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The Significance of Zombie Meme in American Culture Essay

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Updated: May 3rd, 2020

A great variety of cultures exists in the world, and the new cultural phenomena occur as the world faces changes in different aspects of life. Globalization and rapid development accelerate cultural processes. Overall, it is fair to say that culture reflects society. Throughout history, society experienced growth and evolution that left the imprints in the cultural heritage.

The international interactions caused the penetration of some cultures into others. Nowadays, American culture is one of the most diverse. The varieties of multinational cultural values merge with each other and contribute to the complexity of the American legacy.

Memes and Cultural Evolution

Culture is symbolic in its nature. The cultural symbols are endowed with the meanings, values, and ideas. The evolution of symbols causes cultural development. The fundamental units of cultural evolution are called memes. Overall, the meme is a complex idea that is organized and expressed in a memorable and catchy element that is culturally transmissive.

The main qualities of memes are “longevity, fecundity, and copying-fidelity” (Dawkins 194). According to Dawkins, memes are transmitted through imitation. He compares memes with the virus that is concerned only with its own development and spread. The examples of memes are ideas, catch-phrases, tunes, and fashion (Dawkins 192).

There were many cultural phenomena in the past that are irrelevant to the present-day situation in the world. But there are also memes that survived throughout a long time. The meme’s survival ability depends on its capacity to imitate and relate to the present-day societal issues.

The analogy with natural selection, given by Dawkins, explains that there is a certain competition for human minds that exists among memes. The dominance of a particular meme in the culture depends on the extent of the dissemination and its acceptance by society.

Zombie: Historical and Cultural Significance

While talking about zombie meme, it is better to start with the origins of the zombie conception that is rooted in the African-Haitian culture. The meme’s spread started from the Haitian colonies owned by French.

The origins of the contemporary American zombie are rooted in the mystical and religious cults of the African continent. Haitians called a walking dead person a zombie. The conception of zonbie was first mentioned in the 18th century and was defined as “a person bodily raised from the grave and turned into a slave worker” (McAlister 459).

Nowadays, in Haiti, zombies are regarded rather as spiritual slaves. They are the spirits who are captured and intended to serve their owners. One can observe the idea of the slavery reflected in the Haitian zombie mythology. In the period of colonization, people faced the physical enslavement that was transferred into the spiritual enslavement in religious cults.

To a great extent, it is also related to capitalism and its negative impact on people and society. The violence and brutality that the Haitians experience during the colonization by Europeans became reflected in the spiritual zombie concept and all the zombie rituals.

The meaning of the bodily zombie in the Haitian culture is slightly different. It is rather connected with the political idea of the “punishment-by-zombification” (McAlister 470). Just like the slaves in the colonies, zombies also could rebel against their owners. The opposition to political power was often transferred into the zombie metaphors by the Haitian writers. The lack of freedom and the liberating movements became inherent associations with the zombie conception.

The penetration of zombie meme into the American culture started with the production of horror movies. In the period from 1930 to 1960, it is still possible to trace the original characteristics of the Haitian zombie in its American copy, but, since time, it has changed drastically. The first half of the 20th century in America was a time of thriving, the economic, social, and technological development that induced the growth of population and consumerism.

These changes influenced the people’s worldview significantly. The opinions and prejudices of the past and the heavyweight religious values started to fade. The new movements in society and the prosperity of the modern pop-culture had a significant impact on the zombie meme evolution.

The separation of the American zombie from the Haitian mystical origins and the impact of the changes that took place in the country at those times can be observed in the horror movies of the second half of the 20th century. In 1960, the zombie movies by George Romero became “set in a secular frame” (McAlister 473).

Now, zombies became procreation of technological development, scientific discoveries, and its misuse by the government. Zombie started to be defined as a creature with the body, but without “soul, spirit, consciousness, interiority, or identity” (McAlister 473). Since the main function and instinct of zombies was eating the flesh of living people, they became a metaphor for the irrational and feckless consumption that gained momentum in the American society.

Zombies of the 21st Century

The conflicts and wars always took place in the world, but with the globalization, scientific discoveries, and the development of technologies and mass media, the public awareness regarding the existence of the multiple issues has increased. The information about disasters, natural calamities, epidemics, terrorism, environmental pollution, and other problems is now available to everyone.

Society recognizes and discusses current issues. Nevertheless, there is no much evident improvement happens. Due to these problems, the threat of their negative results occurs. The concern for the possible lamentable outcomes of the numerous international conflicts and misuse of innovations and knowledge is reflected in the modern zombie conception.

In the present-day culture, zombie movies often depict “a post-apocalyptic backdrop, the collapse of societal infrastructures, the indulgence of survivalist fantasies, and the fear of other surviving humans” (Bishop 20).

Now zombies’ impersonality became even more emphasized. Since zombies are dead and have “no real emotional capacity,” they do not evoke sympathy and even represent the contrast to the living world and regularity of the societal life (Bishop 20). The conception of zombie implies the opposition to individuality and consciousness. Today’s zombie is an embodiment of the imminent death, inhumanity, violence, and instability of social order.

The contemporary zombie mythology mimics the issues and fears that society experiences in the 21st century. The central idea of the zombie movies now is the destruction of the world’s orderliness that is most likely can be caused by the human factor. This global fear of death and mass destruction has a great impact on the zombie meme’s development and constitutes the myth of zombie that we have nowadays.

The Reasons for Stability and Cultural Permeability of the Zombie Meme

The zombie meme has penetrated into the American culture from African-Haitian mystical cults. Since time, the meme transformed: acquired new qualities and characteristics and discarded a few of the old ones. The wide broadcasting contributed a significant part to the meme’s consolidation in the minds of American citizens.

The zombie horror movies drew a lot of attention because of its metaphoric meanings that were relevant to global events. It seems that zombies appeared in the culture by accident. The high interest of the people to the new genre helped the meme’s further development. The variations in the meanings of the zombie metaphor indicate the meme’s ability to imitate reality.

The collective and probably partly unconscious fear of death and mass destruction is clearly reflected in the zombie conception. But it is possible to assume that meme does not only reflect the current situations; it also indicates the state of the people’s mind in the face of the present-day troubles.


Culture is comprised of a variety of memes that can affect people’s mindsets. Some memes become more dominant and prominent than others. Wide broadcasting, social acceptance, and relevance to social events are very important for the meme’s stability in the culture.

The zombie meme had all these qualities to find its way to people’s minds. The meanings carried by the zombie image demonstrate the exaggerated impressions and feelings caused by the multiple conflicts and calamities people faced in recent years. The changes in the meme’s metaphoric implications can be explained by the development of society. They also prove that the zombie meme is a part of modern mythology and plays a significant role in modern culture.

Works Cited

Bishop, Kyle. “Dead Man Still Walking: Explaining the Zombie Renaissance.” Journal of Popular Film and Television 37.1 (2009): 16-25. Print.

Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene, New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1976. Print.

McAlister, Elizabeth. “Slaves, Cannibals, and Infected Hyper-whites: the Race and Religion of Zombies.” Anthropological Quarterly 85.2 (2012): 457-488. Print.

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