In the history of the development of the horror novel certain periods become associated with certain social and cultural anxieties. The classic example is the boom on zombie movies during the 1970s and 1980s, for as modern capitalism tightened its grip around the world the fear of an individual reduced to the role of a mindless, passive consumer was one that resonated across a wide audience. The classic example of this is George A Romero’s 1978 horror film ‘Dawn of the Dead,’ where survivors board themselves up in a suburban shopping mall besieged by the hordes of ravenous undead.
The zombie of the mid-twentieth century is a reflection of both the power and the price of capitalism and the acceleration of it’s social influence. In these decades of affluence, consumption was a great levelling force – we were all shoppers now, with difference erased by the beneficent and secular cathedral of the mall. Our physical distinctiveness—our own individual essence—absorbed into the bland conformity of the correct labels, accepted brands and suitable designer products.
While the fears of the 1970s and 1980s have faded, the zombie still remains as a potent figure whose presence uncovers the latent fears of our particular cultural moment. The latest addition to the fictional canon is MR Carey’s The Girl With All the Gifts – a zombie novel that places our fears in a whole new light. In Carey’s novel the zombies in question are not a shambling mass of mindless consumers but rather individuals infected with a parasitic fungus, destroying the body from the inside out.
As the novel unfolds, however, it appears there are some who manage to resist the effects of their infection. Despite their body becoming host to this unbeatable infection, these contemporary zombies manage to retain something of their own individual nature, as characters are able to control their cannibalistic desires, form connections, and even exhibit the continued capacity to love. Whereas the zombies of the 1970s saw their individual distinctiveness subsumed within an orgy of collectivist consumption, the modern-day zombie still represents a threat, yet one that has become increasingly abstract. If it used to be the case that the zombie took away the material individuality of the self, the modern zombie narrative seems to recognise that the material nature of the individual is extremely vulnerable but perhaps not as valuable as we might think. The flesh and blood of the individual can all too easily be invisibly infected and destroyed from the inside out, despite our efforts to stop it.
In this sense, MR Carey’s remarkable novel reminds us that the body is not something we should cling too tightly to as our physical nature all too often traps us within ourselves. Perhaps it is better to be reminded that the failures of the flesh do not entail necessarily the failure of humanity. The modern zombie narrative speaks to those aspects of our humanness which are best glimpsed beyond the physical and so outside the forms we guard so jealously. In this way out capacity to survive hinges not merely upon the purity of the flesh but in the way we can overcome the limits of our vulnerable, consumable bodies and approach a new, non-physical understanding of being human.