Politics & Law

From the War on Crime to ‘World War Z’: What the zombie apocalypse can tell us about the current state of our culture of fear

Jonathan Simon

Zombies are everywhere.  Ok not (yet) on the streets (so far as I know); but in our cultural imaginary they are everywhere.  You can find them (in small groups and hordes) in high budget nail biting thriller movies like Brad Pitt’s World War Z (2013), on television, and all over print and digital reading material, much of it spoofing both our literary and political histories (including Zombies in Jane Austen and Abraham Lincoln).

Night of the Living Dead

Zombies in the 1968 film “Night of the Living Dead”

For those of us engaged in probing America’s culture of fear and its highly toxic institutionalizations like mass incarceration and mass deportation, zombies seem to be a potentially important proxy for the demons that haunt contemporary society. But what do they tell us?  Actually, I think, quite a lot, and the news is mostly good.

First consider the ugly truth about zombies, at least the kind that have appeared in popular culture since1968′s Night of the Living Dead.   Zombies form an undeniable symbolic stand in for the twin racialized fears that have helped fuel our punitive culture of control producing both mass incarceration and mass deportation.

One is fear of violent crime and riots, which were reaching one peak in 1968, and were mostly linked in the popular imaginary to African Americans (director and co-writer George Romero may have subverted this by casting a black male as the heroic protagonist of the movie).  While the riots mostly subsided, sustained high homicide rates in inner-city neighborhoods during the 1970s and 1980s shaped an image of violent youth who did not respond to normal human incentives; some criminologists called them “super-predators” because “zombies” would have led to self parodying. The crack epidemic further crystallized this association, with its imagery of stick-like figures shambling toward anyone who could feed their craving.

The second image channeled by the contemporary zombie is that of the “illegal” or “undocumented” immigrant. Starting in the late 1970s and early 1980s, fears of economic decline and national weakness fused with images of “out of control” illegal immigration.  This has always had an undeniably racial cast, associated with migration from the South, Cuba, Mexico, Central and Southern America.

World War Z movie poster

The zombie films from the 1ate 1960s through the 1980s played on and sometimes subverted the fears of suburban, middle-class Americans that their security and life style were under assault by predatory others,  whose claim on our humanity was both troubling and potentially treacherous.  Raced without race, the undead took on the otherness that dared no longer be precisely named.

Therein the good news.  The zombie genre is changing in directions that both suggest and support a shift away from the punitive culture of control.

The fact that so much of the genre is now satire suggests and audience prepared to laugh its fears, with a sense of greater mastery.  Even in its latest scary forms, like World War Z, the zombie has morphed from drug-deranged criminal or rioter to virus carrier.  While this new medical model of the undead may not lead to a cure, it suggests, as those who have seen the movie know (no spoiler here), different ways of coping with them.

Indeed the author of the novel World War Z has also written The Zombie Survival Guidewhich offers, in its own way, a scathing critique of the culture of control, suggesting (among other things) that:

  • Schools will make excellent positions from which to defend against a zombie attack because of their high level of anti-crime oriented security design and tall fencing.
  • Prisons, at least once the prison officers and prisoners have made common cause against the undead, are perhaps the best possible defensive location given their high fences (zombies can’t climb) and we can thank mass incarceration for preparing a large number of such formidable redoubts.
  • SUVs only look formidable, but will turn into a zombie restaurant once they get stuck or run out of fuel, you are much better off on a bicycle or a motor cycle.
  • Apartments are much better for security than private homes (especially single story ones) which are inevitably penetrable and have fewer escape options or ready to hand neighbors to defend with.

Cross-posted from Jonathan Simon’s blog Governing Through Crime.

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Comments to "From the War on Crime to ‘World War Z’: What the zombie apocalypse can tell us about the current state of our culture of fear":
    • W.G. Berger

      “Zombies are everywhere.” Oh, really? Of the 358 titles in the list of 2013 Hollywood films, two have ‘zombie’ in their title or description. Mr. Simon’s characterization of a Hollywood-gone-wild with zombies seems widely off the mark.

      So too is his dismissal of those concerned about illegal immigration. As long as the millions coming stick to manual labor, Mr. Simon can be generous toward those breaking our laws. Were they to come with law degrees and be willing to work for U.C. at sub par wages he would likely change his tune. In any case it is dismaying to read of a professor of the law who shows so little respect for it.

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