We are now a week beyond Halloween 2011, and while most of us have put away our fake limbs, Karo syrup and red food coloring, zombie fans will continue to tune into episodes of The Walking Dead and dream of lurching and shambling in the year ahead.
It’s not news that society is fascinated with all things zombie or that many fans enjoy the annual ritual of pretending to be flesh-eating ghouls in zombie walks across the country. Many theories have circulated as to why this cultural phenomenon has such wide spread appeal and staying power. What I find interesting about zombies is the fact that they are simultaneously victim and victimizer. Zombies are just people like us who have been bitten by other zombies. They represent both the top and the bottom of the food chain. Like Buddha said, “We all eat and we are all eaten.”
Except for a few dietary habits I’d like to change, I’m fairly comfortable with the eating aspect of the great circle of life. It’s the being eaten part I have trouble with, and I suspect that I am not alone. Is that why I and so many others are riveted by stories that tap into our primal fear of being devoured?
Tales of folks getting eaten by something bigger and badder than us date back to the beginning of time. Often they involve whales. And we were told these stories usually at the dawn of our histories. Maybe if our caregivers had just stuck to the big fish sagas we’d have been better off. After all, Jonah and Pinocchio survived. But we were also fed bedtime stories about wolves, bears and witches that loved to gobble up little piggies, gingerbread men and children. No wonder we ran screaming when Grandma lunged at us with outstretched arms cackling, “Oh, I could just eat you up!”
When I was a very small child, I invented imaginary creatures called Desert Monsters. At least I think they were called Desert Monsters. They could have been Dessert Monsters. They looked like Gumby, except their heads were pointier, they were black, and they had huge teeth. And they ate people. One of my earliest memories is a dream that I had of a Desert Monster biting a chunk out of my mother’s head. It’s a testament to how young I must have been that I remember there being no gore involved. No brains. No blood. In fact, in the dream my mother’s head wasn’t even hollow. When the chunk was taken out it only looked like her forehead was indented. Kind of like taking a bite out of a solid chocolate Easter bunny.
So obviously this fear of ending up in the belly of the beast is something that has been with me for a while. I also remember watching adventure movies and being freaked out when someone got caught in quick sand. There was always that desperate hand trying to cling to a root or vine, finally disappearing into the bog. How far would the victim ultimately sink? All the way to China I assumed. Eaten up by mother earth and shat out the other end. What a way to go.
An even worse way to go would have to be getting eaten alive. Pythons at least have the decency to strangle you before they swallow you up. Sharks, alligators, flesh eating bacteria, not so much. I do go in the ocean because my love of boogie boarding trumps my fear of ending up like Quint, but mountain trails, Florida everglades and islands occupied by monitor lizards, you can count me out. And I always keep a tube of Neosporin handy.
And of course, no discussion of flesh eaters can be complete without bringing up the ghastly specter of cannibalism. People eating people are the yuckiest people in the world. From the Donner Party to the Dahmer Party, cannibalism has always been fodder for sensational headlines and dark humor. I remember reading an anecdote in the Readers Digest about a missionary who went to help the starving natives in the French Hinterlands. They ate him.
I suppose if I died in a plane crash, I wouldn’t begrudge the survivors the chance to stay alive by feasting on my corpse. Though, I think you should be able to declare this on the back of your driver’s license. In the event of an emergency, eat me. Check Yes or No.
So speaking of all this eating, what’s the next big holiday on our plates? Thanksgiving. Inevitably we will see the story in the news about that lucky turkey who has been spared the butcher’s knife. And inevitably along with that story will come the image of the not so lucky turkeys huddled together in the pen, looking anxiously around as if they know their fate. We know their fate, and while many of us look forward to a nice juicy bird with all the trimmings, we can’t help but feel for them. Those who are not already vegetarians may consider a lifestyle change. Some may fantasize a plot to rescue the critters. I always find myself doing this when I pass by live lobsters in the supermarket.
But many of us will look away, because the gravity of real terror and suffering is often too much to bear. And if we took a moment to identify with those feelings and think about our own fragile place in the cycle of life and death, our Thanksgivings might be forever altered.
So we will sit around the dining table and not think any more about where the turkey came from than we do the potatoes or the yams. And after the football is over and the dishes are put away, we may find ourselves on the couch with a slice of pumpkin pie watching last Sunday’s DVR’d episode of Walking Dead. Where the ends of the food chain meet, we find a terror we can live with.