al-Qaeda and Zombies: Is there a connection? Guest post by Dr. Kyle Bishop

What does the future hold?

Given this week’s topic, it seems fitting that next week I review The Slab by Jeff Marriotte.  If you’ve read The Slab, you’ll understand the connection.  If not, I’ll tell you next Friday (but it’s not zombies).  And the Friday following (1/20), I’ll be posing my Seven Questions to Jeff.

But without further ado…

As I responded in the comments section of last week’s post, if you would’ve told me twenty-some-odd years ago when I was in high school with Kyle Bishop that I would be featuring an excerpt on my blog from his academic text on zombie films in popular culture, well, my first response would’ve been, “What’s a blog?”

But there would’ve been several other questions that would’ve followed.  For one, I had no idea that Kyle was another horror movie fan.  And for another, at that point in my life, even though I loved writing stories, I was getting ready to major in Biology. 

So needless to say, it was a pleasant surprise to run into Kyle many years later and find out he had written his Ph.D. dissertation on zombie movies.  Academia needs more Kyle Bishops, English professors who don’t look down their noses at genre storytelling and, as Kyle has done, even go so far as to examine deeper connections between these genres and our civilization (or fall thereof 🙂 )

And NOW without further ado…

When it came to picking an excerpt from Kyle’s American Zombie Gothic: The Rise and Fall (and Rise) of the Walking Dead in Popular Culture, after being given the go-ahead from his publisher for reprint of 1000 words, I debated whether I should use his preface (where his voice, an entertaining one at that, comes through) or his intro where he states his main argument.  Ultimately, I decided on the latter because I think it sets up the rest of the book.  And it’s a pretty fascinating concept.

First, the legalese:

From American Zombie Gothic: The Rise and Fall (and Rise) of the Walking Dead in Popular Culture © 2010 Kyle William Bishop by permission of McFarland & Company, Inc., Box 611, Jefferson NC 28640. http://www.mcfarlandpub.com.

Introduction

Jerrold E. Hogle has said, “[Gothic fiction] helps us address and disguise some of the most important desires, quandaries, and sources of anxiety, from the most internal and mental to the widely social and cultural.”3 For example, wars, natural disasters, financial crises, and other political and social tragedies affect cultural consciousness as much as the blast from a high-yield explosive or a massive earthquake, and the ensuing shockwaves reach far and wide.

One of the most reliable ways to recognize and understand these undulations is by analyzing the literature and dramatization of any particular era. For instance, the use of atomic weapons at the end of World War II ushered in nuclear paranoia narratives such as the films Godzilla (1954) and Them! (1954), and that era’s fear of the encroaching Communist threat inspired alien invasion stories such as Jack Finney’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1954) and the earlier Invaders from Mars (1953). The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, have unleashed perhaps the largest wave of paranoia and anxiety on American society since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. From the beginning of the War on Terror that followed 9/11, the popular culture produced in the United States has been colored by the fear of possible terrorist attacks and the grim realization that people are not as safe and secure as they might have once thought.

As in the past, perceptive scholars can quite readily recognize and understand this shift in the cultural consciousness through patterns in narrative fiction, and I ultimately want to argue that zombie cinema is among the most culturally revealing and resonant fictions of the recent decade of unrest.

Of course, Hans Robert Jauss has already emphasized how we cannot approach a cultural product simply through its historical context or its formal elements alone. Instead, the audience, those intended to receive a given work, prove essentially relevant, for “it is only through the process of its mediation that the work enters into the changing horizon-of-experience of a continuity in which the perpetual inversion occurs from simple reception to critical understanding.”4 In other words, the reception of a literary text, its popularity among consumers, is an important component of cultural studies.

