Trafficking in the Zombie: The CDC Zombie Apocalypse Campaign, Diseaseability and Pandemic Culture – Neil Gerlach & Sheryl N. Hamilton

(Figure 1, Image from ‘Zombie campaign’, U.S. Centers for Disease Control, 2011)

(Figure 1, Image from ‘Zombie campaign’, U.S. Centers for Disease Control, 2011)

On May 16, 2011, the Director of the Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response for the United States Centers for Disease Control, Dr. Ali S. Khan, did something unusual. He did something that irrevocably changed the ways in which public health agencies around the world communicate to the public about pandemic preparedness. He titled his blog post of that day “Zombie Apocalypse” and discussed within it, the ways in which Americans could prepare for a zombie attack, his favourite zombie film (Resident Evil), and what actions the CDC would be taking “if zombies did start roaming the streets.”[1] The post was accompanied by a disturbing sepia-toned, photo-realist image of a young (female?) zombie, with dark smudges around its eyes and dirty fingernails, gazing malevolently at the reader over what might be laundry on a clothesline.

America was clearly startled that its foremost authority on communicable disease – typically somewhat stodgy in its communications — would be trafficking in a popular horror trope. The campaign arrested the attention of the public, the press, analysts, and other public health agencies around the world.

The original post received three million views and garnered more than five hundred comments. Posted on Monday, the CDC server crashed on Wednesday because of all of the traffic, and by Thursday, both “CDC” and “Zombie Apocalypse” were top ten Twitter trends.[2] Along with the blog post, the CDC released a graphic novel entitled, Preparedness 101: Zombie Pandemic which follows the adventures of Todd, his sister Julie, and their dog Max as a zombie outbreak occurs in their city.[3] The comic concludes with an “All Hazards Emergency Kit” checklist. The campaign also included posters, a video contest, education packages for teachers, “zombie task force” t-shirts, badges, and widgets for use on personal webpages and social media. Subsequent blog posts by CDC staff followed suit, pulling preparedness advice out of AMC’s hit television series, The Walking Dead,[4] and providing stories about the “Zombie Nation.”[5] The CDC’s foray into the horror genre generated copycat initiatives by other public health bodies in the United Kingdom, Canada and New Zealand, as well as in various states within the United States.[6]

In this paper, we consider why the CDC adopted the zombie as its favoured preparedness figure and what work the zombie does in the campaign. We suggest that the deployment of the zombie by the CDC (and other public health agencies) is not surprising and cannot be adequately explained solely as a savvy borrowing of popular culture by expert discourse. We situate the CDC tactic in the broader context of the general proliferation of zombies in contemporary culture, suggesting that there are particular reasons for ‘why the zombie’ and ‘why now.’ Further, we argue that within what we are calling, pandemic culture, the zombie does very specific work to articulate and manage our collective concerns about disease, the diseased, and our own disease-ability.

The Work of the Zombie in the CDC Campaign

Disease and disaster preparedness discourse is not currently popular with the public or with government funders. Public health preparedness dollars in the U.S. have been cut by more than 30% since 2005.[7] With more than $100 million cut from public health preparedness programs in recent years, public education has taken on a greater importance as responsibility for readiness is being downloaded onto the public. And yet, research has shown that, despite these efforts of public health agencies, only 10-15% of the public is “aware of the need for preparedness.”[8] This was the context in which the CDC was exploring more effective mechanisms to communicate to the public and, in particular, to capture the attention of a younger demographic.

In many ways, the CDC zombie campaign is a narrative of the CDC’s social media coming-of-age. Interestingly, the catalyst for the embrace of the zombie apocalypse trope was crowd-generated. The CDC was hosting a Twitter discussion focused on radiation leaks related to the meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant and how to ramp up its information programs around hurricane season preparation when a participant asked about zombies. The topic of ‘zombies’ ignited the discussion, leading CDC staff person, David Daigle, to approach Khan with the idea. According to the CDC, Khan immediately saw the potential of this “light hearted” project, and embraced it, writing the post himself.[9] This initiated the CDC’s first venture into the use of Twitter and Facebook to launch a preparedness campaign that was not connected with, or responding to, a specific disaster. The CDC clearly conceived of the zombie as a ‘hook’. As another spokesperson put it, “You pull them [the public] in with zombies and they stay to check out your other content.”[10]

(Figure 2, ‘Zombie campaign’ poster, U.S. Centers for Disease Control, 2011)

Figure 2. ‘Zombie campaign’ poster, U.S. Centers for Disease Control, 2011.

And the hook worked. The representation of the zombie was dark and ominous, a clear contrast to other CDC imagery such as their preparedness e-cards, where smiling families gather around their emergency evacuation plan. The campaign resonated with the widespread circulation of zombies in popular film, television, fiction, board, mobile and video games, and even events such as ‘zombie walks’ and ‘zombie runs.’ It was a playful message about a serious topic to engage new audiences and grab attention. Khan’s post is transparent about this logic: “You may laugh now, but when it happens you’ll be happy you read this, and hey, maybe you’ll even learn a thing or two about how to prepare for a real emergency.”[11] We suggest that there are traces of caution visible in the CDC’s adoption of the zombie. The risks of such a campaign are articulated well by Bill Gentry, the Director of the Community Preparedness and Disaster Management Program at the University of North Carolina’s School of Public Health: “The CDC is the most credible source out there for public health information. You don’t want to risk demeaning that.”[12]

(Figure 3, Preparedness poster, U.S. Centers for Disease Control, no date)

(Figure 3, Preparedness poster, U.S. Centers for Disease Control, no date)

He reproduces the typical dismissal of science fiction and horror by those engaged in science communication: “… that doesn’t mean the agency should start using vampires to promote vaccinations or space aliens to warn about the dangers of smoking.”[13] The CDC is patently aware of such possible critiques. Khan’s ‘cool-quotient’ as a boss who would take such a risk without seeking the pre-approval of his superiors, who is a fan of zombie film and fiction, who appears in the graphic novel as a character, and who would be willing to promote the graphic novel at comic conventions, is frequently countered with his identity as a famous “disease detective” and his position as an Assistant Surgeon General for the United States. When interviewed in the early days of the campaign, CDC staff were quick to point out that the materials were all produced in-house by their creative team and that no additional funds were spent on the initiative. They are clearly worried about a potential public backlash over ‘frivolous’ spending.

