[Noozhawk’s note: First in a series.]
Some people who watched the episode thought I might have been advocating for the existence of actual zombies and that there was a scientific rationale for this. I will go on record now as saying I do not believe zombies — as typically seen in movies and television — are real. Nor do I believe it is likely that humans could ever be transformed into a zombie-like state (I will talk about some exceptions to this in Part 2). Nevertheless, I do believe zombies are important and have a psychological existence within our psyches.
It seems we have zombies on our minds. My theory (shared by almost every other psychological writer on zombies) is that zombies represent the lower, more bestial aspects of ourselves that we typically keep repressed. These aspects of ourselves cause a great deal of anxiety that we defend against through repression. What about these aspects? They are primitive, oral and aggressive. Hence the zombies’ predilection for eating people alive. Zombies may grab you with their hands, but it’s their mouths and teeth that kill you. The preferred food for zombies is brains. This makes sense when we understand zombies to be fundamentally irrational. Both actually, and metaphorically, zombies seek to destroy our higher thoughts and aspirations.
Zombies may also represent fear of the mob. We like to think ourselves safe within the bubble of our lives. But the outside world is frightening. When we read about crime or watch the news, it sometimes seems as if everything outside is dangerous. It is as if other people are mindless automatons bent on mayhem and destruction. Or as Freud puts it in The Future of an Illusion (1927):
“They will have to admit to themselves the full extent of their helplessness and their insignificance in the machinery of the universe; they can no longer be the center of creation, no longer the object of tender care on the part of a beneficent Providence. They will be in the same position as a child who has left the parental house where he was so warm and comfortable. But surely infantilism is destined to be surmounted. Men cannot remain children forever; they must in the end go out into ‘hostile life’. We may call this ‘education to reality’.” (p. 48)
We may be shocked at the realization of the senselessness of a zombie-infested world, so mindless and irrational. A school principal is shot for no apparent motive. His attacker is zombie-like in his mindless, unthinking aggression. The same for school shooters, bank robbers, gang members, disgruntled post office employees, etc. Or perhaps there is a motive — a mugging in which someone loses his or her life over the most trivial possession — but this is also revealed to be another case of zombie-like selfish aggression. Because who in their right, logical, thinking mind would perpetuate such acts of violence against fellow human beings?
From the aspect of our rational mind, most violence starts to resemble the action of zombies. Better to stay away from places where people are gathering. Their cannibalistic, orally aggressive urges linger just below the surface, ready to spring forth at any moment. It is better to stay locked up inside, safe in a well-defended home, stocked with food … and plenty of ammo.
Yet, there is always the insidious threat that someone inside has already been infected and could turn zombie at any time. Best to keep a close eye even on those we know best. This type of paranoia is also an aspect of zombies. In an excellent scene in the television show, The Walking Dead, two of the protagonists smear themselves in zombie blood and guts so they can go among the undead horde undetected. Apparently the zombies detect normal humans by smell and the fetid offal masks this. The heroes shuffle along pretending to be zombies, while the “real” zombies eye them curiously, sniffing at them. The ruse works until it starts to rain, their disguise is stripped away, and they are revealed as human.
This scene reminded me of the Kafka story, The Metamorphosis, in which the protagonist is no longer able to go through the motions of fitting into human society (in this case because he has turned into a giant cockroach). His facade of humanity removed, he is revealed as a monster.
The Walking Dead episode delivers a message that is just the opposite! We must act like monsters to be part of a deranged society, and if our zombie-like attributes are stripped away we will be persecuted for our humanity. How many of us can relate? How many of us at one time or another have had to metaphorically cover ourselves in something disgusting to prevent negative attention to our true selves? Perhaps this is the adaptation we must make to venture out among the “hostile life,” the “education to reality” that allows us coexist with our fellow zombies?
— Kevin Volkan is a psychology professor at CSU Channel Islands. He holds doctorates in clinical and educational psychology, as well as a master’s degree in public health; has written numerous journal articles; and is the author of a book on compulsive drug use. He writes the Bizarre Behaviors & Culture-Bound Syndromes blog with CSUCI colleague Neil Rocklin.