In the defining culture war of the new millennium, I side firmly with the zombies. You know the war: the one between vampire fans and zombie fans, between Twilight and True Blood and anything with “Dead” in the title: Dawn of the Dead, Land of the Dead, The Walking Dead... even just The Dead. Lately, a lot of smart people have speculated about what draws people toward one or the other, in a cat-person vs. dog-person kind of way. The easy answer is that the division runs along gender lines, with women preferring the classy sensuality of vampires and men preferring the chainsaw anarchy of zombies. But I think there’s something slightly more profound about the particular allure of a zombie apocalypse.
I think we can’t overestimate the degree to which this kind of cinematic storytelling has shaped the modern American consciousness. Not “cinematic” in the strict sense of images on celluloid, but this particular brand of storytelling that is grandiose, symbolic, and—to use that finest of clichés—“larger than life.” Had cinema never been invented there is no doubt we would still have campfire accounts of our own Revolution, of the struggles of the Depression, and of the horror of World War II. (Not to mention the time when your cousin Joey set the living room couch on fire, etc.) Storytelling is in our nature. But it seems to me that the compulsion to render our own stories in surpassingly epic terms is a uniquely modern phenomenon, a byproduct of the ubiquity of the Hollywood version of history—where nothing from Pearl Harbor to child kidnapping is complete without someone outrunning an explosion.
We also have access to more stories than ever before. Whereas the campfire sessions throughout history were largely limited to local lore or family histories, now there isn’t a war, plane crash, hostage-taking, disease outbreak, multiple homicide, or military coup that goes unreported. We are inundated with stories that are “newsworthy,” which is to say outlandish or grotesque in some fashion or another, and we have become hardly interested in stories which are quiet, thoughtful, or—horror of horrors!—ordinary. Yasujiro Ozu made films for 30 years that were about families, feelings, and the passage of time, and today almost no one has ever heard of him.
The will to create our own narratives is also a uniquely privileged drive. I’ve just finished reading Dalton Conley’s achingly insightful autobiographical novel Honky, in which he observes that one of the simplest differences between white people and not—as well as between middle-class and not—is that white people get to tell their own stories about who they are and how they got here, whereas everyone else’s stories are pre-packaged by the media. And white people lately (substitute “men” of any color in the case of the rest of the world) seem to be trying desperately to paint their stories with the kind of grandiose strokes culled from our most epic historical narratives.
This isn’t precisely a new phenomenon, of course. The enduring allure of the Christian Rapture, no doubt, is that it transforms the ordinary life of the believer into a tale of great melodrama at the end of which lies the most awesome spectacle of all time. As a Christian, Mrs. Pembrooke of Hillhurst Lane isn’t just a dental hygienist; she’s one of a legion of soldiers pitted against the ultimate evil, whose redemption will come in a whirlwind of spirits rising into the air amid the demise of billions of sinners. Sounds pretty cool, huh?
The problem, of course, is that Christianity (as we now call it) was born more than two thousand years ago, among a people who really were living in “epic” circumstances, which is to say really crappy ones. The Jewish writers who devised the prophecies around which Jesus shaped his ministry were living in a state of absolute oppression, under the very real fist of the Roman Empire, an enemy whom at the time only a supernatural force could topple, so vast was its reach. It’s for the philosopher to decide whether the “better” life is the one of poverty inspired by grandiose hope, or the one of prosperity muddied by a desire for struggle and sacrifice; but surely it’s at least a bit silly for Mrs. Pembrooke to be lusting after a life of destitution and redemption while she sits on the soft vinyl of the manicurist’s chair.
Overpaid screenwriting coaches will tell you that all great stories must have conflict, conflict, conflict. Every protagonist needs an obstacle—preferably in the form of a sinister antagonist. Where would Skywalker have been without Darth Vader? Or John McClane without Hans Gruber? For that matter, where would America be without England, or the so-called heroes of World War II without Hitler, or Christianity without Satan?
Here’s where it gets tough, people: the modern American has no enemies. Not the government; it’s just trying to make things better. Not black people or Jews; turns out they’ve just been trying to survive and not hurt anyone for quite a while now. Not foreign armies; no state that might actually wish to attack us is stupid enough to do it. Not even Islamic terrorists; they’re just a ragtag group trying to paint their own individual lives with the outlandish, epic strokes of martyrdom so as to feel a part of something larger and more meaningful. Sound familiar?
The fact is we live in the most peaceful and prosperous era in all of human history, and the vast majority of us will encounter no truly profound struggles in our lives. Put simply: PEACE IS BORING. Get over it.
I say this to the would-be assassin of Gabrielle Gifford, and to every other right-wing nitwit brandishing his gun and preparing to rise up against an imagined fascist state. I say this to every cowardly jihadist preparing to destroy himself and countless people because it feels better than struggling to find a job. I say this to every religious "family man" dripping with condescension who uses the excuse of the next world to behave hideously in the real one. And I say this to young people everywhere, who in months or years to come may find that the paths of an “ordinary” life don’t measure up to the glamorous narratives promised by gangs, cults, and crusades.
Don’t get me wrong — life should be thrilling. Mine could certainly use a little more excitement. (If I had a friend who was stupid enough, I might even give Fight Club a try.) But no matter who you are, “thrilling” isn’t fighting for your life with automatic weapons. Thrilling is running in the rain, jumping into cold water, building things with your hands, and staying up until the half-light just before dawn. As for the gunfights and chainsaws—that’s what zombie movies are for.