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2. A Transition in Metaphors: A Brief History of Monster Zeitgeists

© 2017 J. Vervaeke, C. Mastropietro, F. Miscevic, CC BY 4.0

We are surrounded by strangers. But for stretches of our history, strangers have not been as strange as they are now. There have been epochs of culture when we have sustained a concerted frame of reference that made us known and knowable to one another wherever we lived. Even when we shared very little, we could be sure to find some universal commons that would guarantee us familiarity with an unfamiliar person. For much of our recent past, we in the West lived all under the canopy of Christendom. However varied or populated our society was, other human beings always offered a degree of predictability as long as they identified as Christians. We could always anticipate a median grade of behavior, and presuppose binary limits on a spectrum between the sacred and the profane.1 Sustaining our religious commons was not as much about celebrating common principles as much as it was about extending our scope of acquaintance. The “extended family” metaphors used in religious discourse were very provident in fostering this acquaintance. Strangeness was never absolute strangeness, and we could find others intelligible to the degree that they assured a comprehensible―if not always amiable―interaction. More contemporary cultural canopies came in the form of ethnic or civic membership, but because citizenship and ethnicity are often more involuntary, they are not as grounded in principled participation. They are not as comprehensively penetrating, and therefore less powerful than religious bonds. Thus, they are much more susceptible to the vicissitudes of political and economic change. One of the more puissant cultural canopies in the twentieth century was the phenomenon of “Americanism”. Particularly in the latter half of the century, being American connoted a strong apotheosis of values and perspective for most Americans. In most cases, if two Americans had diverging interests, backgrounds or orientations, they could be sure to touch base on certain convictions held mutually fundamental. Significantly, many attribute the vitality of Americanness to the influence of a vernacular religiosity―the “faith in America”.

Yet, as Dreyfus and Kelly (2011) observe, we no longer share a uniform worldview that guarantees agreement on sacredness or standards of behavior. We are talking about a changing worldview, rather than a single event or moment in history. This has been a gradual process. Now, the powerful twentieth century “Americanism” is nearly a misnomer; two persons can share its title and share almost nothing else. The alienation we feel in everyday life suggests that experiences of foreignness―exposure to “otherness” of persons or place―are becoming inherent in domestic life. This dovetails with burgeoning literature discussing the disintegration of social candor, “common courtesy” and the sense of locality that made America perceive itself as a neighborhood of frankness and fluid exchange. Public intimacy is what is at stake, the feeling of recognition; understanding, and being understood, by other human beings.

Zombies are not the first monsters to broach this theme. By and large, they have taken over from a villain H. G. Wells introduced in his 1898 novel War of the Worlds that has inspired numerous film adaptations since its original publication.2 Extra-terrestrial invasions gained tremendous popularity in American cinema, particularly in the latter half of the twentieth century with the onset of the Cold War. As the West drew its cultural boundaries more guardedly, the alien seemed to be an effective mask for the prevailing wind of wariness and paranoia, and the fear of outsiders and espionage. Stories of alien invasion struck compelling affinities with real-life suspicions: adversaries from the outside were trying to infiltrate our society in order to advance theirs, to dissolve our systems and propagate their own, and to estrange us from one another by diluting our fellowship. These suspicions were significant in that they inadvertently discouraged intimacy; people were not guaranteed to be trustworthy, many were not who they said they were, and it was difficult to gauge a stranger’s memberships and commitments. It was possible that your new friend was not the “American” she said she was, and that she had come under the canopy to sabotage its integrity. One of the most dramatic fictionalizations of this kind of mania was depicted in a famous episode of The Twilight Zone,3 where a few well-disguised aliens interfered with technology to cause an outbreak of disquiet on an American residential street, engendering enmity between neighbors in order to weaken their awareness of a coming invasion.

Zombies take up many of these traits, but they make some significant departures fit for a post-Cold War, post-globalized, post-Christian and (as some people say) post-modern world. The first evident difference is that zombies don’t trouble to conceal their invasion. It wouldn’t occur to them. And unlike most diabolical, imperial alien overlords, zombies don’t have a reason for invading in the first place.

1 We are not implying that these expectations were qualified, or that everyone did in fact adhere to a certain standard of virtue. What we are referring to is merely the perception of this standard, not its reality.

2 The trailer of War of the Worlds is available on YouTube at

3 The episode The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street is available on YouTube at