Doctor Brainslove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Human Flesh
I think at this point even novices (or, to use the parlance of the interwebs, n00bz) are well aware that zombies are a metaphor. Except for the very hackiest of hacks, every modern writer uses the shambling dead as a critique of the mindlessness of X, Y, or Z aspect of modern society.
Some well-known examples? Night of the Living Dead: racism. Dead Alive: Oedipal impulses run amok. Land of the Dead: foreign aggression and neo-colonialism. The list goes on.
Recently, though, I’ve been re-thinking this tried-and-true bit of wisdom. While it’s true that zombies are used to critique various flotsam and jetsam of our culture, it occurred to me while writing my first novel, BRAINEATER JONES, that zombies as an entity could represent addiction.
In BRAINEATER the walking dead live in constant fear of giving in to their base impulses and becoming a mindless ghoul feasting on human flesh. The only way they can curb this desire is by consuming copious amounts of alcohol, thus trading one addiction for another. For me, this was mostly just an amusing way to make life difficult for my Prohibition-era characters, but in another way this was a subtle critique on trading addictions.
I worked as a clerk in a substance abuse clinic for several years, and while I’m in no way trained or an expert, I did learn a few things from daily experience with alcoholics and addicts. It’s fairly common for addicts to switch the object of their addiction through the course of their lives. For instance, marijuana is considered a “gateway drug” and a pot abuser can easily become addicted to something harder like crystal meth or crack cocaine. I’m not an expert in any way, shape, or form, but a social worker friend advised me that this is called cross-addiction.
An interesting side effect of this phenomenon is that some addicts while in recovery can become “addicted,” so to speak, to healthy things like religion or a twelve-step program. I’ve known people who became obsessed with AA and the counselors asked them to dial it back and think about the meaning of the twelve steps instead of just hurrying through them. Or, say, I’ve known recovering alcoholics who became hardcore Jesus freaks. There’s nothing wrong with that, but in a funny way it’s like trading one addiction for another.
“But,” at this point even the most patient of my readers is now protesting, “What does any of this have to do with ZOMBIES? This is a ZOMBIE blog! Talk about the ZOMBIES!”
Tut tut, gentle reader. I’m coming to that. Like I was saying, in writing BRAINEATER I was trying to use zombies as a metaphor for addicts, specifically those who cross addictions. (The irony that they were trading an unhealthy addiction for the dead – human flesh – for an unhealthy addiction for the living – alcohol – was intentional.) But it also occurred to me that zombies as a species could be a metaphor for addiction.
Vampires, for instance, are generally understood to be a folkloric manifestation of sexual taboos. Werewolves represent barbarism, the inner beast. Zombies, though, are usually considered a blank slate on which to project our fears about mindless consumerism, bigotry, conformism, or some other cause du jour.
However, when I scratch the surface of a zombie, see past the cool gory body that it’s okay to ruthlessly despatch with a chainsaw, I see a possible representation of addiction made manifest. The zombie has no ego or superego, no impulse control. It is pure id. It is “I want” made solid.
What it wants – human flesh – is dangerous to others around it. Crack addicts often sell everything they own and will even resort to stealing from their families all in pursuit of that next fix. Alcoholics are masterclass liars and over time will inevitably harm their loved ones when using.
With a few notable exceptions (such as the fat guy in a Speedo zombie from Dawn of the Dead) zombies are depicted as gaunt, even desiccated, perhaps with the flesh sloughing off of them. It’s not unlike the generic depiction of an addict, so far lost in his or her own addiction that he forgets to even eat.
The good news, of course, is that for real alcoholics and addicts help is available 24/7. Our poor zombie friends, however, will carry the monkey of craving warm flesh on their backs forever.
Steve Kozeniewski is the author of two zombie novels.
He recommends either or both to scratch that gnawing itch you feel for horror literature.