Why Do We Fear Zombies?

by JoHarrington

Zombies hold such fear and fascination for human beings that preparing for their Apocalypse is practically a meme. But why are we so afraid of zombies?

There are so few humans left alive on the planet; and you are alone, when the zombie horde lumbers into view.

Just you and the weapon of your choice, with nowhere left to run. They are coming and it's only a matter of time before you are overwhelmed. All heroics now must ultimately be futile. You may escape, but only into the grasp of many more.

Will it hurt and will you know when their teeth tear into your flesh? Will you suffer for long minutes, or will it be over fast? And after that, what then? Oh no! What then?

The Fear and Fascination of Zombies

There's no doubt that zombies are the monsters of the moment.  Every generation has one, all with sound cultural and psychological reasons behind them.

Just as the vampire horror genre boomed in the 1980s, along with the AIDS. scare (something dangerous passed on through bodily fluids), then the zombies have something important to tell us about our own era. It's through them that we're venting some tension.

So what's it all about?  I've collected together some of the best theories to date, which you can read while you're counting down to the actual zombie apocalypse.

Good luck with that by the way!

How to Survive a Zombie Attack 2014 Wall Calendar

Because you never know when you might need one. Also useful for noting important dates.
Want the Walking Dead or other lumbering monstrosities to help you keep track of the days? Calendars featuring zombies of all hues (mostly grey) are right inside.
Imagine a garden display, framed by beautiful flowers and greenery, wherein you can enact the Zombie Apocalypse with undead garden gnomes. Great, isn't it?

Fear of Losing Control Over Uncivilized Others

Let's be honest about this. The initial spark of zombie horror came from the hysterical panic of white supremacists.

Before we venture into the modern day, let's nip back into the past, to when zombies first appeared in popular culture.

There was something a little different then.  We weren't looking at a massive infestation of the undead, but one threatening from the fringes of society.  In short, it was all a little bit worrying that African-Americans could no longer be labeled as property and stuck onto the plantations.

When White Zombie appeared on the silver screen in 1932, there were people in the audience who had been born into slavery.  Veterans of the American Civil War were still alive; and zombies were most definitely the preserve of the mystical blacks.

So what if those unsupervised colored people, no longer under the yoke of a nice slave owner, took to Voodoo magic?  What if they used it to turn a white woman into a mindless zombie doing their will?  (Also known as inter-racial marriages.) 

Just stare into the eyes of Madge Bellamy (pictured above) and tell me - do you want your womenfolk being zombified like that?!

The horror!  The danger!  They could be doing anything if we're not watching them!  It'll all end in civil rights and African-American presidents, you just mark my words!  You listening, y'all?

Trailer for White Zombie (1932)

Bela Lugosi being evil AND Hungarian, taking white girls and making them stab people.

Zombies as a Metaphor for a Social Virus

You have noted that they directly target our brains, don't you?

Image: Zombie cartoon image.I'm sure that we've all stared in horror at our newspapers and television screens.  Or we've rushed into online forums, gasping in outrage at someone being wrong on the internet. 

At least we can get at them there.  We can use our reason to teach them the error of their thinking.

Most of the time though, we're left tearing our hair out, shrieking at inanimate objects.  How can they say that?!  Why are they obeying those orders?!  How is this person even getting votes?!

"I hate people,"  A friend of mine often quips, usually in a resigned, dead-pan tone; and generally after reading the political reports of The Other Party.

I usually concur, as our politics run parallel.  It's so easy to become depressed, when the Age of Information has laid it out stark that there are a lot of people being wrong out there.  I'm not talking about breaking laws or worshiping a different deity - such criminals have always existed - but the shock of discovering that your own truths are not necessarily self-evident to everyone else.

There had always been the vague feeling that they were before.  That some things are so blatantly right, that no-one in their right minds could think otherwise.  But they do.  And they're everywhere.  And many of them have the vote.

The only natural conclusion to reach, in such circumstances, is to assume that they are mindless drones.  They've been starved of the correct information (by only reading tabloid newspapers and watching soap operas) or ill-educated by the failing in our school systems.  Or they've been brainwashed by evil clerics and half-witted celebrities.

Unfortunately, they keep on coming and there's only so much you can do.  You can't hunt down each and every one of them, proscribe a course of selected book reading and teach them the right way to think.

