February 26, 2013
Zombie Science: Why Society Is Crazy About The Walking Dead
Lee Rannals for redOrbit.com — Your Universe Online
A Stanford University researcher took notice of the latest craze for the walking dead and decided to pinpoint the reason for the obsession of zombies in culture and society.
Stanford literary scholar Angela Becerra Vidergar says the obsession over zombies can be traced back to the invention of nuclear warfare during World War II. She says our collective visions of the future changed after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, as well as other World War II events, churning up some disturbing thoughts about the human capacity for violence.
Vidergar wrote in her doctoral dissertation entitled "Fictions of Destruction: Post-1945 Narrative and Disaster in the Collective Imaginary" about how the events of the 20th century, combined with movements to increase environmental awareness, have cast doubt about the consequences of our development as modernized societies.
"In our world today, many of us live with an underlying awareness of possible risks to our survival, not just as individuals, communities, or nations, as has been the case for centuries or even millennia, but on a global scale for reasons new to our era of modernization," she told redOrbit in an email. "That awareness seems to be one factor in the overflow of the apocalyptic imagination from primarily religious, spiritual spheres into more secular parts of our culture."
As an example, she mentioned how we live in a nuclear age that still continues under the threat of wars that could destroy large portions of the planet.
"Furthermore, the violent events of the past century, including two world wars and a series of other wars, genocides, and other acts of physical and psychological violence have forced us into a frightening awareness of the fragility of our moral frameworks," said Vidergar. "We have taken great pains through efforts around the world to respond to these crises to our faith in what we thought separated the “human” and “inhuman,” but have not yet found solutions to help us process the traumas of our past, much less find a definitive way to prevent them in the future."
The literary scholar added we could also be more aware today of the dangerous aspects of our relationships to the rest of the earth, and the non-human life that it contains.
"We regularly hear debates regarding the effects the rush of technological and scientific development can have on the world," she told redOrbit. "No matter what side we take on these issues, the increased fear for the future over the past century or so is part of our socio-cultural milieu–and therefore affects the ways we imagine (and therefore fictionalize) the future."
"If we take cultural products such as literature, films, television, games, etc. as an indicator, we no longer primarily picture a promising road of enlightenment to a bright future (as many did during, for example, the Industrial Revolution)," Vidergar added. "Progress has not yet delivered on the utopian destinies we previously envisioned; so despite the advancements we have made, we instead find ourselves surrounded by evidence of the ways we have not only failed to improve the world, but perhaps even made it worse."
Vidergar, who is currently finishing a doctoral degree in Comparative Literature at Stanford, said our increased awareness of mass-scale risk can shift the outlook of our future to darker possibilities, so "more of us buy into more dystopian visions of the world to come."
"Zombie plagues are among various different scenarios that have made up the increase in mass-scale disaster stories in the past decades. Zombie horror is, in part, popular in the way other genres of entertainment that provide adventure and violence are popular," she commented. "However, zombie narratives have a particular set of elements that allow us to tap into those anxieties about the future and how we would address them."
She said like other disaster stories which focus on the survivors, these zombie tales provide us with a low-risk environment to "try out" our responses in an extreme situation.
"It is not the zombies that we are drawn to in this sense, but the survivors. Through them we can face our fears without being in danger ourselves, including one of the scariest things to consider: the strength of our own ethical boundaries and our capacity for survival."
Vidergar points out the destruction of humans in these stories is not due to natural disaster, but comes in a form that is so close to ourselves it provides a unique element to the survival experiment.
"Zombies have the potential to stand in as reflections of things that frighten us about ourselves. There are various possible and interesting interpretations for what exactly about our culture they reflect, but because of my research I am particularly interested in the idea that the survivors are like the zombies in that the people they were are gone, yet they live on in another form," she said in the email.
According to Vidergar, in the stories, humans must become different people in order to survive, creating a frightening situation, but somewhat liberating.
For the research, she told redOrbit she was fascinated by the nature of the relationship between the socio-culture environment, and the artistic products that arise from that environment.
"The expressions of our imaginations, such as zombie stories, do not come out of nowhere. There is an oscillating relationship between our socio-cultural context and the fictions we create in response (whether directly or indirectly) to that environment," Vidergar said. "In short, our experience flows into what we imagine, triggering expressions of that imagination into what we produce. Those products that make it out back out into the cultural environment become part of the experiences of others, triggering their imaginations, and so on."
She referred to her research as "collective imaginary," which involves the kind of imagination that is shared, rather than just possessed by individuals.
"Although it is a phenomenon that most of us would agree is 'there,' it is difficult to get a handle on and tricky to describe. That challenge is the exciting part!"
Also, she said she is fascinated by the manifestations of survivalism encountered in the US and around the world today.
"Stories of survival have excited and stimulated us for centuries, and they continue to do so," Vidergar told redOrbit. "But particularly since the end of WWII and into today there has been a strong interest in disaster preparedness, from survival kits and outdoor training camps to fallout shelters."
Angela is also co-founder of the Graphic Narrative Project, a research group and upcoming journal for the study of comics, graphic novels and other graphic narratives.
For fun, Vidergar explained to redOrbit what she would do in the event of a "zombie apocalypse."
"First plan of action: secure shelter, supplies and appropriate weaponry. If the first is a bust, then mobile protection of some sort. I would be traveling with a toddler, so finding sturdy transportation would be a key concern," she said. "Guns are effective, but weapons that do not need to be reloaded would be a better, long-term solution against the undead. I particularly like the section on defense in Max Brook´s The Zombie Survival Guide. Antibiotics, pain medicine, bandages, needle and thread, dynamo flashlight/radio, water (and water purification tools), non-perishable food items and a route for escape that stays away from areas of major population yet is close enough to possible places to replenish said supplies, as well as fuel."
She said she would find some kind of effective body armor, a solid pair of boots and layers of clothing, and a "good hat." Also, "a bandana or scarf would be an added bonus, as it gives protection and doubles as a bandage in a pinch."
The zombie apocalypse expert mentions it would be good to have some first aid training in your background. Also, to add to the list of supplies, she says ensure you have a compass, a map, backpack, blanket and a solar USB charger.
"The ability to make fire is great and should be acquired in advance–just ask contestants on the show Survivor! Oh, and you always need a good rope. You don´t know what you´ll use it for until you need it, but you will need it," she told redOrbit. "Finally, good judgment and a cool head are paramount. As The Walking Dead has taught us, the greatest danger won't be from zombies - it'll be from other people."
FOR THE ULTIMATE FAN: The Walking Dead: Compendium One