Human beings have always told stories and monsters frequently threaten the protagonists of these stories. They obviously generate suspense and excitement, but they have another function–they challenge the identity of the audience. This is actually why they are scary in the first place. They tell us who we are, testing the fence between what we think we are and what we think we aren’t. They represent the opposite of who we like to think we are–a philosopher might say they represent “otherness,” but then they run up against the boundaries between the self and the other. They test the fence and they are clever beasts, because they always attack at the weak spots. Those places where we are unsure about who we are. This is why monsters, as they threaten identity, tell us a lot about ourselves as a society.
For instance. In the eighteenth-century, there was a lot of talk going around about human origins and people were looking for a mechanism that could explain how humans evolved from animals. Obviously, this brings up a lot of questions about human identity. Enter, the Wolfman. Although the idea of the Wolfman had been around for a long time, he got really popular at just the time when people are concerned about the boundaries between humans and animals. The Wolfman challenge the boundaries that concerned the Victorians the most. He attacks right at the weak spot in the boundary between the self and the other.
Monsters change. The Wolfman isn’t nearly as popular as he was 150 years ago. That’s because we have changed. We aren’t as concerned about the boundaries between humans and animals. Our identity has changes, so our monsters have change.
Zombies are everywhere these days. This popularity suggests that these lurching and drooling corpses are testing our collective identities at points where we are a little uncertain.
In 1968, George Romero defined the “modern” zombie. In Night of the Living Dead he transforms earlier ideas of the undead and the transformation is a monster tailor made to scare the crap out of the modern identity.
I believe that the popularity of zombies reveals a serious crisis in our modern identity. All narrative monsters, in effect, ask questions of the culture in which their stories are told. The answers to the questions the zombies ask are disturbing because our situation is grave. Many are infected, perhaps even you. Unless we find a cure we are doomed.
There is hope, however. I believe I have discovered a cure.