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. 

One of Teratology’s foundational pillars in the Middle Ages was how to avoid giving birth to a monster. Chapter eleven of Ambroise Paré’s On Monsters and Marvels (1575) is called “An example of monsters that are formed, the mother having remained seated too long, having had her legs crossed, or having bound her belly too tight while she was pregnant”. While obstetric teratology in the medical field has remained focused on studying fetal deformities, specifically how to do avoid doing so, cultural teratology has recently shifted the focus to the monstrosity of pregnancy itself. Movies like Prevenge (2017), Rosemary’s Baby (1986), and A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child (1986) focus more on the anxieties and physical transformation of the mother rather than on the developing fetus, soon to be born baby.

In Prevenge, Ruth is driven to kill people she deems guilty for the death of her boyfriend by the voice of the developing fetus. Scenes depict the protagonist in various states of mania and delusion punctuated by visions of a demonic woman mimicking a film she had watched. As the birth nears, her mania increases as she struggles to maintain her autonomous identity that has become conflated with “widow” and “mother”. The other two films depict the protagonists trying to maintain control over their own bodies as the pregnancy process has been co-opted by outside demonic forces. In many cultures, Western and Eastern, women in misogynistic cultures find that their bodies are even less their own once they become pregnant. What they ingest, how they move or position their bodies, how much they sleep, and all sorts of other aspects of their lives come under the scrutiny of partners, doctors, families, friends, and even strangers. If we accept Aristotle’s claim that women are deformed men, then the pregnant woman is even more so and subjected to more constraint for fear of what it is capable of.*

Thanks to feminism and the efforts of countless individuals, many women are now in a socioeconomic position independent of families and partners for whom they have traditionally relied on for survival. With this autonomy, they can now voice their anxieties, fears, and horror regarding pregnancy. Philosophers from Judith Thomson to Amy Mullin have questioned traditional models of pregnancy which tend to either trivialize the process phenomenologically, as if it had no bearing on the subject, or focus solely on the importance of children and childbearing as if the pregnant woman suddenly lost her subjectivity to the fetus. As more scholars and artists take up this subject, the experience of pregnancy qua the woman will become less taboo to discuss and more of its elements, monstrous and otherwise, will come to light.

*The Generation of Animals, Book 2, 737a: “For the female is like a deformity of the male and menstrual discharge is like semen, but unclean.”

I’ve just posted a short story called The HungerIt’s about the difference gender can make in our relationship to food and each other, and it’s based on the Japanese yokai futakuchi-onna. Enjoy.

If after reading the story you feel moved to do so, please consider donating to one of these charities that help fight hunger:

Action Against Hunger

Feeding America

Freedom from Hunger

The Hunger Project

Meals on Wheels

Consider skipping one of your afternoon candy bars or coffees this week, and instead donating $3 to one of this amazing charities. It will be the difference between eating and starving for someone that needs your help.

Teratology is a form of inquiry that can grind away at your mental equanimity. While there are enclaves in film, literature, and moral philosophy/psychology that grapple with the idea of human monstrosity, they are treated as esoteric and unrelated to their tradition, perhaps even the whole of humanity, at large. You’re more likely to get funding with “An Analysis of Eastern Cosmology in Byronic Poetry” than “The Monstrosity of Contemporary American Pre-schools”.
Odd, when we all seem to acknowledge the fact that humans as groups and individuals can be quite monstrous. Perhaps it is as Oppenheimer writes:

[E]vil promotes no joy, no human satisfaction, though it may enchant with ecstasy and through an unbearable cynicism offer a release from the mundane. At its most vivid, evil desolates. It opens doors on frightful possibilities, those that reach beyond the sickening final insults of death and oblivion, into suggestions that a good deal of life, even as it is lived by those with the best of intentions, may contain in its opaqueness something ugly, chaotic, foul, which has, perhaps for only a brief while, achieved a beautiful appearance (3).

It’s much easier to study something beautiful, or something non-offensive, than it is to study something horrifying. The former doesn’t leave you with a crushing unease that weighs upon you long after you’ve punched the time clock. It doesn’t haunt you while you’re sitting around the Thanksgiving table surrounded by loved ones, or echo in those quiet moments when you suddenly have nothing to do and are all alone. You don’t need to justify your chosen field to colleagues or prove your sanity to acquaintances.

Yet, we need teratological scholars who are willing to ask hard questions and muck through disturbing information, just like we need homicide detectives who are willing to sacrifice their peace of mind in order to uphold justice and prevent future suffering. We need teratologists who are willing to work within offensive spaces and voice things most people don’t want to hear, just like we need social workers who are willing to go into disturbing environments and illuminate a situation some would like to keep quiet. Without inquiry into the nature of monstrosity, human and non, we risk ignorance and the chance to do something about it.

Works Cited

Oppenheimer, Paul. Evil and the Demonic: A New Theory of Monstrous Behavior. New York: New York Univerity Press, 1996. Print.