Want to learn something about a society? Then take a look at what sort of fictional monsters are currently in vogue. What we fear tells us what kind of people we are.

Mary Shelley's book Frankenstein (subtitled The Modern Prometheus) expressed, among other things, the early 19th-century concern over how far man should go in trying to tame and manipulate the natural world. It was the dawn of the industrial revolution in England, and it was not at all clear that this was a good thing.  According to Anna North in a NYT op-ed, Shelley's book

came out at a time when experiments like Galvani’s with electricity were challenging previous ideas about the basis of life. “People were really nervous because it looked like, ‘well, that’s all there is to life — it’s not really miraculous, it’s just a material machine,’” said Dr. Asma. “So Frankenstein comes out of that anxiety.”

The first Godzilla film, featuring a grotesque monster accidentally resurrected by nuclear experimentation, is a walking, smashing embodiment of the anxiety of a nation who had just been flattened by nuclear war. No secret decoder ring needed there. 

In the Doctor Who series, one major recurring theme is, "Don't let technology take over your life, or you will lose your humanity; and humanity is worth preserving." The Daleks, the Cybermen, and countless other villains embody this fear of voluntary enslavement to technology. 

Vampires? I'm tired of talking about vampires, so I'll just say: Inverted Eucharist. AIDS epidemic. Glamour of evil. And so on. 

What about zombies? Zombies have appeared in literature and folklore for centuries. But why are they so everlastingly popular now, and what does our persistent zombie fear and fascination say about who we are as a society?  Mark Shea and I were talking about monsters on the radio yesterday, and Mark said something that rings true.  (And I'm paraphrasing his ideas, here, and drawing some of my own conclusions, so don't be mad at him if you disagree with the rest of this post!)

The guy who beats the zombies, says Mark, is very often the rugged individualist type -- the kind of guy who ignores government directives and relies on his own wits and strength. Most tellingly, the enemy to be feared is not so much the individual zombies themselves, as the contagiousness of the virus or disease or whatever it is that's causing zombification. There is no one you can run to for help, because the bigger the crowd, the greater the chance there is of contamination. When there are ghosts or vampires or werewolves or sea monsters after you, you seek out allies, and make yourself stronger by banding together with anyone who can fight. But when it's zombies? You can't trust anyone; you may be required to turn against your own friends and family in order to save yourself. The only hope, really, is to wall yourself up safe inside some fortress. The worst possible thing that can happen is for people to spend time together, travel, encounter people they haven't encountered before.

The monster is, in short, community itself -- and the solution is to hide, survive, and wait for everyone else to eat each other.

Sound familiar? Most comment boxes are stuffed with people who really do believe in zombies -- only they don't call them "zombies." We call them "Syrian refugees" or "people with autism" or "Mexicans" or "the disabled" or "the poor" or "Catholics" or "atheists" or "Jews" or "fetuses" or "Muslims" or "millennials" or "the elderly." Or we call them -- horror of horrors -- "Argentinians." 

What do we tell ourselves, when we see the zombies coming for us? That the rest of society -- the ones who don't look and act like us -- has already collapsed. There's no sense in trying to go out and rebuild or save anyone. That the only sensible plan is to cut ourselves off, to build a wall, to hunker down, to dig in. They're not real people anymore anyway, so let them tear each other apart. Save yourselves.

Tell me that doesn't sound familiar. Tell me it doesn't mean anything.