The Modern Menace, an in Depth Look into the History of Horror Archetypes
The current popularity of zombie movies, fiction, and merchandise is surprising to many. Non-zombie fans are more confused by the phenomenon, while most zombie lovers tend to be less concerned. They like their zombie action and often do not feel the need to dig further.
But why are zombies so popular during our current times? Also, considering the modern Romero zombie archetype has been around for nearly half a century, why have zombies peeked in popularity now? There could be several explanations for this, but perhaps the most compelling could be that zombies are a reflection of ourselves. It might be on a subliminal level, but the mixture of fear and love for these shambling corpses can not be denied.
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Throughout the evolution of mankind our collective unconsciousness has focused on different types of terror and monsters. As we have changed mentally and environmentally, what scares us has changed as well. The thing under the bed or the creature lurking outside our window we learned about as children is a direct result of what frightened the people of those times. As the times changed, so did our bogymen.
In pre-Christian times huge monsters were believed to have roamed the land. Cyclops, Harpies, or Trolls would grab you if you explored the places that man was never meant to go. In those days, traveling to remote spots was far more difficult and rare. So who could prove one way or another if the mountain tops where not homes to Dragons and that foul Ogres did not hunt in the middle of the ancient wood? The fear of the unknown used to keep villagers clinging to their fires and rushing home at night.
As civilization progressed into the first millennia, so did our fears. We became less concerned with what might be living on the mountain tops in the distance and more frightened about what might lurk on the dark paths right outside our door. Humanity was struggling to separate itself from the animal, so what could be more frightening than returning to that base form and being possessed by the beast? Thus the werewolf and creatures of its ilk dominated humanity’s fears during these dark times. Even if one can resist the call of the wild, what if your neighbor can not? When the beast consumes the soul of man, he will no longer be separated from the wilds and then the darkness could claim us.
Over time, mankind fought back against the forest, clearing trees and creating more open fields and agriculture, which also helped increase our populations. But with this overpopulation also came the plague. Rats swarmed into the cities and our dead were piled in the streets. Pestilence and ill conditions lead to more deaths. Into this climate stepped the Vampire. It controlled these vermin and fed off the living often making them join its unholy ranks. It was also an enemy of the church which had gained so much power during that millennia. The Vampire could feed on the healthiest man and he would become sick and die, much like the Black Plague. Becoming a Vampire also doomed one’s soul to Hell which was a chief fear for most people during those times.
Now we have recently passed through into a new millennia. Today we live in our comfortable house surrounded by hundreds of others. Gone are the unexplored areas that could have hidden the giant monsters. Most of us live miles from the nearest forest so Werewolves do not seem to be much or a threat and with things like text messaging and the internet we have little fear of reverting to a beastlike state. Vampires have lingered on, but have now become sexualized lovers if not outright heroes. In our current lives what might be left to scare us?
At first, it appeared that this millennia might end up being owned by the Serial Killer. With most of us surrounded by neighbors, what is there to be afraid of other than those neighbors themselves? Is that quiet guy across the street kidnapping children? Is the boy taking your daughter out for her first date really a crazed killer? Such thought have validity and Serial Killers and the like are reaching huge levels of popularity, but in the end the title for the monster of this millennia might end up being stolen by the walking dead.
Zombies hit people at a gut level. Whether they realize it consciously or not, zombies represent…us. What are the more realistic fears of our time? We have many, but overpopulation and consumption are chief among them. What do zombies do? They consume. What could be worse that something consuming you, eating you alive? Like our modern society, zombies eat and consume everything thing in their paths. They destroy all that we have made and leave it nothing but a useless shell.
We all like to think we are special. “I’m the one thinking about what is happening around me, but everyone else just seems to be directionless sheep following the same path mindlessly, day after day.” We feel like we are living, but everyone around us is what… mindless zombies.
The fear of zombies is in part the fear of the unknown masses each of us confront every day. With this in mind, it is interesting to note that the change in our culture has also brought about a change in how some people present their zombies. In the sixties and seventies, when Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead were released, these crowds moved slower, but look out your window today. Everyone is in a hurry. People can not even wait long enough to check emails and need the instant gratification of texting. We pace and curse if the internet takes an extra five seconds to load, when twenty years ago to collect the same data might taken a trip to the library and three hours of research.
Thus in many of the newer movies, such as 28 Days Later and the Dawn of the Dead remake, the zombies, like us, have grown faster. Like modern man, they can not waste a second in their quest to consume us as quickly as possible.
Zombies also convey other scares that we have recently had to face. The transmission of disease through blood is a more modern menace. Much like A.I.D.S, the smallest breaking of the skin can spell doom for the individual. Once infected, they are soon joining the person that infected them in whatever ailment they possessed.
The walking dead offer other thrills and scares and appeal to everyone differently and for multiple reasons. Yet, when it comes to our collective fears, a creature must have a claw hold in our collective mentality and strike a nerve or it will soon be passed over for something that does. Zombies represent things we all fear in these modern times. Can I fight against the consuming masses or will I be forced to join them?
Will zombies become the prime monster for our millennia? Only time will tell. Perhaps their popularity will wane and the Serial Killer will overtake them, or maybe another fiend lies in wait to assume the role. For now, the zombies seem to be winning as book after book and more movies are made covering a wide spectrum of possibilities within the genre. In the end, humans like to be scared and as the times change, so will our bogyman. One thing is for sure, the zombies have claimed their spot on the realm of horror and are here to stay.