Revisiting the zombie in the age of coronavirus

Monsters have always played a role in our conception of our past, present, and future fears. With a pandemic on, zombies are seemingly once again the monster of the moment.

Monsters have always played a role in our conception of our past, present, and future fears. With a pandemic on, zombies are seemingly once again the monster of the moment. Associated Press

There is a monster for every occasion.

Creative as we are, humans often channel real life when they’re crafting horror stories. Bram Stoker, the man who brought us Dracula and our modern conception of vampires, lived during a time when both sexual repression and syphilis were destroying lives across Europe. He channeled that fear into his lusting, virulent, (and low-key homoerotic) villain.

The vampire rose again with a vengeance in the ‘80s and ‘90s, when a mysterious new blood disease resurrected archaic notions of sex, morality, forbidden pleasures, and fear of carnal desires.

H.P. Lovecraft – among many other things a flagrant racist, xenophobe, and antiquarian – feared the unknown. So, from his terrified mind, we received works like From Beyond and The Color Out of Space, and a whole new cosmology of inhuman others ready to thwart our understanding of the universe and our place in it.

In the age of COVID-19, only one monster scratches that itch on the amygdala -- the groaning, shambling mascots of pandemic horror: zombies.

Arts publications like Vulture have been compiling lists of zombie horror films to enjoy in this, our time of need, from 28 Days Later to World War Z. It’s easy enough to see why. We, like world-wearied zombie survivors, are holed up in our corners of the world and avoiding all human contact – unless we need to scavenge the ravaged shelves of the nearest grocery store for toilet paper.

Not a moment too soon, Corona Zombies – a film the Guardian describes generously as “rushed” and “an hour long” – has made the comparison inescapably literal.

It wasn't until relatively recently that our conception of zombies looked anything like our current pandemic nightmare. The zombie is old – almost as old as we are – and easily adaptable to whatever happened to be lurking in the dark corners of our minds. Back then, we weren’t afraid of microscopic organisms making us sick. We were afraid of each other.

In Haitian folklore, zombies were ordinary corpses resurrected by sorcerers to act as mindless, obedient servants. There was no plague, no transmission via bite – only one human being stealing the body and will of another. Haitians were themselves the descendants of African slaves, and the horror of that experience dug itself deep into their stories and traditions.

George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead is credited with cementing the modern zombie’s legacy in 1968. Instead of a sorcerer, the ghouls are supposedly reanimated by radiation coming off a space probe returning from Venus. Romero’s zombies aren’t slaves so much as mindless masses, driven only by an accident of scientific advancement and a deep desire to consume.

By the time zombies became the result of an infection – and the phrase “zombie epidemic” coined and popularized – our population had swelled, our climate had changed, and our expansion into habitats normally reserved for wildlife had exposed us to disease. Our next fear became the idea that we had reached carrying capacity as a species, and that one day soon, our interdependence and complacency would cause us to crush ourselves under our own weight. Cue your World War Zs, your Left 4 Deads, and your Zombielands

Of course, reading and watching zombie fiction has a beneficial side effect other than letting us experience fear in a more visceral, immediate way. It helps us to see the ways we were wrong about how we’d handle the onslaught of global disease. On Twitter, some are pointing out that the end of the world is more boring than we thought it would be, that the outfits aren’t as cool, and there are way more emails about what Five Guys is doing about all this.

Corona Zombies aside, it’s not difficult to imagine that COVID-19 will become part of our disaster fiction lexicon in the days ahead. We don’t weather stuff like this together without developing a few more cultural touchstones for our fears. The catastrophe writers of the near future might imagine a slower, more insidious zombie takeover -- one with frequent updates from the CDC, debates on whether and which face masks actually work, and humanity policing ourselves to keep quarantining and flattening the curve.

Maybe, if we look distantly enough, we can see the next monster slouching over the horizon, waiting to terrify us anew.