Because there's too many of them.  They're going to end up forcing unpalatable laws or electing in terrible representatives.  They're going to cause stupid fads and fashions. They're going to lead to the destruction of all humankind and topple civilization as we know it.

You will live to see it.  But worst still, what if you become overwhelmed by sheer peer pressure into thinking like them?  What then?  Oh no!  Then YOU would become a zombie too!

Trailer for Night of the Living Dead (1990)

Watch the fabric of society being torn apart by people who insist on not thinking straight.

Buy Classic Zombie Movies to Relive the Horror!

George A. Romero's black and white original is THE classic zombie movie of all time. If you've never seen it, then you should. You will probably be pleasantly surprised.
George A. Romero's gore-fest follow-up to his classic 'Night of the Living Dead' has zombies milling aimlessly around shopping malls. It's often more comedy than horror.

Zombies are the Ultimate Terrorists

They don't stop! You can kill dozens of them and another ten take their place! They raise their children to kill you!

Image: 28 Days LaterBy the start of the 21st century, we couldn't be bothered with all of those vague metaphors about societal rot and lack of thinking.

We got the message!  There was a pandemic of hippies/racists/anti-racists/conservatives/socialists/liberals/communists/fascists/feminists/misogynists... oh! Name your gripe and insert it in the gap.

They were mindless and they were undermining life, the universe and everything.  But at least they were our people.  Uneducated and unthinking, but still home grown.

At the turn of the century, we had something much more scary to contemplate.  We were back with the Others. Not marginalized Others in our own society, doing suspicious things in swamps, but people on the other side of the world - Being Wrong.

Except, when they were wrong, things tended to get blown up over here and people died.  It wasn't just ideas infecting brains, but real danger to life and limb too. 

Movies like 28 Days Later encapsulated the post-9/11 zeitgeist with an almost blatant realism.  It took the developing ideas of films like Twelve Monkeys (1995), but switched them totally into the zombie genre.

These human monsters were relentless, but they were also furious.  The violence came not from mindless persistence, but from real rage and vengeance.

It was almost like saying that those in the West might have, vaguely, sort of, not really going into the specifics, done something to provoke terrorist attacks in our cities.  Could our military have done something a bit dodgy?

Not that anyone is taking the blame here, because we're just innocents caught up in the frenzy; and those terrorists are still brainwashed zombies.

Movie Trailer for 28 Days Later

Oh crap! Military terrorism just totally backfired here. Watch our own cities burn.

Buy Zombie Realism at its Most Disturbing!

It really, really, really could happen. No-one's rotting here, because it's not something home-grown that we fear.
12 Monkeys (Special Edition)28 Days Later (Full Screen Edition)28 Weeks Later (Widescreen Edition)

Why So Serious? Zombies Backlash into Comedy Decomposition

We were all enjoying that cathartic moment, when it was only People Being Wrong being depicted as mindless drones. But then that whole realism thing went and ruined it.

Image: Nazi Zombies

28 Days Later might be a classic, but it's not proper horror, if we're being made to soul-search our own thinking.  It's much better when we can feel superior, while also letting out some of that inner fear and despair.

Hence the backlash. 

We still wanted that whole 'zOMG! The baddies are military and they come from overseas' thing, but at one step removed.  Godwin's Law kicked in and we were immediately facing a veritable onslaught of Nazi Zombies.

Three movies and a notable appearance in the game Call of Duty: World at War later, we're still not completely sated.

Nazi Zombies tick too many boxes.  They look like us and they rot, hence they can be a perfect metaphor for the ills in our own society.  This works particularly well if your own politics cannot ever be aligned with the white supremacist ideals of the Third Reich (thus bringing us 180 degrees from White Zombie).

The thinking person will also find many calming analogies in the fact that the similarity didn't end with skin color.  Historically, the only reason that the Nazis are so reviled and such easy targets is that they lost the war.

While the Third Reich went further, much more openly, than other Western societies, they did not exist in a vacuum.  The concentration camps were nicked from the British.  The gas chambers followed blueprints developed in Nevada, USA.  The eugenics program was practically universal. The racism is still endemic throughout the world.

