We love evil in our media. Audiences, readers and gamers, intake fictional narratives every day and many contain something malevolent wreaking havoc. The proof isn’t hard to come by, how many of these titles have you seen or at least heard of: NCIS, Dexter, The Sopranos, The Walking Dead, The Godfather, and Psycho? You probably recognize most of those titles, and can think of more media with similar themes. Some interesting questions arise with this revelation: Why do we like it? I argue that this dark phenomenon in our media can teach important lessons, like societies need to cooperate in order to survive as seen in The Walking Dead; but most important of all of them being that our greatest villains are far from being alien to us, but rather reflect the duality of human nature, just like when the audience empathizes with Michael Corleone’s heartbreak over Fredo’s betrayal in The Godfather Part II which enables us put aside a horrendous crime and accept it later in the movie as justified.
To explain this, I will put a focus on three different antagonistic tropes that have been prevalent in modern and contemporary times. The focus is on first the zombie, then the mafia, and finally the psycho-killer. I will be framing my analysis through the lens of modern Western perspective and similarly minded cultures due both to the fact that I am part of that culture and therefor heavily influenced by it, as well as the fact that the main producer of films and books on these topics are predominately generated by Western media producers. Per topic of focus I will have four points: how was it popularized, why do audiences like it, what do we learn, and finally what risks comes with the trope. Each point will aid in our exploration of the pop-culture prevalence of antagonists in our favorite narratives.
Part 1: Zombies
Undead and Popular
They began their haunting of the Western audience around 1920, with the rumors of voodoo magic; 1932’s White Zombie screened, playing off those rumors. Zombies as we know them today took form in George Romero’s film Night of the Living Dead in 1968, and the idea that your love ones will rise from the dead to eat you hasn’t left the creature’s lore since. These monsters have remained in public consciousness since and many examples of their popularity are easy to find. It would be impossible not to mention The Walking Dead, which can be enjoyed as a graphic novel, TV show, and video game series. This narrative is a prime example of taking what should be a worn out trope and keeping it fresh, by ignoring the connections to past stories of the undead and drawing the storyline out far past any previous storylines. This makes the zombies almost a part of the ambiance of a human survival story instead of the primary factor of the story. Other key examples of the zombie trope being subverted include Warm Bodies, The Last of Us, and World War Z, all of which put variances on previous storylines to create different angles on this trope.
We love zombies for their brains.
So yes, zombies are scary and are popular, but why do audiences like them? I agree with arguments that connect our love of zombies with social pessimism are sound, and this social pessimism has a coping function in Western societies. In Roger Liddle’s "Social Pessimism: The New Social Reality of Europe," there are some surprising statistics. When asked a series of questions such as “would you say that people’s lives in your country will be better or worse than today,” an approximate average of 64% of participants from the European Union, United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Italy answered with the negative option. What does that pessimism mean? It means that storytellers and creators from Western societies are more likely to produce pessimistic content—such as zombie apocalypses. Forbes, a famous business news source, even has an article: "Why it Pays to be a Pessimist" encouraging the mindset. Stanford literary scholar, Angela Becerra Vidergar claims, “We use fictional narratives … to emotionally cope with the possibility of impending doom…” She thinks that the violence of WWII and the mass destruction that took place set a fixation in the public consciousness, an obsession with an apocalypse and how humanity will survive. Now the idea of apocalypse and survival sounds contradictory, to survive is optimistic right? Social pessimism creates the want for stories where someone has to attempt to survive— weather they do or don’t is sometimes less important—the importance lies in the fact that the characters are in the situation where their survival is at risk. Survival situations bring out our inherent human survival instincts, reaching into a part of ourselves that seeks the challenge of survival while living in a reality which seeks to subjugate that instinct with easy access to all our survival needs (food, water, shelter, companionship, medical care). The pessimism that the future is uncertain and those needs may not be met has rooted itself in popular narratives.
