What do Viagra and Zombies Have in Common?

Back in November, I was supposed to be on a panel titled “Why Zombies, Why Now?” Unfortunately, I’d fallen ill (which is ironic considering the premise of this post) and could not attend.

Thinking about the topic, the answer to the question “Why zombies, why now?” isn’t that zombies are metaphors for our fear of death or loss of identity. Zombies reflect our fear of being sick.

So why “now”?

The “Why Now” element could be taken two ways: why now and not another time; or, why are they still around right now?

WarmBodies_002

I think with the fading enthusiasm for The Walking Dead, we are on the down swing of zombie popularity. But Warm Bodies could change that if it’s a hit.

This post is not about the history of zombies, so suffice to say zombies have been part of popular cultural for a long time. Night of the Living Dead introduced (or at least popularized) the modern version of the walking dead and their popularity has waxed and waned ever since.

But to the second way to interpret it: Why are we *still* dealing with zombies?

It’s because zombies might be the best, most flexible allegorical element in fantastic fiction. They can represent racism, consumerism, militarism, collectivism, socio-economic disparity, cultural homogeneity or just about anything else.

What’s changed is zombies have become a very literal symbol of something that we, as a culture, are terrified of: disease.

We’re more afraid of living poorly than of death

We used to fear death. We now talk about right to die, euthanasia and dying with dignity. Watching our parents and grandparents wither away in their 80s and 90s, warehoused in senior centers, we’ve come to realize death might not be such a bad thing.

We don’t fear death; living with a poor quality of life terrifies us. And while one’s quality of life in one’s 90s is more a trick of genetics, quality of life—that perfect life—in our younger years is an obsession.

There’s a pill for that

bonermedsWatch the nightly news on an American network. Look at all the commercials for drugs and hospitals. Everything is a disease to be conquered

Exercise and diet can address high blood pressure, but why bother when there’s a pill? While hand sanitizer stations were prudent during the H1N1 Flu outbreak in 2009,  Purell is now part of the common lexicon as a noun, just like Kleenex, Q-Tips and Rollerblades.

And a disease isn’t a real disease unless it has an acronym. A man with low testerone levels has “Low T.” And not “lo tee”, but “loat-ee”, a liaison connecting the second consonant like the term has been around long enough for the pronunciation to have morphed. The same with Restless Leg Syndomre. “Ar-el-es?” Heck no, you have “ar’les”.

Whereas previous generations learned to live with certain things (and perhaps unfairly so), we want things to not only be fixed, but optimized. Viagara and Cialis won’t just fix your erectile dysfunction,  but give you a happy marriage. Lunesta won’t just put you to sleep, but give your energy and vigor in the morning. We demand to have the perfect life free of all hardships.

Zombies are sick

Feed by Mira Grant has two man-made viruses, one to cure cancer and the other to cure the cold, combining to give rise to zombies.

So what does that have to do with zombies? Recently, zombies have changed from “the walking dead” to “the infected.” Witness 28 Days Later. The Walking Dead (television series) visited the CDC looking for a cure, a cure Hershel Greene (in both the series and comics) believed existed. Max Brooks’ World War Z and the Zombie Survival Guide describes stages of how the zombie virus overcomes a healthy host. Books by Joe McKinney, Jonathan Maberry and Mira Grant all have the “zombie as virus” element.

Now take a look at the Google NGram search for “zombie plague”. It remains flat until the late 90s, rises a bit, then shoots up around 2004. While zombies have functioned as an expression of one fear or another since the 60s, today zombies represent our fear of disease.

And it’s not not just killers like cancer or ALS, or debilitating conditions like Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s. It’s anything that stands in the way of the perfect life. TV and magazine ads promise a life free of bad moods, soft penises or restless nights. So what better view of the perfect life through a glass darkly than a zombie plague? Mindless, decaying, engaging in the horrific taboo of cannibalism. And not because of God’s punishment, nuclear experiments or chemical spills, but illness. Don’t get sick or you’ll be a zombie.

And for the living survivors? Being dirty, hungry, displaced and tired. In an age where middle age adults care for their ailing parents, we don’t just see disease standing in the way of something better. The sick and infirmed around us are to blame for losing the perfect life we dreamed we were supposed to have.

What do you think?

Am I on the money here? Or missing something? Tell me in the comments if you think zombies represent our fear of disease.

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