Thursday, March 15, 2012

Undead, not Unthinkable: Why interest in zombie culture can make us better people

Editor's Note: Scott Kenemore is the author of The Zen of Zombie, Z.E.O. and Zombie, Ohio. His next novel Zombie, Illinois will be released from Skyhorse Publishing this fall.


Walking Dead zombie, courtesy AMC
The other day I had a conversation with a friend I hadn’t seen in years.

A close buddy from college, he’d entered the Peace Corps right after graduation. Around the time my first book about zombies came out, he was stationed in Rwanda. I sent him a copy in the mail.

“I couldn’t show it to anybody!” my friend told me. “I couldn’t even talk about your book. It was awful.”

“Why?” I asked, genuinely surprised. My tome seemed innocent enough to me.

“When your book arrived, a Rwandan friend saw it,” my chum answered. “He had no idea what zombies were, so I had to explain. I told him that zombie stories imagine a world where there is upheaval and chaos in the streets; a breakdown of the government, police, and other institutions of order. Everyone is scared and running, or looking for places to hide. There are murderous mobs that want to kill you. They don’t use guns or modern weapons, but it’s still scary because there are a lot of them and they’re completely determined. The worst part is that they could be people who were your friends and neighbors just the day before, but now they’re these monsters who won’t stop until you’re dead. And you can’t bargain or reason with them, because that part of their brains is just gone. Because … you see … in this, um, fantasy world …”

And here my friend had to stop. Because he realized he was — more or less — describing his Rwandan friend’s experience of the genocide of 1994.

In our culture, zombies are usually regarded as the buffoons of the monster world. They are the most simple, and certainly the least serious. Within the classroom, zombies get short shrift of critical consideration. (Vampires are, somehow, the thinking man’s monster. From blood-borne disease to bisexuality, vampires are acknowledged as providing a vast feast for critical inquiry. Zombies — beyond, perhaps, their original ties to Voodoo and post-colonialism — seem to present less materiel for an academic’s war chest.) In the minds of many, zombies are clowns. Easily confused, illiterate, and often (depending on your mythology) crippled and dumb, they hardly cut a dashing figure as monsters go.

I was in high school when the Rwandan genocide happened. Like a lot of people, I wasn’t really aware of what was going on. The news reports—if they covered Rwanda at all—seemed tentative and unreliable. The genocide was never the lead story. If my fellow Hoosiers bothered to comment upon the reports, their thoughts usually involved some sort of soft racism. Africans killing Africans over something that makes no sense is typical. When will they ever learn? Is it any wonder their continent is poor and underdeveloped?

I could not fathom the scope of what was occurring in Rwanda at the time. Neither could most of my peers. That the long-oppressed Hutu majority would rise up and exterminate their Tutsi neighbors was unthinkable. That they would, overwhelmingly, use farm implements for these killings approached absurdity. Even when it was fully explained and documented to my adolescent self—with increasingly sure-footed and consistent news reports—it felt beyond the realm of the possible. It felt like science fiction. A part of my soul insisted: That cannot be real.

The best book I’ve read about the Rwandan genocide is Machete Season by Jean Hatzfeld. It contains interviews with both survivors and those who participated in the genocide. In one interview, a Rwandan survivor recounts the flight of American and European aid workers in the days leading up to the genocide. This survivor — corrupting the aphorism that something must be seen to be believed — says that First World Westerners refuse to see what they cannot believe. They will physically remove themselves from a genocide at all costs, and not merely for their own protection. They cannot bear to be faced with evidence for a thing they believe can’t happen.

When another writer wants to insult me, he calls me a “zombie writer.”

Scott Kenemore. Just a zombie writer?
“Kenemore’s just a zombie writer,” they say. And so I am dismissed. Their prickly use of the Z-word denotes my preoccupation with something fundamentally unserious. But it is not only my preoccupation, and — more and more lately — I think maybe it is not entirely unserious.

Our collective interest in zombie fiction and culture has never been higher. Later this year, Brad Pitt will release the most expensive zombie movie ever made, World War Z, based on the book by Max Brooks, the most successful zombie writer of all time. The CDC recently released a zombie survival plan, and broke all records for traffic on its website. The Walking Dead was the highest rated new show on cable last year.

When I see these signs of increasing interest in zombies, I wonder if the First World might be looking for a way to expand its vocabulary of the possible. Seeking to widen and stretch the parameters of what it can conceive. Adding a few more entries to the list of things which — though very, very bad — can actually happen.

I hope this is the case. I hope that maybe, when the next “unthinkable” genocide (or famine or natural disaster) rears its head, we will be a little less paralyzed by an inability to credit the horrible things the news reports are showing us. And more likely to actually do something.

Like help.


Emily Guy Birken said...

This is really interesting and thought-provoking article. I've always been struck by the connection between the West's tastes in horror and what is happening in the wider world.

For example, slasher films are big when America is at war--in the 70s and again in the early new millennium, in particular--which helps audiences become inured to the horrors of war by giving the distance of "entertainment."

Vampires seem to be big when there is a collective hysteria over sexuality in our culture, particularly women's sexuality. (Stephenie Meyer was hardly the first to use vampires as a parable for chastity).

Zombies have become very interesting to our culture since 9/11--when we were hit by a slow moving, low tech, and inexorable threat. We clearly use horror entertainment as a means to give ourselves a catharsis when considering the things we do not care to think about.