A Nuanced Epidemic: Zombies, Guns, and Subjective Humanity

As zombies have risen to popularity in recent decades, so has the prevalence of American gun violence. Read more to discover if the two are connected.

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With no natural predators, humanity has arguably become the most influential species on Earth. We’ve seen empires rise and fall, drive other populations into extinction, and even changed the climate of the world. When we aren’t killing the planet, we are finding new and creative ways to hurt and kill each other. In other words, we make our own monsters. In the horror genre, the monsters in creature features always represent a pervasive societal fear, and zombies are no exception.

Zombies (or any iteration of the walking undead) have been prominent in Western media for the past century, but their significance has changed with the sociopolitical climate over time. In recent decades, zombies have reached a level of unprecedented popularity, especially with the success of franchises like World War Z, The Walking Dead, and The Last of Us.

Trigger Warning: This article includes mentions of violence, gun violence, death, suicide, murder, cannibalism, and body horror that may disturb some readers. Please practice self-care when reading.

Unfortunately, another trend has also skyrocketed in the same time frame: gun violence. According to the Gun Violence Archive as reported by ABC News, as of May 1, there have been at least 13,959 deaths from gun violence in the United States this year, which is about 115 lives lost per day. More than half of deaths involving gun violence result from suicide.

Despite what some politicians might think, there is no definitive causation between these trends. However, there is a correlation between how modern zombie media, American gun violence, and the global mental health crisis are all discussed as an epidemic. Today, we will discuss the evolution of zombie symbolism in Western media, analyze how our fear of zombies contributes to debates over gun violence and control, and finally put these notions in conversation with our subjective understanding of humanity.

Zombie Origins And Evolution


The origin of zombies (originally spelled ‘zombi’) comes from the island of Haiti in the Vodou religion. It’s heavily influenced by the spiritual beliefs and traditions of West African enslaved people who were taken to Haiti by the French. One belief is in the “lingering” of a spirit near the corpse of a person that has died in an unnatural manner, like murder. Since the spirit has not fully left its body, the body can then be revived by a bokor, a witch, or a sorcerer, and turned into a personal servant with no free will. This being is now a zombie.

It was not until 1929 that the zombie legend made its way to the United States. During his travels in Haiti, an American named William Seabrook encountered four supposed ‘zombies’ working at the Haitian American Sugar Company. They appeared mindless and dead from being overworked and exploited by their employer. Seabrook was blissfully unaware of this fact, so he sensationalized the zombie story in his book, The Magic Island, which sparked the zombie obsession in America’s pop culture.

The earliest zombie films, such as White Zombie (1932) and Ouanga (1936), presented Black zombies and Vodou practitioners as villains attempting to zombify ‘innocent’ white people, thus using zombies as a metaphor for white America’s fear of Blackness and non-Christian religious practices in an era of segregation and xenophobia. In the wake of World War II and the early years of the Cold War and the Space Race, zombie movies often intersected with alien flicks and atomic bombs, thus representing America’s fear of nuclear war and communism.


However, it wasn’t until George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) was created that audiences began to see something resembling modern zombies. Called ‘ghouls’ in the film, these creatures are partially decomposed, amble slowly along in packs, hunger for human flesh, and can zombify the living with just one bite (a detail borrowed from vampire lore). Released in the middle of the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War, Romero’s debut film was full of social commentary through horror, as the hero of the story is a young Black man named Ben who is tragically killed at the end by a group of white survivors who think he is one of the undead.

While the first Living Dead film centers on finding hope amid racial tensions and the impending apocalypse, the second, Dawn of the Dead (1978), centers its critique on capitalism and systemic classism. Therefore, Romero’s films elevated the zombie motif from a one-note monster to a complex social commentary.

