The Eco-Zombie: Using Biology to Imagine Zombies Beyond the Human

[10 minute read]

In this month’s posts on Metathesis, I have discussed the metaphorical uses of contagious disease and examined the figure of the zombie in some popular late twentieth and twenty-first-century texts. In my final post of the month, I would like to turn to a unique sub-genre of the zombie narrative that unsettles the survivor-centered perspective of zombie outbreaks: the eco- zombie.

Zombies present an interesting study in the metaphor of contagion because they embody contradictions and create questions that disturb our sense of self and communal identity. The most obvious of these contradictions, of course, is that zombies are the “living dead”: two oft-mutually exclusive terms in the human experience. One is generally alive or dead, but not both simultaneously. The biological science of how zombies actually work is often left somewhat fuzzy in zombie science-fiction, which tends to give more emphasis to the latter portion of the hyphenated genre, rather than the former. These complex biological questions are typically subsumed by the drama and urgency of the survival story. One stunning example of this is in the 2105 film World War Z, when the viewer is introduced to a brilliant young epidemiologist who only minutes later slips unceremoniously in the rain and accidentally blows his own head off.

In terms of popular story-telling, this emphasis makes sense: the redemption narrative of survivors makes for a more emotionally engaging and compelling drama with which readers, viewers, and players can identify. Part of the power of the survivor’s narrative is that we can imagine ourselves in their shoes. This perspective aligns with the zombie’s function to horrify and disgust the reader, viewer, or player in an act of dis-identification with the dead. In short, the horror of the zombie is centered upon the fact that nobody wants to become one! In fact, it is impossible to even imagine what it is like to be a zombie, given the way zombies embody a complete lack of supposedly distinct human capacities – including a sense of individuality, empathy, personality, and sociality. This narrative dynamic makes thinking outside of the standard human vs zombie conflict relationship difficult.


However, two recent zombie narratives have given us a new spin on the zombie narrative by taking inspiration from biology, and imagining the dead living in symbiosis with the natural world. In both The Last of Us (2013), a highly-cinematic survivor horror videogame from developer Naughty Dog, and The Girl With All the Gifts (2016), a novel and feature-length film developed from M.R. Carey’s short story “Iphigenia In Aulis,” a rampant fungal infection of Ophiocordyceps Unilateralis infests the human population. Known colloquially as the “Zombie Fungus,” Cordyceps is a true-to-life fungus that consumes and takes control over the bodies of ants and wasps. It manipulates genetically determined behavioral patterns of the ants it infects, compelling them to climb high above the forest floor, where they then clamp their jaws on a leaf, and remain as the fungus grotesquely protrudes from their body.


A “zombie ant” infested with Ophiocordyceps Unilateralis


Joel battles an “infected” human from The Last of Us

The Cordyceps-infected humans in these stories aren’t specifically identified as “zombies” in either text – they are referred to as the “infected” in The Last of Us and as “hungries” in Carey’s story and its film adaptation – but they can be easily identified as such by their appearance and behavior, especially their cannibalistic rage. Because the “zombie ants” that host the Cordyceps fungus in real life are, if anything, less violent than their healthy counterparts, the violence of the human Cordyceps victims in these texts can be interpreted as making reference to “genetically determined behavioral patterns” recognizable in the aggressive human species.


Melanie and a group of “hungries” in The Girl With all the Gifts


A very zombie-like “Infected” human from The Last of Us

In both texts, the symbiotic relationship between the infected humans and the Cordyceps fungus allows the infected to maintain a scientifically stable relationship to the natural world. This relationship is also markedly distinct from the fuzzy biological uncertainty of most zombie films. Cordyceps really exists, and it only takes a small logical leap to envision humans under the organism’s control. Rather than being presented as monstrous doubles of humanity, these versions of Cordyceps zombies represent an ecological and biological world which is rebounding against human civilization and industrialization. In both The Last of Us and the film adaptation of Carey’s story, visuals which depict the overgrowth of nature into formerly urban spaces play an important role in signifying how the viewer and player should interpret their monsters.


Overgrown London in The Girl With All the Gifts


Overgrown Salt Lake City in The Last of Us

The encroaching vegetation in these scenes infests the urban landscape and reclaims the landscape for nature, turning the city into a space both uncanny and sublime. The vegetation subsuming the metropolis transforms it into a dilapidated, ivy-embossed maze filled with ghostly relics. Similarly, the Cordyceps infection presents itself on the human body through grotesque, bubbly growths, signifying a biological excess overtaking both the human body and society. The overgrowth of nature on the infrastructure of the city and the Cordyceps fungus on the human body call attention to the material excesses of human cities and urban life. By reclaiming the city and the human body for the natural world, these infestation suggest that humanity has also overgrown, and as a result disrupted biological homeostasis and ecological balance.


