Before you go any further, please know that I’d like to disavow the first part of this post’s title: Are Zombies Good for Kids? That’s because it runs completely counter to my entire way of approaching media literacy. Critical thinking on even a basic level tells us that such notions need, at the very least, to be unpacked a bit: What zombies? For which kids? And, most importantly, What do we mean by “good” …what assumptions and values have we embedded into the question itself?
So basically that aspect of the title was a hook to get you to read a conversation between me and my friend, Dr. Jack Schwartz. I’ve been using psychoanalytic thought for about twenty-five years to explore the horror genre, where, as an interpretive scheme, it seems to fit well and generate neat ideas pretty consistently. I’m not sure if Dr. Schwartz regularly applies his expertise in the field to the numerous pop culture pursuits that he follows—comics, television, movies—but I decided to force the issue by getting him to reflect on zombies and what their popularity might mean.
Connect the Pop: If movies, and perhaps TV and even video games, are “dreams” of a sort, what would classic psychoanalysis say about the rise of the zombie subgenre over the past decade—specifically in reference to the older children and teens who are fans?
Dr. Jack Schwartz: Psychoanalysis in the classic sense emphasizes the sexual and aggressive nature of humans, and their repression of these impulses. But in later years psychoanalysis shifted its focus to the early internalized emotional ambiance of the infant environment, the quality and attunement, or lack thereof, of the caretakers of the infant. From a true “classical”—let’s say Freudian—perspective zombies are a perfect embodiment of the most primitive infantile impulses. They reflect a mindless creature driven by “oral fixations” and “cannibalism” to fulfill their innermost hunger. Zombies are all impulse, no super ego (conscience) here, just mad unfeeling hunger and aggression. Thus, the zombie is a perfect representation of the ability to act without restriction or prohibition, to engulf on demand, like an infant insatiable, hungry, and cranky.
Great, but then why are so many adolescents drawn to the modern, so-called “Romero” zombie?
If we transpose the zombie to sexual hunger, the appeal for the older teenager is obvious. Take what you want and “eat” what you want. What teenager would deny those impulses? Yet, we must be careful to differentiate between male and female audiences. One of the first “real” dates I had was Night of the Living Dead; it was on double bill with Ben (the famous rat movie). Suffice to say that my date was traumatized by George Romero’s masterpiece, and I was equally, in a good way, blown away. Yet the zombie, as well as the vampire, probably, over the last ten years, has become a more appealing archetype for women. With washed-out faces and gothic-black, hollow eyes, the fem zombie carries the same insatiable, aggressive hunger (oral=sexual) as her male counterparts, and like the boys, without prohibition. The zombie consciousness reflects the perfect expression of equal rights in society. There is no difference between boys and the girls in this world—hunger is the organizing principle.
That’s generally my sense of things after spending years following horror fandom. Interesting to hear you reinforce the gender-blind appeal, however.
Originally, I believe the zombie represented the primitive orally-fixated hyper male, full of aggression and sociopathic tendencies, wanting to take a bite out of life, so to speak. These images are common in dreams and nightmares, where the dreamer is often being chased by some ravenous human-like creature. In more classic psychoanalysis these images could reflect the struggle of facing a new developmental stage with its concomitant desire and dread of the outcome of sexual hunger. Yet biting and eating predates the notion of sexual intercourse in the developmental continuum. The zombie in modern culture is a terrorist, a “crazy”, out on the prowl waiting to create havoc with his crew.
Also interesting. So zombies of the type we see on The Walking Dead share something with other genres—crime thrillers, teen dramas, and so on.
Well, the zombie is very much removed from the clever sociopaths of A Clockwork Orange (another traumatized date), who think, albeit sadistically, before they act. On the other hand, the zombie is more regressed, primitive, more unthinking. Yet I also feel that the zombie reflects another teenage dilemma, beyond insatiable appetites. When we move from the early version of psychoanalysis to a more modern approach, the zombie archetype tells us something different: the zombie reflects the ultimate bully, dead eyes, aggressive and mean-spirited, waiting to corner and ultimately make their prey submit. Perhaps the ultimate narcissistic authority figure-parent.
Well, that sort of reading is why I’m drawn to psychoanalysis in terms of the horror genre: our conflicted natures are revealed. After all, we all “like” zombies and no one likes bullies, right?
In a very subtle way the teenager is likely to identify with the aggressor zombie, but his or her heart is truly with the zombie killer. The victim fighting back, best expressed in the epic Army of Darkness, and in most zombie features, is at the core of the zombie genre. Interestingly, zombies are kind of easy to kill, a gunshot to the head or a spike through the brain easily does one in. I sense, in the final analysis, that the appeal is not the zombie itself but how the zombies represent the overbearing oppressive culture—
Sorry to interrupt. Examples?
—well, the overwrought, ambivalent, distracted, overworked and depressed parent, who mechanically slogs through life and ritualistically espouses their cliché-driven rhetoric. Then add the deadeningly boring high school teachers and staff, the mean check-out lady, the persecutory cops, and even the pill-prescribing, numb-inducing shrinks, and one could wonder how great it would be to live in a world where we can fight back, kick some zombie ass, and have the wherewithal to kill the conformity, the overbearing b.s., and win. For the teenager the zombie is not “us”; it is “them.” Zombies are all of the complacent, materially-driven, time-managed, compliance-based, life-sucking, dead-eyed society that they we are fighting represented in those films and comics. George Romero knew full well what he was doing when he situated Dawn of the Dead in a shopping mall.
In what ways does reading zombie comics or fiction represent a healthy working-through of issues related to mortality and other existential dreads such as loss of identity and/or security? Or is this hogwash, and zombie fare basically fulfills the same role for audience as other forms of “escapist entertainment”?
Briefly, as a psychoanalyst [I should say that] the adolescent does not work through issues of aggression and alienation with these films. At least that is what I have learned. Rather, the films create a kind of release and roller coaster experience capitalizing on the “rush” and startle-response factor. The catch of these films is that the genre encourages a certain omnipotent revelry that enables the individual to feel less constricted by the demands of reality, i.e., school, parents, work, prohibition against violence, living in a world gone mad, etc.
Sounds like escapist content can be somewhat more profound and more problematic than pop culture discourse usually views it.
It is both the worst nightmare and the greatest wish fulfillment, yet it offers titillation in place of introspection, escape in place of true confrontation of the deadening monsters of family and materialistic society. The function these films and genre serve is more of a communal nature, the bonding experienced of a shared nightmare, and knowing that at the end of the dream we are still alive.
Dr. Jack Schwartz is graduate, and faculty member, of the New Jersey Institute for Training in Psychoanalysis. He is a NAAP Nationally Certified Psychoanalyst, Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Certified Clinical Mental Health Counselor; he also served as the Senior Forensic Psychologist in Passaic County, New Jersey for over ten years, specializing in criminal investigations, probation and child custody issues. Dr. Schwartz maintains a private practice in Northern New Jersey, working with children, adolescents, couples and adults. He regularly lectures at national conferences on dream analysis, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and other matters related to the practice of psychoanalytic psychotherapy.
Senior editor of the NJ Society of Clinical Social Work (NJSCSW) newsletter The Forum and author of technical articles covering a broad spectrum of clinical issues, Dr. Schwartz has also written short fiction and a novel. He is available for presentations and treatment related matters; to contact him, please email Psyjack@msn.com or call 973-831-6868.