changing. Now there’s a new type of zombie, seen in shows and movies like iZombie, The Santa Clarita Diet, and Warm Bodies. These zombies aren’t quite all gone. They have personalities, ideals, and humanity. They have close friends and girlfriends and husbands who are human. In these zombie stories, the zombies are protagonists. They fight crime, tell jokes, and sell real estate. They kind of act just like people. That’s new. What to make of these new monsters?

These monsters resist categorization. In iZombie, some of the zombies are evil and some are good. Blaine, a drug-dealing (and brain-dealing) zombie is pretty clearly a bad guy, but he’s not bad because he’s a zombie. He sucked even when he was a human. The zombies in these stories act more or less just like humans, while the true monsters in these stories are something else. In iZombie, the monsters might be the murderers in the crimes Liv helps solve every week, or maybe the corporate tycoons who knowingly let zombie-ism spread to preserve their profits. In The Santa Clarita Diet, maybe it’s that guy that won’t take no for an answer (until Drew Barrymore eats him).

Even in The Walking Dead, although the zombies seem to be inhuman and irredeemable, they act more as a plot device than a monster. The really scary threats come from other people, like the Governor or Negan. The villains might use zombies as tools to wreak havoc, but the people are the ones that are really scary. In this way, zombie stories seem to have taken a turn. Monsters are made human and humans are made monstrous.

So what should we make of this shift? What do these monsters we’ve made tell us about our culture? Maybe we’re starting to understand that our enemies are more complex than we think. Maybe that the people we once made into monsters are still human, after all. That sometimes people who look different or monstrous are just like us, just trying to get by and do the best they can. That our shared humanity is somehow fundamental and hard to stamp out. You can’t always tell a threat at first sight and maybe that’s scary, but it’s nice to think that underneath it all, monsters are just people after all. They can be reasoned with. They can be trusted.

Sometimes, at least.


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