As you may know, I contribute regularly to the United Kingdom Zombie Defence League, a group and website dedicated to keeping YOU safe when the inevitable undead apocalypse strikes.
Currently, I write a weekly column called The Thing About Zombies, where I explore the many reasons that the zombie taps into both ancient and modern anxieties. I’m reposting the most recent one, where I talk about zombies and our fear of infection. If you enjoy it, please check out the rest of my posts on the UKZDL. I have my own section, you know…
Modern life is clean. No, scrub that. We like to think modern life is clean. As pampered westerners, we live in disinfected bubbles, our cupboards full of cleaning products, our surfaces free of germs. As with any bubble, it doesn’t take much to pop them.
I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the rise in zombie culture is concurrent with the increased fear of infection. They represent the opposite to a clean, sterile life. They are a disease that spreads with terrifying rapidity, corrupting the order of things that we have become so used to.
Once we go back several hundred years, we see how different things were. Open sewers in the streets, no proper toilet facilities and above all, disease was rampant. The Black Plague, medieval pandemic of choice for any horror writer and the first globally significant disease event, wiped out a third of the population of Europe in the 12th century, gifting all it touched with a terrible, painful death. The buboes and wasting that the victims of the Black Death went through are a clear precursor to the way modern zombies are portrayed.
The speed of infection during a pandemic is one of it’s most frightening aspects. Films like Outbreak and the recent Contagion all feature animated maps where a tiny red blob spreads over the European and American land masses in seconds. The word exponential is often used in conjunction with this spread. One infects two. Two infect four. Four infect sixteen. Containment becomes impossible before this tidal wave of infection. The apocalypse, unfolding before your eyes.
The remorseless nature of the plague model adds to the terror. It can and will take anyone. Without a cure, the only choice is to make sure the patient doesn’t infect anyone else. When you have to behead the ones you love best to make sure that they don’t turn you, then truly all hope is gone. You’re effectively burning the village as a firewall against further outbreak. Either way the disease “wins” – there is no solution in which you come up smelling of roses. And there’s still no guarantee that you haven’t missed something, that there’s a hole in your defences that can and will be exploited. A moment’s inattention could spell the end of you. One minute you’re making a speech to your band of survivors – the next, there’s a dead six year old girl gnawing at your neck.
I’ve been thinking about the way the disease of zombification spreads. The vector is a bite. This is interesting, as patient zero is often not infected in that way. A gamma burst from space, a toxic spill, these are the traditional sparks to the zombie flame. But it spreads as a byproduct of zombie feeding habits. All it takes is a bite for our speechifying hero to reel backwards, and beg his friends to blow his head off with a shotgun. Can we assume that there is something in the saliva that causes the change? It’s never made clear, but then it doesn’t need to be.
The bite, though, ties back into more primal fears – specifically, that of diseased animals. The bite of a rabid dog is nothing to look forward to – in fact you’d be foolish to ignore any animal attack that leaves you bleeding. Maybe that’s the key. We associate animal bites so strongly with disease that it seems the logical way for the zombie to infect us. And as we know, infection equals death. Remorseless, implacable, merciless. And the one thing that Mr Muscle can’t help us with. You can’t kill something that’s already dead.