Who Are You Anyway? or, Why You're Scared of Zombies (Even If You Won't Admit It)

Gulf Coast Online Editor

May 11, 2011

In 1996, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, an English professor at George Washington University, published Monster Theory, a short anthology of critical essays dealing with monsters in literary and cinematic history. The essays run the gamut - exploring everything from Dracula to Jurassic Park - but the collection is united by Cohen's introductory remarks about how the fictional monsters that fascinate us also often reflect the larger fears we experience as a culture. In other words, at least part of reason for the success of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was that it spoke to the public's apprehensions about the growing preponderance of electricity, whether for good or ill, at around the time it was published. So, zombies! They've been around for a while now, and yet suddenly they're also the next big thing. The last ten years in film have seen Twenty-Eight Days Later, Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland, Planet Terror, Fido, and even I Am Legend, a zombified version of Richard Matheson's 1954 novel of the same name that was, arguably, more about vampires. That's right, vampire fans - your days in the sun may be numbered (though maybe that's what you wanted all along?). Add to those films recent books like Max Brooks's World War Z (soon to be a motion picture), Carrie Ryan's Forest of Hands and Teeth, and, of course, Seth Grahame-Smith's Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and the trend becomes clear. But why? It might help to understand that zombies have rules. Some of these are flexible, but they generally hold true. First, zombies are infected. It can be a specific disease of some sort or something less well defined, but whatever it is, it turns a regular person into a flesh-craving beast that wants nothing more than to devour (and infect) other humans (especially for the brains). Second, anybody can get zombified. In the zombie apocalypse, no one is safe. And third - and this is the important one, I think - when you become a zombie, you are no longer the person you used to be. Whatever zombified you has also taken any sense of individuality you may have had and turned you into a mere cog of the zombie horde machine. If you don't believe me, just look at any number of the books and films I mentioned above. There's almost always a scene in which some poor human has to kill a former friend in order to survive, all while the fellow humans around him or her say, "Look, don't worry. He's not who he used to be." As 21st Century Americans, our legal identities exist largely outside of our bodies. We have passports, social security numbers, drivers' licenses, birth certificates, death certificates, credit ratings, credit cards, online profiles, college transcripts, mailing addresses, and on and on and on. It's no longer good enough to have a name and a decent reputation. Today, you've got to prove that you exist. Our identities can even be stolen. And if you don't have a legal identity, if you're "undocumented," you may well find yourself facing all sorts of dangerous prejudices, as though without documentation you're somehow less than human. I certainly don't think that the fear of identity theft is enough to drive an entire literary movement, but the issue of a legal identity that exists apart from a personal identity is pretty new, and to me, it's a little unsettling. For the vast bulk of the last thirty-thousand-odd years of human history, we just knew each other, and we also knew ourselves. There are more of us now, of course, and perhaps that explains all the red tape we face today, but are our brains and hearts really ready for this sort of identity? Maybe the fascination with zombies has something to do with a fear that we might not know ourselves so well anymore, or that we might not even be just who we think we are. Maybe it's not a fear that our identities will be stolen, but rather simply that they could be. In any case, I sometimes like to imagine who I'd be without any documentation of any kind. Who would I be if I woke up tomorrow and had to start everything from scratch? If I had to prove myself all over again? Make new friends, find a job, re-build a reputation? Because that's who I really am, right now, right here. And that's not something anyone can take away from me, or from you - not even the zombies. Well, maybe the zombies, but still.