Symbolic Significance of the Zombie in Early 21st Century Popular Culture

Monsters of various types, as depicted in fiction, can represent the fears and uncertainties of an audience by giving physical form to a threatening idea. Dracula, written in late Victorian times, may have represented the notion that unbounded sexuality could suck people’s lives out. Space Aliens in mid-century fiction and cinema clearly stood in for fears about unstoppable wars and technologies. During the Cold War, giant radioactive insects and lizards were visualizations of the enormous destructive potential of nuclear weapons.

In the early 21st century, the zombie is clearly the monster of choice, lurching its way through movies, TV, books, and computer games. But what is the motivating force that drives zombie-related productions forward? What fears and insecurities does the zombie represent? What is the meaning of the zombie?

Is the notion that mindless technology is in charge? Is the eating of brains a parable for the gradual destruction of our intellects by endless online garbage?

Is the image of the undead lurching mindlessly across the landscape a metaphor for bureaucracies and decaying social institutions that persist without any clear purpose?

Do large crowds of zombies merely stand in for large crowds of stupid people? (ahem)

What is the symbolic significance of the zombie?

I would dispute the Dracula represented fears of sexuality. I think Dracula and other vampires represented British fears of foreigners. You’ll see common motifs of young impressionable Britons going off to Europe and meeting a dangerous local (Dracula, Ruthven, Carmilla) and then, worst yet, the vampire follows them home and enters England. Even Varney, the only native British vampire, spend time in Europe - he symbolized the Englishman who “went native”.

As for zombies, I think their popularity represents a reaction to how a lot of other monsters have been portrayed. For the last few decades, we’ve seen authors writing books in which the monster’s point of view is represented. The vampire/werewolf/witch/ghost/whatever is now the protagonist and we’re expected to sympathize with their plight as an outsider from human society. It can be an interesting approach but sometimes an author just wants a simple monster that doesn’t have its own inner world. And zombies are the answer - they’re just a mindless threat that doesn’t generate empathy from the reader.

My take on the current phenomenon is the perceived division between privileged and have nots (as symbolized by the zombies’ insatiable hunger) and current standards of physical beauty, and fear of the lack of it. The latter is also derived from the notion of privilege. It also implies technology worship, given the lengthy discussions of how best to neutralize zombies, and the weapons and tactics to be employed therein.

There was an episode of Cracked After Hours a few Halloweens ago that delved into what movie monsters represent. They contend that it changes over the years, but it’s generally the archetypal “other.”

Zombies are compelling because they combine implacable inhumanity with humanity.
Just think of your reaction to child zombies.

Zombies represent the global lumpenproletariat.
The zombie plague is economic collapse.

If you’re cynical, the zombie represents nothing more than a cheap-to-use baddie. Zombies also provide the ideal “inhuman” opponent in that the heroes can mow down hundreds of them without dealing with all that pesky talk about the morality of lethal force.

But if you’re looking for a deeper meaning, the zombie = contagious disease theme is pretty strong in the age of SARS/Bird Flu/Ebola/etc.

Zombies are the unthinking masses, combined with the fear that you, personally, could be one of these unwitting idiots.

The original Dawn of the Dead is very heavy handed with this. Why were the zombies attracted to the shopping mall? Because it is what they did in life and zombies would do that in unlife as well. What’s the difference?

The Wiki page for the movie states that Romero was ripping off Richard Matheson’s I am Legend but didn’t want to use Vampires, so went with zombies.

So it sounds like all of this symbolic significance emerged from a simpler decision.

The page also discusses various symbolic critiques:

These days, I assume zombies reflect the existential dread of biological and genetic innovations. These innovations carry the threat of being used as weapons, but can also merely reflect Man’s Hubris - we harness things we don’t understand and which lead to repercussions we can’t anticipate.

