Zombies had never been my thing. My first real exposure to zombie flicks came on a train ride from New York City to Albany when I was tired of working and turned to Netflix for some mindless entertainment. It was entirely out of character for me to choose Word War Z, but the trailer made me think it might be a “legit” movie (you know, with decent plot and writing), albeit one about dead people who run around biting living people. I remember watching Brad Pitt shooting, punching, and stabbing at the hordes of zombies and how my body flinched and twitched in my Amtrak seat each time he did, as if I were fighting alongside him.
Since then, I’ve tested that physical response when I watch, for example Game of Thrones or The Living Dead or yet another ad for a zombie video game. Sure enough, there is something really satisfying about killing zombies. There are tons of theories about why we like zombies and why, in particular, we like destroying them as violently as possible. In “Why Do We Love Zombies?” Adam Rosenberg quotes Call of Duty: Zombies Creative Lead Jimmy Zielinski as saying, “You’re able to kill a human and ‘get away with it,’ but it’s not really a human. So it’s kind of okay, this killing that you’re doing.” I think that’s right. But the scarier issue is why are we so hell-bent on killing in the first place?
Something Scarier Than Zombies
When I witness zombies getting impaled by crowbars or crunching like bags of Doritos under pickup trucks, I experience some kind of involuntary, primitive thrill. Shoot them in the head and splatter their zombie brains all over wall? That’s even better. That we love playing zombie games and watching zombie movies reveals some key things about our culture. I boil it down this way:
- We are fascinated with killing people.
- Killing people isn’t socially acceptable.
- So we create villainous, lumbering pseudo-people and we kill them!
- That way, we feel okay about killing.
This construct lets us, as Rosenberg puts it, “validate” murder. We get an awesome adrenalin buzz but our conscience is clear because we safeguarded society from annihilation. The 74 humanoids we just shot, stabbed, crushed, and burned were a threat to life as we know it. Somehow, though, I don’t think we’d get the same satisfaction from blowing away blobs of yellow gelatin or swarms of attacking sheep. We Americans like to play at killing people—people who are just un-human enough to make us feel okay about it.
And that, more than any zombie, scares the crap out of me.