Zombies on the Couch

I’ve been writing a fair amount this year about fear, primarily because our unresolved anxieties can be a significant obstacle to both optimal parenting as well as a buzz-kill to a life richly and fully lived.

While it’s often relatively easy to see other people’s “issues” in stark relief, it’s our own Shadows that lurk behind us as we face the sun.  Hence a tour of one of my worst, albeit absurd (at least for a “grown-up” who is also a clinical psychologist), fears…

It was a Saturday night and my parents were out (but then, at least in my mind, they were always out.  They would say otherwise, but the fact that they made me feel that way speaks, at the very least, an emotional truth—and I digress here because parenting is not a legal proceeding, but an emotional reckoning and we want our kids to feel like we enjoy them and to feel like we’re actually there, which happens to be the opposite characteristics of zombies, but now I’m getting ahead of myself).

I was around eleven and the local PBS station was showing Night of the Living Dead, which is a classic low-budget independent horror film.  While I was fan of “Creature Features” on the local WGN station, the Dracula, Frankenstein and Werewolf movies they showed were only mildly frightening, and furthermore broken every few minutes by commercials.  In contrast I lay on my stomach on the rust shag carpet of my bedroom watching the black and white TV play an uninterrupted black and white movie I knew nothing about—learning as I watched that it was about a likable black man surrounded by white zombies in a very real-seeming small town—where a nuclear family devolves from bickering to stupefied literal “consumerism”… of each other.

This movie stunned me with its authentic, matter of fact verisimilitude (the possibility of zombies existing being its only suspension of disbelief).  Night of the Living Dead sucker-punched me in the unconscious by confronting my undeveloped mind with a pitch perfect metaphor for what was wrong with my own life.  Without doing anything more at the conscious level than frightening me, completely, Night of the Living Dead also entered my psyche like a truth-telling ghost.

Unable to analyze, I was merely left terrified by zombies.  What I could not do at that point was consciously realize that my parents, my neighborhood, my school district, my up-sprouting shopping malls and my nation still at war in Vietnam were, at heart, zombies.  George Romero, the film’s director knew this, deliberately expressed this; sophisticated moviegoers recognized this and lauded it—but yours truly was Neo-ly trapped in some sort of zombie Matrix with no Morpheus to talk to.

The zombies in my neighborhood didn’t come right out and eat human flesh, but they ate your soul and you ended up with their soulless disease.  I knew in my heart that something was terribly wrong with my world, but I couldn’t put my finger, much less my conscious brain, on what it was.  And everyone I knew was there to tell me that “normal” was good and that my problems were all in my head; all in my lack of robust manly killer instinct—the very thing that seemed to make one a zombie, disconnected from compassion, understanding, authenticity and love.

A couple of years later my best friend was killed.  I couldn’t wrap my mind around that either, thus I was still in a mentally tender state regarding death when Dawn of the Dead came out—and the reviews were fantastic:  a scathing indictment on empty consumerism as zombies take over a shopping mall, a lurid comic book blood bath and a feminist gloss to boot.

And yet I was secretly scared to go and see it when invited by a friend.  Embarrassed by my fear, now as a teenager, I did what I needed to do in order to prepare:  unlike Bill Clinton, and far far from Oxford, I actually inhaled.  And this only made the entire experience exponentially more terrifying.  I simply could not convince myself that all this slow-footed flesh eating was only a movie.  These zombies were in living color and were completely typical mall denizens turned flesh-eating lizard brains.  Oh my god, the whole thing was too thinly veiled, too close to the awful truth about the way my world actually seemed to be.  I got the metaphor, but it did nothing to allay my sheer terror.

And that was it.  I was henceforth resolutely terrified of anything zombie.  I could not bring myself to see Day of the Dead, the third in maestro Romero’s trilogy.

Flash forward to nineteen-eighty-six.  I’m just out of film school and brash (or naïve) enough to land a job directing an episode of Tales from the Darkside.  We’re halfway through filming on a soundstage in Astoria Queens when the executive producer of the show, George Romero himself, comes to review the goings on.  I’m introduced to him and shake his hand as he shoves a pastry and some Dionysian grapes into his mouth from the crafts services table.  He strikes me as a cross between Hunter Thompson and Stanley Kubrick, and for reasons entirely to do with the dark magic of his filmmaking I am silent and scared.

He sweeps off and I plod clumsily through directing scenes.  By the end of the day I’m in hot water, having violated a cardinal budget-rule by going one stinking minute past quitting time, which triggered a multi-thousand dollar consequence for payroll.  The line producer literally pulled the plug on the entire soundstage in the middle of my last take, and we were plunged into absolute darkness.

When I came back to my senses I was in the little office the line producer had up in the catwalks above the stage and lights and grids.  It’s a bit of a haze, but he was certainly hollering.  The gist of it included that I would never work in this business again, and how dare I go over time, and how much money I had cost him.  How strange that the mysterious George Romero, savage satirist of our collective culture, was somehow present to my ongoing zombified horror.