Let’s look at 28 Days Later, a British horror film which won 10 awards including the MTV Movie Award, and the Empire Award for Best British Film from the European Film Awards. The storyline involves some animal activists who invade a laboratory full of chimpanzees that, unknowing to the activists, were infected with a virus that causes "rage." Twenty-eight days later the protagonist, Jim, wakes up from a coma to a ravaged England and he now seeks a safe haven in order to survive. The survival instinct is engaged and the viewer as well as a challenge to our social morels. The zombie trope takes full advantage of the audience’s love of the survivor’s tale, placing entire populations simultaneously under a live-or-die situation, akin to 28 Days Later. I agree with Vidergar even more with the idea that audiences like the ethical choices characters of these narratives are presented with because it “allows the audience to work through some of those… threatening ethical dilemmas or to think about their own capacity for survival.” Andrew O’Connell, the Harvard Business Review editor, discusses in the article "Our Bizarre Fascination with Stories of Doom" that audiences think to themselves “what I do, would I be able to survive that, would I have the grit, or would have the strength. But even more is the question of, would I be able to make some of those difficult choices that people in disasters often have to make.” Those questions are what audience feels compelled to answer. They either have to admit their own weaknesses or find comfort knowing that, like the character, they may survive too. The undead hoard enables society to question themselves and their views while remaining safe in an entertainingly horrifying way.
Remember to get your zombie-immune shots this season.
Zombies provide a method for the audience to question themselves and the world around them but that’s not the only thing the undead teaches—it also confronts real world disease and health concerns. Epidemics like Ebola, Asiatic Bird Flu, and Mad Cow’s Disease have caused concern and even panic in society as we realize that sweeping epidemics are a reality and not just a storyline. Many current takes on the zombie has that they are created though a virus, some sort of highly infectious disease that creates monsters out of people. Why zombies lend themselves to the topic of disease is apparent when the most common characteristics of these creatures are explored. Let’s look at The Walking Dead as an example of what the zombie as a virus looks like: dehydrated skin with loss of color, eyes clouded, hair thinning and brittle, body is underweight, teeth discolored, gums black, a weak walking gait, and pained groans. When these symptoms are entered into WebMD’s Symptom Checker the following diseases appear: hyperthyroidism, hemophilia, and drug reaction or side-effects.
Research conducted by medical experts suggest that apocalyptic stories, like zombie movies, can be an effective way of educating people about actual contagious diseases, making them more aware of the dangers involved. Medical Doctorate Melissa Nasiruddin and her peers, wrote an article, “Zombies - A Pop Culture Resource for Public Health Awareness,” in which they compared the common traits of the zombie to a real-world virus, rabies. Commonalities include: virus transmits though bites or scratches, increase in production of saliva, have symptoms including a decrease in motor skills (affecting vocal cords and causing muscle spasms), fever and changes in cognitive behavior such as increased aggression and confusion. So because of how easily a virus explains zombie traits it, as said best by Nasiruddin, “appear(s) to be the best conduit to educate the layman about reemerging infectious diseases… how to prepare for disasters… ethics of disease and bioterrorism potential.” As much as audiences enjoy indulging in zombie scenarios, just look at aforementioned The Walking Dead that had about 18 million viewers in the sixth season, in reality no one wants this outbreak to happen. Using the zombie virus as an attention grabber and as example, the CDC (Center of Disease Control) has used this narrative trope to inform the public of how to prevent real outbreaks.
Nasiruddin’s research makes an important point; that such awareness is driven by a wide range of easily consumed media and forms, from government websites to interactive games. Nasiruddin notes how frequently public service announcements utilize “zombies as an analogy.” These mediums, entertaining or otherwise, explain similarities between the zombie virus and other lesser-known viruses and how one can protect themselves and their community. The CDC has a section of their website dedicated to zombie preparation, stating: “what first began as a tongue-in-cheek campaign to engage new audiences with preparedness messages has proven to be a very effective platform.” Next, using games or social media to show how real epidemics form and the consequences of having no prevention and intervention strategies. A good example of this would be the free online game called Pandemic, where players play as a virus or bacteria and the goal is to infect the entire planet. Throughout the game the players can see how governments, global transportation, and weather can affect the spread and cause a pandemic. The last example is instituting clubs, blogs, or even magazine articles to encourage taking what zombies teach us and using it practically in the real world. Audiences watch characters’ use skills that aren’t very enforced for the public to learn but can save lives. In this case, emulating the fictional world can be beneficial. This ties directly in with what is negative about zombie enthusiasm—paranoia.
Zombie-Apocalypse Rule 1 – Do Not Panic!
