Zombies bring to life our deepest fears

Zombie Kati Pope of Levittown with Zombie Jesus, played by Gil Cnaan of Philadelphia, outside the Zombie Prom at the Trocadaro last month.
Zombie Kati Pope of Levittown with Zombie Jesus, played by Gil Cnaan of Philadelphia, outside the Zombie Prom at the Trocadaro last month. (ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: October 10, 2012

Robert Drake is dead - at least three times a year.

And not just dead, but walking dead, the grayed and decayed leader of a movement to fill the streets with lurching, warm-body-searching zombies. He's the brains behind the Philly Zombie Crawl, Zombie Beach Party, and Zombie Prom.

"They always say you can't escape death," said Drake, 49, by day the producer of the WXPN radio show Kids Corner. "But maybe you can."

Last month the Department of Homeland Security urged people to prepare for an end-of-the-world zombie apocalypse.

Seriously.

Or at least semi-seriously.

The idea is that when government officials warn people to be ready for earthquake, flood, or terrorist attack, they're often ignored. But if they shout "Zombies!" people get caught up in the fun and may actually put aside a case of water and a flashlight.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention launched a tongue-in-cheek - maybe it's tongue-through-cheek - zombie-awareness campaign last year. And the CDC isn't the only agency to go dead. Health departments, libraries, and colleges are feasting on zombies to draw attention, sell programs, and entice prospective clients and students.

Michigan State University offers a new course, "Surviving the Coming Zombie Apocalypse," which examines how humans behave in catastrophes. A new minor in pop culture at the University of Baltimore includes a class on the social relevance of zombies.

"They are probably the most unique, the most potent reflection of our fears, because they are the closest to us," said UB visiting professor Arnold Blumberg, coauthor of Zombiemania: 80 Movies to Die for. "They're your family, they're your friends, they're yourself."

And they can be kind of fun.

The American Dental Association and PopCap games have started a "Stop Zombie Mouth" campaign to prevent tooth decay. Missouri conservation officials employ zombie imagery to promote hunter safety.

"Falling from a tree stand can injure you or make you dead," the Conservation Department website says. "Falling from a tree stand into the gaping maw of a zombie can make you undead."

Zombie crawls - it's hard for zombies to run - take place in cities from New York to Los Angeles, organized to celebrate Halloween, raise money, or just for fun. Philadelphia's seventh annual crawl is set for Easter, to be led by Zombie Jesus. (The promoters say Jesus, by definition, is the world's best-known zombie.)

Yet some take the idea of a zombie apocalypse more seriously. Last summer's savage cannibal attack in Florida set off a wave of foreboding, forcing the CDC to issue a formal statement denying that the end was nigh.

"CDC," spokesman David Daigle told the Huffington Post, "does not know of a virus or condition that would reanimate the dead."

Which is a big relief.

But plainly, if the 2000s were the decade of the vampire, then the 2010s are the dawn of the dead.

Why? Experts say the national consciousness suffered a dark and damaging blow in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. And since then, fear has become a default American mind-set: Political upheaval in the Middle East. Economic upheaval at home. Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Rebellions. Global warming. Killer viruses. The rise of the security state.

Not to mention the reliance on advanced technological grids to light our cities and speed our communications - and which threaten to plunge us into darkness and silence if they fail.

Zombies are here now, authorities say, because we brought them here, a manifestation of the age. It's no surprise that Frankenstein and Dracula hit theaters during the Depression, one the symbol of a clanking, brain-dead economy, the other a bloodsucking capitalist. Or that George Romero's Night of the Living Dead appeared in 1968, amid the carnage of the Vietnam War and the fear of nuclear extermination.

"I don't think it's an accident that zombies have become popular," said Lehigh University associate professor Dawn Keetley, who is editing a book about The Walking Dead, the AMC television series. She added that "9/11, the terror threat, the economy - people are starting to imagine the end of society as we know it."

And in a weird way, she said, to long for it. If there's no society, that means no taxes, no mortgages, no worries about unemployment.

The only worry is staying alive, in continually seeking to remain one of "us" and not become one of "them."

"When we have zombies, the survivors - and of course we'd be survivors - get to pick up guns and keep 'them' out," said Keetley, editor of the forthcoming Better Angels: 'The Walking Dead's' Allegories of the Social and the Post Human. "An apocalypse without zombies would be kind of boring."

Better than most tales, The Walking Dead plays on our modern anxieties, she noted. Don't like paying $4 a gallon for gas? Worried we're draining the planet of fossil fuels? In the future The Walking Dead depicts, it's worse. The characters can't find gas. Generators run out of fuel. The lead character rides a horse, for Pete's sake.

The human survivors are besieged, and favorite characters meet terrible, chewable deaths - suggesting our own fragility, Keetley said. Last season, the survivors learned that they're already infected and will turn into zombies when they die. They are, in fact, the walking dead.

It's a blurring of the line between life and death that most consider absolute. And to a degree, it's happening in real life, too.

Recent neuroscience studies describe what scientists call "the zombie within," the concept that we don't control much of what happens in our brains - that what we think of as instinct is actually a sensory-motor system performing tasks on its own.

"We're more zombie than we think we are," she said.

The word comes from Haitian voodoo culture, meaning "spirit of the dead." Black-magic priests supposedly could raise the dead by use of special powders. In pop culture, zombies usually are created by exposure to a virus, radiation, or the mutation of real illnesses.

"To be honest, they freak me out," said Gordon Coonfield, who teaches modern culture at Villanova University. "It's something dead. It can't love. It can't hate. And you are its moving, screaming meal."

He wonders: What's next? Or maybe who is next - what new, terrifying Other will emerge to trouble our sleep?

For Drake, the answer to the question of what's next is obvious: The Zombie Crawl, followed by the Zombie Beach Party in June.

He helped start the local zombie uprising in 2006, when he and his friends tired of seeing vampires get all the attention.

About 60 people attended the first crawl. The next year, 400. Now hundreds of would-be undead gather on South Street to stagger through the neighborhood.

"It's been very funny," Drake said, "to watch society catch up with us."


Contact Jeff Gammage at 215-854-2415, jgammage@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @Jeff Gammage.

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