“The lies of the past were long gone and now the truth was everywhere, shambling down their streets, crashing through their doors, clawing at their throats.” World War Z
Does the zombie apocalypse speak truth to power about the past? It might seem so from looking at how zombies and vampires just keep coming back. Although set in the future, in World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War author Max Brooks nods to Studs Terkel’s The Good War an oral history that chronicled American experiences during World War II. (And for those of you who haven’t read it, note that Terkel’s title is ironic—it’s not at all clear that many of those interviewed believed in the goodness of World War II.) Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter turns plantation owners and Confederates into the other undead. It might not be good history but it vividly captures the sense of horror that plantation slavery and the carnage of the Civil War evoke. Zombies and vampires: the past that persists, the history that has to be confronted.
It turns out that zombies and vampires make perfect metaphors for just about everything that comes back to haunt us. Inept policies in response to a severe recession sparked by a mortgage meltdown created a zombified economy, according to Paul Krugman. And it’s hardly a stretch to link vampires to debt collectors. As David McNally points out in his Monsters of the Market: Zombies, Vampires and Global Capitalism, folklore has long used monster metaphors to characterize predatory economies. On the political side, the legions of zombies and vampires haunting popular culture might also be the ghosts of foreign policy past. Zombies, of course, literally came to Americans’ attention after the United States Marines occupied Haiti from 1915 to 1934. The tragedy of 9/11 exposed other fissures that most Americans became aware of only in its aftermath. The abstractness of the threat that the event implied made responding to it directly difficult. In Wired, Spencer Ackerman has compared the war on terror to a zombie “lurching forward thoughtlessly on instinct.” Nor are zombieism and vampirism purely American metaphors. The recent Cuban film Juan of the Dead makes Fidel himself the last zombie standing while Latin Americans have long had their stories of chupacabras (animal vampires) that correlate to hard times.
Zombies and vampires are everywhere and in this they also closely resemble the most powerful current keeper of our collective past: the internet. Facebook has been around for just under a decade now but one of its current worries is what to do with its own “zombies”: the Facebook pages of deceased users. Yet it’s the living who have more to worry about from being haunted by posts past. This is now the first generation coming of age who cannot re-invent themselves when they go off to college or otherwise sail into adulthood. Their past persists and it’s not unlike the student debt many will face. Unlike other kinds of debt, student loan obligations cannot be discharged through bankruptcy proceedings and can, vampire-like, seemingly persist for all time. Little wonder that such monsters appeal to boys and girls alike. Vampires might be from Venus and zombies from Mars, but there’s something there for everyone.
So welcome to the past persistent, but I have a warning for you, or maybe it’s for me. This blog post? Undead.