Zombie Anxiety and the American Ethos

While it is a very handy guide for how to manage the zombie apocalypse, World War Z offers a fascinating look into America’s modern psyche. The author himself seems to embody the anxiety about the future plaguing the upper middle class. I argue that this novel reflects the ethos of a nation—one riddled with feelings of insecurity and weakened faith in the state. The popularity of post-apocalyptic storytelling in recent decades—particularly among generations—is a product of this overwhelming uncertainty for what the future may hold, as well as misplaced nostalgia for the past. Globalization, global warming, the rapid pace of technological innovation and high pressure lifestyles all contribute to this sense of inevitable destruction.

The most obvious culprit for the spread of the zombie virus in World War Z is our intense global interconnectivity. Human trafficking, refugee movement and organ black markets are held responsible. This reflects current concerns regarding the Syrian refugee crises in Europe. As we discussed in class, Mike Huckabee’s views are a symptom of this mentality—goods and people are flowing more freely among nations than ever before, and no one can really control what comes in. This fact leads to ominous predictions about terrorism, super viruses and weapons and how it could all lead to our inevitable destruction. We are currently acclimating to a new interconnected world, and novels like WWZ are byproducts of a discomfort with this change.

WWZ also offers a critique on attitudes that place too much faith in technological innovation. In the Battle of Yonkers, the US brought impressive firepower to bear against the zombies, but were ultimately humiliated. This goes to show that technology is no trump card—like all tools it can be misused. One point brought up in class was the mindset that incoming catastrophes like global warming can be mediated by our technological prowess. I argue that the novel’s dismissal of technology is another symptom of anxiety. Our innovations seem to be outpacing our knowledge of how to best use them and this leads to a nostalgia for simpler times, where we thoroughly understood our tools—the sort of environment created when zombies overrun the US.

The yearning for a pre-high tech lifestyle is also symptomatic of our generation’s apprehension regarding the future and discontent with the present. It’s a phenomenon we see cropping up everywhere—from popular culture to fashion to literature. Learning a practical trade—something that would be useful in the oncoming zombie apocalypse—is very much in vogue. Oftentimes it seems the only way to resurrect this simpler way of life would be for the world to effectively end. I hypothesize that this fantasy is because of the high pressure lifestyles of the average American consumer and how it induces feelings of helplessness. A recent article in The Atlantic discussed a rash of teen suicides in Silicon Valley. The cautious conclusion to the piece was that these suicides were caused by mass feelings of being trapped in high-stress situations, and that the only way out of the punishing cycle was death. It is easy to draw parallels between this mentality and the attractiveness of post-apocalyptic scenarios where everything is ripped down and constructed anew.

Ultimately WWZ is the product of an anxious, upper class American mind. The story embodies key elements of the current national ethos—most glaringly a sense that what we have cannot be sustained. Our Western civilization is depicted as a toppling house of cards. Our technology does not save us, and our greed-induced globalized supply chains and foolish war-making ultimately brings us to our knees. Yet, out of the ashes emerges a global coalition dedicated to constructing a new world order—the preferred solution of our generation to our current international woes. When looked at through this lens, the zombie apocalypse is perhaps less a nightmare and more a daydream.  


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