Much has already been said about zombies, and the relevance to the current ethos of our era. The collection of essays entitled Zombies and Sexuality (2014) edited by Shaka McGlotten and Steve Jones contain analyses from necrophilia to queer studies, and subjectivity to sex work. There has also been scholarship done in racial studies, political science, immigration, and even religion. But thus far, little has been said about the commentary zombies signify in terms of moral responsibility. I don’t mean moral choice generally, a lot has been said about that too. Protagonists in zombie narratives often face difficult choices, and the audience is asked to reflect on what choice they would have made in that situation. Would I kill an infected loved one to ensure my own survival and that of our species?

The kind of moral responsibility I’m talking about is associative, the kind that makes you culpable for the choices you didn’t make. If I know people are starving to death on the other side of the world and I don’t send aid, am I committing a moral wrong? I didn’t directly participate in their deaths, but intuitively it seems that neither do I come away with a clean slate. Peter Singer addresses this issue in his essay “ Famine, Affluence, and Morality” (1972). We typically think of morality in terms of what we ought to do, and not what we ought not not to do. Especially with regard to charity and the global community. Societies value giving in forms of philanthropy, but don’t usually condemn those that don’t. Reasons are typically one of distance and numbers, but this shouldn’t be the case according to Singer and he uses the example of saving a child drowning. Just because there may be other people around doesn’t lessen his moral obligation to save the child, and regardless of whether he is ten feet away or ten miles away he ought to save the child. Neither lessens his moral duty. Yet the wider American society rebels against this type of moral paradigm because it makes us more culpable. If I buy a $10 latte instead of donating that money to organizations that help refugees in the Sudan, then I’m in the wrong. Choosing not to help is not a morally neutral choice, it is the wrong choice. In a rich, capitalist society where privilege is often seen as an entitlement, pointing to the good not done and casting blame tends to ruffle feathers.

Globalization has increased the range of culpability. Before the industrial revolution propelled the world into an era of colonization, the types of evil I could do and the amount of wrong I could commit were limited. I could kill my partner, refuse to help a neighbor, and buy shoddy goods from a traveling vendor that might have been stolen. Furthermore, the amount of good I can do was limited. By the time I heard about an event occurring on the other side of the world, the window of time for aid may have passed. With limited means of travel and communication, my ability to help was likewise limited. But now, I can buy a cell phone with a silicone chip mined with child labor and engage in morally questionable behavior without leaving my home. Or I could read about a disaster across the ocean and instead of wiring money to an aid group, I can buy a third car on Ebay. That is a wide net to cast and it is daunting. How can I possibly know what kinds of good I’m not doing, and how can I make the best choice when faced with so many?

Perhaps zombies represent our anxiety regarding moral responsibility, and the refusal to acknowledge our culpability in withholding good action. Resident Evil (2002) has capitalistic overtones with the villain Umbrella Corp. whose greed rooted in consumerism destroys the earth. Did my economic choices gave authority and power to this machine that lead to the apocalypse? It’s interesting that in World War Z (2013) the weak and diseased are spared by zombies. In a manner, they are already victims neglected too by their human counterparts. In every zombie film, no matter how far away the infection starts, it spreads and races closer to our protagonists. Maybe zombies reflect our indifference and indecision coming back to haunt us. No matter when the outbreak occurs, eventually the virus will spread and find me where ever I’m hiding.

Bibliography

McGlotten, Shaka and Steve Jones, eds. Zombies and Sexuality: Essays on Desire and the Living Dead. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2014.

Singer, Peter. “Famine, Affluence, and Morality.” Philosophy & Public Affairs 1.3 (Spring 1972): 229-243.

Romanticizing the monster is as old as art. Greek depictions on vases from the classical era show Satyrs charming human women with music, wine, and massive erections. But it does seem to be prolific in the current era. A simple web search results in countless teratophilic fictions and art featuring the cute, such as a small child cuddling with Sasquatch, to the erotic, such as a vividly depicted honeymoon night with Slenderman. 

This need to soften the dangerous and sometimes fatal aspects of the monstrous can be seen in other genres as well – such as romance. Janice Radway notes that many traditional romance novels seemed preoccupied with explaining away masculine threat, especially that of rape and sexual violence: 

[B]y suggesting that rape is either a mistake or an expression of uncontrollable desire, it may also give [the reader] a false sense of security by showing her how to rationalize violent behavior and thus reconcile her to a set of events and relations that she would be better off changing (216). 

By softening the very real danger of masculine violence through love, desire, emotional aloofness, and other typical tropes, the “hero” becomes less monstrous. Perceived as less of a danger, the heroine not only accepts his behavior, but is also more willing to move intimately closer. 