For example, big-screen zombie narratives have proven increasingly popular since their inception in the early 1930s, and in the years following September 11, the number of both studio and independent zombie movies has risen dramatically. Although interest in the subgenre had noticeably decreased during the halcyon days of America in the 1990s, Hollywood has since re-embraced the genre with revisionist films such as 28 Days Later (2002), video game-inspired action movies such as Resident Evil (2002), big-budget remakes such as Dawn of the Dead (2004), and even romantic comedies such as Shaun of the Dead (2004). Even now, the zombie craze shows no signs of slowing down, with 2007 seeing the theatrical releases of Planet Terror, 28 Weeks Later, and Resident Evil: Extinction—the Sundance Film Festival even featured two zombie films that season5—and with a remake of Day of the Dead, George A. Romero’s own Diary of the Dead, and Zombie Strippers all coming out in 2008. David Oakes’ Zombie Movie Data-Base website confirms this increased interest in zombie cinema, with data showing a marked swell in all kinds of zombie narratives over the past ten years, with 41 titles listed for 2008 alone.6 And so far, 2009 is proving to be an even greater banner year for the screen zombie, with titles such as Dead Snow; Romeo & Juliet vs. The Living Dead; Silent Night, Zombie Night; Yesterday; Zombieland; and Romero’s sixth zombie movie, Survival of the Dead, to name just a few of the titles listed on The Internet Movie Database website.7

In a recent interview I conducted with Peter Dendle, Pennsylvania State University professor and an expert on zombies, he observed how the number of amateur zombie movies has “mushroomed considerably” since 2000, with fan filmmakers spending thousands on digital video and fake blood. Although the quality of many of these backyard, straight-to-video and internet-based productions remains a matter of debate, a clear surge in the subgenre’s popularity among fans and filmmakers cannot be denied.

Such an array of films and narrative genres has thus addressed the social and cultural anxieties stemming from recent terrorist attacks, and I want to show that they do so because of a foundation on which they build. The fundamental generic conventions of Gothic fiction in general and zombie cinema in particular make the subgenre the most likely and appropriate vehicle with which to explore America’s post-9/11 cultural consciousness. During the latter half of the twentieth century, for example, zombie movies repeatedly reacted to social and political unrest, graphically representing the inescapable realities of an untimely death (via infection, infestation, or violence) while presenting a grim view of the modern apocalypse in which society’s supportive infrastructure irrevocably breaks down.

The twenty-first-century zombie movies are not much different from their historical antecedents, but society itself has changed markedly since the World Trade Center towers were destroyed, making cinematic zombies and their accompanying narratives all the more timely and affecting. Scenes depicting deserted metropolitan streets, abandoned human corpses, and gangs of lawless vigilantes have become more common than ever, appearing on the nightly news as often as on the movie screen. Because the aftereffects of war, terrorism, and natural disasters so closely resemble the scenarios depicted by zombie cinema, such images of death and destruction have all the more power to shock and terrify a population that has become otherwise jaded to more traditional horror films.

The most telling barometer of this modern age, therefore, is to be found not in the romanticized undead protagonists of vampire melodramas such as Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series (2005–2008) or with the nihilistic sadists torturing victims in the latest Saw movie (2004– ), but in the unstoppable hoards of the zombie invasion narrative. That is why many now speak, and speak correctly, of a current “Zombie Renaissance.”

What do I want from you?

What are your thoughts on this idea?

As you have figured out, this is definitely more of an academic text than a literary one, but if you want to pursue this line of thought, I’d hope you’d check out Kyle’s book.  For more information, click here.

You can also check out a very brief excerpt of Kyle’s piece in Smart Pop Books’ Triumph of The Walking Dead: Robert Kirkman’s Zombie Epic on Page and Screen (which includes a forward by Joe R. Lansdale)To read, click here.

Finally, don’t forget to check back next week for my review of Jeff Marriotte’s The Slab

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25 responses to “al-Qaeda and Zombies: Is there a connection? Guest post by Dr. Kyle Bishop

  1. Okay, so this book sounds interesting! Definitely makes you wonder, the connections and history are awesome. Loved this one Pablo, thanks.

    • Yeah, I hadn’t thought of it before, but this would probably be right up your alley. You’ll have to let me know if you pick it up. Glad you stopped by. Much thanks to you (and from Kyle, I’m sure).

  2. Why are we so fascinated with zombies and their horror? I can’t speak for everyone, but for me, it’s a means of trying to explain real world life. If we substitute a non-existent creature in the place of a real world combatant, it enables us to grasp the complexities of what is with what isn’t while leaving the mind open to ways of elimination.

