Our Disturbing Zeitgeist

As a history major in college I always loved the word, “Zeitgeist,” which my professors explained as meaning, “The Spirit of the Times.” Understanding the zeitgeist surrounding historical events is critical to any attempt to interpret history as objectively as possible. But recently I’ve been trying to figure out the current zeitgeist. I once heard that when Dwight Eisenhower was asked by a reporter after VE-Day to explain what World War Two meant to mankind, he told his questioner to, “Wait fifty years and see.” Whether true or not, I love the logic behind this statement. Every day, all day, we hear people on news and commentary programs across the nation giving us their opinion on what is happening, and why. Often, they present their opinions as fact, usually claiming to be the one true source of information available to their audience. But some of these people have now been spouting off for decades, and we have the luxury of examining their claims and predictions against what we now know. Sometimes they were right, and sometimes they were wrong, but nobody was right about everything. My point is that trying to identify the current zeitgeist in any society is difficult to do.

Nevertheless, I’m going to try to do just that, and if I’m going to attempt to offer my opinion as fact concerning our current zeitgeist, I’m going to use a serious subject: our obsession with vampires and zombies. Now, the vampire is an ancient creature, found in mankind’s earliest writings in one form or another. Prior to a few decades ago, vampires were always predatory monsters to be killed as quickly as possible. These days, not so much. Nowadays, vampires tend to be highly cultured, benevolent creatures, eager to engage with humans in nearly every way imaginable, especially as a romantic interest and/or protector. What’s up with that? How did a man-eating monster with a 5,000 year history of blood-drinking morph into our friend so quickly? And zombies…fifty years ago most people didn’t even know what a zombie was. Judging from the hundreds of manifestations with which zombies have been presented to eager audiences over the past forty or so years, we still don’t know exactly what a zombie is. However, one characteristic is usually present in every type of zombie we see in film and print: flesh-eating. Zombies eat humans, usually by dragging them to the ground and starting to gnaw on them while they’re still alive. That’s not cool.

Still, zombies are popular, very popular. A few books and films have tried to present thinking zombies, creatures that living humans should feel sympathy for and stop trying to kill as soon as we see them. These efforts haven’t met with much success, especially when compared with the stories of humans surviving the zombie apocalypse. In short, we like our zombies being killed by heroic humans capable of making consistent head-shots with all types of weapons. The zombies are scary, and sometimes deadly, but small groups of resilient humans usually find ways to overcome the monsters and go on with life. So what does all this mean concerning our zeitgeist?

I think maybe we’re worried that monsters are real. Maybe they aren’t the monsters of lore, but still pose an existential threat to humanity. Our monsters are global warming, climate change, dwindling resources, natural disasters, economic depression, even Monsanto. We humans living in the second decade of the 21st Century are afraid, even if the fears are hidden deep inside our subconscious minds, our collective soul. So how do we cope with that fear? Well, we make the monster not so scary, friendly and helpful even. Why should we be afraid of Edward and Bella? And if we can’t stop the monster from bringing about an apocalypse, then we create groups of ordinary people who discover that they are heroic and quite capable of surviving the disaster. I mean, Rick Grimes and his crew on The Walking Dead were all just ordinary humans until the zombies came, and now they are more than survivors: they are conquerors.

There you have it: the current zeitgeist all neat and tidy. We know monsters are real, and suspect that their day is coming. Perhaps coming very soon. But, the monsters will either turn out to be fascinating creatures who love us, or stumbling, mindless flesh-eaters we can stop if we are smart and tough. I think I understand why we are engaging in this kind of behavior: it’s a survival mechanism. I mean, if we had to constantly live with the indisputable fact that our globe was warming, sea levels rising, weather going haywire, ever increasing demand for ever decreasing resources such as oil and food, we would be out of our minds with fright. Heck, most of our people would need to be on drugs for anxiety and depression, or even panic attacks. No, we’re definitely better off with vampires and zombies playing major roles in our zeitgeist. Dont’cha think?

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