Death stalks this neighborhood. Down on the corner there’s a snazzy vertical shopping center – with a Trader Joe’s and a multiplex showing art films and odd foreign films, and a Starbucks of course, and that giant Crunch Gym, for only the hippest young narcissists in Hollywood. But that’s also where Schwab’s Drug Store once stood – and F. Scott Fitzgerald, living here on Laurel Avenue at the time, had his final heart attack at the cigarette counter at Schwab’s – and then he died. And one block west is the old Chateau Marmont – where John Belushi died of an overdose, in one of the cottages out back, and where the photographer Helmut Newton died after his car crashed into a wall in the driveway there. That certainly screwed up traffic in the neighborhood that day. And down at the bottom of the hill is Barney’s Beanery – back in October 1970, Janis Joplin had a few drinks there, then went home to her little apartment on nearby Franklin Avenue, and overdosed and died. And further just down the Strip is the Viper Room – where River Phoenix died, right there on the sidewalk out front, on Halloween morning of course. This is an odd place. Maybe it’s a fatal place.
But it’s Halloween again, and time for the West Hollywood Halloween Costume Carnival on Halloween Night – always amazing, as West Hollywood has the largest gay community on the west coast, after San Francisco, and thus the costumes are always well beyond flamboyant. So on Santa Monica Boulevard, from Doheny Drive to La Cienega Boulevard, where Barney’s Beanery sits, it will be ghouls and ghosts and vampires and zombies and all the rest. And out here you can probably add in a lot of Día de los Muertos stuff – Los Angeles is multicultural after all. And Mexican sugar-skulls are kind of cool – far better than candy corn.
But some of us will stay home. And it’s not fear of death – it’s the noise and the crowds. Sooner or later you just get too old for that shit, as they say. Think about it this way. When Keats wrote his Ode to a Nightingale – where he said he was half in love with easeful death – he was twenty-four. Fascination with death – and with ghouls and ghosts and vampires and zombies and all the rest – is for young people. Get old and you just shrug. Death will be coming along soon enough, thank you very much.
But this is Hollywood, with all the giant billboards everywhere for the latest movies and television shows – and although there are fewer having to do with vampires, as the Twilight thing seems to have run its course, now it’s all zombies everywhere – mostly the Walking Dead these days. The images floating high above Sunset and Hollywood Boulevards are wonderful – this must be the golden age of large-scale commercial graphic design – but it’s all about death, or the undead, or both. It’s hard to keep those distinctions straight, and a little unsettling overall.
And this isn’t a Halloween thing. The vampire craze – that morphed in the current zombie craze – is a year-round thing. The social conservatives are forever grousing about Hollywood’s utter fixation on sex, with all the nudity and such, and about Hollywood’s ossified un-American liberal bias in everything, but they haven’t been following the box-office returns. Hollywood doesn’t sell gratuitous sex, corrupting America’s youth, and no one takes the hard-left eco-politics of movies like Avatar all that seriously – the ten-foot-tall blue people riding reptile-birds was too cool. No, Hollywood peddles death. It has for years.
And there’s a reason for that, which Sharon Begley covers in Why Our Brains Love Horror Movies – noting that Paranormal Activity 3 recently had a recording-setting opening – fifty-four million dollars, the most ever for a horror film:
Stuart Fischoff wasn’t surprised. “Films like Paranormal Activity 3 have a pre-registered audience just waiting for the latest Hollywood bouquet of blood, sweat, tears, and chills to exquisitely fill our lust for horribly sweet sensations,” says Fischoff, professor emeritus of psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and senior editor of the online Journal of Media Psychology.
And that pre-registered audience has been around a long time:
Stephen King described “terror as the finest emotion, and so I will try to terrorize the reader.” What makes it so fine? “One of the major reasons we go to scary movies is to be scared,” says Fischoff. But the scare we crave – and this applies to haunted houses and spooky corn mazes no less than to horror movies – is a safe one. “We know that, in an hour or two, we’re going to walk out whole,” says Fischoff. “We’re not going to have any holes in our head, and our hearts will still be in our bodies.”
Some people like cheap thrills, or more precisely, risk-free thrills:
“If we have a relatively calm, uneventful lifestyle, we seek out something that’s going to be exciting for us, because our nervous system requires periodic revving, just like a good muscular engine,” says Fischoff. A 1995 study found that the higher people score on a scale that measures sensation-seeking, the more they like horror films. “There are people who have a tremendous need for stimulation and excitement,” says Fischoff. “Horror movies are one of the better ways to get really excited.”
But then there are the rest of us, the old farts:
That may explain why horror movies are most popular with younger audiences. Teens and twenty-somethings “are more likely to look for intense experiences,” says John Edward Campbell, an expert in media studies at Temple University. That fades with age, especially as people become more sensitive to their own physiology: middle-aged and older adults tend not to seek out experiences that make their hearts race, and feel that real life is scary enough. (Did we mention foreclosure? Unemployment? Divorce?) They don’t need to get their scares from movies. Or as Fischoff puts it, “Older people have stimulation fatigue. Life’s real horrors scare them. Or they don’t find them entertaining any more – or interesting.”
