To most humans, fear of creatures so fundamentally inhuman as zombies comes naturally; after all, not only are zombies grotesque in appearance, but they are also the living dead whose sole collective purpose is to destroy human life. However, in Max Brooks’ World War Z, which details the effects of a mindblowing zombie apocalypse, it so happens that it is the zombies themselves who push characters toward compassion and away from oppressive behaviors like racism and sectarianism. By examining the shifting language with which characters from the novel represent and relate to social ‘others’ upon the rise of the apocalypse through the lens of a Critical Discourse Analysis framework, we can explore the malleability of ideology and see how human zombification might not be so bad after all.
Humans vs. Zombies: Destruction, Fear, and Envy
Needless to say, the global population of World War Z is lost and desperate when it comes to defeating a rapidly-growing army of brain-eating monsters. In addition to its vivid depiction of ways in which human society has been overtaken by apocalyptic disaster, many aspects of World War Z’s reality actually resemble integral parts of social reality in the U.S. quite strongly: (1) Humans participate in government and military, (2) Racial categorization imbues society with conflict and prejudice, and, of course, (3) Humans have no idea how to defeat the living dead. As human zombification stretches relentlessly across the globe, humanity and its social world are virtually torn apart by the sheering hands of the undead, and humans are, well, scared. Interestingly, this fear is complex and meaningful when we explore the role of the zombie in more depth.
According to some monster-theorists like Dr. Persephone Braham, we might fear monsters not only out of self-preservation, but also out of some kind of desire for their senselessness and disregard for social norms1.
This leads me to pose the following question: If our fear of the other is envy-driven, what might the fearful population of World War Z envy about its zombie opponents?
I suggest it is the inability of zombies to think the way the living do, and thus their detachment from discriminatory ways of thinking and acting, that humans really desire. In other words, it is the zombies’ very thoughtlessness that allows them to ‘know’ something many of us do not.
If zombies cannot think, how can they practice anything but total equality?
All Humans Shall be Eaten Equally. . . ?
Among the most fascinating characteristics of the zombie is its relentless, unwavering desire to destroy any and every human in its path. Importantly, when a zombie encounters a human, it does not consider the human at all; the human’s racial categorization, ethnicity, gender, nationality, and so on, are all but irrelevant or even extant to the zombie. In fact, it is this completely indiscriminate, ‘unthinking’ way of being–this total disregard for social classifications over which humans have obsessed for centuries–that I believe makes zombification a positive step toward better humanity for humans.
Reconsidering ‘Enemies’ in World War Z
Throughout the novel, and as the apocalypse progresses, Brooks details various characters’ transitions out of their racist ideologies and into more compassionate perceptions of their social world. Mary Jo Miller, an American woman who originally paid little attention to the disaster, recounts finding her co-worker, Mrs. Ruiz, preparing to flee to Alaska for safety:
“She said that her family’d already sold their house and were buying a cabin up near Fort Yukon…I thought that was the stupidest thing I’d ever heard, especially for someone like Inez. She wasn’t one of the ignorant ones, she was a ‘clean’ Mexican. I’m sorry to use that term, but that was how I thought back then, that was who I was [before the War].” (Brooks 65)
Similarly, Saladin Kadar, a refugee from Kuwait City, expresses even more explicitly his shift in social mindset upon facing the apocalypse. Regarding his encounter with Israeli people, to whom he previously felt strongly opposed, he recalls:
“I realized I practically didn’t know anything about these people I’d hated my entire life. Everything I thought was true went up in smoke that day, supplanted by the face of our real enemy” (Brooks 44).
In both cases, racism and prejudice are overshadowed as disaster nears. Not only do Mary Jo and Saladin realize new and more powerful enemies than their social ‘Others,’ but also they realize the futility of constructing social ‘Others’ in the first place. In other words, they see these manufactured categorizations and conflicts for what they are–manufactured, and that they are not fundamental, necessary, or even ‘real’3 to natural human life at all, particularly in the face of a true enemy.
Toward ‘Unthinking’, Toward Justice
The transitions Mary Jo and Saladin trace in their social ideologies exemplify a powerful form of recontextualization and representational transformation4. Recontextualization here refers to the process of making or discovering previously unseen meanings by imagining or experiencing a concept in a new context. The presence of zombies allows Mary Jo and Saladin to realize a new context in which social identity-markers are significantly outweighed by something much greater and more powerful: survival.
Importantly, these characters’ previous conceptions of their social world are not only offset by the zombie force, but also transformed as they imagine and actualize new conceptual and linguistic representations for their social Others. Specifically, Mary Jo transforms out of her representation of Mexican people as inherently “unclean,” and Saladin realizes that Israeli people are not his primordial “enemy.” Although Mary Jo and Saladin avoid infection and literal zombification, they undergo a socially transformative process of ideological zombification in which ‘unthinking’ reality offers a powerful pathway toward equality.
Conclusion: Zombies help us re-imagine our social worlds
Guided by these linguistic interpretations of discourse from the novel, we can understand Brooks’ World War Z as a call to critically re-imagine our contemporary social reality. Evidently, the worldwide zombie apocalypse Brooks constructs does more than just scare the human population. The apocalypse also pushes humans to see differently, re-evaluate what they have believed to be ‘true’ about their worlds, and, importantly, value ‘unthinking’ as a worthwhile, meaning-building, truth-revealing process.
In the U.S., we are currently engulfed by a global political state in which powerful governmental bodies attempt to not only distort information, but also further dehumanize marginalized peoples and pit us all against each other such that the myth of White supremacy is upheld. Therefore, I believe the work of ‘unthinking’ is a critical step toward realizing which truths are our own, and which truths have been imposed upon us. By reframing zombies’ state of thoughtlessness more as an ability and not necessarily a disability, I can empower myself as a social actor to see more clearly where my own perspectives come from. I can challenge myself to practice recontextualization such that my reality can take new shapes, and, importantly, build knowledge and vision such that I can critically and actively develop my truth. Perhaps, by imagining a Zombie World War of our own, so too can we come closer to the reality of the worlds we live in, and ask ourselves: What if everything were different? What is our world like now? What kind of world do we want to live in?
From Dr. Persephone Braham’s From Amazons to Zombies: Monsters in Latin America ↩
Artwork credit to John Peterson ↩
Importantly, the effects of racial categorization are entirely real, and overwhelmingly so. Race is indeed a construction that manifests in real ways which produce real internal, interpersonal, social, and material consequences throughout society (oppression). However, race is not a natural part of life; in other words, it did not happen by itself, but rather it was created to establish social hierarchy and justify oppressive systems. ↩
Representational transformation refers to the process by which our conceptual understandings and corresponding ways of referring to people change as we gain new knowledge or experience. ↩