Entertainment was a world where, stupidly I must admit, I had desperately hoped to escape the soul-eating, money-obsessed, flesh-eating consumerism of my depressing childhood.  I’d finally made it into (at least some fringy corner of) “Hollywood,” the land of fantasy and make-believe (where the monsters were not supposed to be villains until I said, “action” and would behave and laugh with me when I said, “cut”) yet I was as scared and out of control as ever.  There was no escaping the zombies.

Certainly there are many nice people in Hollywood.  Okay, there are a few nice people in Hollywood, but I’m fortunate enough to know a good number of them as friends and clients.  What I was not yet ready to face in my puppy-dog days of narcissistic and neurotic fear-frozen unresolved trauma was that the ultimate zombie, my doppelganger, was to be found in the mirror:  my own Shadow.

Jane Lynch’s quip at the Emmys, after a clip of Ricky Gervais being bitter and snarky, was, “Someone didn’t get enough hugs from mommy and now it’s all Hollywood’s fault.” Ouch.  Could Night of the Living Dead be better understood as Nightmare of the Unhugged Babies?   Could it be true that “zombies” and other emotional and economic cannibals are really just hungry and scared babies?

Fears, if avoided, tend to generalize.  One goes from fear of spiders and snakes to fear of everything under the sun and the moon; soon agoraphobia (fear of living in Agoura) ensues.  From zombie-avoidance I learned to fear all horror films, and thus my avoidance of the entire genre deepened my dread of fear itself.  But I think it was people who scared me more than anything—they can be so hungry and so unpredictable.

And then I became a parent.  And then my younger kid got old enough to develop an aesthetic.  And then that kid became an avid, perhaps a little rabid, horror fan.  Will tricked me into seeing my first zombie film since 1978, I am Legend (saying it was about a scientist trying to cure a disease; true, only the disease happened to have made everyone in Manhattan except Will Smith into zombies).  I was leaping out of my seat and holding onto my son, Will, while he found my exaggerated fear rather hilarious.  From there we went on to watch The Crazies and Paranormal Activity but I was still shaken more than stirred.  Will’s guest blog about horror movies is well worth a read.

Slowly I started to overlay my fear of zombies with my psychological knowledge of fear and anxiety; I began to look at myself, the scared man in the dark theater, though the eyes of myself the psychologist (funny how long something like this can take to arrive).  What was I really scared of?  All I knew was that I had to keep watching zombies until I lost my fear of them.

Thus I sat watching the Netflixed TV series, Walking Dead, last week… finally accepting that while zombies consciously creep me out, my core fear is not the fear of being eaten alive by zombies (although that would suck) my real core fear is of abandonment (mom’s post-partum depression, parents always out if not traveling, insecure attachment).

Being chased by zombies is a paranoid version of being “wanted” or desired (even if as a snack), and thus serves as a defense against an even worse fear:  being utterly unwanted.

If one secretly cannot imagine being loved and lovable, and one fears dying alone on the street, homeless, abandoned, shamed and as unwanted as the walking dead… then one may, oddly enough, become a real life zombie in counter-phobic response:  one may dumbly pursue drink, random sex and blind-alley consumerism as a can’t-beat-‘em-join-‘em sort of mass cultural soul-suicide.

I’m getting ready to watch the next season of Walking Dead with my family, as a conscious act of healing.  Perhaps the reality of having a family now gives me the courage to confront the feeling of not quite having had one in the past.

As parents, and as humans, the value of discovering our fears, whatever they may be, and then confronting them head on, can liberate us from the lonely traps of the past.  When we fear loss and abandonment (and, after all, who doesn’t?) it serves us to realize that we all entered the world helpless and utterly dependent, and while the nature of memory is such that we don’t consciously remember our early infancies, we viscerally remember their feeling tones (and if they were less than secure, we may have great dread about a feared future of abandoned unwantedness that is really a failure to be conscious of the unremembered past).

The “zombie” is the human who is not conscious of their hungers, their fears, their primitive desires; “bad” parenting is really fear-driven and unconscious parenting, zombie parenting. We’ve all done our share of that.  Here’s to being awake to both our fears and also to our love; through being connected with each other in authentic ways we find the courage to heal and break out of the prisons of our own past hurts and fears.  It serves all of us to find joy and playfulness as monsters grow silly in the loving light of day, and it serves all our collective children who cast shadows just like the rest of us, yet need not fear the dark.

Namaste, BD

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14 Responses to “Zombies on the Couch”

  1. Mark Brady Says:

    Sounds like someone didn’t get their fill of zombies! 😉

  2. Laurie Kilpatrick Says:

    No wonder Zombies are the “it” thing right now.

