George Romero’s 1968 film Night of the Living Dead is a groundbreaking horror classic, the flashpoint of its own sub-genre: the zombie apocalypse. Film was no stranger to the undead prior to Night of the Living Dead, with ghosts, vampires and mummies regularly stalking their living prey on the silver screen.
Yet Romero’s interpretation of the zombie myth created an archetype perfectly modeled for the modern world: a threat to both individuals and society that grows out of an inexorable need to consume. While Romero’s second zombie film, Dawn of the Dead (1978), is most often thought of as his commentary on consumerism, the narrative logic of his zombies that began in Night of the Living Dead make it the first horror film to portray mass consumption as an unstoppable plague.
This essay will examine the ongoing appeal of Night of the Living Dead by placing it in the context of how Sigmund Freudʼs theories were utilized by the corporate community during the 20th Century. To this end we will use Adam Curtisʼ 2002 documentary series, Century of the Self, to establish a timeline of events and individuals that laid the groundwork for promoting Freudian theory as a tool for consumerism. This theoretical framework is also important to examine Don Siegelʼs Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and establish how psychoanalysis has been used to promote mass consumption. Furthermore, these arguments will serve to show that Night of the Living Dead is the ultimate result of the relationship between psychoanalysis and mass consumption, and it is precisely this feature which may explain why Romero’s film has become one of the most enduring and pervasive films of the late 20th Century.
In Century of the Self, Curtis reviews how Freud’s American nephew, Edward Bernays, utilized Freud’s ideas concerning psychoanalysis to show corporations how they could make people want things they didn’t need by systematically linking mass-produced goods to their subconscious desires. By appealing to the inner irrational and selfish desires that his uncle had identified, Bernays believed that people could be made happy through consumerism and thus rendered docile. Bernays was the first person to use Freud’s ideas as a means to manipulate the public; he used them as part of his practice in public relations, a professional field that Bernays has been credited with inventing.
One of his early successes in utilizing Freudian theory to promote products was during the women’s suffrage movement in the ‘20s, where Bernays was able to persuade women to smoke by associating cigarettes with power and independence. The success of this cigarette promotion, according to Curtis, “made him (Bernays) realize that it was possible to persuade people to behave irrationally if you link products to their emotional desires and feelings. It meant that irrelevant objects could become powerful emotional symbols of how you want to be seen by others.”
Bernays’ success was recognized by the business community:
American corporations ... had come out of (WWI) rich and powerful, but they had a growing worry. The system of mass production had flourished during the war and now millions of goods were pouring off production lines. What they were frightened of was the danger of overproduction, that there would come a point when people had enough goods and would simply stop buying. Up until that point the majority of products were still sold to the masses on the basis of need. While the rich had long been used to luxury goods for the millions of working class Americans most products were still advertised as necessities. Goods like shoes, stockings, and even cars were promoted in functional terms for their durability ... What the corporations realized they had to do was transform the way the majority of Americans thought about products ... People must be trained to desire, to want new things even before the old had been entirely consumed ... Man’s desires must overshadow his needs.
In conjunction with the commercial application of Freudian theory, a political ideology also began to develop that was reactionary to Freud’s suggestion that human thought is highly susceptible to illogical and violent impulses stirring in the subconscious mind:
The publication of Freud’s work in America had an extraordinary effect on journalists and intellectuals in the ‘20s. What fascinated and frightened them was the picture Freud painted of submerged dangerous forces lurking just under the surface of modern society, forces that could erupt easily to produce the frenzied mob which had the power to destroy even governments ... To many, this meant that one of the guiding principles of mass democracy was wrong: the belief that human beings could be trusted to make decisions on a rational basis ... The leading political writer, Walter Lippmann, argued that if human beings were in reality driven by unconscious, irrational forces, then it was necessary to re-think democracy. What was needed was a new elite that could manage what he called “the bewildered herd”. This would be done through psychological techniques that would control the unconscious feelings of the masses.
The resultant combination of the corporate and political perspectives on Freudian theory fueled the development of the consumer society that dominates the world today. Even the Great Depression did not deter companies from seeking profit by portraying their products as being capable of satisfying any consumer need, no matter how self-centered or irrational, during the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s.
At that time, the psychoanalytical community strongly supported the corporate use of psychoanalytical theory and practice as a means to pacify the potentially disruptive masses—particularly Anna Freud, Sigmund Freud’s youngest daughter, and Dr. Ernest Dichter, founder of the Institute for Motivational Research in New York and inventor of the consumer research technique known as “focus groups”:
Freud himself had seen the role of psychoanalysis as allowing people to understand their unconscious drives. But Anna Freud believed it was possible to teach individuals how to control these inner forces. She had come to believe this through analyzing children ... It was simple: you taught the children to conform to the rules of society. But this more than just moral guidance; Anna Freud believed if children ... strictly followed the rules of accepted social conduct then as they grew up the conscious part of their mind, what was called the ego, would be greatly strengthened in its struggle to control the unconscious. But if children did not conform, their ego would be weak and they would be prey to the dangerous forces of the unconscious ... Like Anna Freud, (Dichter) believed that the environment could be used to strengthen the human personality, and products had the power both to sate inner desires and give people a feeling of common identity with those around them. It was a strategy for creating a stable society. Dichter called it the “strategy of desire”.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong online. Please consider a donation to support our work as an independent publisher devoted to the arts and humanities. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where advertising no longer covers our costs. We need your help to keep PopMatters publishing. Thank you.