This generation’s guns-and-bunkers fantasy is objectively better than its predecessors.
It’s Halloween season as I write this, and that means non-stop zombie jokes and references. It means folks dragging out the same old fantasies about how they’d survive a zombie apocalypse, whether by building a safehouse, planning a defense, or just enjoying a few of the hundreds of video games that allow one to machine-gun the hell out of an unending army of the living dead. (I personally like Left 4 Dead 2, but everyone’s got their favorites.)
This fantasy, of being one of a few tough holdouts against a horde of enemies, of surviving the collapse of all the civilized structures designed to keep that scenario from happening, is kind of a guy thing. It’s especially strong in the teen years, when a testosterone-flooded system yearns for violent catharsis and adolescent rebellion has little use for civilized mores. Even after that age, though, the fantasy holds a certain appeal. It’s fun to imagine a scenario where you can stop worrying about taxes and traffic lights and rent checks, where all your problems are refreshingly immediate and most of them can be solved via shotgun. It’s legitimately entertaining to tell yourself how you’d come through an impossible armageddon alive and well, surviving in a harsh and unforgiving world.
On the other hand, it’s also pretty much pure unreconstructed machismo. As one internet commenter noted:
Zombie movies are going to be popular as long as dudes fantasize about being in a situation where the most valuable possible trait is the capacity for heteromasculine violence and sociopathy towards the diseased and weak.
The thing is, this naive critique of the zombie apocalypse fantasy actually underscores its strength. Because to criticize the zombie apocalypse as a macho survival fantasy is to ignore its existence in the context of other macho survival fantasies.
As Western society has grown more civilized, stable, and prosperous, things have gotten safer. There’ve always been those who criticized this very concept, guys who felt that men were growing weak and soft because of their lives being insufficiently imperiled. My favorite is still the one who blamed the wussy modern men of the 1920s on, no kidding, safety razors. Most of us, though, just enjoy the occasional fantasy of how if that safety and civilization were taken away, we’d still be totally awesome. And those fantasies, too, are growing more civilized.
Back a generation or two, the apocalypse was scheduled to be nuclear. Fallout shelters sold like mad, each one stocked with canned food and plenty of ammo, because once they dropped the bomb, your less-paranoid neighbors would be trying to steal your canned food and you’d have to kill ’em. This fantasy developed further, into a whole post-nuclear genre of fiction, all positing a Mad Max future where heavily-armed dudes in badass leather outfits ruled the wastelands.
Then, too, there were the paramilitary fantasies, embodied in the right-wing cult favorite Red Dawn, where the only thing that can defeat the forces of international communism is a bunch of, yes, heavily-armed teenage boys having the best camping trip ever. These fantasies are still acted out by a diminishing number of kooks and paranoids, but they’ve lost a lot of steam as one apocalypse after another (nuclear war, Y2K, the Rapture, etc.) has been cancelled on them.
Today, people’s fantasies revolve around a safely imaginary apocalypse: zombies. Unlike nuclear war, the dead rising to feast on the living will not be less likely next year than it is this year. Its likelihood is… steady, let’s say. Other than that, it’s got all the hallmarks of a great apocalypse fantasy. It’s got bunkers, looting, mysterious lone wanderers, and best of all, the opportunity to shoot all the people you want, consequence-free.
Let’s just admit it: we’ve all wanted to shoot someone. We don’t actually do it because it’s wrong, and if we’re not at that level of moral development, we don’t do it because society has a lot of structures to disincentivize murder. But we indulge the fantasies nonetheless, because we’re human and there’s a part of us that’s always going to want to shoot our way out of trouble.
And that’s where the zombie apocalypse differs. Because for the first time in history, we’ve stopped fantasizing about shooting people. The entire point of zombie hunting is that the people you’re shooting at are dead. They’re not people any more. There’s frequently a scene in zombie fiction where someone has to drive this point home: the zombies aren’t saveable, they aren’t going to get better, they’re upright corpses with teeth. (Can’t overemphasize the teeth.)
When you kill a pushy neighbor, a godless commie, or even Master Blaster, you’re extinguishing a human existence, a person with as much complexity and inner life as yourself. And that’s something we’ve grown increasingly less comfortable with. More and more, we’ve internalized the idea that killing people is actually wrong, not just sorta wrong. Our old fantasies of killing people with impunity feel more inappropriate every year. The Red Dawn remake flopped like a dying trout.
We still love the fantasy of violent self-reliance and freedom from society’s rules, we still get off on the notion that killing people without consequences would be cool as hell. But the form that fantasy takes shows that we’ve learned that killing human beings IS a consequence, that shooting people is intrinsically wrong, with or without societal rules against it.
Zombies, however, aren’t people any more, so we can blast the hell out of ’em with total moral impunity. And let’s face it: that’s awesome.