The word apocalypse is often equated with downed power lines, collapsed buildings and the looting of electronics stores (which doesn’t make much sense given the downed power lines). Add a huge herd of zombies to the mayhem and you have the zombie apocalypse.
“Apocalypse” (Ἀποκάλυψις) is a Greek word meaning “revelation.” So, the “zombie apocalypse” literally means “that which zombies reveal.”
Astute zombie fans already suspect that zombies are trying to tell us something. The problem is getting past all that moaning (and grabbing and biting) in order to hear what they are saying.
Zombies are monsters, and so in order to understand what they are revealing specifically, one must understand the function of monsters in general.
Monsters are created and defined by the stories they inhabit. In these stories they attack or threaten a group of people. This group of people is defended or protected by a hero. Together these elements express and reinforce the identity of a group of a group of people.
All groups have an identity–a way they think of themselves as a people, and it’s very important. The hero possesses the qualities that the people value. Those listening to or reading the story can say the hero is us, but he is the best of us.
But identity is a tricky thing. It’s as if they are based on shifting sand. They are often in flux and they become uncertain. This is where monsters come in. They attack the fence between the “us” and the “not us” as if to say, “Are you sure you know who you are?”
In his book Strangers, Gods and Monsters, Richard Kearney says that “monsters scare the hell out of us and remind us that we don’t know who we are (Strangers 117).
Kearney argues that “[m]ost ideas of identity . . . have been constructed in relation to some notion of alterity” (66). He means that one of the main ways we understand ourselves is through encounters with what we are not. Monsters are an embodiment alterity.
This is why monsters, even as they threaten to destroy us, tell us a lot about ourselves as a society. Monsters are often an important component of our stories, whether told around a campfire, in a novel or on the movie screen. As such, they play an important role in the creation of our collective identity.
The zombie is the modern monster. It attacks the modern identity, because the modern identity is in flux and we are uncertain of who we are. They challenge how we think of ourselves and they suggest some scary ways we might consider adjusting our self conceptions.
When monsters are defeated by the hero, the collective identity is secured, perhaps with a few alterations, but stability is achieved.
But zombies have not been defeated as yet. They keep coming and coming. Movie after movie is made and they keep coming. Zombies tell us our identity is in crisis.
This is what zombies reveal to us; this is the zombie apocalypse.