Consider Fred. Each morning, Fred folds himself into his exotic cabriolet and glides down the street in the soft purr of tires. Fred’s gray suit pants might be cashmere. Fred’s hair alone—perfectly arranged, bangs buffed ever so lightly—is off-putting, rakish. Fred’s lawn is an empire of green.
From the safety of his porch, Fred surveys your place—weedy flower beds, driveway littered with kids’ toys, the stain of a recently potted plant on the porch stoop. You see it in Fred’s eyes. The I’m-sorry-you-exist look. And, more recently, you’ve noticed the glances he gives your wife.
This morning, though, Fred is looking kind of haggard, perhaps a little sallow in the face. His eyes are bloodshot. You think you see a hole in his slacks. Something is off. Suddenly Fred lopes into your lawn and begins digging in your shrubbery. You press your face against the mini-blinds. Fred’s neatly coiffed hair is a stringy mess. His mouth opens and closes spasmodically. Wait, what is that in his hands? Your cat? Is he going to…oh, no…Fred.
More than six hundred zombie movies have followed in the wake of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, released in 1968. At the height of the Vietnam War, Romero’s dystopic vision of America seemed propelled by public reaction to Vietnam’s bloodshed: the My Lai Massacre took place the same year, about six months earlier. If Night of the Living Dead was a statement about Vietnam, the end of the war did little to suppress zombie fervor. A 2004 remake of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead grossed over one hundred million dollars worldwide (IMDB). Recently, AMC’s series The Walking Dead has become the network’s most popular, attracting six million avid followers. This year, Abraham Lincoln (fresh from a recent scuffle with vampires) will face off against marauding bands of the undead in Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies, directed by Richard Schenkman. Could there be a better way to celebrate the man who helped end slavery?
Zombie mania does not begin, or end, at the box office. A quick web search unearths a seemingly bottomless industry: zombie dolls, zombie coffee mugs, zombie skate boards, zombie vanity plates, zombie t-shirts, zombie surf boards. Perhaps even more bizarre are the zombie cookie jars, zombie refrigerator magnets, and zombie gummies (my daughter won’t eat gummy bears, but she will eat zombies). If zombies really do exist, they are likely better salespeople than flesh-eaters. The Internet is home to several zombie web forums—zombie-forum.com is prominent. Currently, there is an ongoing discussion on whether a zombie bite can be treated like a snake bite. And, as always, the perennial question looms: what exactly is the best way to kill a zombie?
The evidence is clear enough: Americans have a zombie problem. America might the epicenter, but this pandemic is spreading quickly. Other countries are following suit. Amidst all the hysteria, another question emerges: why are we so obsessed with zombies?
On one hand, the idea of becoming a zombie is terrifying. Turning into a zombie is a deep-rooted ontological fear—the self subsumed in a cannibalizing machine of gore. Even if one were to recover, to become human again, imagine the necessary “coming to terms,” the high price of therapy. Psychologically speaking, zombifiction is a problem.
From a different slant, consider the case of your neighbor Fred. Fred is human, sure, but have you not wondered if his humanity is slightly different from your own (Fred’s relentless materialism, his mocking, leering smile)? Haven’t you ever, maybe, wanted Fred to become a zombie so that you could, you know….
Steven Schlozman, assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard, argues that zombies allow us to objectify the qualities we dislike in other people. After all, zombies are dead, so killing them is a victimless crime, right?
Schlozman is also an expert on neurobiology. He uses the zombie to explain how the human brain operates. The back end of the brain, the amygdala, is a place of darkness, where primordial emotions reign. A crocodile is all amygdala, no frontal lobe. In a zombie, the “thinking” part of the brain—the frontal lobe—cannot adequately keep the amygdala in check: this explains the rage, the endless hunger for flesh. But the amygdala is a basic component of every brain; it skulks around the subconscious. This means that a zombie lurks in us all. Considering what we know about human history—about politics, about war—is it hard to imagine that we all harbor some primal desire to go blasting zombies from street corners, from driveways, from the shrubbery in front of our homes?
Sure, zombies are fun, but nobody takes them seriously, do they?
