PULLMAN, Wash. - A Washington State University expert on monsters said today’s zombie craze is a reflection of our own anxieties about death and the grind of day-to-day life.
"In literature and in film, stories about zombies are less about the zombies and more about ourselves,” said Michael Delahoyde, clinical associate professor of English, who has taught undergraduate classes about monsters and culture for more than two decades.
The American public’s interest in zombies has been on the rise since George Romero’s 1968 cult-classic "Night of the Living Dead,” but only in the past decade has it skyrocketed. Consider the movies released since 2002 – "28 Days Later,” "Shaun of the Dead,” "Dawn of the Dead,” "I am Legend,” among dozens.
What’s more, in 2009, some obscure writer published the best-selling "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” by mashing the Jane Austin classic with the meat-eating undead. Now, a movie is in the works. It’s enough to make Austin turn in her grave; unless, of course, she’s shuffling along some road in search of her next human meal.
As if that’s not enough, there are zombie marches and parades, Seattle’s ZomBcon international convention featuring a zombie prom, and the Humans vs. Zombies tag game that’s played on hundreds of college campuses around the country, including WSU.
"Zombies are a manifestation of our anxieties about survival, infectious diseases, over-population and general mass mindlessness,” said Delahoyde from his upper Avery Hall office where Mary Shelley’s "Frankenstein” and Bram Stoker’s "Dracula” are shelved alongside Shakespeare.
Zombies have been around for a long time and were subjects of folklore before movies and books, said Delahoyde. Mostly, they’re portrayed as slack-jawed, bloodstained sleepwalkers who don’t scheme or dream and don’t think beyond their next mouthful of liver.
"It’s not that zombies have changed in ways that make them more intriguing to us than they were 20 years ago. It’s because the world has changed in ways that make them more relevant,” said Delahoyde.
In the years since the 9/11 attacks, for example, national polls show that Americans feel less safe and secure. With a faded sense of safety and predictability, "more of us can identify with the anxieties conveyed by humans about zombies and the prospect of annihilation,” he said.
A former "English 338 Monsters” student of Delahoyde’s agrees. Jacob Hughes is completing his Ph.D. in English at WSU Tri-Cities.
"To some degree, especially since 2001, zombies have served as a kind of post-apocalyptic, post-human metaphor,” said Hughes. "We might ask ourselves the question, ‘What would we do during a zombie outbreak?’ for fun, but the response is motivated by a perhaps repressed fear that our world could change very rapidly for the worse.”
The persistent march of the undead also reflects a collective anxiety over the never-easing onslaught of bills, deadlines, paperwork, e-mails, tweets, advertisements – you name it, said Delahoyde, seated beneath a poster depicting the sinister stare of celebrity vampire Barnabas Collins.
"It’s mind consumption and, like zombies, it’s persistent. If we’re not careful, we can feel overwhelmed, overtaken,” he said.