It is you who are the zombies, we are the Walking Dead

Updated: Sep 27

"Their fathers, shadowy creatures, your creatures, were but dead souls; you it was who allowed them glimpses of light, to you only did they dare speak, and you did not bother to reply to such zombies... Turn and turn about; in these shadows from whence a new dawn will break, it is you who are the zombies." Jean-Paul Sartre (cited in Luckhurst, 2015, p.38)

"[RICK]: [...] after a few years of pretending he was dead, he made it out alive. That's the trick of it, I think. We do what we need to do, and then we get to live. But no matter what we find in DC, I know we'll be OK. Because this is how we survive. We tell ourselves that we are the walking dead.

[DARYL]: We ain't them.

[RICK]: We're not them."

"Them", The Walking Dead (Season 5 Episode 10)

[Image source]

The Zombie is unlike any other monster in supernatural/horror fiction – unlike the Gothic vampires, werewolves, ghosts, and witches. Zombies are a more recent addition to the plethora of Gothic post-humans. Whether or not the zombie is an image of “us” or a version of “them” is often contemplated in socio-cultural circles, and questions about the post-human, consciousness, mind/body dualism and mortality are influencing such ideas. The zombie has seen continuous shifts in meaning per iteration while maintaining its basic image and construction, and ties to its origins in Haitian slavery. It has emerged from the “slippage between cultures”, as “one of the most unstable figures in the panoply of the undead” – Victor Turner asserts that zombies are abject “threshold people” (Luckhurst, 2015, p.15; p.14; Victor Turner, cited ibid., 2015, p.9). Zombies can be subversive in the sense that they rotate the popular understandings of the differences between dead and living bodies – now a body can be dead and alive, and the extended carnivalesque of mortality in the television series The Walking Dead (TWD) (2010–) becomes possible. When considering this subversion, we can note how the poster for Season 3 urges the reader to “Fight the Dead. Fear the Living” without defining either of these explicitly, and how the main character Rick declares that he and his group of survivors are “the walking dead” (The Walking Dead, 2010–; Whether this dialogue was intentionally philosophically-inclined is uncertain, but the transgressive potential of such an assertion, that survivors can be both alive and dead, is undeniable. Certainly, it fits with TWD’s notions of contagion and inadvertent use of Bataille’s base materialist contamination, where all individuals (living or dead) are infected and will transform into “walkers” (zombies) unless their brain is destroyed (Noys, 1998). In TWD, the walkers are an inescapable reminder of nihilistic purposelessness in the post-apocalyptic, post-capitalist-now-anarchic USA. In the preface to a book on French colonialism titled The Wretched of the Earth (Frantz Fanon, 1961), existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre told colonialists “it is you who are the zombies” (Sartre, cited in Luckhurst, 2015, p.38). So often does zombie discourse circle the drain of comparing their image and existence to ours. Considering this, how do the walkers in TWD, and zombies in general, investigate the human and non-/post-human – Are we zombies?

To first understand the undead, we must understand what is human, what is post-human, and the transgressive interactions of the two. Through its excess, the Gothic often deals with transgression; “Gothic atmospheres […] have repeatedly signalled the disturbing return of pasts upon presents”, much like the ways a zombie topos represents “return of the repressed” – a return of the dead (Botting, 1996, p.1; Castillo et al., 2016, p.4). Georges Bataille understood transgression as that which “does not deny the taboo but transcends and completes it” and for Foucault, transgression had “its entire space in the line it crosses”; for Rasmus and Cieslak, transgression operates in “the context of […] the norm, and its boundaries” (Bataille, 1957, p.63; Rasmus & Cieslak, 2012, p.1). With these definitions in mind, we can consider the zombie to hold its entire space in the line of humanity and mortality that it crosses; the “norm” of finite life and a “sleep-like” death; the “taboo” of our incapability to comprehend nothingness after death, and mysteries surrounding ideas of the afterlife. The zombie may also hold taboo remnants of human-ness as a post-human entity – it was human, and so is not entirely “other” or foreign. This idea of the zombie as a post-human other becomes a bigger issue when they are so often used as narrative devices for ideological introspection;

The zombies do not do the cultural work of monstrous others, slimy tentacular aliens or ancient cephalopodic gods raised from the deep. Instead they are simply us reflected back, depersonalised, flat-lined by the alienating tedium of modern existence. (Luckhurst, 2015, p.10).

