If I was to make a list of common themes in my favourite horror, the Unknown would rank pretty high. Whether it involves the supernatural in any form, Lovecraft’s Cosmic Unknowns, Poe’s mysterious psychologies, or Ito’s unexplained phenomena, the idea of a terror beyond ourselves for which we might never have an explanation is thrilling. But I have a ritual that I perform each night–I turn off the outdoor lights, lock my back door, and close all the curtains. When my door lock broke, I realize it was not some malformed Hellbeast I was afraid of, but something much more familiar. Something much more human.
The other night, while rigging the makeshift trap that serves as the lock now, a rather unwelcome vision entered my mind: a man, standing alone in the spotlight of my back porch. My instinct was to examine exactly what made the situation so chilling. In my mind, he brandished no weapon at all, and I came to realize the vision was more terrifying the more disconnected he seemed–it was more frightening to imagine him slouched and staring at the concrete below than poised to break in, or beckoning to me from behind the glass. The horror did not lie within him, but in what I would probably do in reaction: I would have to unlock the door. Every scenario I could imagine, including calling the police, involved me opening that door at some point or another. And I knew, in my all-too-human heart, I would still want to help a lost or wounded stranger.
I’ve watched countless presentations of the apocalypse, some two, three, four times or more. It’s become a common theme in television and movies recently, where the ultimate battle for survival has us not only fighting a deadly sickness that medicine has yet to address, but also ourselves in so many ways. Zombies frighten us in the same way that my midnight vision frightened me: the humanity in us recognizes the humanity in them, even when the humanity in them is gone. As children, we’re taught to be compassionate human beings and we’re conditioned to recognize suffering so we can help where we can. We give to charities and volunteer to help people we’ve never met on the sole basis that they are also human and deserve better than what they have. It’s part of our condition. In order to effectively stave off a zombie apocalypse, we would need to deprogram ourselves and see the sick, the suffering, and the unfortunate as a threat to our lives, and as a threat to our very existence as human beings.
No amount of Doomsday Prepping, weapons training, stock piling, or escape planning can prepare us for that. Those of us who devoured Romero’s Living Dead series and later films like 28 Days Later or REC might think we’re prepared for a zombie apocalypse by counting the cases of bottled water in our garages, the number of shot gun shells we can purchase, the level of gas in our tanks. But can we ever prepare ourselves for the inevitable breakdown of our social structure? Can we complete shut our hearts to our fellow man? What happens when our loved ones fall? We might scream at our televisions and denounce our favourite characters for being soft when faced with an infected fiancée or sibling, but would we be prepared to aim our weapons at faces we once found familiarity and comfort in? Once upon a time, I thought I could. We tell children that dead things are just empty shells, that their spirits, the part that makes them the things we knew and loved, have left them. The dead hamster in the cage is no longer Fluffy–Fluffy left that body behind with that last little hamster breath. But it’s easier to believe because those bodies are no longer moving, those faces are no longer emoting, that voice has gone silent. With zombies, that isn’t the case. Is it as easy to believe that the body approaching, arms reaching, eyes staring back at you no longer belong to your best friend? I’m no longer certain.
Perhaps I devalue the human survival instinct. Maybe in the face of certain death and total destruction, we throw off our own humanity as a fail-safe. Even this is no comfort, however, as it poses more problems than it solves. Without our humanity to keep us on task, we’re free to turn on each other–the still-living, the healthy, the survivors. In that scenario, the zombies are not the only inhuman monsters we’re fighting against, we’re also fighting ourselves. We wouldn’t have to worry about hurting former friends and family, but we would also have no one to trust, no one to comfort us, no one to conspire with. It would be every man for himself with little to no real endgame.
Zombies are scary enough on their own, as disease-riddled undead drones that just keep coming, but they’re terrifying in their familiarity. They were once us, and we can become them. They cause us to question what being human really means, and what it means in relation to others. While the idea of Terrors from Outer Space may be horrifying, the concept is more abstract and unlikely. Zombies are all too real: they’re our Worst Case Scenario, one that might be one wrong flu or plague away. Maybe this is why they’ve captured the attention of our television producers, our filmmakers, our novelists. Zombies are clinical monsters, all too easy to reconcile in the world of scientific and medical reality. When I lock my door at night, I can shake off the fear of some unknown creature lurking in the darkness, but I can’t always keep myself from shivering at the thought of something more familiar. Zombies are something I’m not sure I could separate myself completely from, and I’m not sure what it would mean for me if I could.
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