Despite potential concerns, the dominant narrative of the American press coverage of the campaign, consistent with the frame promulgated by the CDC itself, is that the zombie apocalypse project was an unmitigated success. Both the trope and the media of its circulation are understood as contemporary, edgy, and hip, and are therefore assumed to be clearly more effective in speaking to young people. The CDC is represented as ‘finally’ adopting the successful strategies of using popular tropes, pushing them out through social media and calling for public participation in the form of user-generated content.[14] Thus, we suggest that, within the CDC zombie apocalypse campaign, both the zombie and social media are assumed to, and thus operate, in tandem, as technologies of viral communication.

While we do not disagree that the CDC campaign is an insightful use of popular culture and social media to render a potentially dull public message more eye-catching in an increasingly cluttered information environment, we suggest that there is a lot more that we can see in this campaign. We suggest that it is not at all surprising that out of all the possible popular culture tropes available to the CDC, it was the zombie that was suggested by the public and taken up by staff. The zombie means in particular ways in our contemporary cultural moment and the campaign benefits from, and capitalizes upon, this pre-existing cultural circulation thereby also serving to reproduce those meanings. In the following section, we explore some of those meanings.

The Proliferation and Play of Zombies

We are currently experiencing a renaissance in zombie narratives in film, fiction, and games.[15] Because of the timing of this zombie resurgence, a number of commentators have linked its reappearance, after a relative absence between the late 1980s and the early 2000s, to contemporary social, political, and economic events. In his much-cited article, Peter Dendle, for example, points out that,

[i]t is not without some justice, then, that the resurgence of zombie movie popularity in the early 2000s has been linked with the events of September 11, 2001…. The possibility of wide-scale destruction and devastation which 9-11 brought once again into the communal consciousness found a ready narrative expression in the zombie apocalypses which over thirty years had honed images of desperation subsistence and amoral survivalism to a fine edge.[16]

Dendle goes on to argue that the zombie has evolved since George Romero’s mass horde of slow-moving undead flesh was first introduced in the 1960s. Today, we have fast-moving, feral zombies who seem enraged, frantic, and insatiable. It is no longer homogeneity that scares us, but a lack of control, dignity, and direction.[17]

Night of the Living Dead (Dir: George A Romero, 1968)

Figure 4. Night of the Living Dead (Dir: George A Romero, 1968).

Other writers have taken up these themes and analyze the zombie as an engagement with social issues. From this perspective, George Romero’s original Night of the Living Dead (1968) is a commentary on the violence of the Vietnam War.[18] It is also a reflection of “America devouring itself” during the Red Scare and the tensions and violence surrounding the civil rights movement.[19] Its sequel, Dawn of the Dead (George Romero, 1978), is a critique of contemporary consumerism and this analysis has been commonly employed to think of zombie films as critical of the soulless forms of subjectivity produced through capitalist relations.[20] Zombie films of the 2000s are linked to fears of terrorism after 9/11 and the movements of displaced peoples from around the world who are forced to endure conditions of bare life. These people form an exogenous group that appears threatening to social order and territorial control.[21] As a result, zombie films of the 2000s mark a shift in the type of fear that is foregrounded in the narratives – no longer primarily a critique of consumer capitalism, but rather an expression of fear of the failure of Western military, political, economic, and social security systems in the face of the pressures of globalization. The horror of the zombie is the way it reveals the fragility of our ‘civilization.’

A second theme that emerges from academic zombie analysis is its implications for subjectivity in increasingly posthuman times. Sarah Lauro and Karen Embry argue that unlike the liberating figure of the cyborg advocated by Donna Haraway in 1985, representations of the zombie expose the limits of posthumanism and assert that posthumanism can only be achieved with the death of the subject.[22] Zombies are manifestations of our anxiety about losing our consciousness as we become increasingly immersed in technology and complicated capitalist relations. We risk becoming bodies without minds and humans without agency. The zombie is both of these. It inhabits a liminal zone between binaries of life/death, centre/margin, conscious/unconscious, technology/nature, human/animal. These are the spaces inhabited by monsters and are the awkward spaces of indeterminacy that are always problematic in Western culture.[23] Not everyone views this position of indeterminacy in a negative light. Natasha Patterson, for example, echoes Haraway (1985) by arguing that from a feminist perspective, the viewing space of zombie films is one of self-annihilation: the female viewer experiences an ideological destruction of the self as a woman and a feminist because these categories become meaningless in a zombie pandemic. Consequently, zombie films restore pleasure to the female viewer because of the ambivalence of gender. The man/woman binary is also breached in zombie films and becomes largely meaningless, at least among the zombies.[24]

As a once human, but now dehumanized creature, the zombie shares certain features with other monsters of horror fiction such as the body snatcher/pod person where an alien parasite comes to inhabit a human host. In the process of this possession, the human individual is dehumanized, losing his or her identity, memories, knowledge, emotions, ambitions, and/or will to power.[25] Unlike narratives involving ‘pod people,’ however, zombie stories do not involve paranoia; there is no issue about who is ‘one of them.’ The zombie cannot ‘pass.’ The survivors retain their identities, memories, knowledge, passions, and search for power but these things often manifest in conflictual ways – the negative effects of individual freedom.