Then, if they transgress us, what does that imply about the depersonalised human (a human with no consciousness), as opposed to the post-human/dehumanised person (a monster with a consciousness)? According to John Locke’s Human/Person divide (a facet of animalism), a person is a “thinking intelligent Being, that has reason and reflection, and can consider it self as it self, the same thinking thing in different times and places” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Archive, 2014). Often in The Walking Dead, the protagonists must make their way through a herd of walkers and will disguise themselves by covering their clothes in gore and viscera. In this way, they surrender their human image, and walkers do not attack them . As the walkers are aware of that distinction between predator and prey, they can be considered at least somewhat self-aware and reflective. Particularly in season 1, walkers exhibit traits that call to their previous lives – in the first episode of TWD, a child walker picks up a teddy bear; in the same episode, a walker appears to recognise her house and tries the doorknob . These are traits that are not typical of completely mindless insatiable entities – they could still be people, the uncanny “same thinking thing” Goto-Jones spoke of:

the horror of the zombie is rather that, in an uncanny way, it is us […] the terror of the zombie apocalypse is […] the horror of our own radical (and contagious) dehumanisation. (2013)

In this way, they may be no longer human while remaining people. The zombie can deal with the “exotic uncanny” and foreign nature of groups of people (Luckhurst, 2015, p.32).

The uncanny oversaturates aspects of the familiar – again the return of the repressed – as a step in the direction of abjection. As Julia Kristeva described in Powers of Horror, the abject is “Not me […] But not nothing either. A ‘something’ that I do not recognise as a thing […] a weight of meaninglessness about which there is nothing insignificant” (1982, p.2). Žižek proposes that zombies cannot be conscious if they are to remain an object of horror:

What makes scarecrows terrifying is the minimal difference which makes them in-human; there is ‘nobody at home’ behind the mask – as with a human who has turned into a zombie. (Žižek, cited in Goto-Jones, 2013).

This would be a depersonalised human. If walkers are abject, they can occupy the space of being both human and dehumanised, people and depersonalised – they are an excess of combinations of non-/humans and non-/people. In this case, where do walkers lay on the non-/human, non-/person spectrum? There is something that still makes them either non-human or non-people, as being neither would make them us and being both would remove the uncanny abjection they provide – the negotiation here is which part of the human person disappears to give way to a walker. Unless, of course, they are simply another version of human people that have been contaminated by a different “other” – the “other” I speak of in this circumstance, is the contagion that turns human people into walkers. Is the post-human, the zombie/walker, simply a differently contaminated human?

As in tales of the Gothic post-human, monsters were always humans at one point – humans that have eaten the meat of a wolf and a human or have been cursed (werewolves) or returned from the grave (vampires) (Radford, 2012; Radford, 2014). When thinking about contamination and contagion, the concept of Georges Bataille’s base materialism is readily applicable: the idea that “whatever is elevated or ideal is actually dependent on base matter, and that this dependence means that the purity of the ideal is contaminated” (Noys, 1998, p.500). Usually, this would describe understandings of (for example) the superior “ideal” mind being contaminated by the lowly, carnal, clumsy, “base” body. This concept of contaminating the dependent upper with the independent lower aligns with the notion of an all-infecting omnipresent walker contagion, as in The Walking Dead. The creators of TWD haven’t explained the contagion’s origin (nor are they inclined to), but all characters are infected and will become walkers after death – a walker bite causes a fatal fever, and any death that doesn’t destroy the brain will result in a person becoming a walker (Goldberg, 2012). It is revealed in “TS-19” (Season 1 Episode 6 of The Walking Dead, 2010), that zombies are reanimated through the contagion controlling their brain stem, by “switching off” the consciousness (TWD, 2010). What happens after a person “turns” is similar to a lobotomy – they are depersonalised in that, they are no longer the original thinking thing, but are still people – their consciousness is contaminated/destroyed. The idea behind base materialism is questioning hierarchical ideas of materialism/idealism (Noys, 1998, p.499). Some characters show an understanding of mind/body dualism, as in season 1, when Rick says (of a walker) “[…] your son died […] that’s just his body, there’s nothing of your son left in there” (cited in Yuen, 2012, p.3). Some of the characters, however, act as though their loved ones are still inside the bodies of walkers – Hershel keeps walkers in his barn in season 2 in the hopes of curing them; The Governor still keeps his daughter captive and cares for her as though she had never turned.

