Why Are We So Fascinated By Zombies?

Despite their total lack of charisma or even distinguishable characters, zombies have somehow become the monsters of our time — but is it because of their lack of personality, not in spite of, that we're so fascinated?

In response to this quote from Max Brooks, about the apocalyptic anxieties that underlie our current cultural fascination with the living dead, a discussion began about some of the other factors that may explain why zombies just won't let us go, one suggesting that their very facelessness was what was drawing us in:

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Zombies have a lot of pluses to them. They are a distinctly new and American monster (though you have the earlier voodoo zombie) and their current incarnation comes from open source cinema and not some particular character or book, like Dracula and Frankenstein. This makes them very malleable in the way they are presented. The zombies can be scientific, unexplained, mystical, etc, they can appear at any time, and in any setting, they are cheap to produce as movie monster, and require minimal acting skills. And they are a scalable threat, much like epidemic disease, in a way that werewolves, Frankenstein monsters, and vampires just aren't.

Even better, zombies tend to work on pretty simple, understandable rules in a way that other movie monsters often aren't. Think of how much time every vampire movie has to devote to understanding the motivations and weird powers of Dracula, just so he can be defeated. With a zombie, they figure that part out pretty quickly, but the problem is interpersonal problems and logistics.

Of course, even monsters with a single strong character that overshadows all other tales about them , like Dracula, still have their roots in other stories and competing tales. But zombies narratives (though there are certainly prominent stories about them that serve as touchstones) do seem to be much dispersed, which allows for a lot of flexibility in how they work and what happens in the story. It also leaves a lot of room to focus on the stories of how people are coping with their new world.

What do you think? Do you think the appeal of zombies is, at least in part, their malleability? Or do you have an alternate theory about their appeal? Tell us about it now in the comments.