Linking zombies to contemporary global issues and to questions of identity and subjectivity in the twenty-first century take the zombie to a high level of metaphoric abstraction. More immediately and fundamentally, viral zombies are about apocalyptic levels of disease and contagion. Viewed in this way, zombie tales have a venerable historical tradition dating back to the Book of Revelation, through Medieval Black Death writings, to Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1722), Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826), Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague (1912), and onward to today’s popular culture thrillers. What these stories have in common is the experience of apocalypse as bodily suffering and the discerning of the damned and the saved through disease. However, pandemic, as a modality of apocalypse, also undermines the millennial promise of the utopia to follow by blurring the boundary between the elect and the non-elect. That line is always imprecise because everyone is potentially a victim of disease and the plague usually lingers on, becoming part of the background context of living.[26] The resulting narrative pattern is one of “panic, dissolution of socioeconomic structures, and despair, succeeded by a makeshift return to normality once the disease has run its course.”[27]

From the early modern period to today, plague and pandemic narratives can be seen as arising in response to the changes brought about by modernity and the spread of capitalism, with each historical period expressing its own particular economic, political, and social anxieties in and through stories of infection. Stephanie Boluk and Wylie Lenz, for example, examine Ben Jonson’s play The Alchemist and Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year within the context of the end of mercantilism and the beginnings of capitalist accumulation within the developing free market of seventeenth and early eighteenth century England.[28] This they compare to the recent zombie films Shaun of the Dead (Edgar Wright, 2004) and 28 Days Later (Danny Boyle, 2002) which they read as expressions of anxiety around the viral spread of global capitalism. One of the particularities of viral zombie stories is the denial of the haven of a potential return to normality. In most zombie narratives, the pandemic continues to spread and it becomes difficult to imagine how the few remaining survivors could possibly survive for any length of time, let alone return to some kind of (humanist) normality. In this sense, zombie stories reject millenarianism and offer only a bleak view of a future of perpetual disease and probable annihilation.[29]

Zombie narratives also throw into doubt the discourse of security that currently links health and social regulation. There is a considerable amount of scholarship examining the relationship between public health and security regimes. Altheia Cook examines how HIV/AIDS, SARS, and influenza have all been subject to securitization processes, which involve defining them as potential national and international security issues and developing plans for quarantines, and economic and political infrastructure maintenance in the case of a pandemic outbreak.[30] Concurrent with the securitization of pandemic disease outbreak has been the development of security regimes targeted at bioterrorism.[31] In 2004, the U.S. federal government passed the Project Bioshield Act, which authorized a $5.6 billion expenditure for stockpiling vaccines and initiating research programs that integrate disease and vaccine research into the defence establishment. Official public health statements pointed out that bioterrorism and disease outbreaks should be treated as the same thing, conflating health and defence within a militarized language.[32] The result has been the development of more and more extensive systems of technological control and surveillance from the level of the hospital to the level of international health security regimes.[33] However, despite these developments, there is a significant level of ontological insecurity, largely due to the porosity of borders and the ease of air travel.[34]

Zombie stories trouble faith in these biosecurity regimes. Jeremy Youde analyzes how the World Health Organization’s International Health Regulations of 2005 would operate in the case of a zombie outbreak. He concludes that while they are an improvement over the earlier 1969 version, they allow for greater levels of surveillance. Further, although there are provisions for respecting human rights, there are no enforcement mechanisms. Consequently, in addition to dealing with the zombie outbreak, survivors would also have to navigate state authoritarianism.[35] Another common theme in thinking about pandemic is the ‘accident.’ Bill Albertini (2008) points out that popular outbreak stories involving viruses and/or zombies often involve accidental releases of a plague virus. This common trope is indicative of the inevitability of surveillance and containment system failures. While the biocontainment laboratory is often portrayed as a site of mastery over illness, it is a space where disease, complex technologies, and human bodies come into interaction and is, therefore, also always a site for the possibilities of containment failure.[36]

If we combine fears about subjectivity in a world overtaken by rapid technological change, with anxieties about unpredictable global political and economic processes, and insecurity about our ability to control infectious diseases within a globalized world of high mobility, we have a recipe for defining contemporary global society through an emergent master metaphor of contagion and pandemic. The most common popular culture vehicle for expressing this fear today is the figure of the zombie, which is a representation of concerns over the fragility of our security systems. Arguably, despite the 1960s optimism that followed the near-eradication of a number of devastating communicable diseases due to vaccination programs, after the plethora of recent outbreaks that threaten pandemic level contagion, there is an increasing sense that we are once again surrounded by disease. Confidence in our scientific, technological, and public health systems has been shaken in the face of potential contamination that comes from our exposure to the ideas, bodies, and diseases of the larger world around us.

Theorizing Pandemic Culture

Zombies operate, we argue, as a visual synecdoche for viral disease within pandemic culture. Pandemic culture is the shared experience of living in a society where we are regularly advised by trusted institutions and experts that we are indiscriminately vulnerable to the viral spread of disease. Indeed, we argue that pandemic culture is constituted, not in the proliferation of pandemics as medical phenomena, but in the explosion of communication about imagined, potential pandemics. Pandemic culture is produced, therefore, in the stories we tell about our vulnerability – as bodies and as societies – to deadly and devastating contemporary modes of disease.

Since the recognition of the pandemic nature of HIV/AIDS, we suggest that the rise in frequency, intensity and normalcy of potential pandemic events – Ebola, West Nile Virus, SARS, Avian Flu, H1N1, H5N1, H7N9, Coronavirus – has produced conditions such that we live in a symbolic and governmental state of perpetual pandemic threat. We agree with Mika Aaltola that these “pandemic scares” have had, and continue to have, significant social and governmental impacts; they are as important to study as the much rarer pandemics themselves.[37] Much is done in the name of pandemic risk. Western nations constitute specialized agencies to monitor communication about outbreaks, develop technical systems and forms of expertise to model disaster, endorse para-military global emergency response teams, reorganize health management systems to deal with mass outbreaks, and reshape relations between pharmaceutical corporations and governments. Yet, pandemic scares also have an affective dimension: “[w]aking up to a world that is experiencing a mysterious disease said to be extremely serious and deadly, instantiates a relationship of worry that is bound to have more than fleeting influence.”[38] It is the affective dimension of pandemic culture that we will focus on here, positing that the zombie serves as a divining rod, focusing disease anxiety in very particular ways. It is this anxiety that the CDC is implicitly invoking and assuaging in its zombie apocalypse campaign.

