The Half Light: The Absurdity and Genius of Zombies

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I know I’m late to the game, but I just finished season one of The Walking Dead, AMC’s show about a post-apocalyptic world where humans try to survive against an onslaught of zombies. There was a time when that description would make me laugh a snobby laugh and ignore the show forever. But after seeing how well the zombie theme was executed in 28 Days Later, and getting enough recommendations from respected friends, I gave it a shot. And I’m glad I did, because it’s a fantastic show. The acting is so-so, but the tension and effects and story are endlessly compelling, and my girlfriend and I blazed through the first season in a single, lazy day. Suffice it to say, I’m a fan.

HOWEVER. The whole “zombies take over the world” idea can’t help but bother me. I know I’m missing the point by focusing on the nuts and bolts of how they took power, and I know I should just turn my brain off (much like a zombie) and suspend disbelief, but it’s killing me. Because I know that in the actual world zombies would be annihilated within a month—conservatively. And it makes me want to shout at the TV—come on, you can’t beat a bunch of zombies?!

First, let’s examine the premise of the zombie plague in The Walking Dead. The origin of the problem—whether it’s microbial, viral, or otherwise—isn’t known, but the gist is that if someone gets bit, he or she will die from a bad fever within one or two days. Once dead, there’s a period that can span anywhere from a few minutes to eight hours before a small part of the brain stem becomes activated, allowing them to walk and groan and feel hunger. Their motor functions are impaired—they walk like the usual version of zombies, minus the stereotypical both-arms-outstretched pose, and they move slowly. They can’t strategize as a group, they can’t be sneaky, and they can’t sprint. They also can’t use weapons (beyond rocks, which they sometimes use to smash windows) or communicate or operate vehicles. They’re mindless eating machines. That’s it. They’ve taken over most of the planet simply by overwhelming everyone else—including the army—en masse. They can be killed only by a direct shot to the brain. It’s possible for a human to catch the zombie fever by blood contact, but it’s apparently pretty difficult since the main characters are constantly splattered with zombie blood without becoming ill. The bite seems to be the only reliable method of infection.

So. Let’s put The Walking Dead zombies in the real world. How would they fare? My thinking is that since the disease isn’t airborne, the outbreak would be stopped almost immediately by authorities. I suppose it’s loosely possible for a town or two to become rampant with infection, but beyond that? It would produce such a crazed reaction that steps would be immediately taken, by the host country and everywhere else, to stop it in its tracks.

But let’s suspend disbelief a bit more, and say that 10 million zombies were operational in America. Forget how they got there. Would it really be possible for them to defeat an army? Keep in mind, a single shot to the skull is enough to kill them for good. And they can’t run! I mean…a single machine gun in a protected position would be enough to gun down, what? Two hundred zombies, minimum? In The Walking Dead, there are plenty of flashbacks showing soldiers getting overwhelmed by small pack of zombies, even though they’re wearing protective gear that prevents them from being bit, and they have high-tech, rapid firing weapons. And what about helicopters and planes that can drop bombs, spread fire, and strafe entire human populations? How would the zombies counteract that?

Again, I know I’m being a stick in the mud here, and part of the fun is going along with the story. But the premise is flawed, I tell you! I can’t quite get past the ridiculousness of the conceit. What I realized, while thinking about this, is that the whole reality problem begs a more important question—what’s the deal with zombies? Why are they such a popular device in horror? What’s the origin of the concept of re-animated corpses, and why has it caught on so completely?

A bit of research points to West Africa as the beginning of the zombie myth. The word “zombi” there refers to either a snake god, or a person brought back to life and controlled by a sorcerer. The Magic Island, a 1929 book by William Seabrook, seems to have introduced the word into English, and the popularity of zombies took off after George A. Romero’s 1968 cult classic film Night of the Living Dead. The idea of a zombie apocalypse, which The Walking Dead uses, emerged later, and is now the most popular zombie sub-genre.

But again—what’s the appeal? If it’s so silly, why am I on the edge of the seat dreading every new attack?

My loose theory is that the zombie myth gets to the heart of spirituality and evil. Recent studies have found that the areas of the brain that control for empathy are underdeveloped in psychopaths, meaning that “evil,” as we understand it, is actually a structural deficiency. Human society is based on our collective urge toward organization, order and community, and empathy is the key component. I remember as a child, learning about history and being a little bit amazed that people don’t run around killing each other more often. It’s so easy! We’re so fragile! But we also know what’s good for us, and being good to each other benefits everyone.

Within that societal framework, there’s nothing more abhorrent than a murder committed for no reason, without justification. It’s fascinating, it’s bizarre and it’s titillating. If a jealous man murders a rival for having an affair with his wife, we understand. But a serial killer, motivated by odd compulsions that he or she can’t control, brings randomness into the equation. And randomness is antithetical to human progress, which our brains have been geared toward by thousands of years of evolution.

And there’s also the idea of God and death. Some of us believe in an afterlife, a pleasant world that awaits us if we’ve done our best. Others believe that all life ends with our worldly death, including the spirit and soul. Either way, we believe in deliverance from life on this planet. But there’s a special kind of horror in the idea of coming back to life as something brainless and base, motivated by desires that would see us murder our own loved ones if it meant satisfying a hunger. Instead of death, we’d fall prey to monstrosities that are detrimental to the species. A lifetime of behaving the right way and displaying resilience in the face of difficulty would be undone at the very moment when we were promised relief. Worst of all, we’d lose our special humanity.

That’s a truly terrible thing. Maybe one of the worst things, because it takes away our only certainty. I want to live to be 140, but to live forever? That sounds like hell, even in a state of free will and perpetual youth. As a brain-dead walker hurting other people, it would be an unthinkable form of torture. No wonder we love zombies. The idea is absurd, sure, but it’s just frightening enough to prey on our worst fears. And that makes for great television.