Why You're Obsessed with the Zombie Apocalypse

By Wesley Fenlon

It's the end of the world as we know it. Do you know where your shotgun is?

The zombie apocalypse is one of those things people joke about with a strange tinge of seriousness. "Better have supplies ready for when the zombies come," they say. Ha. Good one! Zombies sure are fun. But seriously, you're kidding, right? Right?

It's a modern cultural obsession that permeates movies and comics and books and video games, and even if many of us are tired of shooting the same shambling enemies with poor AI, zombies don't seem to be going anywhere anytime soon. Stanford scholar Angela Becerra Vidergar thinks she knows why--has written a dissertation on this very subject, in fact. But it's not zombies, specifically, that we're obsessed with. It's the end of the world.

As reported by the Stanford News, Vidergar's dissertation traces our obsession with apocalypse stories back to World War II and the nuclear bomb. That's when a cultural obsession with paradise and utopia ended, and when fear of the End--and obsession with it--invaded popular culture.

The News writes "Our collective visions of the future changed drastically after the horrific events of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, explains Vidergar. Mass destruction became a reality and the terrible violence of the Holocaust and other WWII events brought up disturbing realizations about the human capacity for violence...She found that the events of the 20th century, 'along with movements to increase environmental awareness,' have caused a lot of doubt about the consequences of our development as modernized societies, and 'instead we are left with this cultural fixation on fictionalizing our own death, very specifically mass-scale destruction.' "

It's pretty easy to trace paranoia and fascination with the end of the world backwards to World War II. The Walking Dead, Fallout, Watchmen, Mad Max, A Boy and His Dog, Night of the Living Dead, Dr. Strangelove, Alas, Babylon. This Wikipedia list of apocalyptic fiction backs up Vidergar's theory, since very little apocalyptic material predates the war. And then, of course, there are films like Godzilla, which serve as giant metaphors for the power of the bomb. But most apocalyptic fiction focuses more on how survivors interact with one another. We may be scared of the bomb, but we're scared of each other a whole lot more.

Quoting Stanford News again: " 'Traumatic events,' [Vidergar] added, 'trigger discernible shifts in what we are able to imagine our future to be and how we should consequently act in the present to address those threats. Since the events of the 20th century and beyond, what we imagine doesn't look so good.' "

But what about zombies? The Walking Dead is, truly, about the interaction of survivors and the hard decisions people will make in a post-apocalyptic world. The shambling corpses themselves aren't nearly as important to the story. So why are we still so obsessed with them? She says they're reflections of ourselves, which obviously fits in with George A. Romero's depiction of the undead horde.

But that seems like too easy an answer for today's go-to monsters. In some cases, they're not symbolic. They're just easy to put into video games--simple AI!--and everyone accepts that where there are zombies, there are a lot of zombies. There are no moral qualms about shooting them.

So what does it mean when people joke a little too often about the zombie apocalypse? Maybe that's our fear of the End bubbling to the surface, and we've figured out that it's easier to channel the concept of the end of the world through what has become a universally recognized element of popular culture. And in the zombie apocalypse, those who love zombie entertainment are the most prepared. They get to be the heroes.