WARNING: This post may be construed as depressing for some, so if you just want to see some puppies and other animals, don’t read any of this and just watch the videos. Take care of yourself and if you need to take a break, do so.
Zombies have dominated pop culture for the last decade or two; they lord over TV with shows like The Walking Dead and iZombie, they share the subway with you on your way to a cubicle in a metal and concrete box populated by computers and board meetings, and they’re all over Colson Whitehead’s Zone One. Even though a plethora of papers has come about in an effort to explain just what it is about zombies that makes them so applicable to allegory in a new age of technology, the idea of an undead thrall that feeds on the living is an almost timeless one.
It’s not, in my view, the zombie’s urgent and merciless need to feed that earns it its place in the evil hierarchy however. Zombies represent a different realm of fear for humanity. From the oldest civilizations to the fictional universes of the future, zombies strike a more affecting terror than simple gory death: endlessness.
There’s a word for the fear of the infinite and eternal, apeirophobia. This may seem absurd at first glance, though. After all, an escape from the infinite void doesn’t appear to be an unfavorable thing for most. It even shows in all the stories and myths our species keeps of adventurers and kings seeking eternal life. Most of these stories, if not all, always carry an additional undercarriage of the terrifying side of immortality. Ishtar offers the dreadful promise to release the dead from Irkalla, and these zombies are not seeking brains, but simply a good meal. The implication of this zombie story is that the dead would not eat the living but make life harder by competing with them. In Zone One, the living want NYC back, but they are forced to face the inhabitants. Irkalla, among its lesser qualities, apparently boasts a poor selection for feasting. Instead of the end of awareness death means a paltry and hopeless eternity, complete with endless suffering and struggling, sort of like the idea of Hell.
Indeed, Greek culture also has the idea that forever is a long time. To the Greeks, eternal life affords the opening for eternal suffering. Looking at Sisyphus, Tantalus, and even the daughters of Danaus, whose only crime is wanting to avoid incest, the idea of the eternity of the punishment outshines its pain or hunger or task. It’s, in essence, a more pronounced vision of the mortal grind, except instead of doing it for a few decades, there’s no end. You can drive to work today, and you can write that essay tomorrow, but for all conceivable and inconceivable time, without rest or variation?
There lies the torturous bit for the drone: the excruciating stint, sunrise to sunset, tumbling through to a future that is never reached and experiencing the drudgery of a period beyond comprehension. The primate mind is not designed to manage the unending. Just consider it; the mere notion of it leads to an almost physical fist grabbing around the heart and squeezing to send home the despair that’s found from Dante (I couldn’t find the actual book online) to Kafka, and further to its contemporary manifestations.
Here’s a video of Corgis that are so cute you’ll hear your dad go “Squee!”
When science advanced far enough to inform us just how old and absurdly limitless the cosmos is, humanity was faced with two uncomfortable concepts; we found the infinite, and we found our place in the infinite. To my mind, what terrifies Major Tom is not death, but the lonely and endless drifting that preempts it. While he is mourned temporarily on Earth and then his mourners must continue their lives without him, he witnesses the eternal solitude and vastness of space.
Zombies perfectly encapsulate this dread, because the worst part of the zombie is that he or she is essentially a human. All zombies lived lives, had dreams and aspirations, loves, loss, went to work, drove their kids to soccer practice, picked up hobbies, drank caffeine in the morning to wake up, had their time with booze or vice, had families, found pennies in the couch, and held their children’s hands as they walked them across streets and through the store. Just as is the case with Dante’s Inferno, they won’t ever return to that. They will go beyond the end of time. A zombie trapped in a fallout shelter may traipse about that 200 ft square forever, getting hungrier as eons come and go. That zombie is in infinity.
Time is not something to be trifled with, as is warned by countless cautionary tales. Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day has to hear “I Got You Babe” every morning for ten years and it’s torture. One idea of Hell is being in a motel room where the TV is set to one channel and one song with no end. The CIA uses a tactic based around piping the same song into a room with a prisoner for hours on end as a form of torture, and it works.
To be immortal, undying, to live forever, is a curse. Everyone you know and will know will die. Everything you know will decay. The Earth itself, should you find yourself impervious to destruction, will cease to be as well, eventually. The alternative, of course, isn’t all that rosy either. The one thing that all living beings share but cannot share with each other. This was what I considered while reading Zone One; to live forever, or to die? This lies at the heart of it all; is a limitless beginning better than a final end? To have the fear of eternity is to be eternally fighting off that draining anxiety of the ultimate future. If you’ve ever seen Donnie Darko, this is the feeling you’ve had when Frank first shows himself. The nighttime is, as with many horror stories and films, the messenger of dread. As that solid blue sky turns to empty and unfathomable darkness, our minds too wander to the time when we will contend with our process. As we stare up at a dark ceiling, the ceiling stares back. It can be overwhelming.
Here’s a bunny chilling in a fuzzy slipper:
Eternity has a less than satisfactory ending. What could be more terrifying than a trillion-trillion-trillion-year long suspension into oblivion? It’s not imaginable for us.
Zombies, for me, bring this idea to the forefront of fear. Their endless search for food is our constant search for meaning and direction. Their constantly decaying bodies mirror those of their living counterparts. They reflect the existential fear of no good answer, that eternity waits, and that we are powerless against it.
I don’t want to end here, so I’ll cease my argument and give some food for thought that always comforts me if I get too deep end. The idea of beauty for me is such that it cannot be beauty if it’s always there. Beauty is indeed subjective, but the fleetingness of something gives it its power. A flower is beautiful because it sees a bloom. An artist creates art because his or her time to do so is limited. A scientist seeks answers because there is a deadline. We enjoy our youth because it doesn’t last. Eternal life is bitter, death is sweet, and life is bittersweet. You can’t have beauty without ugliness, and there can’t be happiness without sadness. We get bored. We get fatigued. We lose interest in what we once held to be important. We get our hearts broken and our lives experience ups and downs, but a freedom lies in the fact that it’s all temporary. Life gains its immutable color through its temporality and variety. We face the realization of our own absurdity with revolt. Now that we know we don’t have any expectations or real limits besides those we impose on ourselves, we can care for everyone around us and make a memorable positive impact, improving upon the human experience in real and sizeable ways.
Here’s a video of boxer puppies being boxer puppies:
Don’t sweat the small stuff.