The Walking Dead: Why Are Americans So Obsessed With Zombies?


Research Sarah Lauro found that Americans are more fixated on zombies when we’re unhappy, particularly during times of unrest and economic decline. Thus, it seems appropriate that in the last few years, zombie fixation has been on the rise. What is it about the fixation on the living dead in the American psyche? It seems that as our economic prospects decline, the more enticing we find the undead. 

Americans are more concerned about zombies than ever in 2013, building fitness plans to escape from zombies and earnestly contemplating the estate tax implications of a zombie apocalypse (“it is possible that the transition from alive to undead could trigger the estate tax but not the basis reset”). Plus, with the rise of movies like World War Z, and the launch of a zombie perfume, zombies have become so overexposed to be a cliché. 

In order to understand the connection between zombie movies and American unhappiness, we have to start at the beginning. The first popular zombie movie was in 1968, a tumultuous year in American politics with the Vietnam War, the unrest at the Democratic Convention, and the general malaise of the 1960s. The film, (which, incidentally, was one of the first movies to have a black man play a lead character), “terrified” audiences around the country with its portrayal of huge mobs eating all they come into contact with and destroying society in a blithering mass.  The film’s iconic images of the dead, staring blankly into the eyes of horrified survivors, are not hard to tie to the growing disconnect between the youth and the more established generations, the fear of collectivist Communism, and even the increasing presence of marketing and consumer culture. But what gives now, during the modern resurgence (or, if you will. resurrection) of zombie culture?

“We are more interested in the zombie at times when as a culture we feel disempowered,” Lauro said. “And the facts are there that, when we are experiencing economic crises, the vast population is feeling disempowered … Either playing dead themselves … or watching a show like Walking Dead provides a great variety of outlets for people.”

The United States, while not yet in a zombie apocalypse, is certainly in decline. With incredible income inequality and incidence of unemployment, the country’s former standards of economic achievement and quality of life seem further away. The dehumanization that comes from falling so far away from one’s original expectations is not hard to attribute, as Lauro suggests, to a greater feeling that we’re all, in a sense, dead inside. We can only hope that America’s economic and cultural prospects are not as dead as the zombies that represent them in our collective psyche.