As a psychologist who also write’s zombie books, I am frequently asked this question and often I ponder it myself. Of course, there is no single reason for why zombies are popular. I
guess the short answer is that we create monsters to dead with the fears in our lives. I think there are many fears/factors that contribute to the growth of the genre’s popularity. I think four possible environmental events foster the rise of zombie love (1) the economic collapse (2) the growing sense of fear over never ending war, which most Americans are not connected too and terrorist occasionally happening at random places in the homeland (3) a general monotony of daily life, which in many cases creates a sense of loneliness and (4) growing cultural changes in America with the major Caucasian culture becoming a minority. In zombie novels, society collapse and when it does a Lord of Flies environment usually emerges.
The above four mentioned factors lead to a growing sense of uncertainty and fear. An American behavioral psychologist created an instrument in the 1940s called the verbal summator. He was interested, how people would respond to essentially white noise. He found that often when people hear white noise at a low enough level it sounds like whispers, they begin to interpret words and the themes those words make are the most salient themes in the person’s life. In some ways, zombies are like the white noise. It becomes easy for our minds to project the fears of our own lives. Indeed, some gun range owners have capitalized on this by creating and allowing people to shoot at targets of those they hate in life made into zombie forms.
Of course, zombies are not a monolith. I suspect different zombie types are stimuli that draw for different fears. Hattian zombies of course don’t bite and create other zombies. They are slaves of voodoo priestess and serve more as servants. They are not the style of zombie in vogue. Of course, the Romero Dawn of the Dead Zombie is the stimulus that draws the most popular zombie image on television. Slow moving, ever creeping, and surprisingly slowly overwhelming.
But other forms of Zombie exist, even today- think of the Zombies of “I am Legend” or the Zombies of the biopunk era “Resident evil.” These are faster and as is the key with biopunk either government or corporation made. The latter zombie draws the same crowd fears of science and an increasingly technological society. The fear they tend to raw are the fear of a government that failed to protect its people, harmed its people or at the very least was to weak to stop a corporation from hurting its people. This is of course a real threat. It was not long ago, hurricane Katrina showed the limits of government against disasters and for somehow government cronyism and corruption can double that risk. But you don’t need to even go that deep. We live in a society where US factor output is roughly seven to eight times what it was in the 1970s and the US has lost seven million factory jobs- mostly to automation. It does not take much to see that people are feeling their survival skills have not worth anymore, as we see self-check outline replacing many cashiers or even waitresses just delivering food for a section in a restrain, while people order it themselves by computers on the table. So the fear for the biopunk genre is clear- science, genetics, governments or corporations. Still, these types of zombie are not the most popular at this point.
So let us talk about the most popular zombie: the Romero Zombie. Usually, its origin is supernatural or unknown. Indeed, where are the Romero Zombie is a stimulus that draws more for fear content related to fearing others (Romero himself often used the zombie genre to address social issues- even the last scene of Dawn of the Dead is a racially charge scene, where an African American emerges from the battle, as the only survivor only to be shot by the sheriff and police – institution sent to protect people from the raised dead). There of course, is a lot to fear from other people- active shooters, terrorists, immigration, and mass casualty situations but even the more mundane trade on Wall Street that traded derivatives that almost crashed the US economy. All these create a fear of others.
But zombie novels are not ultimately about fear of the changing world. People who watch shows like the Walking Dead rarely remember any specific zombies but the people both good and bad. Try it yourself sometime- look at a picture of living and dead in the Walking Dead- do you remember what any of the dead looked like as zombies? Probably not. You remember the adversity they face. How they soared in their life and then with great sadness or even anger- how the character passed.
Now good fiction inspires people to think and feel. Some people, prone to anxiety experience the zombie genre and fantasize about ways to protect themselves and those who they love most. How would you face, the end of the world and the end of society? We call these survivalist’s “preppers.”
Indeed, training people to prep for the collapse of society has become an industry. This is not just the case in areas like selling guns but society can see it in other areas like the number of people buying solar panels just to get off the grid. One of the characters in Zombie vs Robots- Martin, while in many ways the traditional science fiction here with a strong belief in the future has a survivalist- prepper side to him. After a huge hurricane in the north east- he puts solar panels on his home and taking that road makes all the difference- as Robert Frost might say. The government itself has join the wave of zombie preppers. The US government’s Center for Disease Control published a pamphlet on surviving the zombie apocalypse and used it to train people for survival in basic disasters. The goal is to find people interested to give them general skills to survive. But not just in this area- we see now the FBI engaged in training people on what to do in active shooter situations. Maybe in the end, this will prove to be the most legacy of the zombie genera- giving people skills to survive in the future and doing so on an individual level in case the social system fails (on some small scale).
But of course, that goal is not limited to zombie genre. In response to a person who asked him about his science fiction showing the future he said that was not his business as he wrote to prevent the future. Maybe zombie writer as is the case with most post-apocalyptic writers are writing to prevent a future symbolically that they fear. Of course, here is the kicker- as with most things- while survival skills can help in a narrow range of situations- sometimes we all need to accept the spiritual uncertainty that if an event is large enough, we will ultimately not survive.
(Joseph Cautilli is part of the father/daughter (Marisha Cautilli) author team who wrote Zombies vs Robots)