When I speak of zombie apocalypse economics, I am not being metaphorical: tongue-in-cheek, perhaps, but not metaphorical. Preparation for the potential of a zombie-viral outbreak occupy a niche market, where 99 per-cent of the information and products are offered up with a wink and a nod, and 1 per-cent caters to the mentally unstable. Or so it may seem, but I think there is a genuine psychological and economic force at work; that of preparing for horror, to mitigate the effects of disaster. History is rife with examples of preparing to face the apocalypse, but often those involved spiritual preparation, and a sense that fighting the inevitable was pointless: one does not fight God. Technology, though, and science, has brought two new perspectives: 1) new forms of horror, and 2) new ways of combating those horrors.
Think on it this way: how many of us have played the ‘zombie survival game’, the gedankenexperiment of contemplating where you would hole up, with whom, and what supplies? A seemingly pointless mental exercise that we can’t help engaging with once the question is posed. We have an innate need to question the future, anticipate its direction, and prepare for those events which threaten our existence.
There is a history to this need for preparing to fight off the unimaginable, the living dead, that stretches back to the fin de siècle. The BBC last year reported on a Victorian era vampire-slaying kit that sold at auction for £7500. This was a box containing everything Bram Stoker and Professor Van Helsing would have specified in a quest to kill Dracula: “a crucifix, pistol, wooden stakes and mallet, as well as glass bottles containing holy water, holy earth and garlic paste.” Was this intended as a genuine emergency-vampire-slaying First Aid kit, or an intriguing party gift? We’ll probably never know. But its very existence puts into perspective for us today the many kits and accouterments to be found for combating an onslaught of zombies.
In the nineteenth century, zombies were a product of Caribbean voodoo and witchcraft, Gothic tales of turning the living into automatons and slaves. By the mid-twentieth century, a zombie was a corpse inexplicably brought back to life by an incomprehensible horror. By the twenty-first century, the zombie was a scientific phenomenon, induced by disease; viral, bacterial, chemical or prion. To quote Erik David in his study of millennial eschatology,: ‘Though the cosmic sense of an ending can be seen as a particular pathology of the historical religions, the eschatological imagination long ago leaked into the secular myths of history and scientific progress.’ The zombie apocalypse has become a scientifically inspired end-of-days, like the nuclear apocalypse or the Y2K threat. However, where a nuclear war or technological collapse is rather beyond the control of the individual to combat, zombies, like the vampire, come with a scientific method of defense.
The work of Max Brooks is probably the most well known, The Zombie Survival Guide from 2003 intended as a non-fictive instruction manual, which he followed up with his fictional history in 2006, World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War. Of the attempt at verisimilitude, in keeping with the thread of genuine possibility, Brooks himself said, “”Everything in World War Z (as in The Zombie Survival Guide) is based in reality… well, except the zombies. But seriously, everything else in the book is either taken from reality or 100% real. The technology, politics, economics, culture, military tactics… it was a LOT of homework.” We, as readers, are being given information that conforms to reality in all ways but one: there are no zombies…yet. It is that part ‘yet’, which has fueled growth of a zombie survival market for the last decade. Brooks himself puts it into the perspective of human anxiety about the end of the world.
Type ‘zombie’ into an academic database and you will find a peer-reviewed article about zombies in any field imaginable: politics, psychology, sociology, philosophy, literature, history, economics, medicine, etc. Some of these are relatively serious; some of them are using the term ‘zombie’ as a metaphor (especially in philosophy and economics). There are multiple levels of didactism to be found in both the fictions and non-fictions (this latter term being used in the loosest-possible way). Consider the academic studies (academic in the purely theoretical sense) that have been published. A study from an associate professor in Australia: “The nurses’ role in the prevention of Solanum infection: dealing with a zombie epidemic”, published in The Journal of Clinical Nursing last year. Its purpose was “To outline the background and nursing interventions for Solanum infection in the event of a zombie epidemic… Literature and feature film evidence supports the theoretical probability for an outbreak of a Solanum infection which could result in a zombie epidemic. This paper discusses the causative agent, history of zombiism, signs and symptoms, diagnosis and nursing interventions.” What is this important? Because if it does happen, “Nurses are likely to be the front line staff faced with initiating most primary and secondary care interventions, including isolation and infection control, wound care, pain relief, documentation observations, support for activities of daily living, nutrition and fluid support, medication administration and other interventions.” Or consider perhaps the CDC website that uses the idea of a zombie infection outbreak to teach disaster preparedness: “Wonder why Zombies, Zombie Apocalypse, and Zombie Preparedness continue to live or walk dead on a CDC web site? 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.” In other words, zombies have become an effective marketing and teaching tool. Surely a hurricane or earthquake could not be as terrible as a zombie outbreak? If we prepare for the latter, then the former will seem a breeze to survive. We have the Iowa Law Review explaining to us exactly what the tax consequences of a zombie apocalypse would be. We are more prepared for an event that has not and likely will not happen, than we are for events already happening (such as economic instability due to comedies bubbles). Perhaps it is easier to deal with the hypothetical than it is the real.
In Britain it made national – and then international – news when a letter sent to the Leicester City Council asked: ‘Can you please let us know what provisions you have in place in the event of a zombie invasion? Having watched several films it is clear that preparation for such an event is poor and one that councils throughout the kingdom must prepare for.’ As it turned out, the city council was not prepared for a zombie apocalypse, having no reason to believe there was a threat, but nonetheless the question was asked, and an answer had to be given. As it turns out, there is a plan…sort of. The MOD issued the following reply to Bristol City Council upon a request for information: “In the event of an apocalyptic incident (eg zombies), any plans to rebuild and return England to its pre-attack glory would be led by the Cabinet Office, and thus any pre-planning activity would also taken place there. The Ministry of Defence’s role in any such event would be to provide military support to the civil authorities, not take the lead. Consequently, the Ministry of Defence holds no information on this matter.” And Bristol City Council’s addendum to this was to include “procurement implications” regarding the necessary supplies for zombatting (zombie+combat) and “where possible, in line with our buy-local policy. […] A catalogue of standard issue equipment – cuffs, stun guns, protection suits, etc – is available on the staff intranet.” The tongue is so firmly in cheek, it’s a wonder the tongue hadn’t been bitten. And yet, at the same time, there is an economic motive being exploited here.
Besides the professional interest in survival techniques for a theoretically implausible disease, there are also the marketing strategies to sell weapons, toys, gadgets, card games, and even entire houses that cater to the especially zombie-paranoid. Guns, swords, axes, body armour, all designed to meet standards specified by the various zombie survival texts; this is part of the science of survival. No crucifixes or spells, but a tangible method of survival, something than can be grasped and understood. Of course there are the less-than-serious items, such as a lunchbox stocked with a book and sweets. Here we have novelty contrasted with practicality – or impracticality, depending on your perspective.
I cannot offer a complete explanation as to why we have this insatiable need to prepare for disaster, besides the fact that it is evolutionarily advantageous to mitigate the fallout. However, I hope that I have made clear a pattern of human behaviour that stretches back at least for the last century, in which literature, and the seemingly fictional, has come to overlap the real world.