Someone, (I forget who) once said that life is like a raucous cocktail party during which all those present try hard not to notice a sniper is picking off the guests one by one.
If there is a single black threat that runs through our waking hours, a skin-crawling dread we suppress during the bustle of our workaday lives, it is the knowledge that death is roaring towards us like an oncoming train. This knowledge hits big-time when you reach middle age and learn via social media that the first of your school friends, one of those smiling cherubic faces in your old class picture, has fallen to illness.
Many of us, perhaps the majority, will succumb to cancer. We will be summoned to a doctor’s office to view an X-ray. The doc will point to a sinister shadow between ribs, and we will sit in shock and fear as he or she discusses surgical options and the side effects of chemotherapy.
And many of us will die abruptly during the middle of an average day. Clutch a clogged, convulsing heart. Drop in the street or slump lifeless mid-meal, mid-phone call, mid-ball game.
Sand is cascading through the hourglass, so we look away and immerse ourselves in trivia. But the gnawing fear of our own extinction bubbles and broils in our subconscious. The knowledge that selfhood, everything we are and everything we have ever been, will soon be swallowed by The Big Nothing. We might not care to admit it, but when we read a gripping account of someone (fictional or otherwise) facing their last moments, we are subconsciously rehearsing our own death.
Let me tell you the story of Captain Lawrence Oates.
Oates was part of the Terra Nova Expedition led by Captain Robert Scott that sailed from Britain in June 1910 hoping to be the first team to reach the South Pole.
They left their base camp in Feb 1911 and began a nine hundred mile trek across the polar wilderness. When they finally reached the South Pole they discovered that a Norwegian team led by Roald Amundsen had beaten them to their goal. There was nothing to do but retreat across the Ross Ice Shelf back to their camp at the polar coast.
Their journey was slowed by vicious storms, a succession of injuries and the onset of scurvy. They stumbled onward through the frozen wasteland. They dragged a sled of provisions behind them. The weather was merciless, and their progress was further hampered by Oates who had developed severe frostbite in his feet rendering him virtually unable to walk. ‘Oates’ feet are in a wretched condition,‘ wrote Scott in his diary. ‘The poor soldier is very nearly done.‘
One night, the remaining men sat shivering in their tent. A storm raged outside. They accessed their situation. They were weak. They had little food. At their current rate of progress they would die before they reached safety.
Oates knew he was slowing the group down. If they were to survive, he would have to stay behind. So, rather than force them to make the terrible decision to abandon him, he decided to take matters into his own hands. He got to his feet. He said: ‘Gentlemen, I am stepping outside. I may be some time.‘ He left the tent, walked into the blizzard, and was never seen again.
‘We knew that poor Oates was walking to his death, but though we tried to dissuade him, we knew it was the act of a brave man and an English gentleman.‘
The tale of Captain Oates’s courageous action transfixed Victorian Britain. To this day, his name remains a by-word for heroic self-sacrifice. He was exhausted, half-frozen, struggling to endure terrible pain. But in his last moments he summoned his remaining strength and performed one final, character-defining act.
He walked into oblivion upright and proud.
This is, I suspect, one of the subconscious attractions of a zombie narrative. The genre is built around the struggle to find meaning in the face of mortality. A chance to examine how best to conduct ourselves as we prepare to die.
Pretty much every zombie tale features a scene in which a protagonist gets bitten and infected. Their quick deterioration is a standard terminal illness viewed fast-forward. Shock and terror followed by despair, then maybe some kind of acceptance.
Would it be too much of a stretch to draw parallels between the heroic death of Captain Oates, and the demise of fictional characters that choose to avoid zombiedom by checking out in a big-ass explosion?
My particular favourites:
Oded Fehr in Resident Evil: Extinction drives a gas truck into a hoard of zombies, a case of dynamite on the seat beside him.
Michael Kelly in Dawn of the Dead (2004) fires a bullet into a propane tank and triggers a massive fireball to help his friends escape pursuing zombies.
Jeremy Renner’s death-by-flamethrower in 28 Weeks Later as he tries to push-start a stalled car and help his friends drive to safety.
A psychologist would call it altruistic suicide. Anyone else would call it going-out-with-a-bang. There’s something very seductive about these blaze-of-glory daydreams. The consoling idea that even as we topple into the abyss we are still capable of a last, defiant act of self-assertion.
We all wonder how we will react when the end comes. We might not directly address this anxiety by reading memoirs written by people battling terminal illness. But fantasy fiction, particularly horror fiction with its trademark preoccupation with physical decay, acts as a collective subconscious. Worries suppressed in our waking hours emerge in our dreams.
Zombie stories confront us with mortality, but also offer a route to transcendence.
‘We must never forget that we may also find meaning in life even when confronted with a hopeless situation, when facing a fate that cannot be changed. For what then matters is to bear witness to the uniquely human potential at its best, which is to transform a personal tragedy into a triumph, to turn one’s predicament into a human achievement. We are no longer able to change a situation – just think of an incurable disease such as inoperable cancer – we are challenged to change ourselves.’
- Viktor Frankl