The Zom-pire Phenomenon: movies and TV reflect our deepest fears


By Julia Hotz

If you were to survey the Union student body and have them rank their greatest fears, it is likely that zombies, ghosts and vampires would not make the top five. Rather, of the 50 percent of Union students who utilize the Counseling Center’s services, it is more likely that they would report episodes of social-pressure anxiety, fears of academic failure and (perhaps the most horrifying thought of all) worries about life plans after Union.  However, while I highly doubt that such students love the feeling that these “rational” fears induce, I would wager that a good number of them do enjoy being afraid of fictional terrors.

The popularity of horror films and television shows are evidence of this. Young adults  are often the genre’s targeted demographic. The television shows True Blood and American Horror Story as well as films such as The Roommate further support this theory.

Yet if we do enjoy these films and shows, how are we supposed to understand our “rational” fears; if it’s not zombies, ghosts and vampires that we are truly afraid of, why have they become so prevalent in popular media? Do we enjoy the horror genre for the lack of genuine terror that it provides, or do horror films and television shows mirror our true fears back to us?

Fascinated by the cultural resurgence of zombies in the media, Justin Dempsey ’14 recently explored these questions within a Philosophy Club discussion.  Dempsey opened his prompt with a brief historical analysis of horror movies; he noted how The Thing and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, both of which feature “an unknown evil that sometimes resembles a human,” were popular during the United States’ McCarthyism/Red Scare epidemic.

Within this same mid-20th-century time period, Japan (shortly after they experienced nuclear attacks) released Godzilla in 1954, which has since been considered a metaphor for the Japanese nation’s fear of nuclear fallout.  Two decades later, Hollywood released a series of “slasher” movies, including Halloween and Friday the 13th, in conjunction with the 1970s serial murder phenomenon. This same decade featured George Romero’s 1978 Dawn of the Dead, which has been regarded by some as a metaphor for capitalism and the mindlessness of consumerism.

This historical pattern of popular horror films and TV shows reflecting our “rational” fears invites us to wonder how people will come to analyze our current horror films. More generally, it begs the question of what we — as a nation and as a culture — are rationally afraid of.

Dempsey offered a few possible explanations, one of which claims that our contemporary fears are “technologically-rooted.” Observing how technology “marches forward” without responding to human concerns, he drew a parallel between computer programs and zombies, who similarly march forward toward the destruction of humanity.  He also noted how survivors of zombie attacks retreat to the woods or the islands, where technology is typically absent.

In this same realm of technological advancement, Dempsey suggests that we may innately fear losing our humanity and empathy to the “mindlessness” induced by smart phones; he cites how the phenomenon of losing human-identity is physically and mentally reflected within a variety of films’ “horror” figures (such as zombies, vampires, etc). Dempsey’s other theories center on our culture’s economic and political fears.  Noting how horror films often feature a dominant and oppressive figure as their central antagonists, he explained that the terror induced by such figures may represent our fear of circumstances that are beyond our control, such as an economic collapse.

Horror films give prominence to characters who are “scary”; thus, unlike other genres where villans inspire anger and action, the horror film antagonist propagates fear and submissive retreat.

From the liberal perspective, Dempsey suggests that the mindlessness of zombies may reflect the leftist fear of conservatives’ destructive spending and ignorant policy-making. Likewise, the blood-sucking of vampires may represent the conservatives’ fear of liberal foreigners and homosexuals “sucking the lifeblood” out of national tradition. Like the economic- and technologically-rooted theories, this political interpretation highlights our general fear of losing our humanity and how we cannot control this loss.

Although I have often rolled my eyes at the vampire renaissance and find most horror movies to be kind of funny (Paranormal Activity gets me every time), perhaps this is because I am ignoring my deepest fears. And perhaps these films, as inconsistent in quality as they may be, will one day tell historians about what we were truly afraid of in the 21st century.



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