The second season of The Walking Dead premiered last week to ratings high enough to raise William Seabrook—the journalist who imported zombies to the United States with the 1929 novel The Magic Island—from the dead. More than 7 million tuned in to watch a show that is, honestly, not terribly compelling television. Bad-ass zombies aside, the plot is slow, the characters flat. And yet I and many others continue to clamor for zombies like zombies hunt for brains. Sensing our hunger, the studios and publishers keep the zombie pop culture coming: Colson Whitehead’s “literary zombie novel” Zone One has just hit bookshelves, a movie version of Max Brooks’ 2006 book World War Z will star Brad Pitt, and who could forget the tour de force that is Pride and Prejudice and Zombies?
What’s new about the current zombie craze is its white-collar shine. No longer are zombies the beloved genre of the lonely, virgin teenage male, the macabre flipside of girls’ obsession with unicorns. The undead have gone from lowbrow guilty pleasure to the favored monster of the erudite. (Sorry, Grendel.) At the risk of reading too deeply into a guilty pleasure, I can’t help but believe that this current Era of the Dead draws its power from our economic malaise. If you work in the many white-collar fields that have suffered in this recession, zombies are the perfect representation of the fiscal horror show. The zombie apocalypse is a white-collar nightmare: a world with no need for the skills we have developed. Lawyers, journalists, investment bankers—they are liabilities, not leaders, in the zombie-infested world. (The exception to this rule, of course, is doctors.)
In The Walking Dead, the strongest survivors come from blue-collar backgrounds—cops, hunters, mechanics. Perhaps the weakest of the band is Andrea, a former civil rights attorney who can't be trusted with a gun and who is overly indulgent in grieving her sister, a college student, who wasn't alert enough while peeing in the woods and got bit for her neglectfulness. In the zombie apocalypse, your J.D. is worthless—which is actually not so different from the real world of recent years. As we watch humans battle zombies, we see a social order upended.
In World War Z, Max Brooks captured this captured this fear in a scene from the post-zombie reconstruction:
You’re a high-powered corporate attorney. You’ve spent most of your life reviewing contracts, brokering deals, talking on the phone. That’s what you’re good at, that’s what made you rich and what allowed you to hire a plumber to fix your toilet, which allowed you to keep talking on the phone. The more work you do, the more money you make, the more peons you hire to free you up to make more money. That’s the way the world works. But one day it doesn’t. No one needs a contract reviewed or a deal brokered. What it does need is toilets fixed. And suddenly that peon is your teacher, maybe even your boss. For some, this was scarier than the living dead.
We all worry about becoming obsolete; recently, my Slate colleague Farhad Manjoo sketched a frightening scenario in which robots take over industries like the law, medicine, even scientific discovery. The zombie apocalypse is the opposite scenario, in which our white-collar skills become worthless not through technical advance but through total system collapse. For blue-collar workers, the zombie stories are tales of comeuppance, of triumph: skills in auto maintenance, farming, plumbing, and electrical work—not to mention marksmanship—land blue-collar folks at the top of the new social order. This is not a bad thing, but it's nevertheless deeply disorienting to anyone who thought a college degree would mean never having to fix a generator.
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:
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.