Restless undead give us something else to think about in tough times

Red Deer College instructor Roger Davis discusses how our preoccupation with the supernatural intensifies as the economy falters

Oh-oh. Low oil prices are devouring Alberta’s economy — and by the way, is that a brain-sucking zombie at your door?

Every time the economy falters, our preoccupation with the supernatural intensifies. This fact is acknowledged by psychologists, economists — and even the Hollywood writers who help decide what new shows we will be watching.

It’s not a coincidence that The Walking Dead premiered on TV on Oct. 31, 2010, a year after the global economy took a tumble in 2009. Roger Davis draws this parallel and many others in the English class he teaches at Red Deer College about zombies in literature. Yes, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is on his reading list. But so are books with less literal ties to the moaning, shuffling undead — for example, Cormac McCarthy’s apocalyptic novel, The Road, and Canadian author Margaret Laurence’s short story The Loons, about the discrimination a Métis girl faces in a small town.

Despite the upcoming Halloween festivities that will bring legions of trick-or-treating ghouls and goblins into the streets of Central Alberta, zombies are never just zombies in Davis’s classroom. They are allegories for what we fear most: Death, aging, poverty, disease, terrorism — or even an influx of people who are not like us.

Zombies can mirror our soulless consumerism — as they did in the Dawn of the Dead movies filmed in a shopping mall, said Davis, or they can stand in for our unwashed masses — the drug addicts and homeless derelicts that society cares least about.

Zombies can also represent all the horrible things we try putting out of our minds — such as the plight of those suffering from malnutrition, war and disease in the Third World.

He noted the title The Walking Dead, ironically, refers to the inhumane humans in the graphic novel that sparked the TV series. The instructor explained that people “do things to zombies that we don’t do to other monsters.” Stupid, decomposing hordes are dispatched more brutally than vampires or werewolves. They get shovel-blows to the head instead of a stake to the heart or silver bullet.

In The Walking Dead, the atrocities committed to zombies eventually spill over to the way people treat other humans as survivors of an apocalypse gradually lose their morality in a bid to save their own skins.

With this in mind, David suggested, “We should perhaps care for (zombies) specifically because we have no reason to care for them.” This would show a “residue of humanity that we have not forsaken.”

Granted, these are deeper thoughts than most people would connect with zombies. But as a kid of the ’80s who grew up with the silly/serious, sometimes “terrible” horror movies of the period, the RDC instructor said he always liked the foot-dragging creatures because of the stories the imaginary “monsters” tell us about ourselves.

“Because we invent monsters, they are projections of (us),” he said.

It follows, then, that young people who secretly fear being put out of work by advancing technology, or dread being unable to afford homes, can project their real-life anxieties onto something like movie zombies for an hour or two. “When people fear poverty, they make up monsters,” said Davis.

Similarly, when the price of oil dips and there’s no easy-to-identify cause, he believes, “we invent reasons — such as blaming the NDP (government), which holds no sway over world oil prices.”

There’s an “illogical,” imaginary element there, he said, which aligns nicely with the unreality of the supernatural.

Zombies, with their rotted faces and grisly appetite for brains, are not an easy bunch to love.

Yet, they provide us with imaginative distraction during tough times — same as those lavish Busby Berkeley musicals momentarily kept people’s problems at bay during the 1930s. Maybe zombies should be appreciated for this reason, said Davis.

After all, there’s nothing like watching folks being terrorized by the restless undead to put everyday problems into perspective.

lmichelin@bprda.wpengine.com

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