Various thinkers have posited that we live in anxious times.[39] Anxiety can be understood as the “tense anticipation of a threatening but vague event” or “uneasy suspense” in contrast with fear, characterized as a reaction “to a threat that is identifiable.”[40] Anxiety is less localized than fear; it is continuous; it is a dull throb. It becomes attached to different types of objects and object worlds, produces different subjects, circulates in, and is productive of, different affective economies, and therefore, invites different coping mechanisms. We adopt Wilkinson’s definition of anxiety as “a symbolic form of culture representing a state of mind and emotion by which we are made to be convinced that we are in a situation of threatening uncertainty.”[41] In pandemic culture, anxiety is about our understanding of our selves in relation to our future existence – the threat lies in the future at the same time that it threatens our future.

Brian Massumi claims that in the early 21st century, we live, not only in an epistemology of uncertainty, but also in what he calls, an ontology of “indeterminate potentiality.” The threat may never even emerge. It is amorphous, unanchored, and unpredictable. It is all around us, all the time. “The global situation is not so much threatening, as threat-generating.”[42] Dangers are notable in their “proximity to pleasure” and in their “intertwining with the necessary functions of body, self, family, economy.”[43] This ontological state is productive of what he calls “low-level fear” operating as “a background radiation saturating existence.”[44] Mika Aaltola links a similar generalized notion of anxiety inspired by general social decline specifically to pandemics, claiming that, “it is in this anxious affective climate of global insecurity, stemming from vanishing borders that pandemic scares have been epochally comprehensible.”[45] Penelope Ironstone-Catterall names this “anticipatory anxiety.”[46] We argue that the constancy of the threat is key: anxiety has become part of the environment rather than a response to an environment. Like Massumi, Aaltola, and Nick Muntean[47], we recognize that this ambient anxious context enables specific anxiety-causing agents (global warming, ‘terrorism,’ pandemic) to be linked in governmental performances of crisis management and in the public imagination, contributing we suggest, to the intertextual traffic in, and ease of circulation of, tropes of disease – such as the zombie – from one site of discourse to another. For this reason, the CDC embrace of the zombie apocalypse verges on the predictable.

Risk theorists (e.g. Beck 1992; Giddens 1990, 1991) have long argued that there is increasing public reflexivity towards forms of scientific knowledge as a result of various technoscience-authored disasters over the course of the 20th century. In a sense, our argument supplements and succeeds risk theory, asking what happens when the ideal of science being able to control risk is largely abandoned and we are left only with hopes for ‘acceptable’ damage control. Pandemic culture recognizes our always partial and inadequate knowledge of ‘nature.’ We no longer expect science to insulate us; we know that it cannot do so. Viruses will inevitably escape or exceed the lab, the hospital quarantine, or the South.

Following Massumi, we argue that the governing logic within pandemic culture has shifted from one of prevention to preemption. Prevention assumes a reliable, causal, knowable world and employs the logics of expert knowledge to react to knowable threats.[48] Preemption, in contrast, is a response to uncertainty where the threat has not yet fully emerged. It is strictly a potential and its nature cannot be fully specified. As a result, the threat becomes amorphous – it could manifest anytime, anywhere, when least expected, or at least unpredicted. The global situation is increasingly defined by our capacity to generate new potential threats to produce a condition of objective uncertainty. We find ourselves proliferating distinct organizations dedicated to monitoring and planning for unpredictable possibilities and re-ordering our social practices accordingly.[49] Since the threat is indeterminate, it remains undetectable until it moves. The logic of pre-emption, however, is offensive rather than defensive – you must move first to be secure.[50] Consequently, security agencies are involved in producing the threat in order to make it visible. For example, we must produce and reproduce pandemic viruses in our laboratories and in our imaginations in order to combat them through vaccines, thereby opening up the possibility of containment breaches or terrorist uses.[51] Within this pre-emptive rationality, viral disease is a compelling and resonant figure for understanding threats of all sorts in our current global situatedness. Viruses are uncertain, adaptive, and unpredictable just like terrorists, hurricanes, technologies, and ideas. They can appear anywhere and move in unusual ways. No one is safe.

(Figure 5, 'Zombie Pandemic'.  This image released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows a public service poster on Preparedness 101: Zombie Pandemic. "The zombies are coming!" says the Homeland Security Department. Tongue firmly in cheek, the U.S. government urged citizens Thursday, Sept. 6, 2012, to prepare for a zombie apocalypse, part of a public health campaign to encourage better preparation for genuine disasters and emergencies. The theory: If you're prepared for a zombie attack, the same preparations will help you during a hurricane, pandemic, earthquake or terrorist attack.) (AP Photo/ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

Figure 5. ‘Zombie Pandemic’. This image released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows a public service poster on Preparedness 101: Zombie Pandemic. “The zombies are coming!” says the Homeland Security Department. Tongue firmly in cheek, the U.S. government urged citizens Thursday, Sept. 6, 2012, to prepare for a zombie apocalypse, part of a public health campaign to encourage better preparation for genuine disasters and emergencies. The theory: If you’re prepared for a zombie attack, the same preparations will help you during a hurricane, pandemic, earthquake or terrorist attack. (AP Photo/ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

This endemic vulnerability invites and (re)produces a specific form of anxiety particular to pandemic culture – diseaseability. Diseaseability is an affective state resulting from living in conditions of constant vulnerability to infection, or feeling as though one is. This sense of vulnerability is ever-present in the social and physical environments and must quickly become part of the mechanisms and structures of adaptation for us as not-yet-infected subjects. It invites “politico-somatic techniques” at the level of the individual subject.[52] We engage in a variety of ritualistic coping behaviours, each of which simultaneously fetishizes and pathologizes our embodiment – from frequent hand washing, to our annual flu shot, to refraining from shaking hands in greeting. And yet we know, in a ‘real’ pandemic, our anti-bacterial hand wash will not save us, and vaccines are only effective against last year’s flu strain.

