The Modern Identity and the Monster


zombie Buffered selfThe horror story in general, turns fear, “whether personal or social, into a specific type of monster; and seeks to contain and destroy it” (Worland 17).

The zombie is the most popular monster in our modern horror stories.  So the walking dead must be a product of some collective anxiety in our culture.

The key questions, then, are Who are we?–What do we fear?–How are zombies an embodiment of that fear?

Who are we?  Many writers and thinkers have described our collective identity as “modern.”  Modern, not in the sense of keeping current, but in the more philosophical sense of holding to the beliefs of Modernism.

The ideas found in Modernism originated about 300 years ago and they spread until they became the dominant way of understanding the world and the self in the West.  The main characteristics of the modern identity are:

  1. The modern identity is secular.  By secular I mean that the modern self believes there is nothing that transcends the material world, or, if there is, it has no relevance to one’s life.  In other words, the modern self lives life in the absence of anything supernatural: in a strictly natural world.
  2. The modern self is also individualistic rather than communal; he is independent and doesn’t feel as much obligation to others as our pre-modern ancestors did.
  3. The modern self is also autonomous and often says things that mean, “Your not the boss of me!”
  4. The modern self believes in clear boundaries between categories like mind/body, natural/supernatural, material/spiritual, imminent/transcendent, public and private, rational/emotional, fact/value, reason/faith, knowledge/belief and objective/subjective.
  5. Another characteristic of modernism is the belief in progress.  Modernity has long believed that we need to get rid of silly superstitions and religious beliefs.  Reason rather than religion will allow the human race to continue up the road toward perfection and science and technology will solve the problems that we face.

Philosopher Charles Taylor further clarrifies the modern identity as a “buffered self.” All of the characteristics of the modern self work together to insulate the self.  Because it is secular, it is insulated from anything supernatural (gods, spirits, ghosts, demons); because it is individualistic and autonomous, it is isolated from others.  And because it has such faith the subject/object dichotomy, it is separated from the physical world around it.

As a modern monster, the zombie is the embodiment of the fears of the modern person.

Second question: What does the modern identity fear?

Given the events of the last century, the faith the modern self has placed in Reason, Science and Technology has been shaken.  Two World Wars, one Great Depression, the Nuclear Arms Race, ecological disasters, and AIDS have made us wonder, even fear, that Reason, Science and Technology are not all they are cracked up to be.  This sort of uncertainty unsettles identity.  So modern folks like us have been asking some tough questions:  Science and Technology gave us the computer, but didn’t it also figured out the A-bomb and drone warfare?  Am I the boss of technology, or is it the boss of me?  Will science be able to solve climate change?  Technology helped us to catch a lot more fish, but what do we do when there are no fish?  Will I truly be happy if I have a nice place in the Hamptons?  Are we really better off than Laura Ingles Wilder?

The modern identity is in doubt, and when our collective identity is uncertain, the monsters attack.  And they always attack at the weak points.

The third question: How are zombies an embodiment of that fear?

The answer to this question will be explored in the many posts which follow.  But it starts with Romero’s Night of the Living Dead.  Romero took zombie narratives in a whole new direction from the voodoo zombie films, a direction consistent with the cultural texture of secular modernity: one which no longer recognized the relevance, and even the presence of transcendent reality; one which is individualistic and autonomous; one which believes in clear categories and progress.  For this reason, it is called the first modern zombie film.

We are no longer entirely Modern, but the uncertainty created by the shift from Modernism to what ever it is we are now, is one of the reasons for the zombie invasion of that began in 1968.

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