    Writers hold great power: powers greater than other humans because we are able to expell the bad things from our souls and eliminate those who would or have done us harm. We can wipe the slate clean, writing about means of revenge we would never employ in real life. The spouse who is on the receiving end of a brutal or cheating partner can turn the tables with his/her words and become the winner in the game of a failed union. The abused is now the conqueror, subjecting the abuser to retribution.

    A lonely person can wrap themselves around the suspense of a lurking monster ready to take them out in one swift move as urban legends seep into his mind, making nothing safe, but infusing the horror with a survivalist mentality: one that mandates alertness and negating the need for companions when there are none to be found.

    Free thinkers with agile, open minds can delve into possibilities for wanton killings of humans and animals by not ruling out the chance that maybe, just maybe, the destruction of life came at the hands of a new or old monster. Perhaps a zombie was the cause of the mayhem; a creature capable of retreating back into the shadows once the evil deed is completed.

    But the number one reason for people believing, or wanting to believe in these monsters, I feel, is religion; that great opiate to render the masses capable of domination because of fear. If one fears the power of Satan, will he not fear the power of demons and other creatures under the spell of the Dark One? Will this not lead people to seek their solace within the auspices of the church or seek the direct help of God? So obviously, the dark side of Muslim would be no less innocent of purported zombie attacks than Christianity.

    Then too, not just modern day religions are guilty of such subterfuge. Since the beginning of time, humankind has been told of the evil lurking about them and the need to sacrifice humans and animals on altars to keep others safe. Once more: a case of the High Priests gaining authority by means of spreading these tales of evil-doers.

    Then again, maybe we want to believe, not from fear, but because these monsters have become heroes in a way, able to do what we can merely aspire to achieve. They have the balls to grab what they feel is theirs and take no quarter with anyone.

    Is there a zombie lurking within each and every one of us, waiting, screaming for release?

    Let your inner zombie loose. Allow it to take charge.

    As I write this, I can picture Paul as a zombie super hero, cape and all, ready to rectify the evil deeds perpetrated on humanity in the name of God.

    Go get them, Paul!

    Great post! Kyle was a wonderful choice this week.

    Blaze McRob

    • Guest post by Blaze McRob 🙂

      All kidding aside, I may temper this into a future post when I need a week off. I’ll let you know.

      Anyway, interesting comments. Without having read Kyle’s book in its entirety, I wonder if he addresses some of these points as well. I definitely agree that we writers wield the pen often as our sword.

      Not sure about the link to religion. While I agree that many churches practice fear, I’ve never really linked zombies with Satan, I guess. I think I would fall in with the survivalist camp. You know, the “how long could I survive if I had to” mentality. But who knows? Maybe part of this links into the idea of the biblical ends, just a different version of it. And this is definitely a fear put into our minds by at least Christianity, even for someone like myself who didn’t have a strict religious upbringing.

      The scientific part of me really liked (“Walking Dead” SPOILER ALERT) the comment made by the scientist in the last episode of season one. It really struck me that it was our race’s extinction event. And why not? What makes us so special (or significant in the sense of a living planet) that we shouldn’t potentially be wiped off the face of the Earth?

      Happy Saturday everyone!

      • I’m writing a novel now dealing with the religious aspect of zombies, obviously from the side of the Dark Angel, but where there’s bad, there’s good. We’ll see who wins. 😀

        My scientific background goes to physics and math, but who knows, the twisted mind that is Blaze might just wield some of that into it.

        Actually, I’m writing two novels now dealing with different religions and zombies. One is almost finished.

        Any time you need a week off, Paul, just let me know. Oh yeah, baby!

        Blaze

        • Zombies = human allegory.

          I don’t really delve into the power of religion in zombie narratives (Kim Paffenroth has already done a tremendous job at that), but I do talk extensively about how zombies are allegorical representations of our collective and societal fears. First it was fear of black people, then of rich people, then of the military, then of terrorists and immigrants. But mostly, and pardon me for being reductive, it’s fear of infection, infestation, death.

          Like all great literary monsters, zombies do important work. Up until now, I’ve only been interested in the cathartic extermination of zombies, but my next academic paper will explore why anyone in their right mind would want to BE a zombie (I get it with romantic vampires, but fail to see the allure of a walking, brainless corpse). Maybe I’ll come up with some exciting answers.