In addition to producing our body selves as already pathologized, diseaseability is productive of social borders. When a pandemic scare occurs, we look to, erect, and value borders – borders of communicability, of community, of containment. Yet at the same time, diseasability – unlike previous coping mechanisms such as quarantines or vaccines – reflects the sick realization that the quest for borders (and thus safe havens) is always, already a false and futile project. Diseaseability is also intimately entangled with the consumer economy of generalized (and generalizable) prudence. Our anxiety can be reduced, we are advised, through engaging in a program of purchasing and specific comportment that generates a range of new products, a pathologization of touch, and a reticence to be in public. Some of these become habits; some are abandoned as too demanding to maintain continually. Diseasability is simultaneously a profoundly anxious and ambivalent affective state, both terrifying and tiresome. Within pandemic culture, we are invited to self-manage our anxiety, rather than significantly address our risk, as the risk of viral disease is constituted in global economic practices that are outside of our control.

We argue that the traces of diseaseability are most easily recognized in the stories we tell ourselves about contagion and our relationship with it. These stories, much to the ongoing chagrin of epidemiologists and public health officials, are almost inevitably drawn from, produced in, and circulate in the domain of, popular culture. In particular, we argue, diseaseability is most clearly articulated in what has emerged as the model pandemic narrative, the viral zombie story.

We are inspired in this argument by Priscilla Wald’s claims that Western understandings of contagion over the course of the late 19th and 20th centuries were characterized by a meaning making frame she calls the “outbreak narrative.”[53] The 1995 film, Outbreak (Wolfgang Petersen, 1995) is archetypical she suggests. A previously unknown disease emerges in a primordial region; travels to and threatens the United States; scientists frantically work to find a vaccine; and the politico-military response oscillates between containment and purification. At the end of the day, humanist scientific knowledge triumphs over militarism and the disease is contained. Such outbreak narratives produce, Wald argues, boundaries between nations, subjects as healthy carriers and ‘patients zero,’ certain forms of expertise, and particular imaginings of the nation.

We suggest that in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, this dominant narrative of contagion has shifted to what we are calling, the “pandemic narrative.”[54] It is in the viral zombie film that we see an emergent archetype of the pandemic narrative. Contemporary zombies are faster moving, their hunger seems marked by rage, and zombieism is virally caused. This genre includes films such as 28 Days Later (Danny Boyle, 2002), 28 Weeks Later (Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, 2007), I am Legend (Francis Lawrence, 2007), the Resident Evil franchise (Paul W.S. Anderson, 2002 ongoing), Zombieland (Ruben Fleischer, 2009), the remake of Dawn of the Dead (Zack Snyder, 2004), and the recent World War Z (Marc Forster, 2013). The viral zombie is also found in the zombie-mainstreaming television series, The Walking Dead (Frank Darabont, 2010 ongoing) and its graphic novel forerunner. Fiction has followed suit with a series of books and novelizations, including Max Brooks’ The Zombie Survival Handbook (2003) and World War Z (2006), Brian Keene’s The Rising (2004), and David Wellington’s Monster Island (2006) to name a few. We can sketch the emergent narrative structure: a deadly virus is developed, either by a military-industrial-scientific complex or a social outsider; the virus escapes containment due to scientific negligence or malice; global agencies struggle to contain the threat but it spreads across national borders, putting populations from both North and South in jeopardy; international attempts to control the spread of the disease fail and strategies begin to focus on containing the diseased instead of the disease itself; death tolls are in the millions; social infrastructures collapse; and viewer attention shifts to a small group of survivors struggling to preserve both their lives and their civility, often failing. The vaccine, if any is in fact discovered, is typically produced outside of the political and health infrastructures there to protect the population. If there is life after the pandemic, it is forever altered.

Pandemic narratives differ from outbreak narratives, we suggest, in three main ways. First, the spaces of ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ are shifting and are no longer defined by national boundaries. Othering divisions of ‘West’ and ‘East’ and ‘North’ and ‘South,’ are irrelevant to disease spread and its threat. The governmental problem thus transforms from one of regional containment to one of survival. Quarantine is no longer an effective tactic. Pandemic is a product of globalization, frightening in its easy mobility across national boundaries and its capacity to disrupt Western assumptions of invulnerability. The pandemic narrative manifests Western anxiety about the seeming irrelevance of the nation and its social institutions in the maintenance of ‘our’ safety.

Second, pandemic narratives are much more reflexive towards humanism than were outbreak narratives, figuring a turn to posthumanism. Posthumanism is a way of rethinking the values and ideals of humanism that characterized modernity and of reimagining the human in relation to technology.[55] In pandemic narratives, characteristic humanist ideals of truth, justice, goodness, reason and the search for an ultimate form of being are shown to be unattainable metanarratives. The threat of widespread disease cannot be contained through human goodness, ingenuity, or solidarity. Pandemic stories are populated by posthuman figures – amalgams of biotechnology and human, breaching the boundaries of consciousness and form by which we distinguish ourselves as centred subjects and as a species. In their most extreme forms, pandemic stories ask us to question whether or not the human race should survive.

The third element that distinguishes pandemic narratives from their outbreak story predecessors, is their specific apocalyptic tone. Drawing on the work of Elizabeth Rosen and Lee Quinby[56], we suggest a three-part typology of apocalyptic types: Judeo-Christian, Humanist, and Nihilist. The Judeo-Christian understanding of apocalypse is characterized by the judgment of an angry deity, who destroys the social order, punishes the ‘guilty,’ and rewards those meriting salvation with a ‘new Jerusalem.’ Humanist apocalypse is a modernist perspective that recognizes that humanity has produced the conditions of its own elimination, but offers a slim hope that the species will survive and rebuild. In these tales, technology is often the immediate cause of apocalypse, but its ultimate cause is the irrationality of a segment of the population. Therefore, technology can still be a source of redemption and rebuilding a just society if we can retain our rationality.

