You Only Live Twice

By Yevgeniya Ivanyutenko • Jun 11th, 2013 • Category: Features

This article was reported and written by Yevgeniya Ivanyutenko, Bruce Le, Kwasi Boateng, and Zoe Camina

A man limps down Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg as blood gushes from open wounds on his neck, legs and stomach; his clothes torn to shreds and soaked in bodily fluids. Next to him, a green-tinted bride chews on what appears to be a human bone. A tourist stops to take a photo and continues on her way. This is the scene of New York’s 14th semi-annual zombie crawl, one of the few days in the year when the gory and macabre are permitted to come into the open.

The NYC Zombie Crawl draws a horde of fans, providing the opportunity to meet with like-minded people and participate in zombie-themed contests, games, performances, live bands, sideshow acts, and even body suspension techniques. According to the event’s founder, Doug Sakkman, the NYC Zombie Crawl began as simply a “fun thing to do with friends.” He never expected the event to amass such a huge following.

Sakkman is a producer, actor, and special effects artist with ample experience in horror film production, including the Toxic Avenger franchise. He attributes his love for zombie culture to its rebellious nature, and its roots as a cultural phenomenon popular with only the fringe of society. He saw this fascination growing as a child, when indulging his need for gore meant secretly watching horror movies at his friend’s house, against his own parents’ wishes. This passion eventually blossomed into a career in underground horror flicks, as a makeup and special effects artist. Sakkman revels in the fact that “most times when [he’s] doing special effects, [he’s] covered in more blood than the actor.”

Sakkman isn’t the only one who likes zombies for their fringe, outcast quality. Until fairly recently, horror movies have been largely dismissed as low-brow, gory, and lacking any redeeming value by society at large. Now, Sakkman is considered a pioneer in a fast-growing trend, as zombies have seen a huge resurgence in entertainment and popular culture.  They’ve inspired several movies, television shows, comic books, and even an amusement park. Even the federally-regulated Center for Disease Control website features a tongue-in-cheek “Zombie Preparedness” tip sheet.

Writer Robert Kirkman struck gold in 2003 and quickly gained critical acclaim for his comic The Walking Dead. AMC chomped at the bit to develop this award-winning comic into a show and even pre-ordered the entire series just based on how strong the source material was. By the time the pilot script was written, they were hooked. The show continues to be a ratings behemoth with some of the strongest ratings ever seen on basic cable.

A student from Hunter College, Mosfekur Khan, started reading The Walking Dead after he saw the television show. He admires Kirkman for not being afraid to kill off his favorite characters, which is a driving force behind the show’s consistent ratings.

The fascination with the undead can be traced back to ancient Haitian folklore. In Haiti, it was believed that sorcerers had the ability to resurrect the dead and control their bodies using a mystic “zombie powder.” In the 1980s, ethnobotanist Wade Davis hypothesized that eating certain fauna or flora and subsequently being buried resulted in zombification. The potent neurotoxin known as TTX was believed to be a key ingredient in the zombie powder made by Haitian sorcerers, who gathered it from pufferfish and other ocean life.

While attempts to study zombification through biology proved fruitless, the origin of this cultural fascination still taunts intellectuals. What is different in our world today that zombies have this strangle-hold over our entertainment choices?

Sakkman points to media consolidation. Currently, the vast majority of media, whether print, television or movies, can be rooted to less than six parent companies. “Ninety percent” of what we see and hear is controlled by the same six companies, says Sakkman, which often results in a severely limited and often stifled exposure to a variety of perspectives. This profit-seeking attitude is dangerous to society at large, he explains. Not only does this smother creativity of the public at large, it also limits our knowledge only to messages that only a few people at the top have control of. This limits the opportunity of gaining various perspectives, resulting in inaccurate and limited perceptions.

He claims that the somewhat recent zombie fascination in popular culture is mostly an extension of profit-seeking executives seeking a new genre guaranteed to bring in an audience; this can be seen in the vampire genre with movies like Dark Shadows and Twilight. In this way, zombies are simply the next logical progression in this trend of creative exploitation. Sakkman acknowledges the fact that zombies have been an integral part of American culture for decades, yet is quick to point out that consumer media has simply discovered a way to exploit the trend for its own gains. The formula is commonly referred to as the Three B’s: “blood, boobs, and beasts.” The massive success of many recent zombie movies proves the formula works.

Hunter College’s Professor Stephen Gorelick doesn’t believe it’s that simple. He reminds us of the hidden emotional baggage we carry every day – the fears and anxieties – that often “remain latent until some social context comes along in which they are ignited.”

Sarah Lauro, a professor at Clemson University, has written extensively on this topic, claiming that the popular fascination with zombies often correlates with increased periods of societal dissatisfaction. Possible roots of this dissatisfaction include the media, the government, war, and a general move away from empathy and community values.

One of Sakkman’s recent movies, “Punk Rock Holocaust,” plays into this theme. In the film, an evil record executive turns kids into zombies by the pop punk music that he forces them to listen to, controlling not only the music festival known as Warped Tour, but also their minds, turning them into monsters in doing so.

According to Sakkman, zombies are a “metaphor for what the mainstream has done to us.” In a way, he believes that “we’ve become zombies,” accepting what is “fed to us” with open arms. And the more we gravitate toward sites like YouTube and Google, the more we are exposed to these companies’ messages.

Stephen Gorelick provides an alternate explanation. He claims that this trend “reflects a basic human anxiety and concern that we can see in literature and art since antiquity.” Gorelick believes that our fascination with fictional characters who aren’t completely dead often reveals much about our fears of being dead in a final way.

It is through entertainment that we create a comfortable venue for explaining, and coping with, these fears and anxieties. Gorelick cites the example of the most popular board game of the 19th century: the Ouija board. This was a game that allowed people to imagine communicating with the dead, during a time when death was so common.

This need for a way to cope with death often comes about in times when death is most apparent. Night of the Living Dead, one of the first modern zombie movies, was released in the most fatal year for American soldiers during the Vietnam War.

Gorelick cites a correlation between mainstream zombie fascination and a post-9/11 climate of fear. “There’s been a lot of dying going on,” he explains. “And I don’t necessarily mean statistically more. There’s been a lot of dying in the public sphere: war dying, terrorism deaths.”

With death ingrained into every fiber of the American subconscious, the zombie apocalypse allows a fantasy of total escapism – government, authority, basic societal responsibilities and expectations, all disappearing into thin air in an instant.

In such a scenario, survival becomes your sole object. Yet survival provides total escape from the ubiquitously mundane lifestyle of modern society. Dangerous predators, guns, violence, all of the aspects that stimulate your peripheral nervous system on the most primitive levels, suddenly become part of the reality. It’s a subtle fantasy world marked with blood and adrenaline.

To many who have not been exposed to the genre until now, it may appear strange that one would find enjoyment in the idea of slaughtering fellow humans in mass numbers. Some films, such as Zombieland, have even gone so far as to turn the act of killing zombies into a competitive sport. Within this form of entertainment, there appears to be a theme of violent brutality and a blatant disregard for fellow human pain and suffering. Recently, this has entered the public debate, with some claiming that the trend is symptomatic of a greater societal vulnerability towards cruelty, and an inability to feel empathy.

However, Gorelick veers away from this conception, believing the zombie fascination simply “allows us to express quintessentially human feelings and anxieties.” In this way, indulging in the fantasy of a world inhabited by flesh-eating zombies is simply a way to express our deepest fears in the healthiest way possible. To Gorelick, “enjoy[ing] fantasy, even bizarre fantasy, is fully human. My mother taught me to never be ashamed of something that is so fully human, that it’s just who you are.”

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