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What’s the deal with the so-called zombie apocalypse? It’s all over the Web, in movies, and on television, and there are even books about how to survive when the shambling hordes come for you. Did I miss something? —Anonymous

Well, I prefer “teeming millions” to “shambling hordes.” But you think I’m surprised at the idea there’s a large subset of the populace out there plaintively crying for brains?

The zombie fixation that became so familiar in the 2000s has spread to federal bureaucracy. The government of Quebec attempted an emergency preparedness exercise based on the premise of a zombie apocalypse. (It was canceled by humorless spoilsports.) This was preceded by a discussion in Canada’s House of Commons where the government was questioned about its ability to withstand a zombie attack. The Centers for Disease Control released a zombie pandemic preparedness manual, in comic book form. We’re compelled to wonder: What’s behind it all? Or has the ZA become a self-sustaining meme?

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Myths about the undead have been around for millennia, and the relatively harmless automata of Haitian folklore have been getting the Hollywood treatment for the past century. But the current popular concept of zombies as shuffling reanimated corpses with a hunger for humans was inarguably forged by George Romero in his 1968 film Night of the Living Dead. For decades after, zombies were merely part of the fright-movie pantheon, which also included slashers, aliens, and so on. Their ascent to the top of the horror heap is quite recent.

Newspaper articles in 2006 noted an upswing in zombies’ cultural presence, but in retrospect the ball had just gotten rolling. Browsing through Google search-term trends from 2004 to the present, we find “zombie” and “zombies” showing sudden increases towards the end of 2008, as does “zombie apocalypse,” with a pronounced increase in early 2011. Meanwhile, searches for “ghost,” “witch,” “werewolf,” “demon,” “vampire,” and variants thereof stayed relatively flat.

What accounts for the heightened fascination? Theories abound:

  1. Decaying corpses are horrifying. Get out, all monsters are horrifying. That’s why we call them monsters.
  2. Decaying reanimated corpses are really horrifying. This gets closer. The scariest moment of my postcollegiate moviegoing experience was watching the Terminator come back to life, or whatever it is homicidal robots come back to after they’ve been to all appearances annihilated and you’re getting ready to head for the toilets.
  3. “Zombie narrative presents us with a postcolonial consideration of identity and power, which allows us to challenge social and cultural hierarchies and power structures.” Please, professor, save it for the faculty lounge.
  4. Let me throw in my own theory: If not zombies, then what? Vampires? Vampires have been the alpha pop-culture monster for at least 46 years. (See Barnabas Collins, Dark Shadows, 1967.) But let’s face it, the vampire = decadent sex metaphor, notwithstanding its ongoing box-office success, is surely running on fumes. We need zombies because they are relatively fresh.
  5. Another hypothesis is that zombie films are more common when the U.S. faces war or societal upheaval. My assistant Una has charted 492 zombie films by year of release from 1910 to the present; she finds modest annual production until a spike of 15 zombie flicks in 1973, followed by fluctuating but fairly high output till 2003, when zombie filmmaking went through the roof. The 1973 jump coincides with Watergate, and I suppose 2003 might be a delayed reaction to 9/11, but more precisely it’s the year we invaded Iraq. Not to harp on this, but was there ever a time when we were more desperately in need of brains?
  6. Paging through the scholarly journals, we find claims that zombies are a Marxist metaphor for the human face of capitalist monstrosity, or tap into a latent desire for racial violence, or somehow are connected with Hurricane Katrina.

Enough of this foolishness. We at the Straight Dope know damn well what the zombie apocalypse is a metaphor for: the tsunami of ignorance that’s threatened to overwhelm us since 1973. Will we be able to hold off the shuffling dimwits? Reading news accounts of, say, the budget crisis, where you have an unfortunate conjunction of the brainless plus the spineless, you have to think: This doesn’t look promising. But I tell myself: Light always chases out the dark. —Cecil Adams

Have something you need to get straight? Take it up with Cecil at straightdope.com.