Someone has yet to write the treatise that explains the appeal of different kinds of monsters. No doubt monster stories (qua horror stories) have always appealed to us because we enjoy the thrill of being frightened without actually being in any imminent danger. But that’s merely to describe why people enjoy horror stories, not to explain why certain types of monsters frighten us and why some monsters wax and wane in popularity over time (e.g., werewolves, who always play second fiddle to the vampires these days), and why others change their essential characteristics (take the most obvious case in point: Bram Stoker vs. Stephenie Meyer).
I don’t have a theory for every monster—not yet anyway—though I do have one for zombies. If you’re a zombie lover, however, I have to warn you now that you may not like my theory. It may strike you as a little condescending. But I don’t think it should; or if it does, then take solace in the fact that you’re in good company, because I like some zombie flicks too (more of my deep thoughts on The Walking Dead are forthcoming). Anyway, here goes.
I’m probably not the first to observe that zombie stories are allegories of alienation. It’s not hard to see how this works. You identify with the protagonist, who’s nearly alone in an antagonistic world filled with merciless, unthinking, flesh-eating creatures set on destroying you—er, the protagonist. See what I mean? That’s the psychological hook. The zombie hoards are just stand-ins for strangers in the wide world outside that we feel alienated from.
The second part of the affective connection is the bathetic exaggeration of our mundane every moral problems into life and death decisions. Do we help our fellow survivors and why? Do we do it out of self-interest or because it’s just the right thing to do? Do we become mere mercenaries out for ourselves or do we try to preserve our humanity in the face of a harsh and perilous world?
In other words, the moral situations the characters find themselves in and the decisions they make are more or less identical to our own everyday decisions, only the stakes are much higher. And that’s what appeals to us most, I think; it flatters us when our everyday life struggles are elevated to the high drama inherent in life and death existence in the world overrun by antagonistic forces.
If you reflect on it, I think you’ll find I’m making sense. After all, the appeal of zombie flicks is entirely different than the appeal of high fantasy. We don’t really live vicariously through an impervious hero on a sacred mission who possesses the kind of incredible powers we wish we had. Zombie apocalypse survivors are just like us, everyday people trying to survive. And their decisions are like ours and wholly unlike the fantasy hero’s.
That’s it for now. Let the angry denunciations begin…