Why the Zombie Apocalypse Is the Worst Nightmare of White-Collar America

Arts, entertainment, and more.
Oct. 25 2011 7:11 AM

First, Eat All the Lawyers

Why the zombie boom is really about the economic fears of white-collar workers.

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These highbrow zombie stories are not just about watching the newly humbled struggle to make sense of the topsy-turvy world. The suburbanite/urbanite viewer who can't hunt, can't slaughter animals, can't grow her own food, is meant to shudder at her ill-preparedness while watching. It’s the existential fear of the economy writ large: I sometimes wonder what I would do if I lost everything. Move in with my mother? Crash on a generous friend’s couch? Somehow put my supercharged typing skills to use? The zombie apocalypse scenario takes these fears and explodes them.

While watching The Walking Dead, I am reminded that I would be nothing but a drag in a survivalist scenario. There will be a greater supply than demand for storytellers. I’ve never gone fishing. I can’t even make a fire without a lighter. I can’t lie to myself and think that I would survive the initial chaos of a zombie invasion (or any other apocalyptic event). Realistically, I’d be one of the brain-devouring hordes, not a scrappy, fighting human. Indulging in these zombie films gives an outlet to more realistic fears of personal economic collapse. Colson Whitehead captures this feeling in Zone One. He writes:

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The dead had graduated with admirable GPAs, configured monthly contributions to worthy causes, judiciously apportioned their 401(k)s across diverse sectors according to the wisdom of their dead licensed financial advisers, and superimposed the borders of good school districts on mental maps of their neighborhoods, which were often included on the long list when magazines ranked cities with the Best Quality of Life. In short, they had been honed and trained so thoroughly by that extinguished world that they were doomed in this new one.

Obviously, these sentiments apply to other apocalypse tales—pandemics, nuclear holocaust (a la the late, sometimes-great TV show Jericho). But zombies make for true white-collar horror because most world-shattering disasters are short-term events. After a nuclear strike, the dead are dead, and the living can focus on rebuilding while avoiding fallout. Zombies, however, never stop, so danger persists past the initial cataclysm. Take Justin Cronin’s The Passage, whose vampires are much more akin to traditional zombies than vampires. Cronin’s evil vampires keep the humans down for generations; World War Z and Zone One are more optimistic about humans’ ability to vanquish the undead, but any lengthy period of zombie chaos also means that should the humans retake the land, the infrastructure will have been roundly destroyed. White-collar workers will not be able to recline in their dusty Aeron chairs and return those calls they were about to make when the intern lumbered in, craving brains.

Should the economy recover, I suspect that we will abandon zombies as entertainment. The zombie boom will be a reminder of the frightening uncertainties of this decade. After all, we white-collar workers enjoy the illusion that our skills are meaningful. Once we no longer have to exorcise our fears of a society in which contract negotiation and SEO-optimization are nonsense, how will wear terrify ourselves about the future? Perhaps we’ll see a robot-apocalypse entertainment bubble.

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