Yes, there was the young Keats – and around the same time you might remember there was The Sorrows of Young Werther – death, death, death – such a romantic thing. Goethe made his reputation with Young Werther. Napoleon Bonaparte considered it one of the great works of European literature. Can you blame Hollywood for mining that same vein of rich ore? But fascination with death, or something like it, is for the young. Keats died young so he never outgrew that fascination, but Goethe did – he came to hate that thing he wrote. And Werther – the opera by Jules Massenet – is rather awful.
But can we be serious about romantic death, and vampires and zombies and such? Is that even possible? Well, maybe we can. There the new book from Matt Mikalatos, Night of the Living Dead Christian: One Man’s Ferociously Funny Quest to Discover What It Means to Be Truly Transformed:
Night of the Living Dead Christian is the story of Luther, a werewolf on the run, whose inner beast has driven him dangerously close to losing everything that matters. Desperate to conquer his dark side, Luther joins forces with Matt to find someone who can help. Yet their time is running out. A powerful and mysterious man is on their trail, determined to kill the wolf at all costs. By turns hilarious and heartbreaking, Night of the Living Dead Christian is a spiritual allegory that boldly explores the monstrous underpinnings of our nature and tackles head-on the question of how we can ever hope to become truly transformed.
We tell monster stories because we’re afraid of what we are and what we could become. Werewolf stories are inevitably about what happens when a man loses the battle to control his “natural” urges. Vampire stories (at least traditional ones) are about selfish beings who steal blood to prolong their lives, the precise opposite of Christ, who gave his blood willingly to provide the chance of eternal life for others. Zombies are all about a perverted resurrection… an eternal life that isn’t worth living, because it’s a type of continual death.
Who knew? But Mikalatos says theology is everywhere you look in our pop culture:
Twilight teaches theology. Harry Potter teaches theology. Television shows like True Blood or The Walking Dead are teaching theology. Why wouldn’t we want to be a part of that conversation and make sure that truth is being represented? Do we really want people to think that Christians are the only ones who don’t see theology as intersecting with some area of life?
Theology is often life and death. It’s one of the most serious undertakings we have in life, and we shouldn’t shy away from it because of the form it takes.
So this is THE book about zombie theology, and about the doctrine of salvation:
Christian culture sometimes presents soteriology as a sort of magic ritual. I, the magician, say certain words like, “I repent of my sins and invite Jesus into my life” and then the genie in the bottle has to give me eternal life. That’s a simplification, obviously, but we’ve all been to a funeral for someone who lived a disturbing life of self-gratification and seen a grieving loved one stand up and say, “Little Jimmy prayed to receive Jesus into his heart when he was eight years old.” Everyone feels mildly comforted because they’ll see little Jimmy again. But it reveals a certain complacency about the fact that Jimmy’s life gave no evidence of Christ-likeness.
On the other hand, an emphasis on depravity can lead (in extreme situations) to a mild fatalism about transformation. “I can’t really become a better person because I am evil to the core.” Scripture, of course, has the opposite expectation, saying things like “be holy as I am holy.” But I’ve heard pastors explain that away more than once… “God doesn’t really mean that you have to be holy like he is, because that’s impossible.”
There are a lot of interesting questions related to this that I don’t hear anyone talking about (I could be hanging out with the wrong people, though).
So Mikalatos wrote this odd book, an unusual attempt to find a serious engagement with the question, as he puts it. And maybe he’ll get a big movie deal, or maybe not. You see, he might be wrong about the whole genre. For that, see Torie Bosch on why the zombie boom is really about the economic fears of white-collar workers.
No, really. And understand that Torie Bosch does not seem to be related to Hieronymus Bosch at all. That fellow – who produced odd images like this – was buried in August 1516. But Torie Bosch, still alive, might be onto something. Bosch does note that the second season of The Walking Dead premiered last week to oddly high ratings:
More than seven million tuned in to watch a show that is, honestly, not terribly compelling television. Bad-ass zombies aside the plot is slow, the characters flat – and yet I and many others continue to clamor for zombies like zombies hunt for brains. Sensing our hunger, the studios and publishers keep the zombie-pop-culture coming…
Yes, there is Colson Whitehead’s “literary zombie novel” Zone One – just out – and the movie version of Max Brooks’ 2006 book World War Z – with Brad Pitt no less. And Bosch does have to give a nod to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies – and to William Seabrook – the journalist who introduced zombies to the United States, or the other way around, with his 1929 novel The Magic Island. This has been going on for some time.