In TWD’s walker lore, walkers are commonly thought to have no consciousness, and yet two aspects of the show’s narrative seem to contradict this: walkers can only be killed if their brain is destroyed, and many people commit suicide if they know they are bitten. While these are justified somewhat in the show, the former still seems to imply that the brain (and hence, a consciousness/person) has critical a function in a zombie’s animation. While the latter can be explained by fear of losing dignity after death, it also implies a fear of endured consciousness and torment throughout a zombified state. This also introduces the notion of the mind or brain as a contaminant of the body, a subversion of typical base materialism (that the mind is the “ideal” superior, to the material “base” body). This also subverts ideas of mind/body dualism – that the mind is immaterial (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1998). In TWD, the mind corrupts the body. In this same vein of base materialism, we can consider the origin of the zombie, the connections to slavery, and the use of walkers to create an infinite carnivalesque. Zombies were popularised and introduced to western culture in the 19th century (Luckhurst, 2015, p.33). A writer named William Seabrook travelled to Haiti and was the first (from the west) to define a zombie as a slave of some sort:

“The zombie, they say, is a soulless human corpse, still dead, but taken from the grave and endowed by sorcery with a mechanical semblance of life […] make of it a servant or slave […] often simply as a drudge around the habitation or the farm, setting it dull heavy tasks, and beating it like a dumb beast if it slackens.” (Seabrook, cited ibid., p.30)

If we consider now the philosophical zombie (or “P-Zombie”, a human without a consciousness/soul) the above description of undead slaves sounds strikingly familiar to that of African slaves in America, should they be deprived of consciousnesses (Yuen, 2012, p.3). Haiti’s colonisation is pivotal to Seabrook’s understanding of zombies, and to ours (Luckhurst, 2015, p.33). For the white American imperialist and capitalist “ideal” of colonialism to exist in that time, the entire system of profit and luxury functioned because of impoverished, dispossessed, dehumanised slaves, the “material base”. Haiti had seen several waves of slavery, and this return of brutality has since informed and contextualised the popularity of the zombie’s folkloric origins:

[…] social death, to be returned to slavery by the American occupiers was an uncanny return after a century of freedom […] “The essence of slavery is that the slave, in his social death, lives on the margin between community and chaos, life and death, the sacred and the secular”. (ibid., p.36).

Again, that transitional state of the abject can be inferred here. Zombie folklore has also recorded incidents “of the vengeance of these unquiet dead on the greed that drives their gangmasters [sic] or owners” (ibid., p.31). What may not be coincidental, then, is the use of walkers for labour in a variety of ways in TWD. Sometimes they are used to trap people, but one most notable use of walkers as slaves was Michonne’s use of zombies to disguise herself when walking through zombie herds. Sometimes, the walkers achieve the vengeance folklore spoke of, usually by characters being killed soon after trying to use walkers for a specific purpose. The ideals of the survivors, sometimes, cannot exist without the zombies as the base. The Walking Dead also deals with the latent anxiety around mortality, power, and death – it addresses a loss of control of the body, the ultimate equaliser of death. This too deals in mind/body dualism – if we are dual, does the mind persist, or die with the body? TWD ends up creating an infinite carnivalesque period in which questions surrounding mortality need never be answered. The carnivalesque was analysed at length by Mikhail Bakhtin, who called it “life drawn out of its usual rut, it is to a degree ‘life turned inside out,’ ‘life the wrong way around’” (Bakhtin, cited in Johae, 2014, p.). In The Walking Dead, life can certainly be considered “inside out” – what was once dead is now “mimicking” life, and the carnivalesque does not end or return to any form of previous order. Even Seabrook’s descriptions of zombies in Haiti left “the savage supernatural resting on the cusp between folktale and objective knowledge”, just as the walkers avoid explanation in The Walking Dead (Luckhurst, 2015, p.26). Walkers represent an indulgence in the post-human, the anarchic, the anti-capitalist:

“The deepest pleasure of the zombie story […] lies always in its depiction of the break, that exhilarating moment of long hoped-for upheaval […] desire to see power at last unmade, laid finally to waste and torn limb from limb – and our structures of dominion and domination replaced finally and forever with Utopia, if only for the already dead.” (Canavan cited ibid, p.11)

The walker is almost the ultimate symbol of the anti-modern Gothic – not only do they maintain no individuality in TWD, they have no semblance of productivity, and exist purely to destroy order and structures of power. Perhaps an explanation for the excessive popularity of zombies is their ability, outside of cultural connections to slavery, mind and body, consciousness, the post-human gothic excess, transgression and subversion, is their ability to dwell in that latent social anxiety of what mortality means for human people. The walker/zombie represents the relentless reminder of mortality, of the base, of futility, a theme we see again and again as the endless threat of the zombies to the health and security of the protagonists interferes with any reconstructive efforts. Again, we see the “return of the repressed”, a confusion and blurring of not only the lines between human/non-/post-human but also the definitions of dead and alive (Castillo et al., 2016, p.4.). The zombies are an abjection of life and death, just as Turner named the zombies “threshold people” (Turner, cited in Luckhurst, 2015, p.9).


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