Monster Culture Series
The tradition of Gothic literature begins in 1764 with Horace Walpole’s novel The Castle of Otranto. This story paves the way for numerous genres we enjoy today including: Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror and Detective fiction. Hallmarks of the genre include supposed haunted houses with secret passageways, ghosts, feminized male heroes, and heroines who float through stories until someone else makes things right again.
In 1811, a unique story of a Creature composed of dead body parts and reanimated by a scientist was born out of the dreams and imagination of Mary Shelley. Some believe Luigi Galvani, a scientist who made dead frog legs contract by flooding them with an electric spark in 1771, influenced her thoughts. Victor Frankenstein’s creature begins the tradition of the zombie in English and American literature.
Some may argue that Frankenstein’s creature cannot be a zombie because he is capable of coherent thought, emotion, learning and speech. But, similar to other literary traditions, concepts morph and change due to a variety of environmental and social influences. The creature is capable of the above abilities because of Mary Shelley’s proximity to an age in literature called Literature of Sensibility—a precursor to Gothic literature. In this tradition, men are moved to tears or experience a heightened acuteness of feeling when they encounter profound examples of beauty (often in nature). It would have been difficult for people in this time to imagine a human-like being devoid of thought and other human experiences. Mary Shelley’s idea of intelligent reanimation stems from the logical point that, composed of human parts, the creature should thus be capable of human experiences.
In contrast, we as modern readers can relate to such a concept because of our experiences in a corporate society where individuals are reduced to numbers. A zombie can refer to a conformist or someone who has lost their individuality and succumbed to the daily grind and monotony that is modern society. The zombie is therefore a very timely figure for us.
As the tradition of the zombie progresses, we are consistently faced with a dumbing down of the enemy. Zombies become herds of bodies, slave to the need to survive, but unable to comprehend what survival actually means. Zombies come to represent a fear of the loss of humanity and independence, of science, and also a general fear of death and disease. Forbes magazine states, “The sci-fi undead are personifications of technology gone horribly wrong,” (http://www.forbes.com/2009/10/29/oreilly-godzilla-science-technology-breakthroughs-zombies.html.) When zombies take over, many traditions refer to the change as a “plague” that needs curing. The Zombie Survival Guide by Max Brooks is one such example.
Books like World War Z, another Max Brooks work, depict post-apocalyptic worlds in which humans are constantly at war with zombies: a mindless enemy that staggers their way into our nightmares. People mow them down with fancy guns and other less-sophisticated weapons. These stories show where humanity and society failed and how the remaining representatives attempt to rebuild. Their success hinges on understanding and learning from the mistakes of the past so as to avoid repeating them. In this way, zombie stories become a morality tale of sorts.
One possible way of ending the plague is to change the thinking about the “other” and no longer distancing oneself from it. Similar to the humanizing of the vampire literary tradition, recent works have also begun reanimating the zombie which begins the process of reconnecting with the “other.” In 2011, Simon and Schuster’s Atria books revealed their discovery of Isaac Marion’s Warm Bodies, a story about the budding romance between a zombie and a young woman attempting to both survive and preserve her individuality in a zombie-infested post-apocalyptic United States.
Throughout the story, our narrator, “R,” slowly regains various aspects of his humanity. He doesn’t experience the same sort of decay as his fellow zombies. His thoughts and emotions extend. His speech capabilities grow. His appetite wanes. All of these things suggest his reconnecting with his former humanity, his former state of being alive.
The concept of an emotional zombie capable of coherent thought and even love is significant because it completes the cyclical movement of the tradition of the zombie: from intelligent creature to brain-dead killer and back to an intellectually capable being. This transition occurs for a number of reasons. We now live in a society driven by social media and the artificial experiences of the online world. But, deep within us, is buried our true humanity and nature: our need to experience real human interaction and intimacy, to look someone in the eye when conversing and connect instead of instant messaging, texting or emailing. Voice inflection. Eye contact. Physical touch. They are all significant and necessary for they are some of the things that mark us as human.
Paired with this innate human desire for the real, is fear. We desire these real experiences but we fear our inadequacies will bring judgments from our fellow man because of society’s tendency to tell us that we’re not good enough. Therefore, by reanimating a zombie, by giving him human thoughts and emotions, we create a new sort of Everyman, one that is easily surmounted. This figure suggests that if fake monsters can overcome their shortcomings, if a zombie composed of decay and reeking of death can find love, then so can “I.” These humanized monsters are easier to comprehend and deal with, and therefore real-world monsters and challenges seem less daunting.
Buoyed by the success of our intellectually-capable zombie Everyman, we may find the courage to reconnect with our fellow man and possibly even experience success. If we as individuals are strong enough to regain hold of our individuality—our humanity—in this world that encourages us to conform, then we save ourselves from the threat of the zombie plague.
The tradition of the zombie in literature has gone through a grand transformation since its inception. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein serves as a warning to the scientific developments taking place during her lifetime. Zombies and the plagues that shuffle with them in modern literature serve as significant warnings from writers who judge and analyze society with a distant eye. But with the birth, or rebirth, of “R” from Warm Bodies, one can infer a feeling of hope buried within the putrid remains of humanity for the survival of the individual and the potential for the individual to not just live, but to thrive in life.
NOTE: All images found on Google images.
Monster Culture Series Part I:
Why Vampires Can’t be Narcissists: A Case Study
Monster Culture Series Part III:
Taming the Beast Within: A Case Study