While the zombie apocalypse is fictional, the narrative has influenced reality, and not for the better. Our exposure to zombies has been misconstrue by news sources and “reality” entertainment as a possibility. Admittedly, learning about pandemics has value and everyone should understand how to react in the off chance that they are exposed to some viral menace, but such awareness has caused an unhealthy paranoia in the minds of a misinformed public. News media outlets saturated coverage of actual incidents of viral epidemics and reality shows like National Geographic’s Doomsday Preppers (2011-2014), which made entertainment out of certain peoples’ paranoia that the world was heading for an inevitable disaster, leaving individuals responsible for all their own survival needs. While not all featured on the show were concerned about zombies, quite a few of them were. This show, which could and should have been educational, made light of people being too scared to live their lives within normal societal standards. In several episodes parents are seen training their kids in military tactics everyday instead of letting them play with other children; on National Geographic’s website it provides the following commentary about one of the show’s characters Craig: “Ultimately, Craig must convince his young daughter that one day, all of this won’t be a test .” While being prepared isn’t a problem, everyone should be, there is a difference between being generally prepared for an emergency and being under the constant threat of a society ending event. There is no evidence that the show is necessarily a bad influence, but a storyteller recognizes reality TV and other media use tropes or narratives to twist what is real to encourage ratings. Doomsday Preppers is filmed like a documentary, makes the people they are documenting appear to be tough, smart and cool, sprinkles real information in with the exaggerated and is under National Geographic—which is regarded as a legitimate educational organization. It is easy to scare some percentage of the public with regards to the topic of disease or disasters with careful word use and specific imagery.
A recent and real-world example of this was with the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, where 70% of infected patients perished. The case lead to strong fears of Ebola becoming a pandemic event. Some popular news sources in 2014 had headlines such as: "Yes, Ebola is Pretty Much Following the Standard Zombie Scenario," "The Ebola Conspiracy Theories or What We’re Afraid to Say About Ebola," and "Africa Confirms 3rd Ebola Victim Rises from the Dead, Releases Picture of First “Ebola Zombie” Captured." The headlines were not only worded to be click bait but irresponsibly provided false information without anyone having to actually read the full article. Keywords like “conspiracy,” “zombie,” “confirms,” and “afraid” instill ideas that lead to paranoia. What really happened was that an Ebola epidemic occurred in West Africa and in 2016 the WHO, World Health Organization, stated that the countries affected are currently Ebola-free. For those who many not know what Ebola is, it is a virus that normally has a 50% mortality rate and causes symptoms such as fever, fatigue, vomiting, diarrhea, internal/external bleeding, and organ failure. During this particular outbreak four Americans were infected and one died in a US hospital. It is understandably a terrifying virus, especially when the foreign virus enters our Western society. This caused panic, the shunning of fellow citizens, and protesting. So what really happened was “the almost-zero probability of acquiring something like Ebola, given the virus’s very real and terrifying symptoms, often doesn’t register at a time of mass paranoia. Rationality disappears; irrational inclinations take over. It’s human nature, and we’ve been acting this way basically since we found out there were mysterious things out there that could kill us.”
Fiction often bleeds into our perceptions of reality and fiction can be misconceived as truth. Orson Welles’ 1938 broadcast adaptation of H.G. Well’s The War of the Worlds is a perfect example of people mistaking fiction with reality. The radio broadcast caused widespread panic as people thought the broadcast was news reporting of an actual alien invasion. Today, the propagation of the zombie apocalypse is not dissimilar from 1938s climate of believing an alien invasion was impending. There are many ways false information is fed to audiences; “The Discovery Channel has even released a documentary about the zombie apocalypse that is edited in a way that suggests it could actually happen. Programming stations dedicated to informing the public have taken hold of this craze and ran with it. There are people who will believe this information simply because it was made to seem real.” The real world implications are there. I think The War of the Worlds, Doomsday Preppers, and the Ebola news saturation are examples of how media effects our paranoia of world-ending events, making them real sounding enough to be believed. The idea of zombies led to people claiming certain incidents as proof of the possibility of these creatures being real. 2012 in Miami Florida, a man attacked another man while being high on bath salts, but the fact that he ate a part of his victim’s face caused the public to think of zombies. Bath salts have been dubbed "a zombie drug," and had been used in online news sources such as Syracuse.com, Idependent.co.uk, and Rollingstone.com. The use of certain words and narrative tropes are dangerous. Sometimes news and fiction should be kept distinctly separate.
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