We suggest that pandemic stories are increasingly demonstrating elements of nihilist apocalypticism. The nihilist apocalypse posits humanity as having produced the conditions of its own elimination and as beyond redemption. No distinction is made between who deserves to be infected and who does not, between those who are culpable in pandemic creation or transmission, and those who are innocent. All are equally as likely to fall victim. Our species membership renders us simultaneously responsible and damned. We are all part of the system that produced this outcome. Unlike the other two types of apocalypse, nihilist apocalyptic narratives are not cautionary tales intended to turn us away from our current path toward redemption. It is too late for that. As a result, there is no promise of a better world after the apocalypse; nihilist apocalyptic tales are not prescriptive. This means there will be no rebuilding. History will end with the likely end of humanity and there will be no prospect for a utopian aftermath. The main difference between nihilist and other forms of apocalypse is the bleak outlook for the survivability of humanity and the lack of faith in a reified force – God or Science/Technology – that can save us. It is not so much a warning of things to avoid but rather a narrative of final judgment.

Zombies in Pandemic Culture

Viral zombie texts are currently the dominant form of pandemic narrative, and are increasingly nihilist in tone. The zombie, as a figure, does very particular work in pandemic narratives, whether found in the latest Hollywood film or the posters of the CDC’s zombie apocalypse campaign. Zombies work on three levels: as disease, as the diseased, and most importantly, to signal ‘disease-ability.’

As disease, viruses are invisible to the naked eye and yet, they pose a potentially deadly threat. Zombies operate to make visible the threat of the virus. In this way, in the CDC campaign, the zombie can be analogous to everything from hurricanes to influenza, as a generalized manifestation of the anxiety producing threat. In the case of pandemic, we realize how we can contract the disease – namely from being scratched or bitten by a zombie. We can verify for ourselves that a person has been infected; they wear the violence of infection on their body, and later in their comportment and loss of rationality. We do not need a microscope or expert medical confirmation. The fear of the zombie in contemporary pandemic narratives has shifted from being eaten (or killed) to being infected. For example, many viral zombie stories feature a character who realizes that they have been, or might have been infected, and she or he tries, for a short time, to disguise this fact from friends, family or colleagues. These characters are either killed by a friend in an act of mercy, commit suicide through self-sacrifice for the greater good (knowing they are doomed anyway), or are with much relief, revealed not to be infected.

Within viral zombie stories, the figure of the collective zombie horde works to represent the diseased, the plague-infested population. Zombieism (or disease more broadly) produces a mass of beings no longer guided by reason. Authorities cannot appeal to them to wear masks, wash their hands, or avoid human contact in order to self-manage their contaminated status. Containing the disease, therefore seems futile and accordingly, containment strategies must focus on containing the bodies of the diseased. The diseased become the threat in the pandemic narrative, replacing the disease as the object of governance. A variety of containment techniques are typically employed, on a continuum from quarantine to extermination. Much action in the pandemic narrative is driven by increasingly more extreme measures being taken to manage, control and contain the diseased. Dr. Khan’s blog advised that the CDC would be involved in tactics of “infection control” such as isolation and quarantine and in the graphic novel, security forces guarding the school where the protagonists are holed up with others of the uninfected are reluctant to shoot the zombie horde swarming the school: “We can’t just shoot them. These are our fellow citizens!” (emphasis in the original; CDC, 2011). There is an (inevitable) failure of containment of the diseased and the school is overrun.

Finally, we argue that the viral zombie as a theoretical construct operates as a visual synecdoche for the mode of anxiety particular to pandemic culture, diseaseability. In adopting the zombie as a master metaphor for a generalized sense of threatening-ness, the CDC is trading in and on the anxieties of pandemic culture, our sense of vulnerability to disease threat, despite our privileged geopolitical location, coupled with the implicit acknowledgement of inevitable systemic failure. In this way, the zombie apocalypse stands in for any emergency. As noted above, Khan’s blog post stated, “… maybe you’ll even learn a thing or two about how to prepare for a real emergency.” Our anxiety can only be reduced by preparation. In the graphic novel, even though the CDC discovers a vaccine in record time, hospitals are overrun, armed guards patrol shelters, and citizens are encouraged via radio to remain isolated. Only those who can be self-sufficient can survive until the social infrastructure rebounds. Prudent citizens who have a disaster/emergency kit are best poised to survive the zombie apocalypse – they have embraced their responsibilization. Even in the CDC’s graphic novel, the shelter is overrun, threatening a nihilist apocalypse. However, the apocalyptic scenario is undermined in the final pages of the comic book when Todd realizes that it was only a horror-movie-induced nightmare. However, the dream operates as a cautionary tale to lead him and his sister to prepare an emergency kit and plan, “in case something happened.” The book concludes with the following counsel:

We hope you enjoyed reading this fictional story. It’s meant to be both educational and entertaining. Now that you’ve seen the importance of being prepared, take the time to put together an emergency kit with the items included in the checklist on the following page. You’ll be ready for any kind of disaster, even zombies.

The checklist is entitled, tellingly, “All-Hazards Emergency Kit.” The zombie is proferred as a generalizable trope of impending but uncertain and unspecified threat.

Our argument does not ultimately rest on the details of how the CDC used the zombie in its preparedness campaign of 2011, but rather on the fact that it did so. The coupling of zombies with an express language of apocalypse is a striking and powerful articulation of the norms and normality of pandemic culture. Pandemic narratives have replaced outbreak narratives as the dominant mode of disease risk story-telling, placing the zombie in high relief in all domains of communication. Pandemic culture constitutes us as diseaseable subjects easily located in an economy of preparedness practice, involving everything from militarized health security regimes to Todd and Julie’s stash of bottled water and hand-crank-operated radio. It is pandemic culture that renders both legible and likely the CDC’s zombie apocalypse preparedness campaign.

 

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Filmography

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Notes:


[1] Dr. Ali S. Khan in Adrian Chen, “The Centers for Disease Control is Officially Prepared for a Zombie Invasion,” Gawker.com, posted May 18, 2011, http://gawker.com/5803076/the-centers-for-disease-control-is-officially-prepared-for-a-zombie-invasion (accessed on September 15, 2013).