Sorry! Sorry!  This is the comedy backlash era!  I'll return my observances back to the realism year and quickly realign my comments with the current age.  *inserts a LOL*

While rotting white people are soothing all of the mid-range people - who would have been happier with more Night of the Living Dead or Day of the Dead - we also get a third box ticked. 

Nazis invade your country and kill your people.  That's the borderline 28 Days Later people sorted out too!  But without the unsettling background message!  Take down those zombie terrorists and laugh as you do it!

Nazi Zombies and Other Horrors

Please note that this is probably offensive on about a billion different levels. But it does highlight precisely what our zombie fascination is all about.

Buy Zombie Terrorism-One-Step-Removed Movies!

You too can distance yourself from present day threats from cultures antagonistic to your own, by reliving those attacking your grandparents instead!
Dead SnowOasis of the ZombiesHorrors of War

... And a game! Pre-order Call of Duty: Black Ops II

Due out on November 13th 2012, this will be one of the biggest games this Christmas. It includes a lot more Nazi Zombies than before.
Call of Duty: Black Ops II (With Amazon Instant Video Credit)

Zombies Allow Us to be Blameless Serial Killers

It's kill or be killed. No room here for reason, compassion nor philosophy. All human rights are gone along with the brain noshing.

Image: Guantanamo BayThere is one last social consideration to take on board, before we move into the realm of the physical.

When the zombie apocalypse comes (we're so past 'if' at this stage), we will have hard choices to make.  Do we lay down and play dead, then get back up again and eat our families?  Or do we fight back?

On the most superficial scale, that's asking if we stand up for our beliefs.  If all of society appears to be thinking Wrong Things simultaneously, then do we put our heads above the parapet and speak out against the crowd? 

That can be really hard.  It can involve standing firm against peer pressure and making your mother cringe.  It opens us up to ridicule, at best, and prison or assassination at worst. 

Or we can side-step all thought of that and just kill zombies instead.  Staying silent, but watching movies, reading books and playing games, where we symbolically speak up by shooting zombies in the head by proxy.

On a deeper, more primal scale, it's stepping away from the veneer of civilization.  It's letting our bestial, murderous tendencies rise to the fore.  We are human beings, probably the most vicious, brutal, dangerous creature to have ever stalked the planet.

We smile as we kill.  We plan it.  We don't just kill for self-preservation or food.  Look at our history and you'll find that we, as a species, will commit genocide on the flimsiest of excuses.

As individuals, we might believe ourselves to be good, wholesome people, who wouldn't hurt a fly.  But if we didn't collectively stand by and watch other people do it in our name, then the world would be a much better place right now.

Zombies allow us to stop lying to ourselves.  They are sort of human and we kill them en masse.  It's them or us.  Just like it's always been.

The mere fact of being born into our species entitles you to human rights; but do you know what they actually are?
Civil rights are those laws aimed at creating social equality. They protect from discrimination in all walks of life.

The Biggest Zombie Survival Games in 2012

There are so many to choose between (especially since Steam keeps having online zombie game sales!), but play these to really be in the loop.

It seems that you can barely turn around for yet another zombie apocalypse video game appearing on the market.

Pre-orders are already pouring in for this Christmas's most anticipated zombie game. The Walking Dead is based on the graphic novel by Robert Kirkman and artists Tony Moore and Charlie Adlard.

It's already spawned a highly successful television series, starring Andrew Lincoln and Sarah Wayne Callies.  Now, instead of watching others fight for their survival against zombie hordes, you get to do it for yourself.

The Walking Dead - the Video Game

Available now for PC, pre-order for PS3 and XBox.

ArmA 2: Operation Arrowhead

What you're looking for is the DayZ mod, which is bundled here.

The Walking Dead is entering a gaming market already in love with yet another zombie game (or ten).

ArmA 2 was a reasonably popular military simulator, until Operation Arrowhead introduced the DayZ mod.  This unleashed zombies onto the soldiers and suddenly it was the best game EVAH! Or, at least, until the next batch of similar zombie apocalypse fests arrive.

At the time of writing, Steam has just started its Halloween sale.  Included there are dozens of brain-eating predators.  Deadlight looks good.

And we haven't even mentioned Left 4 Dead here.  The zombie games keep coming with the relentlessness of the horrors that they encapsulate.

