Tag Archives: Mollie Eisenberg

The Horror, the Horror! Fear of Zombies and Fat People

Lynne Murray says:

A zombie character popped up among the vampires and ghosts in a book I’m writing so I have been looking into their lore. Paranormal creatures obey the rules of the story they live in. As a non-fan of gore, I’m creating a zombie with better table manners than the mindless, chewing-on-the-general-public zombies–more of a troubled character with severely complicated daily living-dead issues.

“Better totally dead than walking dead?” is one question I’m considering from a storytelling point of view. Until all the story threads weave together, I won’t be able to say how much my particular zombie character relates to fat people’s struggle to live with grace and dignity, but the parallels intrigue me.

Julia McCrossin started my meditation about the link between zombies and fat folks in her blog, Ponderous Boundaries:  “Zombies, because they are such ciphers, seem to have gained traction in recent years as being a go-to monster for explicating societal dreads.”

Horror Film History considers how monsters in film reflect the fear of the moment.

Each generation gets the horror films it deserves, and one of the more fascinating aspects of the study of the genre is the changing nature of the monsters who present a threat. In the early 1940s, a world living under the shadow of Hitler’s predatory tendencies identified a part-man, part-wolf as their boogeyman, whose bestial nature caused him to tear apart those who crossed his path. In the 1990s however, there was no need for a part wolf component: Jonathan Doe (Se7en 1994) and Hannibal Lecter (Manhunter 1986, Silence of the Lambs 1991, Hannibal 2001) were entirely human in their calculated and stylised killing methods. As we move on into the twenty first century, the ghosts and zombies are back in vogue as Eastern and Western superstitions converge, and once more we yearn for an evil that is beyond human.

Zombies are usually portrayed as shambling, mindless predators, risen from the dead with the sole purpose of attacking and eating living humans.

Fat people are portrayed as diseased (a.k.a. obese) by definition. Fat bodies are seen as defective, although not decayed. I’ve heard no accusations of cannibalism: instead, fat people have “only” been portrayed as contagious, aggressive, mindlessly gluttonous creatures who selfishly devour public resources (such as health care) that would be better spent on more deserving humanity.

McCrossin’s “fat people are zombies” theory equates the satisfaction of directing righteous indignation at fat people with the pleasures of killing zombies in TV, films and games. When zombies attack, you have no choice–if you don’t kill them they will literally eat you, and the moment they bite you, you are condemned to become one of them.

Both zombies and fat people are completely dehumanized, and audiences can deploy their own well-stoked anger and fear of fat people vicariously through zombie narratives in TV and film and games that require exhilaration when zombies are killed, and the collective sigh of relief that the world has been made safe or not – zombies/fat again. Every day the collective drumbeat of ‘obesity epidemic’ rhetoric does nothing more than hasten the transformation of fat people into dehumanized, monstrous zombies who must be destroyed.

Coincidentally, I recently ran across a post that speaks to how fat people share some cultural hate zones with zombies and what it might be that we fear when we fear fatness (and zombies). On the Fat Studies mailing list, Princeton University PhD Candidate Mollie Eisenberg suggests some deep anxieties among dieters around uncontrolled appetites:

[M]any American dieters who aren’t always feeding themselves adequately are experiencing what feel like periodic episodes of out-of-control eating, rather than living in chronic states of starvation. Because that theme of the body’s urges and the individual’s ability or lack thereof is one we’ve seen before in literature, and particularly frequently in horror genres, I think it would be interesting to look at it in light of diet culture…

McCrossin and Eisenberg point out that, unlike vampires, zombies have no interest in seduction. Zombies stumble around in various states of decay, which prompts disgust in humans who encounter them. But if the whole rotting business didn’t separate them from living humans, their cannibalistic appetites would. Zombies are solely and simply focused on consuming the flesh of any human who crosses their path. No trauma short of beheading will hinder them.

Zombies provide several different fears all rolled into one. I think the parallels with mainstream fat hatred hinge on some realities of human existence that American culture in particular wishes to hide.

When requests to be treated with equality and human dignity are met with a resounding chorus of “never!” the fear of contagion shows up more clearly.

The “zombies must be killed” trope maps appallingly onto the frequently fatal “treatments for obesity” which are based on the assumption that even if a fat person dies from a diet drug, bypass operation, etc., at least they were attempting to “cure” their fatness, which would have killed them anyway, and is also regarded as a fate worse than death.

Of course, readers of this blog know that fictional fat people also can be portrayed as something other than grotesque, pitiful eating machines. Fortunately, zombies also don’t have to be brainless, shambling killing machines.

The film Shaun of the Dead is an excellent example of humans coping with zombies, who may be dangerous but who also started out as people you know.

Mike Carey‘s free-lance exorcist Felix Castor employs zombie Nicky Heath, a brilliant, resourceful data fence, who is understandably obsessed with slowing the inevitably decay of his body. Heath lives in a refrigerated environment and employs every possible strategy to keep from final extermination.