Melanie and survivors navigate overgrown London in The Girl With All the Gifts


Interestingly, in both The Last of Us and The Girl With All the Gifts, the Cordyceps infestation creates a scenario in which a young woman with a unique resistance to the infection presents an opportunity for a “cure.” However, in order to process the cure, she must be sacrificed. In both texts, characters must weigh the life of the innocent individual against eradication of the human species. In the dramatic conclusion of the narrative arc in The Last of Us, the player must decide if they will save Ellie, the young girl that they have spent hours of gameplay guiding and protecting through a maze of zombies, with the knowledge that her survival means the end of the world. In The Girl With All the Gifts, Melanie makes this choice herself, choosing to transform the whole world with Cordyceps and found a new zombie society based on the teachings of Miss Justinaeu, the only person who treated her sympathetically.


A doctor attempts to convince Joel (the player) to sacrifice Ellie for the greater good of mankind in The Last of Us

By using biological science to reimagine the biological impact of the fungus among us, these texts break the mold of the standard zombie narrative. The Last of Us and The Girl with All the Gifts imagine zombies through a perspective of biological symbiosis and ecological balance, rather than racialized contagion or scientific terrorism. In doing so, these texts reshape how the metaphor of the zombie can be interpreted in an age when an excess of humanity and human impact threatens to push the ecosystem out of balance.

Zombies are harbingers of an inverted natural order and the embodiment of the redistribution of power. While this disruption of the order of life and death is violently disturbing for survivors, there are signs in many zombie narratives that the collapse of human society might actually be to the benefit of nature and the organic world that zombies inhabit. If we begin to reimagine zombies not as a gross corruption of humanity, but as organisms that are a balancing force of an interconnected biological world moving towards homeostasis, we begin to get a different picture of zombies and their relation to the metaphor of contagion. Eventually, they come to represent not a teleological progression from life to death, but a seasonal, circular, progression reflecting a desire for environmental balance, and a commitment to imagining the world through the changes and returns of life and death on a larger and longer scale.


‘Build That Wall!’: Studies in the 21st-Century Plague Zombie

[10 minute read]

In this month’s posts for Metathesis, I have been looking at how the metaphorical deployment of epidemic disease operates, and how we might understand the metaphorical function of plague zombies in contemporary texts. Why is it that the figure of the plague zombie features so prominently in the twenty-first-century imagination? If the plague zombie is a vehicle for addressing social issues, how have plague zombie narratives confronted the zombie threat? Of course, the traditional method for dealing with zombies is simply to kill them. While this method might work when zombies are a minority, when the zombies outnumber survivors, they can be dangerous and difficult to deal with. Often, the best solution for survivors is to find or build structures to separate themselves from the living dead. These structures are reinforced with the belief that those within are safe, and those outside are threats. This week’s post focuses on the construction and failure of such barriers, and their centrality to the plague zombie narrative.

This use of the zombie as a simple “vehicle” for larger social critique is central to many of the texts that comprise the explosion of “plague zombie” narratives in the new millennium. Some of the most acclaimed texts of this period include Robert Kirkman’s 2003 comic book series The Walking Dead and its AMC television series adaptation that began in 2010; Max Brooks’ book The Zombie Survival Guide, also published in 2003, along with its follow up novel World War Z (2006), which was adapted into a film of the same name starring Brad Pitt in 2013.[1] In each of these “plague zombie” universes, how survivors choose to socially respond to the zombie epidemic occupies the central narrative concerns of the text. In such stories, zombies themselves appear as deadly environmental hazards to be mitigated; they operate as a collective metaphor for existential threats to society and humanistic values in modern society, as well as threats to the lives of individual survivors.


In both The Walking Dead and Max Brooks’ World War Z, as with many other zombie narratives, physical infrastructure is important for managing survivors and zombies alike. Zombies, for all their persistence, tend to have problems with doors and walls. In the AMC adaptation of The Walking Dead, Rick Grimes and his rag-tag band of survivors ramble about the Georgia landscape in search of architectural as well as social stability. In most cases, the former is prized over the latter. The Southern U.S. setting plays a prominent role in The Walking Dead, and the racial and economic tensions of the South are reproduced in the movement of Grimes’s migrant group. Whereas the urban center of Atlanta has been completely overrun by the dead, the plantation-esque farm is enveloped in a surreal calm.


