On Sunday, I watched the season premiere of The Walking Dead, and found it strangely alluring. Before I had children, I would have been absolutely terrified of a show like this. I once went to a Halloween event at a local theme park where the fog machines were going full force, and folks dressed up like the undead wandered out of the fog—and that was before you actually walked into the funhouse mazes designed for maximum terror. After only one such maze-o-fun, I retreated to a brightly lit corner of the park where no zombies were allowed to roam, effectively ruining the night for my companions. I didn’t care, I was just glad to be out of there. All of my life, I’ve had an imagination that feeds easily on images from horror movies: after watching The Sixth Sense, any midnight bathroom trips became exercises in anxiety. Heaven forbid a cold breeze should blow through the window while I was up. Having these images come to life at a Halloween Haunt was really beyond the pale.
I’m not sure why it changed. I have an inkling that at least part of it comes from the fact that having children makes you confront your very deepest fears and horrors, and mere Hollywood shenanigans can’t even touch the yawning chasm of anxiety that opens in a parent’s soul when she holds her baby for the first time.
Whatever it is, I am now able to sit through a full hour of zombies doing their zombie thing without batting an eye. Instead, I’m fascinated by the notion of zombie apocalypse, which is enough of a subgenre to have its very own Wikipedia page (yes, I looked it up, because I’m a really big geek). The idea that the world will end not in fire or flood but in zombification is apparently the subject of many books of the comic form as well as films. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, whose bleakness was translated into a bleak film, is really just a highbrow version of the zombie apocalypse. Sure, people aren’t technically undead, but they may as well be, since they’re going around cannibalizing their fellow human beings.
While the zombie apocalypse seems new, it actually has a lot in common with the literature of an older era—a much, much older era: that of the Anglo-Saxons. You know, the tribes who settled in England after Rome fell, and then were Christianized, and from whom we received the awesome monster-epic Beowulf. One of the features of Ango-Saxon poetry is what’s called the ubi sunt, loosely translated as “where are they now?” Basically, the speaker laments being the last of his tribe, asking where the mead halls, the people, all of the trappings of civilization have all gone. It is the essence of doom. It makes sense that Anglo-Saxons, whose lives were fragile and whose warlike civilizations were transient, should feel this way. There’s a recognition in their heroic and noble pagan culture that death ultimately wins, and that those elaborate drinking vessels and shields are only meaningful if human hands can hold and exchange them.
In our own ubi sunt literature, the vestiges of civilization as we know it are all around. In The Road, it’s poignant when the main characters find hoards of food that never served the purpose intended by he survivalists who gathered the cans and boxes and stored them in basements. Unlike the Anglo-Saxons, we imagine a landscape not empty, but full of consumerist debris and peopled by people who are no longer human. Our own pagan nightmare, perhaps?