On the other hand, something is changing with all this:
What’s new about the current zombie craze is its white-collar shine. No longer are zombies the beloved genre of the lonely, virgin teenage male, the macabre flipside of girls’ obsession with unicorns. The undead have gone from lowbrow guilty pleasure to the favored monster of the erudite. (Sorry, Grendel.) At the risk of reading too deeply into a guilty pleasure, I can’t help but believe that this current Era of the Dead draws its power from our economic malaise. If you work in the many white-collar fields that have suffered in this recession, zombies are the perfect representation of the fiscal horror show. The zombie apocalypse is a white-collar nightmare: a world with no need for the skills we have developed. Lawyers, journalists, investment bankers – they are liabilities, not leaders, in the zombie-infested world. (The exception to this rule, of course, is doctors.)
And this is not an unreasonable argument:
In The Walking Dead, the strongest survivors come from blue-collar backgrounds – cops, hunters, mechanics. Perhaps the weakest of the band is Andrea, a former civil rights attorney who can’t be trusted with a gun and who is overly indulgent in grieving her sister, a college student, who wasn’t alert enough while peeing in the woods and got bit for her neglectfulness. In the zombie apocalypse, your J.D. is worthless – which is actually not so different from the real world of recent years. As we watch humans battle zombies, we see a social order upended.
So what we have might be seen as an allegory of our economic collapse, with feel-good characters who are better than those useless white-collar jerks, and who will survive. So you get to sell the romantic death stuff and class-warfare wish-fulfillment all in one package. Cool.
And she quotes Max Brooks in World War Z on this:
You’re a high-powered corporate attorney. You’ve spent most of your life reviewing contracts, brokering deals, talking on the phone. That’s what you’re good at, that’s what made you rich and what allowed you to hire a plumber to fix your toilet, which allowed you to keep talking on the phone. The more work you do, the more money you make, the more peons you hire to free you up to make more money. That’s the way the world works. But one day it doesn’t. No one needs a contract reviewed or a deal brokered. What it does need is toilets fixed. And suddenly that peon is your teacher, maybe even your boss. For some, this was scarier than the living dead.
So that could be what this is all about – not theology at all. We all worry about becoming obsolete. We watch zombie movies to find a way to confront that fear and figure out how to deal with it. That’s kind of what Bruno Bettelheim was saying about traditional fairly tales in that book The Uses of Enchantment – by hearing about life-threatening problems children are given vital information for the planning of their lives and the formation of their personalities – or something like that,
So Bosch says imagine a frightening scenario in which robots take over industries like the law, medicine, even scientific discovery – real enough these days – and run with it:
The zombie apocalypse is the opposite scenario, in which our white-collar skills become worthless not through technical advance but through total system collapse. For blue-collar workers, the zombie stories are tales of comeuppance, of triumph: skills in auto maintenance, farming, plumbing, and electrical work – not to mention marksmanship – land blue-collar folks at the top of the new social order. This is not a bad thing, but it’s nevertheless deeply disorienting to anyone who thought a college degree would mean never having to fix a generator.
These highbrow zombie stories are not just about watching the newly humbled struggle to make sense of the topsy-turvy world. The suburbanite/urbanite viewer who can’t hunt, can’t slaughter animals, can’t grow her own food is meant to shudder at her ill-preparedness while watching.
Bosch says this is the existential fear of the economy writ large, and that Colson Whitehead captures this feeling in Zone One:
The dead had graduated with admirable GPAs, configured monthly contributions to worthy causes, judiciously apportioned their 401(k)’s across diverse sectors according to the wisdom of their dead licensed financial advisers, and superimposed the borders of good school districts on mental maps of their neighborhoods, which were often included on the long list when magazines ranked cities with the Best Quality of Life. In short, they had been honed and trained so thoroughly by that extinguished world that they were doomed in this new one.
So Bosch says we may have a new kind of horror tale:
Obviously, these sentiments apply to other apocalypse tales – pandemics, nuclear holocaust (a la the late, sometimes-great TV show Jericho). But zombies make for true white-collar horror because most world-shattering disasters are short-term events. After a nuclear strike, the dead are dead, and the living can focus on rebuilding while avoiding fallout. Zombies, however, never stop, so danger persists past the initial cataclysm. Take Justin Cronin’s The Passage, whose vampires are much more akin to traditional zombies than vampires. Cronin’s evil vampires keep the humans down for generations; World War Z and Zone One are more optimistic about humans’ ability to vanquish the undead, but any lengthy period of zombie chaos also means that should the humans retake the land the infrastructure will have been roundly destroyed. White-collar workers will not be able to recline in their dusty Aeron chairs and return those calls they were about to make when the intern lumbered in, craving brains.
Now that is dismal. And, given current economic conditions, it seems the billboards here in Hollywood will not be changing soon.
But there is this:
Should the economy recover, I suspect that we will abandon zombies as entertainment. The zombie boom will be a reminder of the frightening uncertainties of this decade. After all, we white-collar workers enjoy the illusion that our skills are meaningful.
And then we’ll have to find some other way to terrify ourselves. But this is Hollywood. We’ll find something, beyond zombie theology and allegories about total economic collapse. And no doubt it will involve death, somehow. That’s what we do out here, even when it’s not Halloween. Who needs a parade?