Of Core Beliefs & Zombies

By | Monday, December 06, 2010 2 comments
A lot of the news (or, should I say, "news") shows the past few years have highlighted people's differing political ideologies, and how the level of discourse tends to devolve into something that might be heard during a ten-year-old's recess.

"Tax cuts for everyone!"
"Tax cuts for just the middle class!"

"Health care should be affordable for everyone!"
"Don't socialize medicine!"

Obviously, this really does nothing to advance real discourse or dialogue; it's just people shouting over each other. But it makes for an eye-catching public spectacle and the opiate-laced public often gravitates to whoever shouts loudest. The problem with this -- aside from showcasing what a big country of idiots the U.S. is -- is that it doesn't get to the root of the issue. It doesn't get to the core beliefs that really drive people to hold certain opinions. I'm talking about more fundamental beliefs that religion here. I'm talking about "are people basically good or basically evil" types of questions. (For the record, I tend to fall in the "people are basically selfish bastards" camp.)

It turns out that not addressing those root beliefs is why I've never liked (or even understood) the appeal of zombies. On Friday, though, Chuck Klosterman had this piece in the The New York Times explaining the concept in a way that finally gets to, I think, the core belief (or at least a core belief) required to appreciate zombie stories. Klosterman likens the process of destroying zombies (blast one in the head, reload, repeat) to the process of life itself...
Every zombie war is a war of attrition. It’s always a numbers game. And it’s more repetitive than complex. In other words, zombie killing is philosophically similar to reading and deleting 400 work e-mails on a Monday morning or filling out paperwork that only generates more paperwork, or following Twitter gossip out of obligation, or performing tedious tasks in which the only true risk is being consumed by the avalanche. The principle downside to any zombie attack is that the zombies will never stop coming; the principle downside to life is that you will be never be finished with whatever it is you do.

Now, granted, many emails that land in my inboxes are drivel that get deleted and some of the work I do can get repetitive, but to hold a basic philosophy of "life = drudgery" like that? That sounds absolutely miserable! I put somewhere between a quarter and a third of my life towards work (with another quarter/third towards sleeping); I refuse to spend that portion of my life being miserable. If I'm going to spend that much of my life on something, I damn well better enjoy it! I noted back in May that I try to make every day better than the one before, and part of that philosophy entails ensuring that I'm generally doing something that I look forward to. Even on those terrible Monday mornings where I'm not really awake, and need several Mt. Dews before my brain starts to process that yes, I have indeed gotten out of bed and gone into the office.

I understand where Klosterman is coming from here. That's kind of the point of the opening sequence from Shaun of the Dead, isn't it? Isn't that why so many people go through their day at the office, only to come home and vegetate in front of the television until it's time to go to bed? You know, I've seen similar analogies comparing couch potatoes to zombies, but it wasn't until I read Klosterman's piece that I began to really understand how deeply ingrained that mindset is.
Zombies are like the Internet and the media and every conversation we don’t want to have. All of it comes at us endlessly (and thoughtlessly), and — if we surrender — we will be overtaken and absorbed. Yet this war is manageable, if not necessarily winnable. As long we keep deleting whatever’s directly in front of us, we survive. We live to eliminate the zombies of tomorrow. We are able to remain human, at least for the time being. Our enemy is relentless and colossal, but also uncreative and stupid.

This is why I don't get the zombie concept. That "endless" stream of media that Klosterman likens to zombies? Where people consider it a "relentless and colossal" enemy? That constant deletedeletedelete that that starts to sound like machine gun fire? I don't look at it like that. I don't see the zombie horde and pull out a shotgun to start annihilating them; I kick back in a lawn chair and offer them a soda. I thrive on that constant bombardment of information. I love getting new information that can change my worldview or make me consider aspects that I hadn't before.

Change isn't something to be feared. Neither physical change, nor the mental change that sometimes needs to occur when presented with new information. That's not to say change is necessarily good, either! Change is simply change, and should be considered on its own merits (or lack thereof).

How did Shaun of the Dead end? Not with the heroes blowing up every zombie in sight, but taking an entirely different approach that embraced who zombies are and how they're different from the living. If you have the inherent belief that work sucks and then you die, you will spend you day blasting zombie after zombie; and, eventually, you'll lose. But if you take matters into your own hands and embrace whatever it is that you can do/are doing, you might well get the girl of your dreams and still be able to play video games in your shed with one of those zombies.
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Matt K said...

I too have no interest in zombie stories. I've always considered that this was because I don't enjoy the creep-out, horror genre in general.

And frankly I'm always dubious of this kind of pop-psychological symbol-interpretation...

But at the moment, given the fact that zombie stories appear to be well into an enduring run as cultural phenomenon which holds no appeal to me, this suggestion, that the enthusiasts for this phenomenon can be mapped closely to the segment of society which sees life as repetitive drudgery and just accepts such as given, is I must say an awfully tempting concept.

I think there's something to be said that symbol interpretation. Obviously, not every armchair psychologist knows what they're talking about, but I think that the really big hits of pop culture (and, to a lesser degree, the smaller ones) are hits precisely because they're able to tap into a cultural zeitgeist of some sort. They come out at JUST the right time and are executed in JUST the right manner for people to gravitate towards them en masse.

Superman is a great example. In his original comic incarnation, introduced in a still-young Industrial Age, he was an impossible hero that was saving the working classes from crime bosses who were controlling the urban landscape. And Superman comes into this as the embodiment of power without having to answer to any higher authority than a simple morality. What a great way to escape the miserable conditions that most people lived in. PLUS, enjoying his adventures was easily accessible and economical: ten cents for a comic that could get passed around the neighborhood. Hardly a wonder why he became popular.

Then again, in 1978, on the heels of a deep recession AND the U.S. bicentennial, Christopher Reeve flies in as the living personification of hope, optimism, truth, justice and the American Way. Nixon's resignation and pardon were still fresh on people's minds, as was the Vietnam War. Americans needed some pure, unadulterated fantasy and movie effects were JUST catching up enough to make you "believe a man can fly." I completely understand how/why Superman became popular again.

I don't know why "Harry Potter" became popular, and I only have a vague idea of why "Twilight" took off. And given how pedestrian those works are from a critical perspective, the only explanation I can offer is that they're tapping into some psychological need that a large number of people are trying to fulfill simultaneously.

So, pending a better explanation, I'm willing to accept Klosterman's zombies-as-work-drudgery parallel.