[2] Reuters, “ ‘Zombie Apocalypse’ campaign crashes CDC website,” MNN.COM, posted May 19, 2011, http://www.mnn.com/green-tech/computers/stories/zombie-apocalypse-campaign-crashes-cdc-website (accessed September 13, 2013).

Betsy McKay, “CDC Advises on Zombie Apocalypse … and Other Emergencies,” Wall Street Journal, posted May 18, 2011, http://blogs.wsj.com/health/2011/05/18/cdc-advises-on-zombie-apocalypse-and-other-emergencies/ (accessed on September 13, 2013).

[3] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Preparedness 101: Zombie Pandemic, (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2011).

[4] Maggie Silver, “Teachable Moments – Courtesy of The Walking Dead on AMC,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, posted February 7, 2012, http://www.blogs.cdc.gov/publichealthmatters/2012/02/thewalkingdead/ (accessed on September 13, 2013).

[5] Devan Tucking-Strickler, “Zombie Nation: Move Over Dorothy, Zombies are Taking Over,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, posted May 19, 2012, http://www.blog.cdc.gov/publichealthmatters/category/zombies/zombie-nation/ (accessed on September 15, 2013).

[6] Similar initiatives were undertaken in Douglas County, Minnesota, Kansas, Napa County, Delaware, and Ohio. U.S. Homeland Security prepared a press release about “zombie preparedness” and Texas Instruments created a zombie apocalypse program to teach high school students about diseases and pandemics. In Canada, Emergency Info BC deployed zombies and Quebec had a plan, subsequently cancelled, to stage a hypothetical zombie attack to test emergency preparedness. In the United Kingdom, Britain’s Ministry of Defence also issued a press release and Bristol’s municipal level emergency preparedness plan features zombies. In New Zealand, the Wellington City Council prepared a “Zombie Apocalypse Plan” and the Wellington Region Emergency Management team hosted a Zombie Island 5km run as an emergency preparedness event.

[7] McKay, posted May 18, 2011.

[8] Kim Carollo, “Will Budget Cuts Leave Us Unprepared for Zombie Apocalypse?” ABC News, posted May 19, 2011, http://abcnews.go.com/Health/federal-funding-cuts-put-us-risk-zombie-attack/story?id=13638676 (accessed September 13, 2013).

[9] Donald G. McNeil and Gardiner Harris, “Zombies Upstage a Routine Public Health Bulletin,” New York Times, posted May 20, 2011, http:nytimes.com/2011/05/20/health/20cdc.html?_r=0 (accessed on September 13, 2013).

[10] Sydney Lupkin, “Government Zombie Promos are Spreading,” ABC News, posted September 7, 2012, http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/health/2012/09/07/government-zombie-promos-are-spreading/ (accessed on September 14, 2013).

[11] CBS New York, “CDC Offers Tips on How to Prepare for the ‘Zombie Apocalypse’,” posted May 20, 2011, http://newyork.cbslocal.com/2011/05/20/cdc-offers-advice-on-how-to-prepare-for-the-zombie-apocalypse/ (accessed on September 14, 2013).

[12] Associated Press, “ ‘Zombie Apocalypse’ advice an Internet Hit,” CBS San Diego KFMB Channel 8, posted May 20, 2011, http://www.cbs8.com/story/14688932/cdcs-zombie-apocalypse-advice-an-internet-hit/ (accessed September 13, 2013).

[13] Gentry in Associated Press, posted May 20, 2011.

[14] Chris Good, “Why Did the CDC Develop a Plan for a Zombie Apocalypse?” The Atlantic, posted May 20, 2011, www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2011/05/why-did-the-cdc-develop-a-plan-for-a-zombie-apocalypse/239246/ (accessed on September 15, 2013).

[15] We suggest that since Night of the Living Dead, it is in the medium and genre of popular film that has acted as the primary definer of the central characteristics of the contemporary zombie.

[16] Peter Dendle, “The Zombie as Barometer of Cultural Anxiety,” in Monsters and the Monstrous: Myths and Metaphors of Enduring Evil, ed. Niall Scott (Amsterdam: Rodop, 2007), 54.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Kyle Bishop, “Dead Man Still Walking,” Journal of Popular Film and Television 37, no. 1 (2009).

[19] Rikk, Mulligan, “Zombie Apocalypse: Plague and the End of the World in Popular Culture,” in Essays on the Apocalypse from Antiquity to Modernity, ed. Karolyn Kinane and Michael A. Ryan (Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Co., 2009), 359.

[20] Steve Shaviro, “Capitalist Monsters,” Historical Materialism 10, no. 4 (2002).

Paul Datta and Laura MacDonald, “Time for Zombies: Sacrifice and the Structural Phenomenology of Capitalist Futures,” in Race, Oppression and the Zombie, ed. C.M. Moreman and C.J. Rushton (Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Co., 2011).

[21] Robert Saunders, “Undead Spaces: Fear, Globalisation and the Popular Geopolitics of Zombiism,” Geopolitics 17 (2012).

Jon Stratton, “Zombie trouble: Zombie texts, bare life and displaced people,” European Journal of Cultural Studies 14, no. 3 (2011).

[22] Sarah Lauro and Karen Embry, “A Zombie Manifesto: The Nonhuman Condition in the Era of Advanced Capitalism,” Boundary 2, 35, no. 1 (2008), 86.

[23] Marc Leverette, “The Funk of Forty Thousand Years: or, How the (Un)Dead Get Their Groove On,” in Zombie Culture: Autopsies of the Living Dead, ed. Shawn McIntosh and Marc Leverette (Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press, 2008), 188.

Martin Rogers, “Hybridity and Post-Human Anxiety in 28 Days Later,” in Zombie Culture: Autopsies of the Living Dead, ed. Shawn McIntosh and Marc Leverette (Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press, 2008), 119.

[24] Natasha Patterson, “Cannibalizing Gender and Genre: A Feminist Re-Vision of George Romero’s Zombie Films,” in Zombie Culture: Autopsies of the Living Dead, ed. Shawn McIntosh and Marc Leverette (Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press, 2008), 114.

