"According to film and television, vampires, werewolves, and zombies are storming across our landscape, and alien invaders, asteroids, and airborne toxic events threaten us from the skies," observes Paul Cantor, a professor of literature at the University of Virginia and author of "The Invisible Hand in Popular Culture: Liberty vs. Authority in American Film and TV". The silver screen & small screen alike seem obsessed with an "ever-more-frenzied Dance of Death," he continues, "our entire civilization reduced to rubble and the few survivors forced to live a primitive existence in terror of monstrous forces unleashed throughout the land." (images: top; right)
Interestingly, in pondering why the Apocalypse remains such a fixture in pop culture, Cantor is of the mind that filmic apocalyptic musings have less to do with some kind of collective death wish and probably more to do looking at what life would be like in the absence of institutions we no longer trust, including:
- the medical establishment: from the debaucle of pay-for-play health-care insurance (in the US) to vaccination scandals to the way pharmaceuticals are prescribed like candy - and seemingly marketed that way by Big Pharma - the trust is largely gone. Instead, many turn to alternative medicine or turn the clock back to those grandma-worthy home remedies. Doctors are not held in the esteem they once were and few of us trust the overall structure anymore.
- education: schools can resemble holding pens until kids turn 18, turning out young people who, if determined enough, can graduate high school literally illiterate. Small wonder home-schooling has proved so popular.
- government: this is the biggie. Scandals, draconian cost cutting, corruption, collapses...governments seem to have grown to big & powerful for their own - and our - good.
(zombie poster: source)
So what would happen if these institutions that were thought were here to provide us with economic and social stability were to vanish? "Popular culture has stepped forward to offer Americans a chance to explore these possibilities imaginatively and to rethink the American dream," says Cantor. "Films and television shows have allowed Americans to imagine what life would be like without all the institutions they had been told they need, but which they now suspect may be thwarting their self-fulfillment. We are dealing with a wide variety of fantasies here, mainly in the horror or science fiction genres, but the pattern is quite consistent and striking, cutting across generic distinctions."
...the TV show "Revolution" - when all the world's electrical devices stop functioning, people once again rely on their personal survival skills given that one of the first things to go was the government.
..."Falling Skies" - aliens destroy civilization followed by, yes, governments. (Just Like Lisa Marie's martian on an assassination mission in Tim Burton's Mars Attacks! However, any aliens with full-on bouffants and drag-queen makeup are good by me...even if they do have murder in mind.)
..."The Walking Dead" - not only are government agencies not helpful, but it was one - the CDC - that weaponized smallpox and caused the zombie plague. Gee thanks, Big Government. "Zombification is a powerful image of what governments try to do to their citizens—to create a uniform, homogenous population, incapable of acting independently," adds Cantor. "Among their many meanings, zombies have come to symbolize the force of globalization. National borders cannot stop the zombie plague from spreading, and it evidently dissolves all cultural distinctions. The zombies lose their individuality, freedom of will, and everything that makes them human beings. With their herd mentality, they are precisely the kind of mass-men that impersonal institutions seek to produce, and in a curious way they represent the docile subjects that governments secretly—or not so secretly—desire."
And without institutions like government to protect us, who do we turn to?
Us. Ourselves, Our ingenuity. Our families, tribes and communities. In The Walking Dead, characters like Andrea may start off as the weak women of stereotype, but learning to shoot and kill zombies transforms her into a powerful character not longer expecting men - or the government - to save her. Instead, now saves herself and others through her skill and reliance on herself. Which is the antithesis of the government-loving zombie that, collectively, keep governments large and in charge. (image)
"The aim [of these shows] seems to be to reduce the size of government radically and thereby to bring it closer to the people," continues Cantor. "Cut back to regional or local units, government becomes manageable again and ordinary people get to participate in it actively, recovering a say in the decisions that affect their lives. In cases where the apocalyptic event dissolves all government, these shows in effect return people to what political theorists call the state of nature...No longer locked into institutions already in place, the public gets to assess their value and see if it really needs them or might be better off under other arrangements or perhaps no government at all." (reclaimed Coca Cola aluminium apocalypse glasses by Vivienne Westwood)
And what filmed genre tends to become popular when normal life feels like a prison? A home on the range. Yes, Westerns. "Dramas set in the Wild West provided an imaginative escape from the safe and boring world of modern institutions—an image of a rugged, frontier existence, in which earlier Americans, especially men, were on their own and could act heroically in their struggle with hostile and dangerous environments." Just substitute the role than Indians were assigned in Wild West movies - that of lurking hordes threatening to rampage through civilization and wipe it out - and in their place put zombies. Or aliens. Or alien-zombies. "Like the Indians in many Westerns, the zombies are nameless and virtually faceless, they never speak, and they may be killed off indiscriminately, with their genocide being the apparent goal."
Which is good news. Because beneath the bloody, brain-spattered mayhem lies an imaginative "re-opening" of the frontier. A place where the besieged characters can shake off the shackles of The Man and return to a state closer to their real nature. Sure, the cost is prosperity and security - which are just things - and in their place, "rugged individualism, the spirit of freedom, independence, and self-reliance."
Here's the podcast I recorded:
Music by Kevin MacLeod, Incompetech.com
- Lesley Scott