Going Out With a Bang

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.
Scott wrote:
‘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

Blood Money: Why the Public Loves Zombies


People sometimes ask me why zombies are so popular.
Back in the seventies and eighties, zombie flicks were disreputable trash, little better than pornography. Nihilistic gore-fests shelved at the back of the VHS rental store alongside other 'special interest' titles. Hiring Zombie Flesh Eaters was a furtive and shameful act.
These days, zombies have gone mainstream. Brad Pitt is filming World War Z. Walking Dead is a hit TV show. It's like the nerdy kid showed up at a class reunion with a hot babe on his arm and a Ferrari. What the hell happened? How have zombies captured the public imagination?
Well, let's not overlook the obvious. Doomsday carnage lends itself to CGI. Big budget Hollywood movies are sold, round the world, on spectacle. Collapsing skyscrapers are equally popular in Johannesburg, Osaka, Santiago. Call it the Esperanto of Armageddon.
But there is more going on beneath the surface. Something about the imagery of cities gone to ruin seems to capture the spirit of the times.
I have a theory.
Survivalist tales are parables of resilience in the face of social upheaval. The debt-fuelled prosperity of the past couple of decades is over, and we have entered an indefinitely prolonged period of austerity. But US TV is still dominated by talent shows, forensic procedurals and lavish period sagas on HBO. The working poor are ignored by media determined to pretend consumers still revel in the complacent affluence of the Clinton/Blair nineties. Their struggles are not fully reflected in mainstream popular culture.
The TV show Walking Dead features a disparate group of survivors negotiating the desolate highways of zombie-ravaged America. They travel in a convoy headed by a battered RV. Each night they camp by the roadside and cook over an open fire. The imagery is vividly reminiscent of Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, his depression-era saga in which bankrupt farmers load their possessions onto trucks and head west looking for a new life.
Theoretically, these two tales are miles apart. Steinbeck's story is direct polemic, gritty social realism. Walking Dead is fantasy horror for geeks. Yet, at heart, both sagas depict the same situation. Shattered communities. Social dislocation. Families struggling to find refuge.
Let me give you three examples of apocalyptic imagery with deep economic resonance. 
Wrecked Cars
Automobiles have become an oppressive economic burden. The average US household consists of two wage earners, each battling to keep a car on the road, each living in dread of mechanical failure. Apocalyptic fiction reflects this apprehension. Highways clogged with immobilised vehicles. The life-or-death struggle to keep engines running, to secure a full tank of gasoline.
Desolate suburbs
The sight of prosperous housing developments over-run by zombies echoes the real-life landscape of mass foreclosure. Streets depopulated by bankruptcies, left padlocked and boarded. Mailbox lawns reduced to tumbleweed desolation. US news channels have chronicled the aftermath of mass displacement; Ballardian tales of urban foragers: impoverished families harvesting food from the over-grown gardens of their evicted neighbours.
Wounds
Battlefield medicine is one of the reoccurring tropes of zombie fiction. Characters often patch bullet hits or hack off an infected, zombie-chewed arm. They frequently battle flesh-eating mobs as they liberate painkillers and antibiotics from abandoned hospitals.
TV medical dramas have always been popular. But most of these shows pre-suppose access to health insurance, an assumption that many viewers, in the US at least, cannot take for granted. Plenty of Americans watching the deductive brilliance of House could not afford his care. Those with coverage pay a big chunk of income for the privilege. Health care is a costly and precarious thing.
As Barbara Ehrenreich pointed out in her excellent Nickel and Dimed: Undercover in Low-Wage USA, most of the service class have no health cover or sick pay. They self-diagnose, tough-out jobs as waitresses, telesales and cleaners, while enduring back pain, poor eyesight and crumbling teeth.
And what of zombies themselves?
Fifties horror movies were parables of nuclear dread in which rural American towns were repeatedly stomped flat by colossal mutant insects. Seventies sci-fi gave us Malthusian eco-nightmares, like Soylient Green and Silent Running.
What do zombies say about our current state of mind?
Zombies are us. Our friends, neighbours and relatives.They are not a threat arrived from overseas or outer space. They are our own communities turned monstrous and hostile, folks we pass in the street re-cast as deadly predators. Nightmare imagery of desolate streets, cannibals hoards, barricaded homes under relentless assault, is our everyday word viewed through the lens economic desperation.
That's the paradoxical appeal of apocalyptic fiction. We may suppress our fear of poverty, our dread of downward mobility. But the science-fiction/fantasy genre acts as a collective subconscious. Our anxieties become monsters, and chase us in our dreams.

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