Enter Rudy Eugene. On May 26th, 2012, beneath the MacArthur Causeway in Miami, Rudy Eugene—a young, healthy, otherwise normal thirty-something—attacks Ronald Poppo, a sixty-five year old homeless man. When the police arrive, Eugene is naked, sprawled over Poppo on the tarmac, chewing away at Poppo’s face. The police shoot and kill Eugene. Initially, in a media-fueled frenzy, the public is told that Eugene was under the influence of “bath salts,” a synthetic cocktail of drugs known to have hallucinogenic effects. The public needs an answer, and so Eugene’s body is rushed to the Miami-Dade County Medical Examiner. The results are released: only light traces of marijuana are found in Eugene’s body.
Less than a month later, another Florida man, Charles Baker, becomes aggravated while visiting his children at his girlfriend’s home in Palmetto. Baker strips naked and begins screaming. A family friend attempts to calm Baker, who then turns and bites a chunk out of the man’s bicep. When the police arrive, they taser Baker twice before he is subdued.
Then a third incident hits. A Baltimore college student goes missing. In a bizarre press release, the student’s roommate, Alexander Kinyua, is said to have killed the missing student, and then eaten his heart and brain.
Public angst swells to a feverish level. 2012 is dubbed The Summer of the Zombies. Web bloggers warn of a zombie apocalypse, possibly beginning in Miami and then quickly spreading. Rudy Eugene’s own mother, on national television, tells the public she does not believe her son to be a zombie. But this does little to quell public fear. Almost every news outlet in the nation is running a story with the words zombie, Florida, apocalypse, in some combination.
In its quest for definite answers, the public turns, inevitably, to the government. Specifically, they call on the Centers for Disease Control. But a quick search of the CDC’s website turns up, in a classic ironic twist, more zombies. For some time, the CDC has maintained the webpage, “Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse.” The site is filled with zombies: one zombie is a girl with green eyes, peering hungrily through blackened fingernails. If you are to survive a zombie apocalypse, the CDC suggests:
- Gathering emergency supplies
- Developing a family disaster plan
- Learning how to shelter in place
- Understanding quarantine and isolation
- Maintaining a healthy state of mind (really?)
To be clear, the CDC does not really believe in zombies (as far as we know). The CDC has merely been capitalizing on the public’s appetite for zombie-related news and information. The CDC knows it is difficult to get the public to prepare for hurricanes and other natural disasters. It is not so difficult, they have realized, to goad the public into preparing for a zombie apocalypse. They even sell zombie t-shirts and zombie posters: If you’re ready for a zombie apocalypse, then you’re ready for any emergency.
Now, in the turbulent social waters of three “potential” zombie attacks, the CDC quickly backpedals. They are forced to make an official statement. On June 4, the CDC tells the public to rest easy. They email the Huffington Post. As far as they are concerned, there is no known virus that reanimates the dead.
Or is there?
Our medical professionals are entertaining the possibility.
Recently, the Journal of Clinical Nursing (the most respected and widely read nursing journal in the country) published a case study titled “The nurses’ role in the prevention of Solanum infection: dealing with a zombie epidemic.” The study is painstakingly thorough: the medical establishment prefers not to take chances, especially when nurses will likely be on the front lines. Nurses need to get ready: necromantic zombies make difficult patients. In particular, nurses should pay special attention to: hand sanitization, protective clothing, infection control, and safety. Safety cannot be overemphasized.
The journal states that Solanum, also called the Z-virus, will likely be the “causative agent.” The virus is blood borne (transmitted through bites and scratches) and acts quickly. Symptoms include “discoloration of the infected area, fever, chills and dementia.” The mortality rate is one hundred percent. Initially, patients experience vomiting, high fever, joint pain, and lower body paralysis. Clinical death can be expected within sixteen hours. Reanimation (the undead state) can occur anywhere from two minutes to several hours after clinical death. Prior to reanimation, brain removal or a corrosive acid injection is highly recommended. Nurses must not forget to acquire patient consent before reanimation.
The next time you go in for a check-up, see if you can get a pamphlet or a brochure. You don’t want to be left in the dark. It’s your apocalypse, too.
Americans like guns. Americans need something to shoot.
Mossberg & Sons firearms, a well-known manufacturer of shotguns and hunting rifles, is introducing a new series: the zombie line. The zombie line includes several different choices in weaponry—depending on your zombie dispatching techniques—but the most popular seems to be the Mossberg 500 Chainsaw Zombie Cruiser©, a modified 12 gauge shotgun. The zombie logo “ZMB” appears on the stock in toxic green (you wouldn’t want anybody mistaking you for a trap shooter). The gun is equipped with a chainsaw-style handle above the barrel, making it easy to hold onto in tight (or slippery) situations. In a room crowded with zombies, this grip might mean the difference between life and death.