An overhead shot of the zombie-infested Atlanta streets in The Walking Dead Season 1


The main residence of Hershel Greene’s Farm in The Walking Dead Season 2

This survivalist reimagining of the urban-rural racial and economic divide values isolationism and segregation. In season 3 of the series, Grimes and his group find sanctuary in a prison, whose labyrinthine walls provide layers upon layers of security from the zombies who stalk its fortified perimeter. However, after developing a feud with a nearby town of survivors, the prison becomes a constant reminder of the limits and dangers, as well as the constant state of isolation, that survivors face because of the outbreak.


Survivors contemplating the prison in The Walking Dead comic series

This narrative inversion turns the prison from a place of punishment and entrapment into a place of refuge and freedom. However, when a flu outbreak within the prison coincides with siege from without by a competing group of survivors, the prison and must be abandoned.

The centrality of security to The Walking Dead’s exploration of the urban-rural/town-prison divisions underscores a key theme of zombie narratives: population control. The threat of the zombie isn’t just in its mindless cannibalism or its role as a vehicle for a deadly contagion – the zombies’ power, and their threat, is in their overwhelming numbers. The disease they carry, whatever its fictional genesis, harbors a nearly universal ability to transform individuals—people with their own individual lives and narratives—into singular, homogenous, monsters. The epidemic empties the infected person of their identity and replaces their individuality with the terrifying singular hunger of the zombie. Through this process, zombies become a figure of contagious otherness; they are the once-minority that has become the now-majority threatening the stability of society and the existence of survivors. The plague zombie becomes a way to play out the fearful tensions of a society terrified of being overrun by those beyond our borders.

This is especially true when ethnic and racial tensions are made an overt aspect of the zombie narrative. In Brooks’ World War Z, Israel’s controversial partition wall is reframed as a barrier against the zombie outbreak, and the Palestinian people are invited into the protected space of the settler colonial nation that once denied their political existence. In the novel, the significance of the partition wall is inverted. That which once stood as a symbol of division and colonial expansion quickly converts into a nation-encasing quarantine barrier, and becomes a symbol for unity and reconciliation.


Survivors entering Jerusalem in World War Z (2013)

This is a condescending and problematic rendering of the Israel-Palestine conflict in that it places Israeli military-nationalism in a role to act as the benevolent saviors of the unprepared Palestinians. This unbalanced rendering is made more apparent and troubling in the 2013 film adaptation. During one of the film’s most dramatic scenes, the sound of singing Palestinian refugees incites the zombies outside of the wall to pile over and subsume both the wall and those it protects. The zombies construct their own structure, a sort of zombie-ladder, which allows them to quickly overrun the now-trapped citizens of the city. The organic, shifting, and adaptive structure of the zombie-pile is markedly distinct from the solid and immovable infrastructure of the partition wall, and attributes a certain vivacious, almost instinctual creativity to the zombie menace. The failure of the partition wall to stop the organic flow of bodies from one space to another is rendered as catastrophic, and the zombies themselves seem to move not as individuals, but as a massive singular organism.


Enraged zombies form their own type of structure to climb the reimagined partition wall in World War Z (2013)

By imagining the racial and ethnic “other” as a zombie or potential zombie, these narratives illustrate the stakes of the social issues lying just below the surface of plague zombie narratives. If we understand plague zombies as vehicles for larger social issues, narratives like The Walking Dead and World War Z show us the problems that attend the safety of isolation and exclusion. The walls within these texts represent the faith our society places in structural safety –be that the division of nations and ideologies as in the partition wall of World War Z, or in the medical capitalism of the Umbrella Corporation in Resident Evil (see last week’s post for more about Resident Evil). When societies build walls to keep imaginary threats at bay, it comes at the cost of innocent lives. Taking another look at the plague zombie narrative asks us to consider the extremes to which society will go for an ultimately false sense of security. These stories also ask us to imagine how we might treat each other under the worst of circumstances, and how we might reimagine society differently in the wake of its collapse. Of course, these narratives also show us how visions of utopia inevitably turn into twisted realities of isolationism, segregation, and violence.

These texts show us how systems and structures designed to isolate us from the problems of the world may comfort us in times of existential crisis. But ultimately, the metaphorical and material walls appearing to protect us become the cages that keep us from moving beyond the boundaries of our own fears and comforts.

[1] I would also add that Danny Boyle’s 2002 film 28 Days Later played an important role in the revival of the zombie, but I won’t be discussing that film here.

