by Bob Smietana
Americans love zombies almost as much as they love watching football.
Last year’s season premiere of The Walking Dead drew 17.3 million viewers, finishing just behind Sunday Night Football as the most popular show on television, according to Variety magazine.
Another 6 million viewed the show on DVR. All told more than 23 million Americans tuned in to see the zombie apocalypse on AMC.
And zombie popularity isn’t limited to television.
They star in video games from Left 4 Dead to Plants Versus Zombies, books like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and movies like World War Z.
There are also zombie-themed 5k runs, zombie bike rides for charity, and even a national group called the “Zombie Outbreak Response Team,” which uses zombies to teach about preparedness.
In short, the supposed living dead are everywhere, says religious historian Kelly Baker, author of The Zombies are Coming. And they might have a lesson or two to teach us. Zombies, like most pop culture monsters, can help us understand our culture’s unspoken worries.
“Zombies are a way we can work out some of the things that make us nervous,” says Baker.
Among those worries is a fear that modern life could easily unravel. Most of us take our political and social institutions—as well as necessities like clean water, power, and grocery stores full of food—for granted. But a natural disaster, a terrorist act, or civil unrest can disrupt all those things.
“They really are pretty fragile,” she says.
The current outbreak of Ebola in Africa—and the few cases in the U.S.—have added to the unrest about modern life. Along with the rational fears of the deadly disease, she says, there have been rumors of the undead.
“There was a hoax going around where people were claiming that Ebola victims in Africa were coming back from the dead,” says Baker.
Baker suspects the American fascination with the zombie apocalypse—and other end of the world scenarios—reveals an underlying distrust of our neighbors. In a zombie apocalypse, it’s everyone for themselves, she explains. And a friend can turn into a monster at a moment’s notice.
“Zombies show the nervousness we have about other people—that you can never be sure if your neighbor is with you or against you,” she says. “The idea that any moment someone could turn on you, says something about the cynicism of the early 21st century.”
Baker, a freelance writer who has a doctorate in religion from Florida State University, is writing a cultural history of zombies. She says zombies—unlike vampires, ghosts, and werewolves—are relatively new to American culture.
They first popped up in 1930s movies. In those early depictions, zombies were living people whose minds and bodies had been taken over by someone else. More modern zombies—the kind of shambling undead found on The Walking Dead—trace their roots back to George Romero’s films of the 1960s. His 1968 film Night of the Living Dead, introduced zombies into mainstream pop culture.
Zombies are the latest example of American pop culture being fascinated by stories about doomsday.
There’s a whole “post apocalyptic” genre of movies, T.V. shows, and films like The Hunger Games trilogy, The Giver, and The Walking Dead—all of which feature the end of life as we know it.
Baker, who has taught classes on religious views of the apocalypse, says some of her former students seemed to look forward to the end the world—as if the modern world is so broken the only way to fix it is to wipe the slate clean and start over.
“The zombie apocalypse, my students assure me, would be awesome,” she says. “No rules, no government, and no infrastructure appeals to them. They ready themselves for the monsters by strategizing how to survive.”
She says many people look back with nostalgia at simpler times in American culture–before mass production—when everything was made by hand, and people grew their own food rather than buying it a local grocery store.
“I have all of these friends who are into canning—and I think, really?” she says. “There’s this idea that I need to know how to do this, just in case—and I think, ‘In case of what?’ How would jam save us?’”
There are some disturbing aspects to the pop culture obsession with zombies, says Baker.
“Zombie apocalypses have much to say about who counts as human and who doesn’t, which is something we should all pay attention to,” she says. Those who aren’t human—the zombies—can be dealt with violently, which raises ethical concerns.
She also says pastors can help church members work through their worries about modern life. There’s no one-size-fits-all answer, she says.
“Maybe the focus should be on how to engage with an ever-changing, fearful world and to sort reality from fiction.”
Still, Baker, who might be the cheeriest zombie expert in America, believes there is an upside to the current American obsession with zombies—it gives people a safe way to examine their worries about modern life. And while they are preparing for a zombie apocalypse, people can also prepare for more mundane, yet likely, disasters.
“Zombies are scary but a lot less terrifying than other real-world possibilities,” she says. “So you can prep for a zombie apocalypse—and you might end up having the gear you need for a hurricane. But you don’t have to think about the hurricane.”
For now, Baker plans to focus on her writing and her family, and not worry too much about the zombie apocalypse. She’s watched enough zombie movies to know she wouldn’t last long.
Bob Smietana is senior writer and content editor for Facts & Trends.