What is it that drives us to bring the monstrous close? This is one of the many questions teratologists try to answer. If something is threatening, the reasonable action is to create distance. However, that is not everyone’s reaction when faced with danger. Every Halloween thrill seekers flock to haunted houses and throughout the year Hollywood fills the theater with horror films. Paradoxically, the move closer alleviates some fear and anxiety regarding the monstrous object. The romanticization of the dangerous is one way to do this by processing threat in terms of a relationship. By bringing the monstrous closer, we make it more palatable even if the danger remains the same. This is one reason Stockholm Syndrome works. You can’t change the situation, so why not make the best of it? It doesn’t legitimize the abuse, but it does make the trauma temporarily manageable. 

One example is that of the Yakuzi and the anime Nurarihyon. The Yakuza, a Japanese criminal organization is a network that has committed horrendous crimes such as human trafficking, extortion, blackmail, and murder. Yet, there are many examples of cultural art from literature to film that depict them in a sympathetic light. A family of disenfranchised individuals that have come together, bound by loyalty and who revere honor about all else. For example, The Outsider (2018) follows Nick Lowell (played by Jared Leto), an American POW who stays in Japan after WWII and becomes a member of the Yakuza. Not only does the sister of his sworn brother fall in love with him and become pregnant, but he avenges the murder of clan leader. These acts of love and loyalty are depicted as noble despite a background of extortion, violence, and murder. 

This attempt at un-monstering is abstracted to another level in the anime Nurarihyon No Mago (Nura: Rise of the Yokai Clan). The Nura clan consists of monsters whose central identity is to terrorize and even kill humans, and in many ways is a mirror to the Yakuza. Rikuo Nura is the protagonist and grandson of the leader. He is half-human and half-yokai, and is ambivalent about leading a clan of monsters. He doesn’t want to be a monster, he wants to be normal. But he also loves his family and wants to belong. Through his adventures, he comes to terms with his own monstrosity and views it as an advantage that can not only protect his family but also his human friends. Two methods that the narrative employs to reach this conclusion are showing worse examples of monstrosity and showing the “human” side of the monsters. The former include Hagorme-Gitsune, a boogeyman-like yokai that eats children. Rikuo defeats Hagorme-Gitsune and saves his human friends from being eaten. The latter includes not only humanizing Rikuo who attends a human school despite being the heir to the Nura Clan, but also showing his monster family performing mundane human tasks like washing clothes and cooking food. The Yakuza is un-monstered through animation by transforming it into a parody of monsters, and those anime monsters are un-monstered by showing how human they are. 

Various scholars have theories on our relationship with monsters, and horror in general. Eugene Thacker thinks it’s a way to think about the unthinkable, Noël Carroll says it’s to come to terms with the impossible by making it possible, and Claude Levi-Strauss thinks it’s a way to control the uncontrollable. Perhaps they are all right. Each way of thinking about it is in effect a method of bringing closer the distant, threatening unknown. Intimacy breeds familiarity, and with familiarity comes less fear. But as we know, sometimes in our quest to allay our fears we only succeed in creating disaster. A tiger brought into our home is still a tiger.  

Works Cited

Radway, Janice A. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature. 2nd Ed with New Intro. 1984. Chapel Hill: The University of North Caroline Press, 1991. Print. 

Bibliography

Carroll, Noël. The Philosophy of Horror; or, Paradoxes of the Heart. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Levi-Strauss, Claude. Myth and Meaning. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978.

Thacker, Eugene. In the Dust of This Planet: Horror of Philosophy Vol. 1. Alresford: Zero Books, 2011. 

Next week is the 2018 Northeast Popular Culture Association conference at Worcester State University: https://nepca.blog/2018-conference/

I will be presenting my paper on Friday October 19th, entitled Frankenstein‘s Justine Moritz: the Female Monster and Her Body. I analyze Plato and Aristotle’s construction of the female body as deformed and dysfunctional, i.e. monstrous, in the context of Frankenstein, and how the embodiment philosophy of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson suggests an alternative view of both male and female bodies.

If you’re in the area, come show your support.

Our parents are the first people to tell us “no”, to make us feel small and inadequate. They loom over us and by their sheer size constantly remind us of the threat of violence – whether or not they intend to carry through on that threat. They are the first people we love, and the first people we hate; they are our first monsters.

