On Death As a Cultural Obsession

September 30, 2014 § Leave a comment

I watched Anthony Bourdain’s Part’s Unknown: Detroit on Netflix last night. I decided to watch it because I can always appreciate Bourdain’s take and because I’ve always had an interest in decay and abandonment. Growing up in the industrial Midwest gave me an early introduction to the realities involved with urban decay and the social and cultural changes that economic depression can bring to an entire region. For as long as I can remember I’ve always been fascinated with the ruins that line the streets of what were once all-American cities.

I’ve never given much thought to what it is about death and decay that I find so interesting. It wasn’t until I started thinking about “The Walking Dead”, a show about zombies which my girlfriend has been obsessed with, that I started reflecting on the topic. I was trying to figure out the allure of the zombie craze in general. For whatever reason, zombies have become an integral part of modern American culture and folklore.

It didn’t take long for me to make the connection between my lifelong obsession with urban decay and the nation-wide zombie fetish. The “living dead” is a phrase that could easily be used to describe cities like Detroit and Gary, IN. Perhaps the source of my interest in urban abandonment is as uniquely American as my girlfriend’s zombie obsession. Indeed, an interest in urban decay has become a growing fad nation wide as well. Every year thousands of young photographers sneak into abandoned structures to capture photos of what previous generations left behind. There’s something intrinsically interesting about things that by all appearances appear dead, yet continue to exist. Much like the living dead, urban decay is an example of something that should be gone but still clings on to existence.

So what is it with this cultural obsession with death? Noam Chomsky has a rather interesting take on the topic. He’s of the view that the United States is an unusually frightened nation. In fact he cites research which shows that a common theme in American culture has been fear of some powerful and dangerous enemy which will supposedly bring death and destruction to American society. Ranging from the threat of the Indians during colonial times to slave rebellions to the modern American obsession with gun ownership, Americans have always been living in fear of some purportedly powerful threat(real or otherwise). Chomsky describes it as a “paranoid streak” within American culture which is “pretty unusual”.

I’d argue that the recent surge in the popularity of the zombie subculture has two main origins. The first is the long standing American fear of disaster that Chomsky cites. The second is the relatively recent downswing in political and economic power that this country has experienced.  Once the world super power and producer of almost all the “things” which modern society needed, the United States has fallen as certain developing nations have become the new “producing nations”.

With that swing in power has come an inevitable decline which has most clearly manifested itself in the form of a decaying rust belt. The decline of Detroit has been well documented for the entire nation to see. Americans are keenly aware of what is going on in their own backyard. Is it a stretch to suggest that the fall of the American rust belt would be enough to trigger that uniquely American “paranoid streak” that Chomsky mentions?

When a society lives in fear it can sometimes project those fears into the fabric of its culture in different ways. Colonial Americans feared for their lives due to the violent threat that they felt the Native Americans posed. But at times a nation’s fear can manifest itself  in the folklore and mythos of its culture. That’s precisely what the zombie subculture seems to be. The subconscious of American society is seeing its foundation crumble before its eyes. Fear of the demise of American greatness is real and prevalent. As a result even aspects of American entertainment have taken on a post-apocalyptic flavor.

Of course, no one is seriously stockpiling canned goods and guns for a zombie apocalypse. The entire subculture of zombies is a giant tongue in cheek cultural fad that has developed, at least in part, as a response to the apparent downfall of American society. No one takes the zombie threat seriously. Which is perhaps the most ironic aspect. Because, unlike the Indians or slaves, the decline of the American economic system is the first real threat this nation has faced in it’s short history.


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