What is it about zombies?
In recent years, the zombie craze has gotten much crazier. We had zombie movies, to be sure, but now we have even more zombie movies, zombie TV shows, zombie books, zombie marathons, zombie bumper stickers, zombie T-shirts (of which most of my wardrobe is comprised) and of course, many variations of zombie games.
These games run the gamut from simple little pea shooters to more complex gigs on smartphones to any range of simple to the extremely complicated on computers and consoles. Sometimes, there’s a mention or cameo of zombies (like the zombie level in Call of Duty) and sometimes there are entire games devoted just to them (such as Dead Island). From the “big” studios to small independents, you can find a zombie game to suit your style. Unless, of course, you’re not into the shambling undead.
And why, you might ask, are we so into walking corpses and I would say even more generally, apocalyptic themes? It’s a good question, one that even scholars spend time on. If you type in “zombie” to a search engine, right off the bat, you’ll notice that even just the top five links are from vastly different arenas; there’s the obligatory wikipedia link about zombies (which is a fun read about history and the various media in which zombies make their appearance), there’s links to movies, images, games, definitions and zombies in the news. And as you continue to scroll down, now come the links about why life itself may feel like a slogging zombie, etc.
I personally think zombies represent the deep fear humans have around loss of ego and civilization, which are deep existential fears on different levels. Loss of one’s own identity as a “Self” can be terrifying and indeed is often what might divert droves of humans away from a very intense and deep meditation or spiritual practice. Coming up on the edge of the supposed “abyss” that is “Not Me” is a recipe for sending the human ego bits running and screaming as if its hair were on fire. Which is actually not so far from the truth.
The zombie is the inherent breakdown of all that, Self, Ego, Identity, and not in a good way, but a reduction to the basest of mindless drives. Eat and basically survive. All sense of who you once were, broken down to reptilian bits. No more of whatever it is that you love, whatever brings you joy, nothing of the unique things that make you You. No more connection with fellow humans (which I’ll get to in more detail discussing the collapse of civilization), no more appreciation of your environs, no more feelings of any kind, nothing but CHASE and EAT. Yet, the body form of “you” is still running around (or stumbling around, depending of what kind of zombie “you” are, I suppose) and there’s something pretty horrifying about that, this empty shell once full of vibrant, unique human Self. What might be more interesting and probably even more horrifying, would be the idea that “you” might still be in there somewhere, trapped, and cognizant of being subsumed by this mindless erasure of conscious Self. However, there are very, very few zombie “mythoi” (the plural of mythos) that point to such an idea. (I’ve read a book or two that implied there might still be “Self” stuck deep down in the rotting shell, but overall, it’s often not a thing in the zombie realm).
So the zombie is the direct destruction of the conscious Self but the zombie is also the destruction of civilization. I don’t mean just the civilization we know of in terms of cities and technology and going to the bank and learning stuff and playing videos games collapsing and going away. I mean the civilization of being human in connection with other humans; the larger sense of a grand We, more than just a lonely individual self. We humans, for all our protestations, are intensely social creatures. We do actually depend upon each other for needs that go far deeper (or maybe far higher) than just those basic needs of survival: food, shelter, safety. A feeling of community, yes, and ultimately, a deep sense of Belonging. Because, really, it is the connection with others that makes us fully human. So as civilization, the ability to engage in wider community, disintegrates, not just the “I”, but the “We” falls apart as well. And I think that terrifies us.
(An aside… The second season of The Walking Dead, funnily enough, often pointed to as the “worst” season thus far, was a beautiful portrayal of the break down of civilization and awful melancholy pervasively seeping in. Remember the poster for Season Two? Rick running away from camera, a lonely farmhouse to the side, all adrift in sepia tones, just him on the road. That is a feeling of some melancholy right there, I tell you. My husband and I feel the second season was the best season of the show to date, minus a few episodes here and there in other seasons (usually with single word titles, like “Clear”, okay, I know most of them have single word titles…. but the ones that truly focused on the interconnections of the group, the depth of loss and grief, which I’ll talk about in a bit). Okay, aside done).
So not only do you have the potential to become a mindless, slavering monster, but your connections fall away, the things you know and are comfortable and familiar with disappear and there’s the potential for violence amongst the rest of the living. There’s a great deal of loss and grief right there. We humans aren’t so great at dealing with grief. Well, I should say Grief. The kind that gets right down into the internal bits of the Self. And it feels HORRIBLE. And we like to avoid HORRIBLE as much as possible. Which is a shame, because once Grief is really, truly Grieved, things aren’t actually so horrible. There’s opportunity for even more and deeper Connection, with Self, with the We, with the present moment. I think we truly get, deep down, what an apocalypse, especially of the undead kind, would really mean to humanity.
So, then, why zombie games? What better way than to tackle some of those fears without actually having to be in the midst of the slavering hordes?! Not that everyone is going to be approaching these games with the mind of “I will now sit down to slay the monsters of my psyche!” but I’m willing to bet the unconscious draw is there. Plus, you can approach it in so many ways:
Imagine wading into hundreds and hundreds of zombies wearing nothing but a banana hammock and construction boots (okay, I fully admit that was my favorite outfit to put on Nick), wielding a flaming death skull scythe, and cutting down massive swaths of groaning and clawing undead, all the while racing against the countdown when a nuclear bomb will be dropped on the city. You can definitely do that in Dead Rising 3 by Capcom.
On the “survival” end, you can set up a safe base and scavenge for supplies, ammunition, materials and survivors while defending yourself from zombie hordes and various creepy mutant zombies, trying to help others in need and figure a way out of the valley in Undead Lab’s State of Decay.
You can help various groups of surviving factions in the city of Harran, in Dying Light by Techland, also quite similar in feel to their game Dead Island, while you parkour and bludgeon your way through the undead, although you might want to bed down for the night in one of the safe houses, because there’s some freaky shit that comes out at night.
In Turtle Rock Studios’ Left 4 Dead, you can team up with other players (you know, the real life human kind), and make your way from Point A to Point B, dealing with zombie puke which then draw in the munchy hordes, in the dark with nothing but a stupid little pinpoint of light from your flashlight…. yeah, loads of screaming fun. (I say this with sarcasm because I think I just about had enough of the jumping out of my seat when something would come charging out of the dark at me!).
In the cute iPhone game called Plants Vs. Zombies by PopCap Games, you set up defenses (using the plants) to defend your home against armies of zombies coming across the lawn with, of course, brain-eating intent. It’s a “simple” (and challenging) tower defense game with cute graphics. You’d probably laugh more at those zombie than flee screaming.
While not expressly zombies, but about the same thing, you can engage in truly great story telling by the excellent studios of Naughty Dog, following the adventure and plight of Joel and Ellie in their unusual survival horror The Last of Us. Seriously, if you have not played this game, do it. It will make you think hard at the end. (And also, you will never ever forget the really creepy sound of a Clicker around the corner….)
But in any case, what is more satisfying than the broad destruction of the undead?! Laying them out with a blunt object, lighting them on fire, shooting them multiple times, getting a nice clean headshot, decapitating them, running them over, chopping them up, taking on tons of them while you flex your mighty zombie-slaying muscles and shout “RAWR!!” And a small part of you is unconsciously (or maybe quite consciously) thankful that you don’t have to do this in real life.