From the mid-1970s to the early 2010s, what Vox authors Zachary Crockett and Javier Zarracina call the “pandemic zombie” rose to popularity as the public endured Ebola, AIDS, avian flu, and SARS epidemics around the world. The notion of “living zombies,” as seen in films like 28 Days Later (2003) and the Resident Evil franchise, is a kind of virus that infects the world population and strips them down to animal instinct and hunger. This notion frightened so many people that the CDC created a guide called “Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse,” which provided instructions on surviving a global epidemic. These zombies represented a fear of disease, and this type of zombie is typically the type we see in the media today.


However, in zombie stories created within the last ten years, there has been a significant shift away from zombies serving as the true villains in the narrative. In shows like The Walking Dead (2010-2022) and The Last of Us (2023-), society has already been overrun by the pandemic zombies and the few remaining survivors have become rugged survivalists and hyper individualists who love their firearms.

Many characters are unkind and cruel to others because the world has been unkind to them. Most importantly, some characters, such as the Governor and David, manipulated other characters into thinking they would be cared for before murdering them for their own selfish gain. In today’s zombie stories, the zombies are scary, sure, but it’s the depravity of the human characters that give people nightmares.

Now we will focus on the most recent iterations of the “pandemic zombie” apocalypses and the “rugged survivalist” humans left behind. Since we’ve discussed the different iterations of zombies over time, let’s get into why zombies frighten us and why we kill them with guns.

Loss Of Agency


The most constant aspect of zombie lore throughout the ages has been the lack of agency. While they were once a person with desires and ambition, they are now a body devoid of higher intelligence or a soul and, in the original zombi stories, serve only their creator. In the case of the modern pandemic zombies, they serve only their hunger.

Humanoid zombies can trigger a sense of uncanniness for viewers as they stare into the eyes of something that looks human, but most assuredly is not. However, it is not the monster itself that is scary. The fear of becoming a zombie is often what repulses people the most.

Perhaps this is because, in a culture so heavily based on individuals choosing their own path, the idea of a grim predetermined fate without the privilege of choice is viewed as a fate worse than death. Perhaps people who feel they have no free will in the life they currently live see themselves in the unfortunate undead.

In discussions about gun violence, the cognitive bias known as the Law of the Instrument (or Maslow’s Hammer) is often mentioned. As American psychologist Abraham Maslow wrote in 1966, “If the only tool you have is a hammer, it is tempting to treat everything as if it were a nail.” Whether it is due to a stifling sociopolitical climate, worrisome economic downturns, or personal troubles, individuals can feel trapped. If they feel trapped, and they have access to firearms, they might be inspired to take action in a way that ends with someone being hurt.

Loss Of Individuality


Since one needs at least some agency to be an individual, it makes sense that those who value independence and free thinking would also fear the deficit of this quality in zombies. Especially in the case of pandemic zombies, these creatures travel and hunt in packs, and take down their meals via the sheer multitude of bodies. In contrast, the human survivors are often alone or in small groups on their way to a larger group. They long for connection but realize they are often safer alone.

As discussed in the Vox article, this type of hero is often ideal for some right-wing ideologies: a solitary survivalist in a world where the government is either weak or nonexistent, and a proud protector of the Second Amendment. In fact, some militias have been formed, such as the Kansas Anti-Zombie Militia, which use the impending zombie apocalypse as justification for gun rights.

While many zombie story heroes are quite eager to pull the trigger against the undead hordes, according to the Royal Armouries’ Curator of Firearms, Jonathan Ferguson, the best way to kill a zombie is with an impact weapon like a mace or 2×4 length of wood. So, why are guns the most popular weapon in a zombie apocalypse? It might be linked to American culture.

The United States has the most civilian-owned guns in the world. In fact, they have more guns than people. Considering the US also has the second-highest rate of total gun deaths worldwide, there is a probable connection between abundant access to guns and increased gun violence. Furthermore, the US is one of three countries that includes the right to bear arms in its Constitution. In the “Land of the Free,” everyone is entitled to own as many guns as they want for the sake of protection.

