Zombie Marches and the Limits of Apocalyptic Space

The limits of apocalyptic space must be considered, as well as the possibility that the space created by apocalyptic performances in zombie marches might only ever be spectacle, which reinforces the social order that the apocalyptic narrative critiques.

For the past eight years, on the Saturday of Memorial Day Weekend thousands of people dressed as members of the zombie mythos descend on Boston, marching through high traffic areas of the city. Costumes range from depictions of T-Cell zombies and Umbrella Corporation employees from the Resident Evil franchise to zombies attired out of the Plants vs. Zombies video game, to apocalyptic protestors, survivors, and even zombified Lady Gagas. These zombie marchers participate in an international phenomenon where participants play out a zombie infestation and parade as grotesque imagery through cities.

The zombie mythos is the fan-accepted canon of zombie narratives, largely originating from George A. Romero’s trilogy of Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, and Day of the Dead, where Romero uses the living dead to critique consumerism, racism, and the military. Night of the Living Dead, a first in American cinema with an African-American protagonist, sees the protagonist locked outside the farmhouse due to his race, andends with a crowd of white zombie killers shooting him when he emerges from the farmhouse after surviving the night of zombie attacks. Romero offers the critique of consumerism through Dawn of the Dead, where four survivors of the zombie outbreak seek refuge in a shopping mall, but the mall itself and its material abundance fail to save the survivors. Day of the Dead depicts a world overrun by zombies where only the military and scientific elite remain, but have refuge in underground bunkers where, through the course of the film, their technocratic superiority fails and even their fortified bunkers are overrun. Zombies are human bodies living without higher brain function, compelled to feed on other humans for sustenance, and who pass their zombie infection or curse onto their prey when they feed. Zombie apocalypses are those apocalyptic narratives where cosmic judgment comes through the rise of zombies to destroy social order. Zombie marches as performance of apocalyptic narratives produce specific social spaces that move through the decline of social order, which at best would perhaps invert the social order in a carnivalesque fashion, but currently they seem to only support the social order through spectacle. The limits of apocalyptic space must be considered, as well as the possibility that the space created by apocalyptic performances in zombie marches might only ever be spectacle, which reinforces the social order that the apocalyptic narrative critiques.

Zombies are a hit on the small screen as well with the successful ratings of the television adaptation of The Walking Dead, a show that follows the survivors of the zombie apocalypse as they negotiate the moral and physical quandaries of living in a post-civilization world. Max Brooks has gained notoriety for his texts World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie Wars and The Zombie Survival Guide. The end of the world cannot be a good thing, and the downfall of civilization due to zombie infestation should frighten and terrify; yet, American popular culture is curiously drawn to apocalyptic narratives.

Apocalyptic narratives create spaces for the disenchanted within a larger society. Origins of the apocalyptic genre come from Judean experience under exile in the sixth century BCE. ((Jon L. Berquist, Judaism In Persia’s Shadow: A Social and Historical Approach (Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers), 177-192.)) John Collins defined the apocalyptic genre in The Apocalyptic Imagination: “a narrative framework, in which a revelation is mediated by an otherworldly being to a human recipient, disclosing a transcendent reality which is both temporal, insofar as it envisages eschatological salvation, and spatial insofar as it involves another, supernatural world.” ((John Collins, The Apocalyptic Imagination (Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.), 5.)) Collins notes that there is no single apocalyptic eschatology, nor is that the point of the literary genre. The genre exists to provide a rhetorical mechanism for communities to express deep anxieties about social decay and impotence in an unjust setting. The apocalyptic worldview sees a fundamentally corrupted world where only divine and/or external intervention may right the course. Apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic narratives provide space for those who feel a lack of agency in a larger society, or who feel deadened by the quotidian demands of mundane existence. Apocalyptic narratives offer another realm, one where cosmic justice will be or has been meted out and the corrupt society critiqued by the apocalyptic narrative has already or will collapse.

Apocalyptic narratives are not necessarily cataclysmic narratives, though they often incorporate cataclysmic themes or elements. Apocalypticism comes as a result of cosmic justice, while cataclysm has no need for justice or explanation. Narrative use of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic genres serve the same function, which is to provide a reframing of the contemporary social order under a more transcendent ordering that is more just. Both apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic demonstrate the failure of the contemporary, either in present social decay, or in the justice that is to come.

Apocalyptic narratives at best generate a carnivalesque atmosphere where the mighty are fallen and the fools and the meek are elevated to at least equal standing with elites. However, as Mikhail Bakhtin developed the idea of the carnival space, when reduced to spectacle instead of social structure inversion, the performance space operates as an escape mechanism that prevents actual societal change, as the disgruntled vent their grievance in a way that prevents change of the social order. ((Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World (Indiana: Indiana University Press), 8-9.)) We must consider the limits of apocalyptic space, and how the social order is changed or reinforced by the carnival or spectacle of such space.

Carnival Space

Social space itself is a construct and product of social interaction. Following the work of Henri Lefebvre, it is not a product like others:

(Social Space) subsumes things produced, and encompasses their interrelationships in their coexistence and simultaneity – their (relative) order and/or (relative) disorder. It is the outcome of a sequence and set of operations, and thus cannot be reduced to the rank of a simple object…social space is what permits fresh actions to occur, while suggesting others and prohibiting yet other. ((Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space (Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing), 73.))

