Zombies are thouroughly physical, completely physical monsters; there is nothing in them that is spiritual, supernatureal or even superhuman. The zombie reflects reality as it is understood by modern man: one bereft of transcendence. Ideally suited to shamble through a purely physical world, the zombies terrorize the residents of this world–that’s us, modern secular humanity.
Monsters basically do two things that worry us. First, and most obvious, they make us dead.
The monsters second, and I think more interesting, function, is the test boundaries–usually boundaries between “them” and “us.” People have an idea about what’s good and what’s bad, what’s “us” and what’s “them.” Monsters challenge these categories reminding us that they are pretty flimsy. According to Kearney, monsters evoke fear because they transgress “the conventional frontiers,” and in doing so they remind us “that we don’t know who we are” (Strangers 117).
Like all monsters, the zombie kills victims and transgresses boundaries. Its uniqueness lies in the particular boundaries that it blurs, the nature of the death it brings and in its presentation as a horde; each of these is a particular horror for the modern secular identity.
The monsters of old trangressed different boundaries than they do today. People had a different understanding of reality than we do. They lived in the ordered wholeness of the cosmos, filled with categories that ensured order and held meaning. The monsters, through supernatural means, transgressed boundaries between human and nonhuman and between living and dead. These monsters were demons, ghosts and witches.
Later, post-Enlightenment monsters lost the spiritual dimension that the monsters of Christian mythologies possessed. Asma says these more natural monsters “came under the new umbrella of a mechanistic worldview, and spiritual monsters (e.g., demons and devils) were sent packing, along with diviners, priests, and theologians, never to return in any significant way to the pages of the natural philosophers” (149).
As modern monsters, zombies occupy the space between immanent categories.
The modern monsters still transgress boundaries, but rather than supernatural ones, they transgress natural or immanent categories—often animal and man—and “usually possess the worst but most potent qualities of both species: brute strength, diabolical intellect, deceit, lechery, lust for power, and savage disregard for life” (Paffenroth 7). As the idea of the mechanistic universe strengthened at the expense of the old cosmos, the monsters lost much of their transcendence but were still superhuman. Frankenstein’s creation, the wolf-man and Count Dracula are such monsters.
But in the zombie we see the absence or irrelevance of the transcendent. Monsters threaten identity because they transgress boundaries, and as modern monsters zombies occupy the space between immanent categories. Immanent categories would include individual/group, humourous/horrific, self/other, conscious/unconscious, consumer/consumed, human/not human and most significantly, life/death.
Zombies are monsters, but they are a very different kind of monster than those that came before.