There is a certain Halloween costume I’ve seen online that lets the wearer become a zombie, but not with make-up or a mask. This "costume" puts the wearer in an all black outfit to which a zombie body has been affixed. As the black-clad person moves and dances so too does the life-sized zombie marionette. The costume only works if the wearer is thought to disappear completely. Rather than simply making the wearable zombie into an object of control, we are supposed to believe that the zombie is all there is; that there is no one in black clothes behind it. This demands that we think of the wearer (in black) not as himself but as this zombie we see before us.
The costume presents an excellent opportunity for thinking about what it means to "be" a zombie but without offering any suggestions as to how that is done. For help knowing how to be a zombie we can turn to the movies. Since zombies aren’t real we can't ask one how or why they behave as they do but we can rent a DVD or go to the multiplex and watch how directors have told actors to do it. However, the onscreen portrayal of zombies doesn't provide a unified picture of zombie comportment. For example, there is a world of difference between Ramero's slow-moving silent lurchers in Dawn of the Dead and Boyle's fast-moving eating machines in 28 Days Later. The overhomogenization of zombie identity, despite the fact that there is not simply one way to express "zombiness," is highly problematic conceptually. But, let's say you've bought the costume, watched all the movies, washed a pillowcase for all your candy, and are about to head out the door—what do you do?
If zombies were real then at this point you’d likely expect a diatribe about non-normative embodiments and social justice, but they are not. However, what if zombies were? Imagine for a moment if we were to subsist in a world where zombies actually exist as a fact of life. What would that be like for us and for them? The popular Showtime series TruBlood imagines that vampires are real and portrays their struggle to integrate into society as a civil rights issue. Similarly, we can imagine that zombies would be marginalized, seen as a threat and a burden on the larger, non-zombie society. This alternative state of zombie lives. In popular representations fictional zombies are commonly institutionalized or exterminated so it is no stretch to presume that the same would hold true for actual ones as well.
Of course there would be justifications for treating zombies this way just as there have been reasons put forward to justify the unequal treatment of other groups. One might suggest, as have authors in this collection, that zombies, like other groups, are thought to represent the worst of human nature and would thus bear the brunt of societies' displaced fears and anxieties. Briefly put, zombies are seen as representing deterioration of the mind and body, conformity, lack of self-control, and the absence of choice. We, ourselves, deride and bemoan the experience, albeit temporarily, of feeling like a zombie: working a 9-5 job, sitting in front of the TV for hours on end, or standing in lines at Disneyland. Clearly then, being a zombie entails mindlessness and drudgery within the cultural imagination.
But is it that zombies represent despised parts of ourselves, or do they instead represent despised aspects of life? Further, is that why they are the seen as the antithesis of both life and death? No one likes taking one small step after another in pursuit of an ephemeral goal but this is, after all, what zombies do. Time and again they slowly chase after someone, eat their brain or flesh, and then move on to the next. The zombie is never satiated and yet we do not get a sense that he represents gluttony. This begs the question of what zombies want after all. It has to be more than just the brains and the flesh of the living. Perhaps yet another pop culture reference will help us answer this question:
In several Hollywood films we've seen zombies clamoring to get inside a suburban shopping mall. I stipulate that the zombie horde is not trying to gain access to commerce (as has been suggested in this volume), but instead that they are trying to engage with the few remaining humans that hold up in the mall. Film depictions of zombies entering the mall and then eating the humans residing there is meant to make us afraid of them. The protestant work-ethic that still permeates U.S. culture is to blame. Remember that the "problem" with zombies is that they are largely aimless and even as they pursue their goals they do so with shuffling feet and a slow pace. While we work, shop, eat, talk on the phone, use TiVo, update facebook, sexting, blue tooth, iPods... if zombies were real they would have no use for these frivolities. The zombie is content to wander the earth at her own pace; perhaps taking pleasure in the quest for food but needing little else. The zombie is not a yuppie. The zombie is not a Japanese business man. The zombie is not even a hocky mom. And this is why they are a symbol of revulsion.
Remember a few paragraphs ago you weren't sure what to do with your new zombie costume? Well, we've seen here that the best thing to do is very little, almost nothing. If you buy this costume and take on the challenge of accurate zombie performance your friends will call you lazy. No, you are not lazy – you are a zombie! The benefit of taking the zombie costume, and your performance in and through it, seriously is that you will come to understand a different way of knowing, moving through, and being in the world. In the final analysis the performance of zombiness is varied and diverse and so too must be our collective notion of "zombie identity." The trick is to remember that the same is true of many existent identity groups. It is through understanding the experiences of other divergent groups, be they real or fictional, that we better understand our own.
Collective Voices © 2009