Zombies, Millennialism and Consumption

While perusing facebook yesterday, I happened upon a friend’s event, entitled “Zombie Apocalypse.” The end via shambling, brain-eating zombies is scheduled for December, 22, 2012, so please mark your calendars. It seems that the zombie apocalypse follows very closely behind the Mayan calendar’s end on December 21 of the same year (unless you believe new estimates.) What was striking to me was not that such an event existed, since facebook is a world of random events, fandom, and strange pages, but rather the number of people attending said event. According to the event page this morning, 521, 035 people are attending, 80, 798 are maybe attending, and 289, 558 have politely declined their invitation to a gun-toting, gore-filled end. While some might still be shilling for the Mayan apocalypsis, zombies appear to be the vogue way for the world to end.

Zombies have become a sci-fi/horror/fantasy genre staple. From the popularity of AMC’s The Walking Dead to Romero’s zombies and their legacies in film to Max Brooks’s franchise of World War Z and the survival guide to various anthologies (The Living Dead I and II, Zombies, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and my personal favorite Zombies vs. Unicorns), the zombie apocalypse is a cottage industry. While I could reflect on what the zombie apocalypse teaches us about (in)human nature, gore, or the necessity of high power weaponry, I think the more pressing and interesting point for scholars of American religion and popular culture is the pervasiveness of this genre and the continued presence of catastrophic millennialism in American popular culture.

Michael Barkun discusses the “pervasive millennialism” of American culture in which end times theologies and scenarios are popular and consumable. Pervasive millennialism works because of the commodification of these ideas. Do you need to be briefed in the Mayan calendar? Buy this book or dvd. Need to survive zombies on the front step? Please purchase one of the many survival guides, necessary hardware, and stock up with food. Need to ride out the looming end (of any variety)? Please buy your rations for a year at Costco. Want to know how the world looks post-Rapture? Purchase the Left Behind series. Perhaps, one wants to survive post-apocalypse? Download various films via Netflix, read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or maybe not, or pick up any number of young adult fiction titles from Carrie Ryan (zombies) to Suzanne Collins (Hunger Games trilogy), pick up survivalist gear and stock up food. We can consume the end and all its possible varieties. What is clear from the proliferation of end times products is the hope and fervor that the right products can save us. Read, watch, stock and prepare.

In her excellent book, Tourists of History (2007), Marita Sturken argues that cultures of fear and paranoia bolster “consumer practices of security and comfort” (5). This “comfort culture” allows Americans to purchase goods that supposedly might protect us, and this “culture of comfort functions as a form of depolitization and as a means to confront loss, grief and fear through processes that disavow politics”(6). We consume supplies to comfort ourselves in the face of global war, domestic politics and personal strife. Moreover, Sturken claims that often Americans seek to be “tourists of history” who remain distant to the sites they visit, where they are often defined as innocent outsiders, mere observers whose actions are believed to have no effect on what they see” (10). As I read Sturken’s book, I couldn’t help but wonder if maybe apocalyptic consumption functions as a “culture of comfort.” Purchasing survival guides or survivalist training, reading books, watching films that direct us how to kill zombies, purchasing a year’s worth of food can all provide comfort. Americans are often “tourists” of the apocalypse.

Apocalyptic thinking is rife with paranoia, conspiracy and fear, and the genre of apocalyptic tales is as well. Consuming (products of) the end provides comfort that the end is not quite here but could be. Products can “save” us. The comment sections of the “Zombie Apocalypse” event page makes this obvious: what weapons, cars, tools, etc. might you need. Folks discussing the merits of a Louisville slugger over various guns or axes or other household objects. Part of my interest is the question of what does this mean about not only apocalyptic thinking but also about more secular visions of millennialism? What is at stake if we are “tourists” of the end? Why does consumerism go hand-in-hand with visions of catastrophe and the undead?

It is at this point that I wish Katie Lofton’s book on Oprah was on the shelves. Now granted, I imagine Oprah doesn’t have much to save about zombies but I bet Lofton has much to say about how products can save and how consumerism can become religious practice and devotion. Moreover, if half a million people are excited about the prospect of taking down zombies, then what is at stake in the consumption of this particular end? Why is the zombie apocalypse comforting? And why am I more and more convinced that apocalypticism functions as a comfortable rhetorical and imaginary space? If the apocalypse provides comfort, products can save us, then how might we understand the role of popular culture in the study of American religion?

[Cross posted at Religion in American History]

4 thoughts on “Zombies, Millennialism and Consumption”

  1. My partner and I stumbled over here different page and thought I might as well check things out. I like what I see so i am just following you. Look forward to checking out your web page for a second time.

    1. Dude you’re dead that way. What you need, is:-barriers (something a normal peorsn couldn’t break though, zombie has the strength of a normal peorsn but the endurance to last a long time)-if you’re planning on staying in your house, you have to stock up on food, water, probably iodine tablets just in case, it keeps your water fresh, means to create fire, first aid training, first aid kit, medical supplies- ditch the laptop, you’re not going to need it, you could probably use the parts, there wont be internet once the zombie apocalypse comes along-invest in ear pugs, their moans can drive people insane if they hang around for too long- your going to need weapons, on your body at all times keep a melee weapon, preferably one with a secondary use, like a crowbar, hatchet, etc. possibly a small side arm such as a hand gun, a larger weapon like a semi-automatic rifle, reduces ammo waste- don’t draw attention to yourself, draw the windows, if you have a generator make sure its quiet or used at times of absolute emergency- stay in the basement if you’re going to be indoors- if upstairs, destroy the staircase NOT WITH FIRE-fire is your friend only in mass mobs when they can’t get to your position. even a zombie on fire can move until it’s burnt to a crisp.

    2. First of all, none of that is going to help you wherever you are, esalcipley in a big city. Also, why the hell do you need a tv or a laptop when there will be no one to watch or run the internet or whatever? Plus, you need weapons. And amo. And to not be such a dork. You know where i’m going when the apocolypse comes( or alien invasion, which is more likely)? My back yard. The mountains are the best place to be. Lots of food, shelter, easily defendable areas, like cliffs, and a great plus is i live in the best state ever! where the only bad thing that ever happens is two cowboys elope together, and i might meet up with them. But i have no problem teaming up with gay guys, as long as they can provide for the team. And keep quiet at night (teehee). Now, think about it; where do all of the bad things happen? Big cities right? (except forks, WA. They’re kind of screwed lol) So, basically, what you have left out that will get your a** handed over to zombies (or aliens) is you dont live in a good spot. And you’re an idiot.

  2. i ain’t gonna make fun of you. like the other people. this ain’t meant to scare you, but it’s very hard to kill a zobmie.and i think that they attack together,not one for each person. no amount of preparation came save you form a zobmie’s attack. they can overpower you and with one bit,your one too. if and when the zobmie apocalypse comes, you might be one. but if you want to keep trying to save yourself go ahead. and why not build a tall sinderblock wall? hope that hepls.

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