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Monthly Archives: October 2012
When I was a kid I used to “root” for storms.
It seems kind of crazy now, but I distinctly remember watching the crawl at the bottom of the T.V. screen anytime a storm was coming, hoping it would head my way. Growing up in Tornado Alley, this happened frequently enough to make it a regular event. I would sit there watching T.G.I.F., hear the familiar alarm clock-esque warning screech, and quickly scan the list of affected areas. Somehow, when our county was included in the latest Flash Flood Alert or “T-Storm Warning,” it was a badge of honor
It’s hard to explain why I was so excited by this. I think part of it has to do with the idea that I liked the feeling of being safe amidst the chaos. That impulse says a great deal about some of the inherent perversity that comes with privilege. I grew up with an unquestioned assumption of security. Storms were little more than exciting shows that I could watch through the back window in complete safety. Natural disasters were a terror I was aware of, but also immune from. Scenes of flooding and damage on the local news were only narrowly distinguished from thrilling clips from a disaster movie. It’s one of those early mindsets born from the ignorance of your own advantages that makes you look back and shudder.
The easy is answer is pretty straightforward — because they’re walking corpses who feast on human flesh. But there’s more to it than that. Movie monsters come and go. Some are corny, some are genuinely frightening, but most are fairly transient in the popular imagination. And yet zombies have been strangely and ironically durable. There’s something about the idea of the undead, something that makes zombies both unnerving and compelling, that has made them an indelible part of American horror cinema.
The Second Breakfast Podcast (from the inestimable Andy Roth and Phil DeVaul) discussed this topic in their most recent podcast. I encourage you all to watch it in its entirety:
The Second Breakfast guys raise a number of good points about what makes zombies frightening: First, the undead multiply very quickly. Zombie movies play on our fears about a devastating outbreak and an inability to contain a quickly-spreading contagion. Part of the terror comes from the idea that the outbreak is so sudden, and so foreign, that by the time anyone realizes what’s happening, it’s already too late.
Second, you cannot outlast zombies. They’re a continually lurching horror, one that cannot be simply ignored or waited out. This longevity adds to the looming sense of dread in every zombie film. The survivors in a zombie film are not simply waiting for the storm to pass so things can return to normal. They’re trying to figure out what kind of life they can have in a world where they’re under a constant, mortal threat.
Third, they’re your friends and neighbors. There’s something inherently unsettling about having to kill something that, whatever its level of decay and depravity, still appears human. As Andy Roth describes in the above video, zombie movies often feature characters having to kill one of their close friends or family members who’ve turned. There’s an added level of horror to the idea of having to slay a monster who still looks like someone you love, and it makes the undead unique among cinematic monsters.
But I think there’s something else, something more elemental, that makes zombies not only frightening but also compelling as monsters.