This isn't even a phenomenon confined to 2012.  Who can forget the most memorable game trailer of last year?   Dead Island's evocative entrance became a meme. There are some who'd maintain it's better than the actual game!

But why are we so enamored of zombie apocalypse survival games?  One Norwegian academic made it the mission of his thesis to find out.

(Does that really mean that he's got a doctorate in zombies?)

Dead Island Game Trailer (Normal then Reversed)

One of the most stunning recent zombie survival game trailers was by IGN International.

Buy Dead Island on XBox, PS3 and PC Download

Many reviewers voted this zombie adventure Game of the Year in 2011. Play it to discover why.
Dead Island: Game of the Year EditionDead IslandDead Island [Download]

It's in our Instinct and DNA to Plan Survival

Do you love to play zombie games?

It's not really the zombies that's the point here per se, but the whole environment that they engender.

You rarely see the word 'zombie' without 'apocalypse' turning up somewhere in the vicinity.

Zombies aren't just an isolated thing.  You can't take down one and it's all over.  You have to deal with your whole world being a dangerous place.

Dr Mathias Clasen, who examined cultural reactions to the horror genre for his PhD, concluded that our fascination lies in our evolutionary DNA.

Back on the Savannahs of Africa, our ancestors had to be prepared to face down danger at a moment's notice. When the lions came roaring out of the tall grass, humanity had to react or die.

We evolved to actually enjoy that burst of adrenaline, or the thrill of sudden endangerment. It was a sound impulse that kept our species alive.  But then we went and changed our surroundings without also updating our DNA.

Human beings love to plan how we will survive in dangerous situations, as that used to be a very real and sensible thing to do.  Now that we're unlikely to get chased down by lions and the like, snug in our safe, urban houses, we have to transfer that instinct onto other things.

Like zombies. Hence our love of playing zombie survival games, in whatever format.  Even if it's just discussing it with our mates.

Left 4 Dead (XBox Format)

Zombies!!! (2nd Edition) Board Game

Rotting Food - Nom Nom Nom!

Stephen J Brand has created this time lapse footage of three weeks in the decomposition of food. At which point did your taste buds stop tingling?

The Horror is in our Revulsion of Rotting

Dr Clasen didn't stop there. He also noted that the human psyche is hard-wired to shy away from anything that's rotting.

Again this is a throwback to our early survival instincts, when rotten food would kill us outright.  Anyone who has ever suffered from food poisoning will know that it's not any better for us in the 21st century either.

As soon as we see or smell anything that's decomposing, our brains send urgent messages along the lines of 'do NOT put this into your mouth' and 'back away from the mold'.

That's the problem with zombies.  They arrive rotting and won't let us move away.  It's not a case of not putting it into our mouths, it's avoiding being put into theirs!

Zombies represent something a little more dangerous than, say, a vampire.  Despite several centuries of class war, our brains still haven't evolved into warnings like, 'be scared of the aristocratic count'.

But the fear of rotting is much more primal.  Moreover, it's all tied into the fear of death.

Reverse Time Lapse Rotting Fruit

Be honest now, do you find the strawberries appetizing even at the end of the video? Your brain hates rotting! And hates zombies because they rot!

Popular Zombie Horror Novels

Buy these books to thrill to some of the best-selling zombie stories in the genre.
LZR-1143: Infection (Book One of the ...Zombie FalloutFeed (Newsflesh, Book 1)

Zombies Represent our Fear of Death

Ever since Ishtar released the original zombie hordes from Hades, we've worried about this one.

In the search for why zombies so fascinate and repel us, the most obvious answer of all is that they are the undead.

We are all going to die.  Your parents, siblings, partner/spouse, children, all of your extended family, friends, acquaintances and work colleagues are going to die. Sir Tim Berners-Lee, living God of the Internet, is going to die.  Your favorite rock star is going to die.

Some of my loved ones and heroes already have.

Everyone thoroughly depressed now?  How about cheering yourself up with a nice zombie apocalypse!  It's been doing the trick since about 2150BCE, when the Epic of Gilgamesh first unleashed the genre on an unsuspecting world.

We try not to, but we can't help our minds flashing over what the occupants of those graves must look like now.  Zombies rise out of the soil for our inspection.  We see that decomposition; we face down the most horrific conclusion of our lives.