          • Hmm. I didn’t know there was an allure to being a zombie (but again, not the aficionado here). I have seen some interesting stories that take the point of view of the zombie, but it’s either been humor or subterfuge (such as the Fear Itself episode… which I actually enjoyed. Was the first Zombie POV story I had seen).

  3. I love this post! It’s so weird. Years ago, when people thought about the end of the world, it was usually connected to a natural catastrophe. But today, ironically, it’s the Zombie Apocalypse. You know that a natural disaster is more likely, yet the zombies are more plausible in people’s mind.

    • Awesome comment, Kate. I hadn’t thought of it that way. While I think we also have our share of natural disaster movies, I definitely think the zombie apocalypse is much more en vogue.

      Thanks for stopping by. Hope you’re having a good weekend.

    • I like Kate’s thinking! Zombies might just become a natural disaster of sorts, too. Imagine environmental impacts on DNA and such.

      Ooh, la, la!

      Blaze

      • Yes indeed. Good point. Perhaps mistreatment of the environment could lead to the zombification of this whole damn nation (little Greg Brown influence for that last part). Again, that’s what I liked about The Walking Dead, made the horror very real and very believable for me at least when looked at from a clinical perspective. While I love the stories, I’m not an aficionado of either zombie film or literature, so I don’t know if there are already other stories that take such an approach.

  4. Love the idea of an academic approach to the whole zombie tidal wave (and what a disgusting wave that would actually be…imagine the stench!). I’m most anxious to see what ‘monster’ will replace them, knowing that it will happen soon. I wonder if the further collapse of the global economy will bring about a new kind of monster to fear.

    • New monsters are great, Hunter! Sometimes new is a dusting off of the old. stories that stand apart are great for readers. No ho-hum attitude.

      Blaze

    • Keep your eye on werewolves, Hunter.

      • Werewolves, eh? I can see that. So are you saying that with a potential collapse of global economy, we will relate to the more animal side of ourselves that is allowed to be savage where civilization forces us to be… civil? I’m sure Blaze will be pleased by this shift.

  5. One of the best posts I ever read. the comments and reactions too were really spot on.
    Zombies are a catch-all for all of our fears particularly about death I think.
    Zombies thumb their noses at Death by being undead, by being dead and still on their feet (kind of).
    I loved what Blaze said and yes, Blaze I do see Paul as a zombie fighter but I see you as that as well.
    Now, my mind is going every which way and I want to write a zombie story!

    • Carole! You can join Paul and me and become a world class zombie fighter!

      I’m glad your mind is going every which way! That should create a super story. Knowing your great talents, you could write a Gothic zombie tale.

      By the way, check out The Mists Of Papoose Pond on my blog this week. I’m putting chapter 5 up. All the others are in there as well. Guess what kind of story it is? 😀

      Blaze

    • Interesting point, Carole. Never really thought of them as “thumbing their noses at Death.” Almost seems like a battle between the two (apparently with Blaze and me fighting for the side of Death :))

      Glad you enjoyed the post. Hope all is going well.

  6. My take on zombies is that they represent our fear of being absorbed into a collective because zombies are humans robbed of their individuality. To me, they represent a fear of death-in-life rather than a fear of Death in the classical or biological sense. The idea that we can become simulacrums of ourselves by way of something beyond our control is what makes the zombie apocalypse scary. Our collective fear might well be triggered by terrorism, but I can’t discount the insidious push towards a quieter form of zombie-ism that the homogenization of daily life represents. I see zombies as reflecting the same sort of fears that are addressed in sci-fi shows like Doll House or Caprica, namely the mutability of individuality. We each believe we are someone, but how real is that and – more importantly – how can that sense of self be taken from us?

    Thanks for posting yet another thought-provoking piece. And watch out for those zombies! Is is Friday the 13th!!!

    • Thanks, Aniko (and for the tweet). And interesting points as well. I know I keep talking about The Walking Dead (I really need to find a way to watch Season 2), but I think they have done some amazing things, including the rather grotesque scene (or just before the grotesque scene) where the main character pulls out one of the dead zombie’s wallets and puts a face on the horror. He was a real person, an individual, with an actual life… not just a zombie. Then, of course, they proceeded to hack him into pieces and wear his entrails to escape, but hey, there was that nice moment before 🙂

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