I saw an analysis once that said that it was because zombies are a civilization-ending threat on a continent-wide scale. Vampires have the right scope, but they’d mostly prefer to leave society mostly intact, to keep their herds large and healthy. Kaiju have the right level of devastation, but they’re localized to a few coastal cities, nothing that would affect the heartland. Werewolves, poltergeists, etc. are neither: They’ll make things Hell for a very small number of victims, but will leave the rest of even the same city mostly intact.

As for why now, it’s because of the end of the Cold War. Back in the day, if you wanted something to end civilization, you didn’t need to resort to fantasy at all: You just used the all-too-real Soviets. But now they’re no longer available as villains, and our current crop of geopolitical baddies can’t serve the same purpose, so we need to replace them with something.


Many reviewers noted that the oh-so-profitable NO ESCAPE was basically a zombie movie about surviving a can’t-be-reasoned-with horde of, y’know, Third World types.

That’s not what happened in Carmilla, though. The only British character in Carmilla is Laura (the narrator)'s father, who retired to Styria before she was born, and is distinctly secondary.

Every other character, good or bad - Laura herself, their servant, her father’s friend who brought him the story of Carmilla’s vampirism, his niece Bertha, the doctor who treats Laura, the vampire hunter who aids them in the end, the merchant that Carmilla mocks, and of course, Carmilla and her mother - are all native to the area.

Her father’s Britishness doesn’t actually affect the story at all - they speak English in the home, because he doesn’t want to lose it (they also speak French and German for various reasons), but beyond that it exists exclusively as a part of his background. When they leave Stryia at the end, it’s not even for England, it’s for Italy.

Because they’re not real and are not freighted with any real-world antecedents, movie monsters are a perfect blank slate on which viewers can project any meaning they choose to.

The specific type of monster is simply a herd phenomenon. One vampire novel takes off, then everyone’s doing vampires, now they’re everywhere, so someone tries a zombie book instead. It takes off and becomes a big thing, until we reach peak zombie, then something else will come along. Perhaps the new Star Wars movie will bring in a new wave of space alien movies.

It’s just our era’s version of The Dance of Death.

Except they’re not. The only reason they’re treated like they are is because the only thing stupider than a zombie is a zombie movie.

I agree with the theory that they’re a human (or humanlike) enemy that the good guys can mow down without guilt. Anything more intelligent and we’d get into moral ambiguity. Zombies, though, are stupid, soulless, and already dead.

True enough, but the same could be said for robots, aliens, mummies, and many other kinds of menace. There must be some reason why the zombie is the monster du jour.

Some thoughts:

I lump zombies in with that category of monsters who have the particularly unnerving ability to make you into one of them. This of course includes vampires, werewolves, brain parasites, etc. Whatever psychology is underlying the popularity of any of these figures at a given time probably entails the anxiety of yourself becoming the monster. Or, to broaden a bit, the fear of becoming the other.

Dracula has been proposed as a reaction to anxiety about syphilis in particular, that disease that every afflicted nation blamed on some other nation. In that way the fear of sexual liberty is entangled with fear of foreigners and their persistently foreign ways. As Kamino Neko has pointed out, characters with vampirism are also by extension infected with filthy continental European-ness. Ewww.

I think that vampirism as sex persists beyond anxieties about syphilis and foreigness. The show True Blood made it a heavy-handed analogy to our persecution of homosexuals. They recruit, they have their own subculture, etc. This never set well with me because as the show makes clear, the vampires are barely being constrained from murdering anybody they feel like and treating humanity as cattle – unlike, I will continue to insist, gay culture.

The idea of werewolfism is probably about sex, too. I mean, I’m fuzzy about the old Greek and Roman myths beyond the pantheons we all learned about, but werewolves figured in much more than we talked about in high school. The Lupercalia were observed around the time of our modern St. Valentines day, and were considered to increase fertility. But I think the way the subject has mostly been treated in modernity, it’s more about a fear of reduction to bestial nature.

It may be that since vampirism and lycanthropy are not treated any more as such undesirable states, zombies have to fill the vacuum as the monsters we horror to become.

But there is an argument to be had that they are popular because stories about zombies fulfill toxic white male fantasies about a world where it is permitted to be a real man again.