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Unnatural Disaster

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Apocalypse

When a Frankenstorm arrives from Haiti with destructive powers, the semi-professional student of zombie literature and history has a unique ability to perceive the arrival of end times. Welcome to America’s new normal: the nonfictional apocalypse.

Marc Horowitz, A photo for an unopened box of Q-tips I, 2010. Courtesy the artist.

Earlier this fall I signed up for a seminar about zombies. Hosted by the brainiacs over at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research, this was high-end monster discourse. The full title, “Zombi and the Politics of Social Representation,” gives you a better idea of where we were headed—straight into the provocative questions of free will, life and death, and mass invasion. Or, put another way, death panels, abortion, and immigration.

“Why are our highest level political decisions being obsessively run through he sieve of the zombie?” asked our professor, Anjuli Raza Kolb, an expert in gothic literature and post-colonial epidemiological tropes. (Yes, that’s a thing.)

Looking for an answer, we read W.B. Seabrook’s quasi-anthropological (and completely mad) account of voudoo and zombies. We dissected Zora Neal Hurston’s reactionary geo-politics. We applied Hegel and Marx to the history of Caribbean slavery and critiqued Bela Lugosi’s performance as a zombie Svengali.

And then, as we honed in on zombies and how to beat them when the world ends (Nov. 7, 2012, anyone?), this Frankenstorm called Sandy swept in as a case study. Our final class, a discussion of Colson Whitehead in a Dumbo bookstore just yards from the East River was canceled. Whitehead’s Zone One had became Zone A, and our far-ranging musings joined the mandatory evacuation.

 

Sandy the super-storm lived up to its catastrophic hype: tunnels were flood gates; transit paralyzed; the business district gone dark; and an entire community reduced to ashes by a fire that neither flood nor firefighter could extinguish. More than one shocked observer described “an apocalypse.” And that was just New York.

The vastness of the storm, swallowing the mid-Atlantic, reaching up to the Great Lakes and plowing west into the heartland, was unspeakable. And reminiscent: Sandy was a shambling, animate force of nature. An unstoppable monster.

The American zombie is the antithesis of the Haitian zombi. He is the all-consuming addict of creature comforts. As one of my classmates liked to conclude on a weekly basis, “We are all fucked.”

Which, incidentally, had come from Haiti.

Bear with me just a moment for a crash course on zombies. At its origins, the zombi is a product of Haiti, where the practice of animating a corpse solely to exploit it for labor is widely accepted as something that people can, and do, do. It is a phenomenon achieved only in the crucible of black magic and the blacker history of slavery. It may or may not also require some psychotropic pharmacology or puffer-fish poison; ask Wade Davis about that.

The zombie as we know it today from The Walking Dead, Jane Austen revisionists, and every video game from Call of Duty to Minecraft, is a lovechild of Hollywood and the first-world’s fascination with the macabre. With a vowel added to its end, the zombie gained a brain-eating compulsion and a spot in the canon of cosmetically-challenged ghouls. Also, it got the power to multiply. The zombie became a contaminant, a plague, an infectious nightmare.

Both creatures—the Haitian zombi and the American zombie–are excellent bogeyman. Both, the cursed slave and the cannibalistic monster are easy symbols of man’s atavistic self-destruction. If a zombi represents a deal with the devil, a zombie is the sad shell of the man who made that deal. Bad things come to those who choose escapism over escape. But the American zombie is the antithesis of the Haitian zombi. He is the all-consuming addict of creature comforts. As one of my classmates liked to conclude on a weekly basis, “We are all fucked.” We imagined him pointing a trembling finger towards the mall of Paramus. You know how it goes—hoard mentality ends in a mentally vacuumed hoard.

Four days before it swallowed that poor bastard the Jersey shore, Sandy killed 50 Haitians and stirred the cholera soup. When a friend from Port-au-Prince called to ask how we fared up here in the storm I said there are kids in Tribeca fetching water from communal pumps. There is no public transport and no electricity. But unlike American zombies, American Sandy was not a “carrier.” We got blackouts and boarded windows but no water-borne disease. The only storm-related viral threat in New York came from the self-confessed @comfortablysmug misinformant who contaminated the twittersphere with reports that the Governor had been hustled off to a secure shelter. It was a fine piece of fear-mongering, but no epidemic.

 

Any good fictional apocalypse includes a scene where the survivors forget their perilous predicament long enough savor the silver lining of end-times. When the world is decimated of its human inhabitants, the keys at the Maseratti dealers always seem to hang in invitation.

This is known in the business as the "bliss montage," and it was played out in any number of New York neighborhoods that watched disaster befall lower-lying neighbors from the safety of televisions five blocks from the flood zones.

Mine came early, at a “storm’s a’comin” party in Brooklyn on Saturday night. There was a live band. There was salsa dancing. There was a guy in an immaculate white mariachi suit and outsized sombrero. He was an excellent dancer. He was also the construction foreman in charge of four East River tunnels.

“Shouldn’t you be shoring up?” I asked him. “Uh-hunh,” he said, and spun me into a complicated turn pattern. “But there’s no holding back the tide.”

Twenty-four hours later the bliss was still strong. My neighborhood stocked up on hard cider and secretly hoped the electricity might fail just long enough for a comfortably smug candlelit dinner. Barring that, there was Lonnie Quinn, weatherman. We cheered every time he came on to tell us that a confluence of catastrophic factors—the full moon, the higher tide, the dreaded “cork in the bottle”—was going to ensure that our borders would be breached by this encroaching menace.

“No school,” crowed my son. “Cork in a bottle,” I cheered, hoping that we could spring Sandy like a genii instead of a perfect storm.

Once the storm had passed and the appalling ruin became clear visible, there was no more bliss to be found. To put a fine point on it was Thursday’s headline: “After Storm Hiatus the Campaign is Back On.”

The zombies are awake.

 

The question from last week’s homework remains unanswered: “Why are our highest level political decisions being obsessively run through the sieve of the zombie?”  

Maybe you’ve seen Josh Whedon’s arresting case for electing Mitt Romney, the only man with the qualifications “to put us back on the path to a zombie apocalypse.” (Who else is prepared to make the deep cutbacks in social services necessary to create the chaos, insolvency, and poverty crucial for any nightmare scenario?) Excellent agitprop that, but really copy-cut stuff—Republicans wrote the book on the zombie attack-ad, starting with Rick Santorum’s cautionary tale about Obamaville.

And where did he get it? From the Centers for Disease Control, which has officially covered their ass by declaring the absence of an zombie epidemic, but providing a preparedness guide, in case they’re wrong.

Last weekend, the Halo Corp, a group of private vigilantes named after a video game,  trained 1,000 marines on a island in California how to respond to a zombie attack. This was not a joke. This was national security, a training exercise funded in part by the U.S. Government,that a spokesman justified by noting that while “we're not expecting a zombie apocalypse in the near future … the effects of what might happen in a zombie apocalypse are probably similar to the type of things that happen in natural disasters.”

I presume they are aware that they were on the wrong coast.

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TMN Contributing Writer Elizabeth Kiem is the author of Dancer, Daughter, Traitor, Spy. More by Elizabeth Kiem