Tuesday, April 19, 2016

How to kill a zombie

Vampires, werewolves, mummies, and zombies, the classic horror movie villains, have something eerily in common. They all involve a tradeoff in which some version of immortality is obtained at the expense of one or more critical elements of their human essence. The "undead" vampire is reduced to photophobic hunter, his cold and emotionless immortality requiring continual renewal with the blood of fresh victims. The werewolf, entirely immune to all weapons not made of pure silver, is forced under the spell of the waxing moon to periodically abandon his humanity entirely and become a bloodthirsty beast. The mummy rises stiffly from his eternal resting place to serve sentence on those who flagrantly violate the curse that was cast to guard his dusty peace. Zombies continue as mindless and soulless corpses, hungrily pursuing the living in an insatiable quest for brains. The thing that makes each of these creatures scary isn’t so much that they go around killing innocent people—hell, cheap toasters do that—it’s that they are almost, but not quite, human. They have a quasi-humanity in which some critical component, some vital human element, has been removed. And in their almost-but-not-quite-humanity, they are exactly like us in a way that is truly terrifying.

The zombie case is particularly informative. Here we have the merest form of the human, the decaying dead body animated by some inhuman force. What is curious here is that in most zombie movies, the locus of this animating force is not entirely clear. Is it an internal hunger for brains that drives the walking dead? If so, then the zombie is not entirely dead to the world of desire. Or, is it an externally existing power, a spirit of evil (or the machinations of a brain-eating virus) that drives the not-creatures through a web of magnetic attraction? Notice that the specific locus of the controlling impetus usually makes no difference in terms of how to actually stop the zombie. In almost every case, you "kill" the zombie by smashing or severing its head.

There may be a cryptic lesson here for those who wish to escape the brain-eating beast called civilization and return to an authentic human realm of meaning and purpose.

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