Messages of Power: Epidemic Disease and Metaphor

[10 minute read]

Culture has been infected. From the largest spheres of government and media to the mundane exchanges of everyday living, a small but resilient particle of an idea has perforated the social fabric of our lives and buried deep in our collective imagination. This noxious notion exists unnoticed in many parts of society, a festering lump of our most disturbed and paranoid fears metastasizing just beneath the surface of culture, emerging now and again in full force when the right environment and atmosphere for an outbreak presents itself. This idea is the metaphor of contagious disease and epidemic. In my posts this month, I will ask why the tendency to assign meaning to disease is such a powerful and sustained facet of culture and examine how this viral tendency has mutated and evolved in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Disease is a common human experience vivifying nearly universal fears of that which we cannot see, and thus cannot fully understand. For much of human history, the microbes that cause the majority of contagious diseases remained invisible to us. Only in the last two centuries or so have we developed a scientific understanding of microbes. So, to make sense and meaning out of the epidemics that ravaged our civilizations, we invented stories.

For the religious, an outbreak appears as a punishment for transgressing against God. For the xenophobic, a sudden appearance of disease in a previously healthy community can confirm fears that racial and ethnic outsiders are contaminating and degenerating society. For the rich and privileged, disease becomes associated with the poor. For the poor, disease becomes symptomatic of their social alienation and economic exploitation by the rich. For the healthy, disease in others can become a confirmation of one’s own righteous living and a reason to invest in the factors of division between one’s self and the other. Tragically, victims of disease can internalize these negative associations and may place the blame for their illness on some perceived moral or ethical failing of their own, or on society at large.

NowVenerealDiseasesWorld War I poster created by H. Dewitt Welsh meant to create awareness and prevent venereal diseases in soldiers abroad, note the explicit racialized and sexualized depictions of “Yellow Fever” and “Venereal Disease”. 

Although we now have a growing scientific understanding of microbes at the genetic level, we still tell stories that imbue epidemic diseases with meaning. The habit of assigning religious, racial, economic, and cultural meaning to outbreaks and their victims—developed over hundreds and thousands of years of human experience—has proven hard to quit, and many of these confused and misshapen ideas about disease and epidemic persist. As adaptable and resilient as the common cold, the metaphor of epidemic disease has become a mainstay of human discourse.

But why?

The experience of disease and contagion, the fear of infection, the abjection of the ill, the triumph of recovery, and the tragedy of death are nearly universal human experiences. Epidemic disease is therefore an accessible metaphor; a comparison with disease is widely understood as negative. The commonality of disease makes its metaphorical import apparent, and the mortality of epidemic make its metaphors gripping and affective.

But metaphors of disease and the stories that contain them continue to have a wide influence on our culture because they also tell us who we are, suggest who we ought not to be, and allow us to imagine who we might become. Often metaphors of disease tell us more about ourselves—our fears, guilt, and prejudices implicit and explicit—than they do about the biological, environmental, and social reality of epidemics. Examining how and why epidemic disease is used as a metaphor for social issues can allow us to understand the power of, and problems with epidemic metaphors, and provides a method to trace the dynamics and divisions of societal power and privilege.

Epidemic diseases are powerful messages, but they are also messages of power. How we depict and understand epidemics can tell us much about the cultural atmosphere from which the epidemic emerges.

In these posts, I will be considering metaphors of disease. But I also explore how, ironically, disease can work metaphorically to help us understand metaphors.

Etymologically, the modern English term “metaphor” comes from the Latin “metaphora” and from the Greek combination of “μεταϕορά”: μετα- (“meta”) denoting change or transformation and ϕορά, the present participle of “ϕέρειν,” meaning to bear or carry. If we preserve the grammatical tense of the Greek, then, a metaphor can be understood as that way of speaking which is bearing change, or as that speech which transforms as it is carrying. The Oxford English Dictionary defines our modern concept of metaphor as a “figure of speech in which a name or descriptive word or phrase is transferred to an object or action different from, but analogous to, that to which it is literally applicable” (OED, Third Edition, 2001).

In practice, we tend to follow the OED’s understanding, looking for similarities between unlike things. For example, in the famous Robert Burns metaphor “your love is a red, red rose,” love is not literally a flower, but it shares with the rose a certain intangible quality which makes the comparison apt. Perhaps, figuratively speaking, this love is soft, or sweet, or pleasant to smell, or covered with painful thorns, or a combination of these. In any case, the reader is meant to make the connection organically.

