Why Zombies?

We are at a point in our evolution as a species where we’ve become not quite living not quite dead. With the advent of virtual bodies (in video games, chat rooms, online profiles, etc.), cloning, cyborg technology, and even the cell phone, we are seeing ourselves become more and more disembodied. As our flesh erodes, who we are is reconstituted in the 1s and 0s of our Facebook profiles and Twitter feeds. This feeling of disembodiment is why we’ve become so obsessed in our entertainment media with bodies, dead and otherwise -- with cadavers, crime scenes, bodily mutilation, and torture -- with television shows like Six Feet Under (2001-2005) and CSI (2000-present), films like Hostel (2005) and Saw (2004), video games like Manhunt 2 (2007) and Resident Evil (2002), and novels like McCarthy’s The Road. This is, by no means, a newfound fascination, reflecting a far more universal fear, a fear Shakespeare explores in Hamlet, beginning with the ominous words “Who’s there?,” a fear Mary Shelley explores in Frankenstein, wondering about identity and physicality from the first phrase, “I am by birth,” and a fear Herman Melville explores in “The Tartarus of Maids,” where he describes “blank-looking girls” (69) working in a paper factory, slaves to a new-fangled machine. Each text wonders what constitutes a self, of what sort of matter are we made, what is it to be a body, to be human.

We crave, and are nostalgic for, a truly visceral experience of the body -- of bodies torn apart and reassembled, bodies breathing and being stopped of breath, bodies scrutinized post-mortem, and bodies (no matter how gruesome) as aesthetically viable objects. The zombie is part and parcel of this cultural obsession, but it is also the antidote. The zombie threatens to deconstruct us (to eat us), but in an altogether different way from the machine. Whereas a machine devours our flesh, turning us all into automata, the zombie just chews, turning us into zombies, which are the epitome of flesh. Machines take our flesh away. Zombies proffer it back. Put simply, zombies can’t do their messy work if their victim is just data.

Whether we want them to or not, zombies remind us that we have bodies, that we are flesh. The final thesis of Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s “Monster Culture (Seven Theses)” proposes that “the Monster Stands at the Threshold of Becoming” (Cohen 1996: 20). Monsters exist, for Cohen, not because we want them to but because we need them to, because they not only reflect who we are but influence who we will become. So, at a moment when the very fabric (the very flesh) of who we are is being redefined by the machines with which we have put ourselves in such close, intimate proximity, we turn to monsters. In the postmodern, technological age, our bodies have become “bodies-in-process,” in the words of Judith Halberstam, “virtual bodies: in unvisualizable amniotic indeterminacy, and unfazed by the hype of their always premature and redundant annunciation, posthuman bodies thrive in the mutual deformations of totem and taxonomy” (Halberstam 1995: 19). At exactly this moment, when the human gives way to the posthuman, when the body is made virtual and flesh becomes an anachronism, we turn (in)to monsters, monsters that plod and reel, monsters that ooze and drip, monsters that grab and chew, feeding on flesh, feeding us our own flesh, monsters that are just matter, monsters that matter.

Monster Culture

The final thesis in Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s “Monster Culture (Seven Theses)” proposes that “the Monster Stands at the Threshold of Becoming” (20). Monsters exist, for Cohen, not because we want them but because we need them, because they not only reflect who we are but influence who we will become.

Start by reading Cohen’s “
Monster Culture (Seven Theses)”. Then, consider the following questions and write a response to the ideas in Cohen’s essay. Don’t feel like you have to answer all of the questions -- just use them as a starting place. There are no right or wrong answers here.

Putting aside Cohen’s discussion, what is a monster to you? How would you define the word “monster”? Think of some examples of things you consider monstrous and try to identify the traits or qualities that make them monstrous. What does Cohen mean when he says that “the monster’s body is a cultural body” (4)? Which of his other theses resonate with you? Which don’t? Look at his last thesis. How are monsters our “children” (20)? He ends by asking the question, why do we create monsters? What are some of your tentative thoughts?