  3. BigLittleWolf Says:

    If only the “monsters” and “zombies” were the ones reading this. Then, we might have a small chance of only a loving nibble that isn’t unwanted, rather than the rampant consumption of more than a pound of flesh. Our world is being eaten away at a frightening pace. That we cannot stop it is what I fear the most.

    A rich and poignant piece, Bruce.

  4. Lesley Says:

    Those of us who went to high school in Agoura know exactly what agoraphobia is 🙂

  5. Amber Says:

    I find what you write incredibly fascinating, not only from a psychological perspective, but from a sociological perspective as you discuss certain events from your childhood and from when you were a film director. There is so much wonder and beauty in this; and those zombies? Are part of all our childhoods–I have finally overcome my own. But I know that more will “pop” up as I enter new stages in my life.

  6. TheKitchenWitch Says:

    I’d worry about zombies sucking my soul, but I’m not entirely sure I have a soul worth sucking. I think I’d be a big bummer for a zombie.

    I love how you connect a fear of zombies to the human heart, and all of our insecurities. Good reading.

  7. rebecca @ altaredspaces.com Says:

    “The “zombie” is the human who is not conscious of their hungers,” guilty. And it’s so nice to have such a “zombie” name for it.

    I can have hungers. I can have a shadow. It is waking to it that keeps me from sucking the souls of those around me.

    I love how it took your kid to bring you around to “healing” by watching these zombies over and over. I waited a long time, as well, to have a family. Once I’ve felt secure in that, there have been several shadows I’ve finally been willing to look at and examine and chase away the zombie componenet of that dark place of horror.

  8. Diana Inslee Says:

    This is so succinct and clear as to how phobia and a little neglect can create such an abyss. Thank you for sharing your fear with us. How can you help parents connect to that child right now?

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      Hi Diana,

      As for love and support for parents toward connecting right now, perhaps one or two of my posts in the category of attachment parenting would be of use (http://bit.ly/pqwUXQ).

      A way of conceptualizing deep connection might be aided by my post about colanders and bowls (http://bit.ly/cLpprH)

      Finally… my book, Privilege of Parenting, although slow to make its way into the world, should be arriving in the coming months.


  9. Can You Name Your Demons? | Big Little Wolf's Daily Plate of Crazy Says:

    […] A wise man wrote recently of Zombies and fear, of confronting his fear, of disarming it in the act of greeting it. […]

  10. Cathy Says:

    First, I must admit, I hate those zombie movies because I’ve always thought they are so stupid, and not frightening at all. But now that I’ve read your piece, I think I might revisit based on the social aspects of the times in which they were filmed.

  11. patricemj Says:

    I love this piece. Some of us are afraid of being eaten by Zombies, mindlessly consumed by the mindless hunger of others. I mean come on, If I’m going to sacrifice myself as a meal, I at least want my dinner guest to have an expression on their face, a nice expression, a really, really nice one. Truly, the Big Bad Wolf, even Dracula, would be preferable to someone who didn’t even know the value of what they were eating.

    Your piece also got me to thinking about the desire to be taken in by others, to be incorporated into the souls of those with whom we hope to make a deep connection. It seems the Zombie metaphor takes this natural primitive desire for psychic ingestion and ultimate metabolization, to a most fearsome level. Their catagorical lifelessnes renders the conscious offering up of the heart, the willing extention of the tender hand unnessessary. How boring. Maybe that’s the true horror. To be boring, to be incapable of arousing life in the one who wants to eat you.

  12. Anonymous Says:

    Bruce, nice piece. I’m a long time Romero fan and might even own an old copy of Dawn of the Dead. It’s a great mix of social critique and classic B movie comedy.

    But there was another significant aspect of that movie I wanted to mention. I was dragged to it by a friend and remember the first 5 minutes making me literally ill. I also remember starkly how in a two hour period I became numb to the gore. I wonder if George Romero was aware of that phenomenon as well when he made the film.

    I wonder if that’s the more apt metaphor for zombies today. As the mindless war and violence taking place in our world and how we are living with and de-sensitizing ourselves to it in our daily lives.

    Ironically, I have a hard time watching horror films today. I’m no longer desensitized to them and don’t crave the adrenalin rush. I would not be surprised if Jem followed in Will’s footsteps someday as a teenager, but for the time being I am still trying my best to isolate him from those experiences because to me they represent a side of humanity I am not ready to admit to him exists. At nearly 12, I can hear the clock ticking on that already.

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      It was those first five minutes that unnerved me as well—heads blown off with shotguns, a lover taking a literal bite out of a human neck.

      In a strange way your comment about Romero’s intention on desensitization of violence might cut both ways: lead toward war and commoditization of life and its relentless exploitation; but also as a path toward some higher, perhaps collective, consciousness?

      A past post might be of interest in this regard: http://bit.ly/q2w7KS.


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