The Pleasures of the Apocalypse, Fantasies of Pain

I’ve never really been into zombie movies. I mean 28 Days Later is pretty good, Shaun of the Dead makes me laugh, and I can see the importance of Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. But, yeah, they’re fine, nothing I am salivating to see over and over again on a big screen or even a small one.

It’s the monster. Sure, the zombie produces tension with its slow approach, the terror of being overwhelmed by numbers, acting as some kind of representative of being assimilated into the herd. But I just don’t get the last decade’s fascination with them in film and books and comics and video games.

I understand the emergence of the vampire in 19th century fiction. The seductive qualities of a being unfettered in its predatory sexuality seems an appropriate emblem of evil in a period marked by Victorian morals. And it has struck me that, perhaps, that late 20th century and early 21st century western culture is simply preoccupied by a sense of the loss of self in a global culture in which the threat that a homogenous monoculture may emerge through mass media communications technologies seems entirely possible, a threat which the zombie horde might allegorize in its singular, shambling advance. But the honest truth is that I just don’t meet people that seem all that afraid of joining the herd. Indeed, most people around me seem quite comfortable embracing monoculture, not as evil, but as a convenience, and the truth is that I’m not sure that it is the threat of the zombie itself anyway that so fascinates people in these stories, so much as it is the zombie apocalypse itself that they find so alluring.

What I mean is that when I hear people talking about zombie stories, the focus of discussion seems less often on the creatures themselves than it is on the predicament created when the modern world has been essentially “shut down” without warning. People treat the scenario as if it is some kind of game, some kind of “what if” question that asks them to ponder how to survive on meager resources or what they would be willing to do if backed into a corner with no aid. The emergence of books like The Zombie Survival Guide, farcical though they may be, seem to me to be most representative of people’s interest in the zombie apocalypse, largely because the farce frames what seems to be a very serious conversation about what people accustomed to a First World lifestyle would do in less than optimal circumstances. Our fantasies involve the possibilities of feeling pain and impoverishment. We don’t want utopia. We already have that. We need dystopia, something less familiar, more challenging.

Perhaps this is why I never really got interested in tales of the zombie apocalypse, then. My wife and I lived in a one bedroom apartment, raising two children in the mid- to late-90s on our “salary” of between $13,000 and $16,000 a year. I’ve already lived through the zombie apocalypse. Figuring out how to reasonably ration minimal resources holds no allure to me as some sort of thought experiment, some kind of game about what it might be like if things were to become difficult for myself and my family.

However, once my life became more settled and more certain, I do have to admit that the one place that I have found myself seeking out more and more difficult fantasy scenarios is in my gaming habits. I’m still not drawn to board games or video games that feature shambling corpses ready to devour all I hold dear, but alongside the rise of zombie fiction, I have watched the rise in popularity of more and more challenging and punishing games. And I find myself among those who love to be punished by them.

Decades ago, when video games went mainstream in the form of the arcade game, video games were known for their brutal and uncompromising difficulty. Arcade machine developers built games bent on devouring your quarters by overwhelming you with the challenge of survival among overwhelming numbers, as is the case with games like Berzerk, Robotron, 1942, Contra, and the like. However, the rise of the home console (following the initial console crash of the early 80s) with the advent of consoles developed by Nintendo and Sega and Sony and Microsoft led to a period of time in which gaming became less of a pastime for masochists and more one concerned with creating power fantasies for anyone who could manipulate a game controller.

While games like Final Fantasy, Assassin’s Creed, or Grand Theft Auto are time consuming, they aren’t exactly challenging. Given enough time, most people can complete these games and feel accomplished for having “beaten” them. Indeed, these are games designed to be beaten with beginnings, middles, and endings. These are not the survival focused games of the arcade in which the goal is to simply see how long you will last as the difficulty of the experience only escalates and the “Game Over” screen is an inevitable consequence of signing on to play.

Thus, it is in the rise of the mini-roguelike, games that only offer one opportunity, one “life” to reach their conclusion, or the increasing popularity of the Dark Souls series, a series whose slogan and promise to its players is simply to “Prepare to Die,” that I find myself feeling some kinship with those lured in by the fantasy of an impoverished and fatalistic existence, the kind of existence presented in the form of the zombie apocalypse mythology.

Maybe our love of the zombie apocalypse is a signal to American and Western European culture that we have grown far too fat, dumb, and “happy.” Maybe my love of The Binding of Isaac, FTL, and Dark Souls is a signal to myself that I, too, have become too fat, dumb, and “happy.” When our pastimes become more about pain than pleasure, maybe it is time to re-evaluate just how much challenge we lack in our experience of day-to-day life.