The Function of Our Fear-Fantasy

Why are zombie movies so popular these days? I’ve heard a few theories lately but haven’t been satisfied with them so I figured I’d offer my own. One thing to keep in mind is that zombies have changed in film over the past 30 years. At first they were living dead who were under the control of a voodoo witch doctor. They didn’t eat your brains and you couldn’t become one if they bit you. So for clarity, we really need to consider the zombies of today’s movies.

One of the ways to understand American eras is to consider what they were afraid of and one of the best ways to do that is to consider the horror movies of that era. Invasion of the Body Snatchers was so powerful at the time because of the fear of Communist invasion. What if your neighbor was a secret Communist? The Day the Earth Stood Still, Them and The Incredible Shrinking Man (for example) demonstrated our fear of nuclear war and nuclear radiation. So what are we afraid of today that makes zombie films so popular?

Given the modern version of zombies, I think they are popular because we’re afraid of people who don’t think like us. They appear to be human but distorted humans. They appear mindless, yet driven by some force we don’t understand. And there is a fear that we might become like them if we get close.

Who is “them”? Could be anyone who is different from us. Conservatives, Christians, Muslims, Liberals, atheists, whoever. “They” are so different and scary because they don’t think like us and we have a sneaky suspicion that they’re out to get us. This difference feels like an attack and so the only response is equally violent. They must be destroyed. Their thought process has be obliterated. That’s why the way you kill a zombie is to destroy its brain.

Multi-culturalism seems to be such a great idea but in practice it doesn’t really overcome our basic fear of those we don’t understand. Why can’t they become more “normal”, that is, more like us? And yet we see them as essentially human yet their differences are frightening. Fortunately, people don’t act on their fear-fantasy and attack others. And that is the another function of our fear-fantasy; it expresses our fears and gives us a safe vent for a reaction to them where no one gets hurt.

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  • Interesting theory. I am a closet horror film fan. My mother raised me on monster movies in the summer, especially the classics. I’ve slot about the reasons for diffrent horror film writing and attraction and that much of it is a way to write on depravity, how it is overcome, and how it can never be fully overcome (notice how most of the favorite monsters and horror movies always have monsters with sone kind of ability to keep from completely being eradicated and could always come back).

    But to your theory on zombies…

    The new TV series, Walking Dead, had a scientist reveal that the zombies were people killed by a virus or some type of bacteria that then grew ionly n a small portion of the brain that controlled motor function and hunger.

    The modern zombies are lifeless people who are only interested and driven by filling their hunger. They are dead but never fully die. Does hat reflect America or what?

  • Wow, that’s great Matt! It sounds like Pirates of the Caribbean when Barbosa is talking about what it like to be undead. Thirst that can’t be slacked, lust that can’t be sated. Sounds just like our modern zombies.

    I have more to write on this and will probably be editing this post. I think I’ll have to address your observation. It is really good!

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