The walking dead: what zombies tell us about the economy

The Life: An American professor says the cultural popularity of zombies suggests people are disenchanted with the economy.

We're all Merle now: zombie shows such as The Walking Dead, above, are a metaphor for economic and social disaffection, says a Clemson University professor. AMC / AP Photo
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Bedraggled and rootless, they wander the streets in a time of social decomposition, endlessly searching for something to eat. They are zombies, and SJ Lauro, who teaches English at America's Clemson University, says that their recent cultural ubiquity is a result, in part, of workplace and economic disaffection.

q What is her thesis on this life-and-death matter?

a Prof Lauro says that the relationship between zombie popularity and disaffection need not be overt; instead it is something that occurs under the skin. The zombie myth, she notes, stretches via Haiti to Africa, but each current cultural manifestation of it "retains the traces of the early myth, when it was an obvious allegory for slavery, about a person whose soul had been captured, or who was under the control of a witch doctor. It is also important to note that the zombie first comes to American consciousness around the time of the Great Depression, in the 1930s." At the same time, "I would say that, more broadly than just a poor economy, people feel attracted to the zombie myth when they themselves feel disempowered in some way: be it economically, politically, socially, culturally."

How do zombie walks fit into this theory?

Zombie walks are a western phenomenon in which a group of people roams the streets as zombies. Prof Lauro believes that here again, "the zombie is a metaphor most are using unconsciously and that it signifies dissatisfaction more generally". She notes that participants in a May 2007 zombie walk in San Francisco who invaded an Apple store and chewed on iMacs were "obviously making a more direct comment that capitalism reduces people to brain-dead consumers".

Capitalism is endlessly adaptable; couldn't it co-opt zombies?

Indeed. Case in point: the tech website Cnet reported that during the San Francisco zombie invasion, security staff at Westfield Mall and the Disney store fought back against the undead horde. But the Apple staff were more savvy. "In fact," Cnet said, "salespeople were jostling one another for a position where they could take the best photo of the zombies [or themselves with the zombies, or their brains being eaten by the zombies]."

And what are some of the recent cultural manifestations of zombies?

The apex of zombiedom today is The Walking Dead, a riveting American television series that ends its third season on Sunday night. Prominent zombie movies since 2009 include Zombieland and Warm Bodies; and the release of World War Z, starring Brad Pitt, is scheduled for June 21. The mash-up novel Pride and Prejudice with Zombies was published in 2009. Startlingly, the makers of the Archie comics this month announced a plan for a series of "Afterlife with Archie" comics in which the zombie apocalypse is presumed to have germinated in Archie's hometown of Riverdale. It is quite possible that the zombie trend could soon die of overkill; which, applying Prof Lauro's thesis, suggests that happier economic times are around the corner. This is not an official economic theory.

Tell me more about Prof Lauro.

Some people analyse dreams; others, nightmares. Prof Lauro is among the latter. Her publications include "A Zombie Manifesto: The Nonhuman Condition in the Era of Advanced Capitalism" (which she co-authored in 2008). As a visiting assistant professor at Clemson, she teaches courses on literature and film.