Donna Haraway, “Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the 1980s,” Socialist Review 80 (1985).

[25] Ils Huygens, “Invasions of Fear: The Body Snatcher Theme,” in Fear, Cultural Anxiety, and Transformation: Horror, Science Fiction, and Fantasy Films Remade, ed. Scott Lukas and John Marmysz (New York: Lexington Books, 2009), 46.

[26] Elana Gomel, “The Plague of Utopias: Pestilence and the Apocalyptic Body,” Twentieth Century Literature 46, no. 4 (2001), 406.

[27] Ibid., 408.

[28] Stephanie Boluk and Wylie Lenz, “Infection, Media, and Capitalism: From Early Modern Plagues to Postmodern Zombies,” Journal of Early Modern Cultural Studies 10, no. 2 (2010).

[29] Millenarianism refers to a teleological belief system that characterizes the past, present, and future as shaped by a battle between good and evil. An imminent catastrophe will create the conditions in which survivors can rebuild a more harmonious society where our intractable problems will finally be solved. See for example Cohn 1970, Gray 2007, and Lamy 1992.

[30] Altheia Cook, “Securitization of Disease in the United States: Globalization, Public-Policy and Pandemics,” Risks, Hazards and Crisis in Public Policy 1, no. 1 (2010).

[31] See the discussion of bioterrorism and health security in Chapter 5 of Gerlach et al. (2011).

[32] Melinda Cooper, “Pre-empting Emergence: The Biological Turn in the War on Terror,” Theory, Culture and Society 23, no. 4 (2006), 113.

[33] Jill Fisher and Torin Monahan, “The Biosecuritization of Healthcare Delivery: Examples of Post 9/11 Technological Imperatives,” Social Science and Medicine 72 (2011).

[34] Mika Aaltola, “Contagious insecurity: war, SARS and global air mobility,” Contemporary Politics 18, no. 1 (2012a), 63.

[35] Jeremy Youde, “Biosurveillance, human rights, and the zombie plague,” Global Change, Peace and Security 24, no. 1 (2012), 93.

[36] Bill Albertini, “Contagion and the Necessary Accident,” Discourse 30, no. 3 (2008), 451.

[37] Mika Aaltola, Understanding the Politics of Pandemic Scares: An Introduction to Global Politosomatics (London: Routledge, 2012b), 5.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Kathleen Woodward, Statistical Panic: Cultural Politics and Poetics of the Emotions (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009).

Zygumunt Bauman, Liquid Modernity (Leeds: Polity Press, 2000).

Anthony Giddens, Consequences of Modernity (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990).

Anthony Giddens, Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991).

Frank Furedi, Culture of Fear: Risk-Taking and the Morality of Low Expectation (London: Cassell, 1997).

S. Dunant and R. Porter (ed.), The Age of Anxiety (London: Virago, 1996).

Ulrich Beck, Risk Society (London: Sage, 1992).

Peter Stearns, American Fear: The Causes and Consequences of High Anxiety (New York: Routledge, 2006).

Iain Wilkinson, Anxiety in a Risk Society (London: Routledge, 2001).

[40] S. Rachmann, Anxiety (Hove: Psychology Press, 1998).

[41] Wilkinson, 17.

[42] Brian Massumi, “Potential Politics and the Primacy of Preemption,” Theory and Event 10, no. 2 (2007), 13.

[43] Brian Massumi, The Politics of Everyday Fear (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 10.

[44] Massumi, 1993, 24.

[45] Aaltola, 2012b, 18.

[46] Penelope Ironstone- Catterall, “Narrating the Coming Pandemic: Pandemic Influenza, Anticipatory Anxiety, and Neurotic Citizenship,” in Criticism, Crises, and Contemporary Narrative: Textual Horizons in an Age of Global Risk, ed. Paul Crosthwaite (London: Routledge, 2011).

[47] Nick Muntean, “Viral terrorism and terrifying viruses: The homological construction of the ‘war on terror’ and the avian flu pandemic,” International Journal of Media and Cultural Politics 5, no. 3 (2009).

[48] Massumi, 2007, 6.

[49] Massumi, 2007, 13.

[50] This precept becomes mantra in the recent film version of World War Z (2013).

[51] Massumi, 2007, 16.

[52] Aaltola, 2012b.

[53] Priscilla Wald, Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008).

[54] It is important to note that we are not arguing that the pandemic narrative has fully replaced the outbreak narrative; both remain in circulation. Our position is that the pandemic narrative has become the preferred way of representing global viral disease events.

[55] Cary Wolfe, What is Posthumanism? (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2010).

[56] Elizabeth Rosen, Apocalyptic Transformation: Apocalypse and the Postmodern Imagination (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2008).

Lee Quinby, Anti-Apocalypse: Exercises in Genealogical Criticism (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1994).

 

Bios:

Neil Gerlach is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. His research interests include the apocalyptic imaginary within contemporary culture with a focus on “pandemic culture” arising out of global mobility. He has also written on the ways in which biotechnology is transforming governmental institutions in the twenty-first century. His published works include The Genetic Imaginary: DNA in the Canadian Criminal Justice System (University of Toronto Press), the co-authored Becoming Biosubjects: Bodies. Systems. Technologies (University of Toronto Press), and numerous articles on biotechnology and apocalyptic imagery in popular culture.

Sheryl N. Hamilton is Canada Research Professor at Carleton University in the School of Journalism and Communication and the Department of Law and Legal Studies. Currently she is researching and thinking about the ways in which ‘hand work’ is changing in the era of pandemic culture, including norms, practices, and regulatory modes of social touching, self-touch, and gestural etiquette. She is the author of Impersonations: Troubling the Person in Law and Culture (2009), Law’s Expression: Communication, Law and Media in Canada (2009), and co-author of Becoming Biosubjects: Bodies. Systems. Technologies (2011), as well as numerous articles and book chapters on science and media and communication and law. She and Neil Gerlach are members of the Communication, Risk and Public Health Crisis Research Group and are co-editors of a special issue of Science Fiction Studies on social science fictions.