“Protection” is also the most popular reason why people own guns. In the event of a break-in or a zombie apocalypse, a person with a firearm can defend their loved ones and not feel powerless. However, compared to a blunt object like a 2×4, the gun is the safer weapon because one doesn’t have to get too close to a zombie to be lethal. They can maintain distance and keep their emotions in check when they don’t have to be reminded of death. After all, they’re killing something that used to be human.

Loss Of Humanity


The philosophical concept of subjectivity, as discussed by thinkers like Descartes and Kant, centers upon the notion of truth being dependent on a person’s conscious experiences. An entity is viewed as having subjective truth if they possess consciousness, agency, and a truth that is only true from their perspective. This notion is related to schools of thought regarding existentialism, individualism, and Aristotle’s idea of a soul. All humans possess the prerequisites for subjectivity, and ergo have what some might call a soul.

Zombies, human corpses reduced to insatiable hunger and rage, possess neither consciousness nor agency, though they might have a subjective truth regarding their bloodlust and cannibalistic behavior. Since they lack most of the characteristics attributed to consciousness, zombies are considered subhuman and killed with little to no remorse.

Considering this lack of higher-level thinking, it is interesting that in most zombie stories, they can only be killed by damage to the head or brain. From a biological standpoint, this makes sense. If a zombie is nothing more than a reanimated cadaver with a still heart, a survivor will need to take out the control center for the nervous system, which at that point is the only thing keeping the creature upright and shambling.

But what if zombies are conscious, just in a different way from how we humans perceive consciousness? What if by destroying the brain, the human survivors destroy whatever is left of the former person’s soul? In that case, is the zombie’s death murder or mercy? Of course, that begs the question: at what point do we stop seeing humanity in other humans?

Fear Of The Other (And Each Other)


While mass shootings are considered anomalies in terms of gun violence statistics, they seem to garner the most attention from media professionals, anti-gun activists, and legislators. Everyone wants to know the motives behind the tragedy, and the inner workings of the mind of the person with the gun. Every situation is different, but an alarming amount of mass shootings are tied to bigotry and hate.

Individuals in a dark place turn to the internet for solace and respite from their loneliness and often fall into a rabbit hole of hate speech and religious or political extremism. These forums provide echo chambers for the hurt and rage of its participants until the anger finds a misplaced target in a particular demographic. The new radical eventually grows so angry that the target of their rage no longer appears human. The distance provided by a screen is replaced with the barrel of a gun. Regardless of which community or individual is attacked, the shooter remains detached, angry, and miserable.

This is not meant to be sympathetic to mass shooters, as they used their consciousness, agency, and subjective truth to take away the personhood of others, an unconscionable crime. The point is that by fearing the ‘other,’ a theme prominent in horror and throughout history, we are only creating cold distance instead of community. Sometimes people commit murder because they fail to see the humanity in others. Sometimes people commit suicide because they can no longer deal with the burden of their own humanity. If we forget to see the wonderful complexity that is consciousness, we risk a self-inflicted extinction.

Zombies, Guns, And Us


Pandemic zombies and gun violence are both discussed in terms of treating an epidemic. By solving the underlying problems of the epidemic, we might be able to move forward and ‘cure’ the major problems. While the likelihood of a handful of humans curing an entire planet’s worth of zombies is not the best, the United States has made some significant steps toward placing stricter restrictions on gun ownership and solving the mental health crisis.

It will take time, patience, and compassion from everyone to keep going in spite of all the tragedies involving gun violence, and there are no guarantees that Americans will ever feel completely safe. But we must try to connect, share and receive our subjective truths, and remind each other that there are worse things than being human.

For more perspectives on gun violence, click here.

For more information about zombies, click here.

If you or a loved one has been directly or indirectly impacted by the social state of the United States, we encourage you to use one of these several hotlines.

Mental Health Emergency Hotline: Calling 988 will connect you to a crisis counselor regardless of where you are in the United States.

National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) HelpLine: 1-800-950-NAMI, or text “HELPLINE” to 62640.

National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255); www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org.

Above all, please take care of yourselves and one another.