The comfort of zombies

Today I finally started watching “The Walking Dead”. I’m half-way through the first episode, and so far it’s great fun.

At the very beginning, our sympathetic every-man hero wakes up to find that his familiar town has been transformed into a post-apocalyptic nightmare overrun by flesh-eating zombies.

As I watched this transition, I thought of the “experiment gone horribly wrong” in the game Half-Life, in which an inter-dimensional rift causes our hero to suddenly find his familiar research facility has been transformed into a post-apocalyptic nightmare overrun by flesh-eating zombies.

This in turn made me think both of the stories of Stephen King and of the book/film “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”. This idea of horror arising out of the familiar — as opposed to taking place in an exotic or gothic locale — seems to get at the very heart of modern anxieties.

After all, isn’t it precisely the exquisite ordinariness of the housefly on the video monitor that turns “The Ring” into a masterpiece of modern horror? In these technologically sophisticated times, a film about the Cthulhu Mythos of Lovecraft would elicit not much more than a bored shrug. We might pause to admire some nicety of special effects, but that’s about it.

Yet horror that shows up within our everyday, in our bedroom or kitchen, has the power to scare us half to death. After all, deep down we in the modern world know that our feeling of everyday familiarity masks some terrible truths.

We live in a world in which it is dangerous to look too closely at things, such as how our iPhone was made, or the process that brought that fried chicken to the table, or exactly what our soldiers are being asked to do half way around the world.

So when we turn on the TV and see zombies show up in our living room, this is our modern equivalent of Bettelheim’s “The Uses of Enchantment”: We see our deepest fears transformed to a safely metaphorical form, and for a while we feel better.

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