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"...zombies seem to reveal deeper fears about ourselves."

THE BODY HAUNTS ITSELF

Anarcho-Abolitionist Reflections on the Undead

Last night I dreamed once again that I was being chased by the undead. No matter what I did, I couldn’t escape. They kept on coming, and I just couldn’t stop them. 

In my dreams, zombies represent the inescapable—usually something I’m trying to avoid, always something that evokes dread. I can run all I want, but they are inevitable. It is inevitable.

Zombies occupy a unique space in our collective imagination. Countless films, TV shows, books, comics, and games document the collapse of the world as we know it by their hand (and mouths). From Dawn of the Dead to Z Nation to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, we can’t seem to help but project our fears and anxieties onto the undead.

In the words of Max Brooks, author of The Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z, “the genre cannot exist outside of the apocalyptic… Since we are living in times of great uncertainty, zombies are a safe way of exploring our own anxiety about the end of the world.”  

More than fear about the end of the world, however, zombies seem to reveal deeper fears about ourselves—our inability to get along with each other, our darkest desires, what we might devolve to if given the chance. Often, this trope is used to comedic effect. In the 2019 film, The Dead Don’t Die, zombies gravitate towards things they did when they were alive: mindlessly drinking coffee and snapping selfies, groaning not just for flesh, but for that which they have always craved. The zombie itself, then, is a (perhaps slightly lazy) metaphor for the desires of the body devoid of the rationality of the brain. In other words, unencumbered by the burden of consciousness, the body haunts itself.

The scariest thing about these stories is rarely the zombies themselves, but the kinds of people they allow us to be. In the absence of the structure of civil society and the state, we seem to believe, we will necessarily degenerate to the levels of cannibalism, rape, and senseless murder. The zombie without the rationality of its brain is uninhibited, animalistic even. Implicitly, people denied the structure of the state, too, are uninhibited, and society collapses. 

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The reality, however, is that people tend to come together in times of struggle. In her 2010 book, A Paradise Built in Hell, Rebecca Solnit illustrates and explores unique moments of altruism and resourcefulness amid disaster, including in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina devastation of New Orleans and surrounding areas. Solnit asserts, “in the wake of an earthquake, a bombing, or a major storm, most people are altruistic, urgently engaged in caring for themselves and those around them, strangers and neighbours as well as friends and loved ones. The image of the selfish, panicked, or regressive savage human being has little truth to it.”

As Solnit further points out, “life under empire is already a certain kind of ongoing and seemingly intractable disaster.” In the words of Adrienne Maree Brown, “apocalypse is not in the future. It is a current condition. We are all interconnected, which means we are all, right now, living in an apocalyptic time. We are all interconnected. Denying that, we die. Surrendering to that, we live.”

What would it mean for the media we consume to reflect this reality, that we are already experiencing apocalypse and that we are experiencing it exactly because of the institutions that are supposed to keep us safe? What would it look like if we all got used to watching and imagining abolitionist futures? To see different ways of responding to harm acted out in the comfort of our own homes? 

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CACTUS JACK

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