The specter of a zombie apocalypse was raised in the hallowed halls of the Kansas Capitol on Wednesday morning.
Gov. Sam Brownback conjured the images as he named October “Zombie Preparedness Month” in the Sunflower State — and even posed for pictures with the bloody undead. It’s a gimmick to remind Kansans to be prepared for emergencies.
The governor knows zombies don’t really exist.
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But Americans are still captivated by the undead, nearly 50 years since director George Romero’s black-and-white classic “Night of the Living Dead” sparked the modern-day zombie invasion.
“An awful lot of people have taken note because this particular pop culture phenomenon has really lasted in a way that no one saw coming,” says zombie expert Steven Schlozman.
The Harvard Medical School physician, raised in Johnson County and a graduate of Shawnee Mission East, is known around the country as “Dr. Zombie.”
Studies have shown that zombies are particularly popular in times of economic hardship because they represent stress, systems breaking down, helplessness, disempowerment.
On the lighter flip side, talking about zombie apocalypses is fun intellectual exercise, and dressing like a zombie is just fun, say the zombie experts among us.
Schlozman has been watching this trend since 2008 when he used his professional training to write a fictional medical paper diagnosing the neurological problems of the zombies in “Night of the Living Dead.” (He even made up a zombie disease – Ataxic Neurodegenerative Satiety Deficiency syndrome.)
Lately George Romero has been working on a screenplay for Schlozman’s 2011 book, “The Zombie Autopsies: Secret Notebooks from the Apocalypse.”
Interest in all things zombies shows little sign of abatement, from television to the halls of academia to the offices of the CDC.
On Sunday night, when football games were playing on other channels, nearly 4.5 million people watched the zombie series “Fear the Walking Dead,” making it the night’s most popular show on cable.
Zombie researchers have psychoanalyzed the zombie brain. Statisticians at Cornell University have created a model to show how a zombie apocalypse might spread across the country.
Schlozman, who speaks at a zombie summer camp every year at Truman State University – the theme next year is “Bring Us Your Brains” – will be talking zombies at the end of October at Southern Utah University.
Cities like Seattle and Atlanta keep fighting over the title of “Zombie Capital of the World” by hosting huge zombie gatherings. (The current Guinness World Record holder is Minneapolis, where 15,458 undead gathered last October.)
Go to the website of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and, just as Kansas is promoting, you’ll find a zombie-themed emergency preparedness plan.
“Wonder why zombies, zombie apocalypse, and zombie preparedness continue to live or walk dead on a CDC web site?,” reads the message there.
“As it turns out what first began as a tongue in cheek campaign to engage new audiences with preparedness messages has proven to be a very effective platform. We continue to reach and engage a wide variety of audiences on all hazards preparedness via zombie preparedness.”
Schlozman says part of the interest has been driven by AMC’s ratings juggernaut “The Walking Dead.” But there’s more to it than just a popular TV show.
“One is that zombies are, as George Romero first showed us ... the sort of shambling, slow-moving ghouls that want to devour you. They speak to this level of impersonal (nature) that is characteristic of our modern world,” Schlozman said.
“They come to eat you, but it’s not about you. They’d just as easily eat the person next to you ... zombies don’t care.
“And I think as we get increasingly impersonalized, or maybe feel that our leaders don’t care – there are all sorts of directions we could go with this – we feel that what matters to us as individuals, as the individual person, just matters less and less. And zombies, I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch, embody that.”
Living dead expert Bradley Voytek at the University of California-San Diego calls zombies a “really good blank slate for any kind of social ill.”
“Initially, when it first started in the (1960s), it was about race issues with the first ‘Night of the Living Dead,’” Voytek told the San Diego Tribune last year.
“By the ’70s it was about class issues and the separation of culture within the United States. In the ’80s it was about nuclear war and nuclear fallout. In the ’90s it was about genetic manipulation and viruses and viral outbreaks.
“And now it’s about the ‘One Percenter Movement,’ and class is resurging as a major issue in American politics. It’s a really good blank slate for any concern that the public has.”
Schlozman says zombies embody another modern-day fear: viruses.
“Fear of new superbugs, like the SARS virus or H1N1 that are always in the news to the extent that the zombie trope often has a contagion as part of it, that drives it,” Schlozman said.
“And it also maps onto any apocalyptic notions that we have and somewhat enjoy. People have been writing apocalyptic stories dating way back in almost every culture. But there is something about this narrative about a crumbling infrastructure and what would it look like and this lingering anxiety that we all have.”
A graduate student at Utah State University created a model to forecast how long zombies will lay siege to America’s pop culture.
Sarah Reehl’s prediction: Zombie fever will be widespread until 2038 and won’t subside until around 2080.
“I don’t see it going away anytime soon judging from the number of emails and phone calls I get,” Schlozman said.