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Published June 11 2013

Zombie genre connects with viewers on deeper level, professors say

FARGO - Like its grotesque, lumbering monsters with an appetite for human brains, the zombie genre just won’t die.

“World War Z,” starring Brad Pitt, hits movie theaters next week, on the heels of last week’s premiere of “In the Flesh,” BBC America’s new miniseries about society recovering from a zombie outbreak.

Both are the latest entries in a long-running string of zombie films, television shows, novels, graphic novels and video games.

Zombies are popular around the Fargo-Moorhead area, too. The annual Fargo Zombie Pub Crawl took to the streets of downtown last month, and the first-ever FM Zombie Run hit the trails of MB Johnson Park in Moorhead in April.

The success and continuing popularity of the genre may seem unlikely given that zombies are monsters without much personality, unlike the vampires of the popular “Twilight” saga.

How, then, have the undead managed to live on?

Clay Routledge, an associate professor in North Dakota State University’s Department of Psychology, argues that it’s because the idea of a zombie apocalypse connects with people on a deeper, more meaningful level.

“Part of our fascination with (zombies) relates to our existential drive for meaning,” he says.

In simpler terms, our interest in zombies has to do with our understanding of death.

Humans are interested in the concept of their own mortality, Routledge says, and the zombie genre relates to that.

“We don’t want to die. Death is a problem, and so we’re fascinated with this struggle against it,” Routledge says. “Zombies are very much about that. They’re people who have died and are undead, and this activates a desire for meaning in us.”

Routledge admits this theory probably isn’t something people are explicitly going to talk about when they’re watching zombie films. But, he says, it is an idea that people seem to connect with based on studies he’s done on the topic.

“We’re probably not thinking about it on a conscious level, but I do think it speaks to us,” he says.

Anxieties, insecurities

Additionally, the zombie genre manages to stay relevant because it draws on contemporary cultural insecurities and anxieties, according to Jonathan Steinwand, a professor of English at Concordia College.

This idea isn’t necessarily unique to zombies, Steinwand says, but rather has been the case with monsters in literature going back hundreds of years.

“Historically, narratives of monsters can be traced to specific anxieties,” he says.

Take, for example, the period when zombies first appeared on the American pop culture scene in 1968. That was the year that George Romero released “Night of the Living Dead,” arguably the most influential zombie film ever made.

“ ‘Night of the Living Dead’ can be linked to the insecurities of its era, like the Vietnam War, interracial tensions or the threat of nuclear war,” Steinwand says.

The zombie genre has grown in popularity over the past 10 to 15 years, which Steinwand says has been fueled by an increase in the cultural worries and fears that keep us up at night.

In the case of next week’s “World War Z,” Steinwand says the film could speak to Americans’ insecurities about war, especially those that have developed in the last decade.

“We shouldn’t minimize that it’s a war, and look at it in the context of war,” he says of the movie. “How much of this is expressing anxieties about what we’ve done (in war), or about what we’re capable of doing?”

Steinwand also says climate change could be another of those insecurities that has fueled the recent interest in zombies. On Earth Day, he gave a presentation at Concordia called “How the Zombie Apocalypse Can Help Us Think About Climate Change.”

“Climate change is going to affect our health, our natural resources. We don’t know how that’s going to express itself,” he says. “It’s interesting to put zombies in that context.”

All that being said, both Routledge and Steinwand say that despite any meaning we may take from it, at its most basic level the zombie genre is still just a form of exciting entertainment.

Whether it’s a movie like “World War Z” or a TV show like “The Walking Dead” – which returns to AMC in the fall – it’s just a suspenseful, bloody good time.

“A lot of it is just escapism and fun, too, right?” Routledge asks.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Sam Benshoof at (701) 241-5535.