Sunday, May 6, 2012

On Zombies and American Gothic

Walk into any Spirit Halloween store in October, and you are bound to meet a pair of arresting figures.  I'm talking about that life-sized, hayfork-wielding zombie farmer and his equally-undead wife, who are usually stationed facing the front door in macabre tableau.  Looking like gangrenous versions of the famous couple in Grant Wood's painting, the eldritch duo broach an interesting subject: the connection between zombies and American Gothic.

Historically, the Gothic, with its emphasis on darkness and disorder, has been understood as a genre that arose in reaction to the Age of Reason.  The prevailing Enlightenment ideals of balance, symmetry and (above all else) rationalism were dismissed, and the reality of grotesquerie and madness openly/ominously acknowledged.  In this sense, the ghouls currently permeating American pop culture can be seen to have erupted from traditional Gothic soil.  The zombie--a mindless wretch driven by its base cravings--is the ultimate un-Reasonable creature.

In American Gothic Fiction: An Introduction, Allan Lloyd-Smith writes that the Gothic focuses on "the return of the past, of the repressed and denied, the buried secret that subverts and corrodes the present, whatever the culture does not want to know or admit, will not or dare not tell itself" (1).  The Gothic unabashedly dramatizes the transgression of barriers and the violation of taboos.  Again, one senses how readily the figure of the zombie aligns with such notions of disinterment, grim return, and unruliness.  Zombies enact the unwelcome homecoming of the departed, the obviously-moldering yet mobile dead who've traded the supposed bliss of eternal rest for a cannibalistic rampage.

No doubt, the Gothic "explores frontiers: between races, genders, and classes; people and machines; health and disease; the living and dead; and the boundary of the closed door" (Crow, "Introduction" 2).  Zombies, though, also invoke the literal frontier--the dangerous borderland between civilization and wilderness that was pushed ever westward by American settlers.  The societal collapse precipitated by an uprising of the undead (as seen in countless movies) belatedly reopens our national frontier and brings it to everyone's front door.  In such dire circum-stances, lawlessness rules and everyday existence devolves into a brute struggle for survival.  Early American Gothic literature highlighted the fear of the hostile, heathen native (e.g. recall Young Goodman Brown's concern, as he makes his way through the forest, that "There may be a devilish Indian behind every tree" [Hawthorne 133]), but the zombie now stands in as the modern-day bogeyman, a red-skinned (i.e. festering and blood-soaked) savage h(a)unting ostensibly innocent people.

When discussing the Gothic, scholars typically draw upon not just the idea of the frontier but also the Freudian notion of the uncanny, the "sense of weirdness, created when something that seemed safe and familiar suddenly becomes strange, or something that should have remained hidden is revealed" (Crow, History 7).  Perhaps no term better captures what zombies embody.  The uncanny undead represent the shocking transformation of friends, family, and neighbors into an impersonal, relentless nemesis ("meat-seeking missiles" [69], to borrow David Wellington's punning epithet).  Freud's positing of the troubling double as a source of the uncanny is likewise applicable to zombie behavior.  Here the doppelganger takes the form of a rotting, ravenous corpse: what looks like your beloved Aunt Rita is actually a soulless thing that wants to eat you.

As critic Allan Lloyd-Smith reminds us, the "German word for the uncanny, das Unheimliche, carries the meaning of the unhomely: it can be understood as equivalent to the 'domestic terror' which so aptly describes much of the work of American Gothicists" (75).  With this in mind, consider the recurrent rural homefront in cinematic and televised battles against zombies, such as the Pennsylvanian-farmhouse setting in Night of the Living Dead and Hershel's farm in AMC's The Walking Dead (in American-Zombie Gothic, a man's home is his castle under siege by gory hordes).  The ruin to which these properties are reduced forms an architectural correlative to the state of the perpetrating zombies, those empty and decrepit shells of their former selves.  Earthly resurrection of the dead truly hits home, turning bucolic scenes into apocalyptic nightmares.  Causing personal devastation on a widespread scale--no place is safe from disaster--the zombie outbreak represents the latest of the series of horrific pandemics that have scourged through the pages of American Gothic narratives (a line tracing back through Stephen King's The Stand all the way to Charles Brockden Brown's Arthur Mervyn).

All this paints a gloomy picture, but I would be remiss not to note that zombies also elucidate the American spirit of impishness and fondness for black humor.  The will-to-parody manifest in the countless alterations of Grant Wood's American Gothic (including the one at the head of this blog post) is reflected by the undead-makeover of iconic album covers and monster-mashing of canonical novels.  A similarly revisionist impulse fuels the modern phenomenon of the zombie walk, in which participants make playtime out of Plague Time by parading round as zombified versions of nurses, firemen, Michael Jackson, etc.  These celebratory rituals are reminiscent of what transpires on Halloween, when we embrace our fears and dance merrily with Death (in its manifold guises), knowing that mortality will eventually waltz each one of us out of this world.  May might be designated as Zombie Awareness Month, but the feelings and attitudes the undead elicit are certainly apropos of October.

Which brings me full circle back to the zombie farmer and his wife in the Spirit Halloween stores: perhaps it is no coincidence that the pair have been set up by the entrance like a couple of gruesome greeters.  Gothic Americans nationwide have no problem recognizing, and welcoming,
what the figures stand for.

Works Cited

Crow, Charles, L.  History of the Gothic: American Gothic.  Wales: University Press, 2009.

---. "Introduction." American Gothic: An Anthology 1787-1916.  Ed. Crow.  Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers, Inc., 1999.  1-2.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel.  "Young Goodman Brown." The Dark Descent.  Ed. David Hartwell.  New York: Tom Doherty Associates, Inc., 1987.  132-141.

Lloyd-Smith, Allan. American Gothic Fiction: An Introduction.  New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group, Inc., 2004.

Wellington, David. Monster Island: A Zombie Novel.  Philadelphia: Running Press Book Publishers, 2006.

No comments: