Editor’s note: Nebula Award nominated author Jason Sanford is now publishing a regular column in SF Signal called To the Ends of the Universe. These columns were originally printed in the Czech SF magazine XB-1. The Kindle edition of Jason’s anthology Million Writers Award: The Best Online Science Fiction and Fantasy, which received a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly, is now on sale for only $2.99.
In 1968 George A. Romero revolutionized horror films with his 90-minute black and white masterpiece Night of the Living Dead. While zombies existed before this film—myths and beliefs in the undead go back centuries and cross most cultures—Romero took the archetype in a totally new direction. Instead of an undead corpse shambling alongside ghosts in scary dark places, here we have countless undead lurching straight for us. They surround our houses and bang on our doors until the mass of them break inside to eat us alive.
The fear caused by zombies isn’t merely their undead qualities—after all, plenty of other monsters, such as vampires and Frankenstein’s creation, share this undying trait. What makes modern zombies so scary are their sheer numbers. One shambling zombie we can handle. Hell, if you have a shotgun even five or six zombies aren’t too much trouble. But dozens? Hundreds? It was Romero’s genius to tie our dread of the undead with massive numbers of them.
Since then zombie films, TV shows, and fiction have offered up variations on masses of zombies overwhelming humanity in apocalyptic settings. The reason for the zombification of the world changes—radiation, gened virus, mutagenic chemicals, alien fairy dust—yet the end result is the same. Zombies. And lots of them.
Which raises the question: Why are we scared by hordes of zombies?
I suspect this fear arises from human history. We are the product of hunter-gatherer societies, small groups who migrated across the strange Pleistocene world from our ancestral homelands in Africa. Our ancestors were no doubt confident in their abilities—confidence is an enduring human trait—but at night, as they huddled around their fires, this confidence would have waned. In the dark around them were the two things humanity has always feared—the known and the unknown.
The fear of the unknown is well documented, with many elements of horror falling under the category—vampires, ghosts, demons, and so on. As H.P. Lovecraft once said, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” Its easy to imagine our ancestors as they sat by their ancient campfires, the unknowns in the dark around them birthing countless fears which live in our group memory to this day. Hence our fear of ghosts, demons, and other imagined creatures.
But as I mentioned, the unknown wasn’t all our ancestors feared. The megafauna of the time (like sabre-toothed cats) were a constant threat, as were storms and a harsh climate and, especially, attacks from other hunter gatherer groups. So through the ages humanity has been taught to also fear that which is known.
Which brings me back to why we fear zombies. And my theory is that zombies very much belong in the “fear of the known” category.
It’s not that the dead might actually come back to life. Instead, we fear what zombies represent. What terrifies people about zombies are their sheer numbers and mind-numbing determination to attack. I believe this is a reflection of the anxieties of the world we live in, a world occupied by more than seven billion people.
The unknown places in our world are shrinking fast. And in the back of our hunter-gather minds we know we’re never truly not alone. We’re surrounded by frightening numbers of our fellow humans. As I write this I live in an average-sized city where there are literally hundreds of thousands of people within walking distance of me. The ancestral remnants bound into my psyche finds that thought extremely disturbing. What if all those people came for me? Where could I run and hide in a world of seven billion people?
And I suspect that’s why zombies scare us, because it’s a metaphor for unspoken fears that the mass of our fellow humans might one day turn against us.
It’s often remarked that zombie films and fiction are commentaries on the world we live in. But I think the more basic analysis of zombies reveals a common fear of our modern world—that humanity, no matter the strides we’ve made, still hasn’t adapted to life in the 21st century. That we still yearn for those long-gone days when there were only a few humans in the world.
Because we know, in our deepest hearts, that the scariest thing about our world is our self. And that there’s no scarier monster than masses of humans turning on one another like zombies.