ecocriticism

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.

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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.

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A “zombie ant” infested with Ophiocordyceps Unilateralis

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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.

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

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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.

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Overgrown London in The Girl With All the Gifts

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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.

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

(SPOILERS AHEAD)

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.

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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.

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Leave your Message, not your Trash

On a frigid yet sunny day in January 2014, I happened to find myself a couple of blocks away from the annual March for Life in Washington, DC. I was in the capitol visiting the Folger Shakespeare Library for some research, and had arrived early in the morning for a long day of archival exploration (or, let’s face it, geeking out over old books). As the day went on and I occasionally stepped out for food or sunlight, I slowly realized what else was happening that day on the Hill. It was a special year for the March—the 40th anniversary—and thousands had managed to show up despite the 10-degree weather and recent city-stalling snowstorm. I myself am avidly pro-choice (and have been since I read The Cider House Rules in high school) so I will admit I was less than pleased to find myself among the throng of pro-life advocates. But I tried not to begrudge them their right to free speech, and instead went about my day just hoping that by the time I exited the archive for my evening commute, the hullabaloo would be over.

When I finally left the Folger, the march had finished and individuals were making their way out of DC. Yet what remained in their wake was the trash. Heaped in garbage bins up and down the streets were mounds of signs, flyers, stickers and other protest paraphernalia from that day’s rally.  I first encountered the one below on the corner of 2nd and C street, SE, a block away from Independence Avenue. As I continued making my way to the Capitol South Metro stop, I came upon a large, discarded mass of signs apparently left by protestors afraid or unwilling to take them into the Metro station. There, gleaming under the setting winter sun, they lay discarded. As I made my decent down the escalator, I could see signs and flyers littered across the tiled floor, soaked in snow and mud from the previous day’s snowstorm; an overall-clad metro employee worked diligently to pick up the signs and place them in an already overflowing trash can.

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I am positive that the amount of trash left by this protest is not unique.  In fact, the conservative internet was abuzz with critiques of similar trash heaps left behind by climate protesters in New York City in September. Those critiques highlight the apparent hypocrisy of a protest which championed environmental stewardship, yet left masses of trash in its wake.  Upon seeing the litter left by those attending the March for Life, I was taken aback by a similar sense of hypocrisy. A mere two weeks before the protest, Pope Francis had delivered his New Year’s Address to the Vatican Diplomatic Corps which included, among other things, a critique of “the throwaway culture.” This culture, wherein individuals frequently throw away “food and despensible objects” with impunity, upholds the value system that encourages women to discard unborn fetuses like food waste, the Pope claimed.

In this same address, the Pope also noted that “the greedy exploitation of environmental resources” is also a “threat to peace,” and that Catholics are called to pursue “policies respectful of this earth which is our common home.” In his New Year’s address Pope Francis called for an end to a culture of excessive trash and an increase in environmental activism. On that January day, I could not help but read the streets around me, littered with the snow-soaked signage of that day’s protest, as symbolic of the contradiction between the protestors’ message and its aftermath. If the individuals present were protesting the “throwaway culture” that can lead to abortions, they were doing so in a way that no doubt provided local landfills with an influx of trash.

The current protestors in Hong Kong have been praised, among other things, for their demonstration of environmental stewardship. As one protestor told the New York Times, “In this protest, we want to show our citizenship and our will to have a democratic government. Although this cleanup is a small thing, it is something that shows the values that all Hong Kong citizens should have.” For demonstrators in Hong Kong, their commitment to reducing conspicuous waste underscores their activist commitments; they see the connection between environmental rights and human rights.

Whatever the protest, it is worth considering the message conveyed by protest paraphernalia both during the active protests and after. The trash left by those marching against global warming in effect fueled the right’s criticism of the movement. Similarly, I could not take seriously a march that championed the sacredness of life, yet seemed to care so little for the planet on which future lives will live—or the lives of those who would spend over-time hours restoring the city to its pre-march condition.  Yes, posters and signs are an effective means of communicating a message at a particular moment in time. But it behooves us to consider where those signs end up when we are done.

 


Melissa Welshans is a PhD Candidate in English at Syracuse University and is currently working on her dissertation The Many Types of Marriage: Gender, Marriage and Biblical Typology in Early Modern England. Melissa’s research is concerned with issues of gender and sexuality in early modern England, especially as it pertains to the institution of marriage. In her free time Melissa practices her nail art skills and snuggles with her husband and their two cats.