To break down how metaphors work in more detail, communications scholar I.A. Richards devised what he called the “Tenor-Vehicle” model (The Philosophy of Rhetoric, 1936). In it, the “tenor” is the idea being communicated and the “vehicle” is how the idea is transmitted. That intangible quality of “different from, but analogous to” is the synthesis created by the metaphor’s juxtaposition of the two unlike things. In the Burns example from above the tenor of the metaphor is “your love” and the vehicle “a red, red rose.” By carrying the former into the later, the metaphor creates emotional meaning. That is, although tenor and vehicle make up the two parts of the metaphor, neither alone compose the emotional heft of the comparison—it is i the interpretive act of comparing that we construct meaning. Richards believed that all thinking and language are based in this type of comparison and contrast, and therefore he believed that all thought and language were essentially and fundamentally metaphorical. Although one need not go to the extent that Richards does to grasp the pervasive function of metaphor in society, the tenor-vehicle model is helpful for understanding why disease and metaphor are so closely intertwined.

Richards’ model shows that metaphors function much in the same way as microbes. At the very least, microbes offer us a material example of how a system of transmission like the tenor-vehicle model of metaphor operates in the physical world. Take, for example, a virus. Like Richards’ tenor-vehicle model, a virus is composed of two parts: the RnA or DnA which constitutes the genetic information of the virus and a protein shell which encases and protects the virus during transmission.

disease2Diagram of a basic virus

Like metaphors, diseases also transform us as we carry them, turning our healthy bodies into symbols and carriers of illness. Also like the tenor-vehicle model of metaphor, it is the process of transmission and the reaction (biological and social) to the virus that creates meaning for us in our everyday lives, not its discrete biological components. Often it is not the virus itself, but the symptoms of its reproduction and our body’s immune response that we recognize. In truly explosive epidemics, such as the continuing HIV/AIDS epidemic, the social response to an outbreak, or lack thereof, can be as devastating as the illness itself.

Like any effective metaphor, the metaphor of disease transmits an emotive idea—the idea that disease is a vehicle for deeper meaning. Take, for example, a popular depiction of epidemic disease with a number of readily available metaphorical interpretations: that of the zombie outbreak. (For recent interpretations of this trope see AMC’s The Walking Dead series, Max Brooks’ novel World War Z, and many others.) In this context, zombies are humans who have been infected by a contagious disease, the primary symptom of which is rising from the dead with a hunger for human flesh or brains. Each zombie victim becomes a zombie, who then creates more zombies in a pyramid-scheme of death. The disease is obviously part of the horror of zombies, but they also serve as a clear metaphor for social issues within and outside their respective sci-fi universes. For example, in George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978), survivors of a zombie outbreak take refuge in a shopping mall, a setting which places the zombies’ need for excessive consumption of human flesh in juxtaposition with the excesses of late capitalism.

disease3The living dead ravage the Monroeville Mall in George A. Romero’s classic zombie film Dawn of the Dead (1978)

Here the metaphorical tenor is the system of consumerism typified by the U.S. shopping mall and the vehicle is the glowering zombie horde entrapping the survivors. The metaphorical interpretation I propose here asks us to consider how zombies relate to capitalism, and in doing so arranges several possible connections: are consumers like zombies in their mindless need for excessive goods? Does the capitalist model reward a type of economic cannibalism that, like the zombies, lacks emotional connection or sympathy? In the act of configuring the zombies in relation to their capitalist setting, different possible meanings are constructed in our minds. The metaphor of the zombie epidemic can also be understood in other registers, so tune in next week for a longer look at zombies!

The metaphor of epidemic transforms any person or group designated by society as outsiders into threatening vessels of contagion and constructs an internal logic that reinforces prejudicial and superstitious thinking. But contagion and disease have also been used as templates for resistance and reframed as opportunities to reimagine a more compassionate, empathetic, and healthy society. I hope you will join me in the coming weeks as I take a close look at how epidemic diseases and their metaphors have shaped our culture and our shared imagination.

Maxwell Cassity is a PhD candidate studying 20th- and 21st-century American and world literatures with a specific focus on novels, short fiction, and the influence of minority writers on critical conceptions of modernism and postmodernism. Although Mr. Cassity’s scholarship primarily concerns the American novel, his other scholarly interests include fiction, poetry, film, and narrative games. His proposed dissertation will examine how works of fiction have approached epidemic disease and cultural understandings of illness, contagion, and virality. Finding its foundation in the concepts of biopolitics and biopower, this project seeks to investigate how race and class difference have been incorporated into the discourse of disease and how structures of power mobilize the ideology of racialized disease to reinforce social hierarchies, isolate minority populations, and justify power over life and death in 20th-century U.S. society.