What connections can you draw between Cohen’s theses and Night of the Living Dead? Also, think about this essay in relation to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, if you’ve read the book. How does Shelley address or disrupt notions of monstrosity? What cultural problems/issues does her “monster” stand in for?

Why Horror?

Why, as a culture, do we watch horror films with such rabidity?  Why do otherwise seemingly normal people make these films in the first place?

Susan Sontag writes in
Regarding the Pain of Others, “It seems that the appetite for pictures showing bodies in pain is as keen, almost, as the desire for ones that show bodies naked” (41).  I’m particularly interested in her use of the word “appetite” here, which suggests that we hunger for images of horror on some basic biological level, the same way we hunger for food, water, sex, or sleep.  It’s a common argument that we’re drawn to horror because of something violent in our nature, and yet I find this dismissive.  Many of us do turn to images of horror for a vicarious thrill that releases pent-up aggression, but I think it’s decidedly more complicated than just that, and so does Sontag.  Certainly, we eat because we’re hungry, but we also eat because there is pleasure in the act of eating itself, because eating is a social activity, because we’re told by advertisers that eating their specific food products will fulfill us on some deeper level.  We watch horror films for many of the same reasons.

A Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful, Edmund Burke argues that pleasure in the horrific is dependent upon our distance from it: “I am convinced we have a degree of delight, and that no small one, in the real misfortunes and pains of others . . .  Terror is a passion which always produces delight when it does not press too close . . .  This is not an unmixed delight, but blended with no small uneasiness” (92-93).  Burke is not suggesting that we delight in terror only when it is observed from afar.  Rather, there is a sweet spot, a certain distance, not too near and not too far, at which terror instills pleasure in us.  Terror must “press close” but not “too” close.  Pleasure in horror must come pre-mixed with a simultaneous “uneasiness.”  Our desire and pleasure in looking is amplified by our simultaneous urge to look away (what Julia Kristeva describes as the "abject").  Each instance of turning away, though, is followed by an even more desperate turning toward.  There is little drama in the act of looking at a comforting image; it lulls us into an almost purely passive spectatorial position.  Looking at something horrific, on the other hand, is a far more dynamic affair, throwing our eyes, heads, and sometimes even our arms about in a much more engaged sort of dance.

In “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess,” Linda Williams discusses at length the physicality of our engagement with what she calls the “gross” genres.  She describes “the spectacle of a body caught in the grip of intense sensation or emotion” (703).  For Williams, one of the exemplary features of horror film is its ability to force the spectator to imitate the feelings or physical reactions of the characters onscreen.  Hence, in a horror film, when the characters in the film scream, we scream.  Williams writes, “What seems to bracket [this particular genre] from others is an apparent lack of proper esthetic distance, a sense of over-involvement in sensation and emotion” (704-705).  Williams suggests, like Burke, that there is a certain distance at which the emulation of sensation occurs.  There is an ideal vantage point for horror, not a lack of distance altogether but a lack of “proper esthetic” distance.  To be properly scared, at least in the way that produces concomitant pleasure, we must feel safe but not too safe--we must have room to reflect on what we see, but must not be allowed too much room.

Many viewers make the mistake of describing as gratuitous anything that upsets them or their moral sensibilities.  While many horror films 
are gratuitous, there are more aesthetic, more intellectual, pleasures to be found in the genre.  The best films of the genre are not merely gratuitous but use their images to comment on our culture’s objectification of flesh.  I would argue that we are drawn to images of distressed and dismembered bodies, because they help us cope with the fact that we’ve become alienated from our own bodies in the wake of rapid technological advancement.  Thus, the smartest and most successful horror films ask important questions about what it is to put bodies on screen and what it is to be entertained by watching those bodies being dismantled.  These films reveal something to (or about) us, something that changes who we are on a fundamental level, something that may not be immediately apparent to us, something that festers.

How do you react to the various thoughts here? Why do
you watch horror films? Or why don’t you? What in particular draws you to a class about zombies?