The Gathering Gloom
It Doesn’t Take Commies or an Alien Invasion to Turn us into the Walking Dead
The study of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, the fictional account of the Salem Witch Trials, invariably leads to the discussion of current-day hysteria. In English class, we study the paranoia of the witch scare, when superstitious Puritans believed that to allow a witch to walk amongst them was worse than allowing an Ebola patient loose in society.
An infected Ebola patient could merely kill you. A witch would condemn souls to eternal damnation.
And if Exodus 22:18 states that “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live,” well, our friendly, God-fearing ancestors took scripture quite literally.
But as Arthur Miller pointed out, “fear doesn’t travel very well.”
Students are surprised to find out that hysteria comes from the word uterus. In the Middle Ages, superstition held that a woman’s uterus traveled around the body, making a woman emotionally unstable. So when one of my female students shrieks at a scampering cockroach or a centipede, I jokingly ask if her uterus is tethered.
The Witch Trials of 1692 to the McCarthy hearings in the 1950s is a matter of protocol. If time allows, we watch clips of Dr. Strangelove regarding our “precious bodily fluids.”
Most students are unaware that the 1950 sci-film films, It Came from Outer Space, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and The Thing were all emblematic of communist infiltration. It was America vs. the soul-stealing subversion of heathen communism. The fear was real. If we weren’t on our guard, communists would turn us into mindless zombies.
To students now, this seems ridiculous.
At home, far removed from Arthur Miller, to spend time with my wife often means watching Rick escape from Sanctuary in Walking Dead. My wife is crazy about zombies. I’m not sure why. She loved World War Z, has a “Zombie Escape Vehicle” decal on her Civic and plays Resident Evil — a game where what else, the player kills hordes of mindless zombies.
She calls me a literary snob too immersed in the Western Canon to enjoy the simple pleasures of being pursued by flesh-devouring creatures.
During one of our nightly walks in Barclay Farms in Cherry Hill, I asked my wife, “What is it about zombies and you anyway?”
At first, she did not have an answer. We talked about hysteria. I mentioned during that anthrax scare years ago that our school went on lockdown after a mysterious white powder was found in the kitchen. It was just baking soda in an unmarked box. There is also the yearly MRSA warnings. Then we talk about the real fear of a school shooting and the drills of lockdowns and lockouts and shelter in place. It’s not sirens warning of an incoming Soviet warhead, but the fear is still real. That kid sitting alone in the cafeteria prompts me out of benevolence and fear to get him involved.
Half-way through our walk, we rest on the steps of some medical building, watching the evening traffic trickle to a few cars along Rt. 70. I ask her if she wants to make-out. She chuckles, slaps me on the shoulder, and reminds me she teaches in the area.
“What would my students think if they saw us making out?”
“That we have two teenage daughters who are always around and stay up late.”
Then I persist: “So what is it about zombies? Why do you like zombies so much?”
What she said went something like this:
“It’s seeing someone who is so oblivious to the pain of other people. It’s the person who texts while driving, so immersed in his own world, that the rest of the world disappears.
It’s the kid who is given an Ipad and spends his whole day playing games on a taxpayer-supplied device who gives me heck for asking him to stop playing Candy Crush.
It’s a world of moths hovering around the silence of an LED screen. It’s a world of selfies and diminished attention spans.
It’s a world of narcissists who scream if their needs are not met. That type of world scares me.”
“Am I a narcissist?” I ask.
“Narcissists never worry they’re being narcissistic,” she replied.
“So it’s not witches or communists or alien abductions anymore,” I said. “The fear of zombies, then dear Mary Jane, resides not in the stars, but in ourselves.”
She rolled her eyes as I helped her up from the steps.
I guess it’s easier to fight against witches and communism than social trends. I now see zombies now everywhere: the dad waiting for a haircut at Great Clips, fingering his phone, his baby girl below sees not his eyes and his laugh, but the reflection of the silver case; the couple at dinner at Norma’s Mediterranean restaurant, attuned to their vices through their devices; the gadgets, the voter apathy, the ignorance, the Facebook friends, the million and one ways we no longer connect as humans.
Much like Rick and his cohort of survivors in The Walking Dead, my wife and I walk home to our girls, wanting very much never to become zombies. “So we fight on against the gathering gloom . . .,” I announce to the darkness, ”against the evils of Mordor.”
“Do you have to be so dramatic?” my wife asked.
“It worked for Tolkien,” I said. “It can work for me.”
Excerpts are taken from here.