Over the course of 2015, I did my best to avoid consuming or buying any media that contained zombies. It was about as difficult as I expected it to be, but more frustrating.
In much the same way that vegetarians are generally obliged to spend far more time than the general population on thinking about meat and its uses, this process involved thinking about zombies far, far more than I would otherwise have done. Here’s the complete series:
- A Year Without Zombies, in which I rant about how kids these days enjoy things that are a threat to polite civilisation, and explain my abtruse definition of what is covered by the term ‘zombie.’
- Preludes, Requiems and Chiptunes, in which the zombonym principle of elegant variation is established.
- The Dead of Winter, in which the ‘Minecraft, but not for little kids’ genre rears its ugly head.
- Dead March, in which is considered the zombie as invasion literature, and the rise of Donald Trump is predicted.
- April Is The Ghoulest Month, including a peroration on the regrettable slaying of the formerly-loved zombie as relationship catharsis.
- Zed is for Zion, in which I bemoan the mandatory tropes of fantasy.
- Summer Cannibals, in which the zombie epidemic is attributed to being one of the rare parts of geek culture that’s not in copyright.
- Bring Out Your Dead, which talks about zombies as geek banner and as a vector of disgust.
- Losing the Will to Live, in which I wonder whether my narrow definition of zombies really gets at the problem.
- Down Among the Dead Men, in which the zombie is considered as a way of othering despised groups.
- Necrotic Creep, in which zombies ruin your Secret Paranormal Subculture by staggering out and moaning all the time.
- I Aten’t Dead, in which is considered the zombie as a confrontation of one’s own death.
- Teach Us To Care And Not To Care, in which I collapse in defeat.
Since then I have returned to my regular habits, and the majority of games I’ve been playing have zombies in – in fact, possibly more than normal, since all the zombie things had been sorted out of my to-play stack.
I feel as though I should write a What Have We Learned piece, except that, honestly, there aren’t many neat conclusions. Sure, the experiment’s hypothesis is thoroughly confirmed – yes, zombies are hugely overused in geek media in general and videogames in particular, and it is very difficult to avoid them. But, well, I knew this and you knew this. The point was to figure out other stuff along the way.
Towards the end of the year I happened upon Jovanka Vuckovic’s Zombies! An Illustrated History of the Undead, which concentrates very heavily on film (though it does spend a few pages on videogames, and in doing so answers my head-scratcher about why Japanese gamers got their prediliction for zombies – because of Resident Evil, duh). The book also offers a suggestion about why the recent zombie epidemic seems so abrupt: zombie media, claims Vuckovic, went into a temporary slump in the 1990s, so if that’s your culture baseline then the recent resurgence will seem all the more sudden. (This lines up with the Ngram I linked earlier: the steady climb of ‘zombie’ goes through a temporary plateau through much of the 90s.)
This exercise has focused a lot of my thinking on zombies, but it has also made research kind of inherently difficult – several times I’d hear about a zombie thing and think ‘hunh, that seems interesting, maybe that would shed some light on that aspect of things’ and then, of course, I wouldn’t be able to actually find out. Boycotting media makes it harder to figure out the problems with it. (Sometimes this is an acceptable price.)
Zombies are multi-purpose. A lot of people present pat theories on zombies – they’re about fear of a black slave-revolt, or of loss of individuality, or of the gross mortality of the body. And most of these theories are, for certain works and genres, right – but this doesn’t mean they’re true of zombies as a whole, or that any of them are the Most Basic Thing that Zombies are Always About Under The Surface. If I know anything about aesthetics, it’s this: distrust universalising theories, and particularly watch out for the genetic fallacy, the idea that a thing’s original meaning or purpose is forever the truest one. Zombies serve a broad spectrum of purposes – frequently several at once. Just because zombies are obviously being used by a particular work as a metaphor for the threat of immigration, say, doesn’t mean that they’re not also about natural disasters or loss of individuality or body horror.
I have not covered all of the major recurring uses: for instance, there’s the zombie as erotic element, a thread which runs, in various forms, from the earliest movies to the Rule 34 present. (From what I can determine, there are two main erotic roles that – OK, OK, stay on target).
Even when we narrow this down to videogames, the situation isn’t that much clearer. Again, a whole number of factors contribute to the current glut of zombies in games: some are technical (easier animation and AI), some design-related (combat games are hard to design without low-level disposable mooks) many more are to do with culture and its marketing. There is much overlap: it’s genuinely difficult to sort out how much the pre-eminence of violence as game mechanic comes down to ‘other kinds of human activity are genuinely more difficult to represent in code and game mechanics’ and how much it’s because the medium has long been heavily shaped by the tropes of adolescent male pulp.
Still, at present and in general, the most consistent use of zombies in games looks like this: they are simple adversaries who, while presenting a non-trivial and mildly-scary threat, are predictably stupid and can be defeated by a smarter, better-equipped, tougher protagonist. Unexceptional, they reflect and support the player-character’s exceptionality.
Culturally, this feeds into one of the grand myths, the hero whose heroism is premised on winning when massively outnumbered. Samson with the jawbone of an ass, the Spartans at Thermopylae, Rorke’s Drift and the Alamo. This myth is not unique to Western culture, but it was a central element of the mythology of colonialism – and remains a vital underlying premise of modern asymmetric warfare.
I think that most of this is fine, in moderation. I think that among the things that games (as with fiction in general) can do for us is enabling an escape to a world where we are strong and brave and important, and triumph over our demons. Here’s that much-misquoted G.K. Chesterton thing:
Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.
This is such typical Chesterton – a dart of insight so brilliant that its glare distracts, at first, from the weird paternalistic assumptions that make up the background. The modern Pratchett / Gaiman misquotes – “children have always known there are dragons. Fairy stories tell children that dragons can be killed” are more ambiguous about the slayer, with the definite sense that it might be the child in question. It is better, we feel as moderns, to give the child the sense that they could have power over their own challenges than to give them the hope that a random white knight will swing through and do it for them. And even if you are not a baby, it can be heartening to inhabit a world in which the sum of your problems can be reduced to a dragon, and you have a divine right to a magic sword.
But in games, the pendulum has overswung. The baby must always be the one to defeat the dragon, over and over again. This inevitably means a watering-down of monsters, as the sense builds that we might be protesting too much.
I don’t feel as though I’m done.
If I were doing this properly, I think, as a journalistic exercise, I’d go and seek out zombie enthusiasts, the people who make zombie media and the people who eat it up. I’ve had some personal accounts from zombie enthusiasts over the course of this, but not many; on the whole, the kind of people I surround myself with also tend to be the kind of people who are down on zombies. I dunno how I set about doing this.