The Zombie Cruiser can also be fitted with a flashlight and laser sight—these are strongly recommended, considering the likely dubious condition of America’s power grid during the apocalypse.
If you’re unsure about ammunition, the Hornady ZombieMAX© is well-reviewed and each round is specifically engineered for zombie elimination.
In the 2009 film Zombieland, Woody Harrelson (as Tallahassee) roams the wasted streets of suburban America with a shotgun and a Cadillac SUV. Along the way, he kills zombies, loots, drinks whiskey, and does pretty much whatever he wants—a free agent. At one point, Tallahassee and his friends lounge on the pool deck of a posh Hollywood home after they kill its zombie owner, Bill Murray. (Bill Murray plays himself.)
As America has discovered, the zombie apocalypse is not all bad. If we consider characters like Tallahassee (every zombie flick has one) as reinvented urban cowboys, the draw of their situation begins to make sense. The cowboy archetype has deep roots. Freedom-obsessed Americans crave stories of “rugged individualism” and self-reliance (Schlozman). Also, as Tallahassee will tell you, the collapse of society is rich in fringe benefits: no traffic tickets, no bills, no waiting in line at the DMV or the bank. Most of us spend our days behind a computer screen, in a cubicle, maybe sitting in an office with, if we’re lucky, a street view. We’re overworked, over-caffeinated, bored, ready for change, ready for something exciting to happen—even if that exciting thing turns out to be really bad. After Rudy Eugene’s story hit the Internet, if you were paying attention to blogs and web forums, Twitter, Facebook, you would know that people weren’t scared. They weren’t nervous. A lot of people were really, really excited. They were ready to enter their basements and their garages where their Zombie Cruisers had been waiting for months, maybe years, collecting dust.
The Zombie Within
After logical explanation for Rudy Eugene’s behavior came up dry—bath salts, synthetic marijuana, schizophrenia—the public was ready to accept the zombie apocalypse over a lurking suspicion that Rudy just might have been a normal, church-going Floridian having a bad day.
The rush to label Eugene a zombie can be viewed as denial, as a way of affixing violent behavior to a recognizable “other”: it’s not us, it’s them. If Rudy Eugene is a zombie, then so be it, the human race will sleep better tonight. At least a zombie Eugene is a known quantity. After all, our knowledge of zombies is fairly thorough—meaning we have a pretty good idea of where Florida zombies stand in the scheme of things: they walk slowly, they can’t drive, they certainly don’t fly on airplanes. It could take weeks, maybe months, for a zombie to get from Florida to the Midwest. There will be time to plan, stock up on supplies, maybe hit Home Depot for plywood.
When we consider Eugene as a normal human being, people get itchy. Hard questions emerge: just how normal was Eugene? What exactly is synthetic marijuana? (My neighbor smokes marijuana, is he going to eat me?) Are humans really capable of this level of violence?
America is in denial. Consider our evolutionary heritage.On the evolutionary timeline, the amygdala has been around for millions of years—the high functioning pre-frontal cortex, a mere 200,000. The amygdala is the source of our basest, most primitive appetites; hyper-aggression is one. If we take away the undead aspect of zombie lore (just a detail), the amygdala might explain zombie-like behavior. It might even explain Rudy Eugene.
This brings to mind another recent news story. In 2009, a woman was hospitalized after her friend’s pet chimpanzee attacked her, consuming a large portion of her face. As any animal expert will tell you, cannibalism is relatively common in the primate world.
Fred’s in your driveway now. His white button-down is shredded; blame that on the cat. But you remember that Fred had been threatening you for weeks: he hates it when your cat lounges in his hydrangeas, climbs on the hood of his car (it scratches the paint). This wasn’t entirely unexpected. But you’re not sure about the way he’s moving, sort of a deranged shuffle, the cat and cat carrier banging against his knees. Bloody scratches line his knuckles. His eyes are freaking you out—black puddles of rage. You said it before: something is off. You’re not going to second guess yourself now. Besides, the Zombie Cruiser is right there, just inside the closet. So step outside. And for God’s sake, stand tall, sight down the barrel, do it right. All of America is counting on you.
Photo by Jeremy Keith (Flickr) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.