As far as we can tell, humans have been mystified and filled with hope and fear by the concepts of the possibilities of life after death and the possibility that death is the ultimate end.
For many it alters the way they choose to live, behave, and interact.
Entire religious belief systems have been built and destroyed because of it.
It has been the subject of endless theological and scientific study and debate.
It has permeated every aspect of human entertainment culture from the various forms of heaven, hell, purgatory, angels, demons, eternal banquet halls celebrating warriors, eternal pits of fire and brimstone punishing sinners, to the aspects of the undead walking the earth as vampires, ghosts, zombies, and the twisted monsters stitched together by mad scientists.
Much of our #Culturalinertia and how it has shifted can be measured by looking at how such things are discussed as its presentation evolves through entertainment.
The TV show ‘Supernatural’ ran for over 15 years, it survived after the network it originated on died and disappeared, and it had a very different take on modern religion than any previously show could have put on air. It followed in the footsteps of “Charmed” and Buffy the Vampire Slayer” introducing the concepts to millions that not all “monsters” were bad and not all “heavenly creatures” had the best interest of living humans as a priority.
We can see a similar evolution in the seemingly never-ending cultural fascination with a zombie apocalypse.
The modern form of it started with George A. Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead.” This movie launched not only an enduring new genre of film, but dared to be one of the first major studio films brave enough to make a Person of Color the hero in a position of authority leading White characters. It also laid the groundwork for building nearly every horror film sequel franchise that has been made since.
The only real question of morality in Romero’s films though was whether one would have the fortitude to kill a zombie that had once been a person we knew or cared about.
But, to keep us from getting bored with it, the zombie mythos has had to evolve many times since that movie’s release in 1968. Romero’s follow-up films helped forge the path for that as well.
Then came the inevitable spoof films and reboots like “Revenge of the Dead,”” Night of the Day of the Dawn Of the Dead,” one of my favorites: “Shawn of the Dead” or my daughter’s favorite — the zombie apocalypse Christmas musical — “Anna and the Apocalypse”
These would be followed by reinventions of how zombies would move in “28 Days Later” and its sequel as well as South Korea’s “Train to Busan.”
Through all of these, the fascination with the genre has been more about either being torn apart and eaten alive or the fear of falling victim to whatever virus or curse was turning people into reanimated corpses with a singular purpose of spreading their affliction or a never ending hunger for human flesh/brains.
Entire fictional religious and scientific backgrounds have been created, fleshed out, torn down and rebuilt to explain how it could happen in each particular film’s fictional universe.
Then “The Walking Dead” came along and changed it all again, both with its graphic novel and its TV show.
This show survived for more than a decade and spawned multiple spinoffs simply because it decided to introduce the audience to something scarier and more monstrous than the zombies. The moral ambiguity of the humans capable of surviving in a post-apocalyptic world and the struggles they’d have with their own humanity to manage it. It explored not just the terror of surviving the initial outburst and its spread, but the terror of competing with other survivors for food, water, and an ever-depleting supply of shelter, ammunition, fuel, and other vital resources.
These survivors quickly learned how to navigate and defeat the monsters in all but the most dire circumstances. They even eventually learned how to weaponize the monsters against each other.
This brought new dimension and depth to explore in what was becoming a played-out genre.
Would becoming a living monster be worse than becoming an undead one? Would you be the kind of person that would sacrifice others to save yourself or yourself to save others if it became necessary to choose? Would the answer live on a sliding scale of morality and self-preservation depending on who was involved? What psychological struggles and tangible hardships would arise with the possibility of conceiving and delivering a child into such a world? What kinds of cooperative communities, leadership politics, and both internal and external rivalries would arise between such communities?
It even allowed children as primary characters to do what was necessary to survive or sometimes failing. It didn’t shy away from making the parents of those kids deal with the undead monsters they had become, or the making the kids deal with the undead monsters they’re parents became.
These are the plotlines that allowed the entire genre to rise up and start plodding forward again.
A few years after the Walking Dead TV show first aired, a video game was released called “The Last of Us.” It won tons of rewards for both its visuals and storytelling. And it re-wrote the “zombie” mythos all again. These monsters weren’t walking undead. They were infected, not by a virus or curse, but a very real (in our world) fungal infection. A fungal infection that already takes over living hosts with no purpose other than to spread itself through other hosts as far and as fast as possible. This fungal infection is called Cordyceps. It is the one that already infects and spreads through ants that are known as “zombie ants” once infected. The fungus overgrows the central nervous system and assumes control of the body.
The only reason the virus can’t infect humans in our current world is that it cannot survive at the temperatures found inside a living human. The game itself never explains how that changes, but the new TV show based upon it does.
The fungus, like many things, is forced to evolve to survive in higher temperatures as the global climate warms. The slight adjustment needed to survive at human body temperatures from its current limit of about 94 degrees Fahrenheit doesn’t require a massive suspension of disbelief to make it terrifying. The show also changes its secondary spread methodology from airborne spores (which the game used as an obstacle to be navigated) to a more scientifically sound growth of fungal tendrils.
It cannot be stressed how viscerally this concept lands right now as we are navigating our third year of a massively contagious global health pandemic and the ongoing crises created by the environmental changes brought about by rising global temperatures.
It isn’t surprising that modern survivalists have gone from prepping for the likely possibility of a nuclear apocalypse to one created by an unstoppable health crisis or global climate catastrophe.
You can even buy premade zombie apocalypse survival kits now and they’re not entirely considered “gag gifts.”
As our society evolves to new levels of personal and interpersonal risk and horror, the entertainment we use to escape and/or cope with it also evolves to keep pace.
We can learn much about ourselves and others by analyzing the trends that endure, the ones that are rejected, the ones we mock, and the ones to which we pay homage.