The theme of “parents as monsters” is a recurring motif in media going all the way back to Grendel’s nameless mother in Beowulf; a “swamp-thing from hell” with “savage talons” who battled the hero in her underwater lair (105). Contemporary media has exploited this fear to unsettling levels. In the film The Monster (2016), the audience reads in the opening sequence: “They are hiding and watching, just wait and see, oh, there are monsters for you and for me.” Over the course of the film, we are introduced to ten year old Lizzy and her abusive alcoholic mother. While stranded on a road in the middle of the night, the pair must fight off a monster lurking in the woods. Flashbacks reveal Kathy’s many inadequacies and the audience is left to wonder if Lizzy wasn’t an accidental pregnancy. At one point we see Lizzy hiding in the basement with the car keys because Kathy and her abusive boyfriend Roy need to make a beer-run. Roy’s muscular frame rampages downstairs and rips down the makeshift tent Lizzy had constructed. The audience holds its breath until Kathy intervenes trying to placate Roy while getting the keys from her well intentioned, but naive, daughter. Losing patience, Roy finds the keys and runs off with Kathy begging him to wait. Torn between Roy and Lizzy, Kathy takes one more second to look at her distraught daughter before slapping her and running after Roy. The film ends with Lizzy killing the monster, her mother dying in the process, and telling the audience: “Mom tells me there is no such thing as monsters, but she is wrong. They’re out there, waiting for you. Watching, in the dark. Sometimes where you see them, sometimes where you don’t. I know that now. I’m not afraid anymore.” The implication being that Lizzy’s mother was as equally monstrous as the creature that ate her. Other films have likewise explored the wrong turn motherhood can take including Mommy Dearest (1981), Goodnight Mommy (2014), and The Babadook (2014). Noticeably, fathers are absent in these films. If mothers are the monsters under the bed that eat children, then fathers are the ghosts that walk the halls – whose presence can be felt and evoke unsettling discomfort, but remain on the periphery out of sight.

What can we glean from these films? In a Shelleyan manner, we are Frankenstein’s creature let loose upon the world. We have no choice about who brings us into this world and under what circumstances. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 45% of all pregnancies in the U.S. are unintended. The biggest demographic for birthing are women in their 20s, women who have either just graduated high school, are still attending school, or who are in the middle of trying to build a life for themselves. Without a lot of life experience, it’s difficult to be emotionally mature and financially stable enough to give children the best opportunities. Additionally, picking the right partner to be a parent often doesn’t figure into many of the romantic comedies littering the silver screen. Mainly it’s about finding the right “one” for you and that warm, romantic feeling you get when you lock eyes with your soulmate at just the right moment under the stars. There are exceptions of course, such as Bridget Jone’s Baby (2016) and The Back-up Plan (2010), which deal with single motherhood; but these movies seem to imply that parenthood is auxiliary to relationships and that motherhood is the natural culmination of womanhood. Again, fatherhood and the role men play in parenthood seems ancillary. From this perspective, men are waiting on the sidelines waiting to be called in and are transient in the whole process. In the back of our minds it may occur to us that the majority of people accept parenthood as the natural outcome of permanent relationships, but this doesn’t seem to enter into the messages the media inundates us with or the signals we send each other. Perhaps it’s no wonder then that we can’t be sure if the Babadook is a real monster or just the manifestation of Amelia’s resentment towards her son. The sing-song pop-up book that introduces the monster reads “I’ll soon take off my funny disguise, take heed of what you’ve read, and once you see what’s underneath, you’re going to wish you were dead” (The Babadook). As Samuel’s possessive and destructive behavior takes a psychological toll on Amelia, the audience can’t help but sympathize with the widowed mother who feels unable to cope with loss, loneliness, and crushing parental responsibility. Soon her repressed frustrations and suffering surface, posing a monstrous threat to Samuel. The ending is ambiguous, with the Babadook being locked in the basement safely away from Samuel. Once again the monster is relegated to the darkness and out of sight. Maybe our parents are dealing with their own monsters — internal and external. Maybe we should, as parents, children, and partners, discuss what it really means to be those things.

Works Cited

Beowulf. Trans. Seamus Heaney. Bilingual Ed. New York: Norton, 2001. Print.

The Babadook. Dir. Jennifer Kent. Causeway Films, 2014. Film.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Pregnancy rates were highest for women in their 20s.” Web. 30 December 2016. <https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/products/databriefs/db136.htm>

Guttmacher Institute. “Unintended Pregnancy in the United States.” Web. 30 December 2016. <https:// www.guttmacher.org/fact-sheet/unintended-pregnancy-united-states>

The Monster. Dir. Bryan Bertino. Atlas Independent and Unbroken Pictures, 2016. Film.