What breaks our hearts in mourning is that we've lost our loved one's mind.  We can see what they looked like, as we have the photographs and video footage, but there's no sentience in celluloid. 

That will be us too.  One day, the vital, busy mind that's reading these words will be stilled.  Gone.  Beyond thoughtfulness and reason, unless religion is right with the Afterlife.  If the Atheists called it instead, then our brains turn to mush and feed the worms.  Nothing else remains.

Zombies take that mindlessness and let us take pot-shots at our disbelief and grief.  Aim right for the head now.  Take it down.  Have your cathartic vengeance.

Each dead zombie is one more confrontation with our own mortality.  But the horde is relentless - there are always more dead than were ever alive at one time - and our fascination and fear lie in the fact that we can't kill them all.

One day we will have to join their ranks; and it won't be pretty.

Michael Jackson's Thriller (Short Version)

Zombie Masks | Zombie Prosthetics

Why wait until you're dead to join the zombie hordes? This Halloween, if you can't beat them, join them!
Updated: 01/24/2014, JoHarrington
Thank you! Would you like to post a comment now?


JoHarrington on 10/29/2012

Liam - Consider yourself a star. :)

That's why I love putting things like this together as a timeline. It's the historian in me, wanting to see how it all fits into one bigger story. Nothing happens in a vacuum after all. (You're going to tell me now that, as a Physicist, you can assure me that protons and zappy things happen in vacuums.)

Again the 'bandit' aspect of DayZ allows our primal, 'uncivilized' nature its full expression. We can't kill for convenience in reality (unless we're serial killers), but we can when zombies take over the world.

JoHarrington on 10/29/2012

Bromista - You articulated that so well! I hadn't taken into account how ubiquitous the zombie and the zombie threat are. I'd got that they're relentless (and don't have to sleep), but not that there's literally nowhere really to hide.

I didn't know that in some military programs, the targets are dressed as zombies. That's disturbing on so many different levels. Are you talking real world programs? Not just sims like DayZ?

I'm certain that you're right on the deep-rooted instinct born from the need to dispose of our dead.

Thank you for your comment and insights!

Liam on 10/29/2012

Am I the friend who quips 'I hate people'? :P

But I really enjoyed this article. While nothing I hadn't considered before seeing it place d in one connected narrative links it altogether quite nicely.

Also, an interesting side effect of DayZ is the rise of 'bandits'. Players who survive the punishing zombie apocalypse by killing other players for their equipment, and weapons.

Bromista on 10/29/2012

I agree with all points made on the list, and as an avid gamer who has played both The Walking Dead and Left 4 Dead, as well as a fan of (some) Zombie movies, I have to say that both the fear of Zombies and the popularity of Zombies stem from their availability (a Zombie can be just about anywhere), from their frenzied and dumb nature (unlike, say, the intelligent Vampire or the stalking Werewolf), from their appearance (humanoid, dead and bestial, all in one go) and from the origin of the Zombism (if Webster pardons the expression), which might mean that practically everyone is vulnerable. That and, like you mentioned in the article, Zombies are the kind of monsters that allow us to kill them without regret or mercy, which is perhaps the reason why in some military training programs, targets are often dressed up as Zombies. In most scenarios in fiction and especially so in many video games, neither the characters nor you as the player feels any remorse for shooting dozens of Zombies (there are exceptions, which I have for example encountered while playing The Walking Dead). The deep-seated fear of dead, rotting bodies in general is something that came to us during evolution, I think, for I'm quite sure that some of the earliest humans learned very quickly that you can't go carrousing with corpses otherwise disease will spread. With the first human who got sick from being too close to a corpse or a burial place came the first myth that the corpse had put the sick person under a curse or a spell of some sort, and from then on legends and tales about the dead, both ghosts and Zombies, have been spreading like wild fire.

JoHarrington on 10/28/2012

I'm glad that it's given you food for thought (as opposed to thought for food, which is what usually happens with zombies).

I did mean to invite people to comment on which aspect they thought most significant here. Thank you for supplying yours!

koffeeklatchgals on 10/28/2012

You have given me a great deal to think about. Your videos were great, especially the college one. I do agree rotting is something we have been taught to look at with revulsion. As the zombie is rotting it's no surprize that we are repulsd by them. And what a great point, zombies do represent our fear of death. Wonderful job.

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