Social space is not only a location, not only a time, not only thrown into existence, but instead includes the labor that creates the ordering of society and the imaginations of potential new ways of working toward social ordering. In hierarchical orderings of society, performances of caste and gender perform the labor of social space, reinforcing the establishment. Alternate labors of social space produce alternate social spaces, potentially inverting or refiguring the social space. Alternate production of space does not exist devoid of connection to previous performances of social labor. The context of alternate labors of social space makes sense in light of the context of previous performances. ((Ibid., 77.))

Apocalyptic social space contains popular resistance to a larger social setting. In Mikhail Bakhtin’s text, Rabelais and His World, medieval carnivals are developed as the image of social inversion where the power of humor temporarily overthrows the established social order of the feudal and ecclesial hierarchies. Clowns, jesters, and fools provided a revelry that through humor and satire elevated the weak and small while bringing the lords and clergy low for a time, creating the imagination of other forms of social structuring and alternate realities of human value and worth. ((Bakhtin, 4-6.)) For a given period of each year, people would live in the alternate space, the carnival space where they lived outside of the social structures of a rigid and authoritarian society. Carnivals were organized based on humor and satire of the existing social order. In contrast to the carnival were official feasts. While the feast provided celebration and excess, it did so under the auspices of the standing social order, either feudal or ecclesial, reinforcing the authority of the standing social order. ((Ibid., 9.))

Linked with the carnival was the presence of the grotesque image. Grotesque was an affront to the social order since the image defied the aesthetics of the social world and contained both life and decay in its depiction, presenting a cycle of life, death, and rebirth instead of static beauty. The pregnant, cackling hag was the iconic image of such grotesque figures since she was absurdly old to be carrying a child. The hag laughed with a hint of insanity and yet was often depicted pregnant with child who would be born. ((Ibid., 25.)) Instead of a timeless, static beauty she represented the possibility of life, the reality of change and dynamism, and the flawed nature of human physicality. The grotesques exemplified the material reality of life, with earthy and fleshy degradations of higher order things. However, degradation was not the same as destruction, since the grotesque linked together decay and fertility: the decrepit hag was depicted as pregnant with child.

The grotesque contained the messiness of physical life that Cornell West refers to as the stench of life in the film The Examined Life. West points out that all of us are born in between urine and feces. Both forms of excrement are avoided in polite society where we ignore the materiality of our existence and live in more platonic realms of our minds. However, the very fertility of the planet and our own birth and continuity as a species comes in the midst of the realm of the degraded grotesque flesh. Our very existence is marked by the decaying and decayed fertility of fleshly life, even though we rarely live cognizant of this reality. Social space of the carnival comes by way of the labor of humor and the grotesque, where the dynamic and ever-dying-ever-birthing reality demonstrates itself over and above the static social order of hierarchical systems.

In the carnival, all are made equal and the fool is king, while the king is a fool. The carnival is not a spectacle, because all are participating in the carnival, and there is no barrier between observer and participant. In the spectacle, the performer and the spectator are kept apart, even if only by a thin line of demarcation. In the carnival, participants all engage in the labor of producing the social space of social inversion, bringing down the hierarchical artifice of social structures. Carnivals degrade the artifice of the social order in their performance, not to destroy social ordering, but to allow for the rebirth of new social orderings after the carnival.


Spectacles have similarities to carnivals, but produce different social spaces. The spectacle has performers and an audience, instead of collective performance by all the gathered assembly. While it is overly reductionistic to claim that the audience does not participate in the performance of spectacle, the role of the audience is far more passive and receptive than that of the performers. The spectacle, like the medieval feast, reinforces social norms since the audience still lives within the regular world of social ordering while observing a performance. ((Ibid., 9.)) Levity in the spectacle might be ironic or legitimate, but the audience never enters into the performance of the altered social space demonstrated by the performance.

Apocalyptic performances play with the transgression of regular space. However, that space is not always carnivalesque, and often enters the realm of the spectacle. Zombie marches often enact public spectacle, parading the living dead in public space, but there is no corresponding change to the social system since the deadness that participants feel in their regular life is vented without affecting the rest of their life. The spectacle allows the dominant society to maintain its order even though it can be life-robbing, since participants only temporarily reside in a different narrative space instead of bringing that narrative space into existence in the whole of their lives. In the zombie marches, spectators see a zombie mob parade through civic space, but the mob follows traffic lights, stays on pedestrian walkways, and does its best not to upset the social order.The Boston Zombie March – the longest running and, unofficially, the largest annual march – parades through high traffic areas of the city, including Boston Common, the Prudential Center, and Government Center. Participants in the march follow a corralled path and self-police to keep order and stay within civic law. Spectators observe, but largely do not interact with the thousands of marchers beyond the level one might interact with a Cirque du Soleil performer or a stage actor. The zombies might screech and howl as they parade, but instead of social inversion or satire of the standing order the grotesque is used just for shock value. While shock value can be useful in making the audience aware, it alone does not foster the carnival space of true social inversion and communal participation, but instead involves the performer/spectator separation of spectacle.

Limits of Apocalyptic Space

Apocalyptic narratives allow the imaginations of spectators and performers to imagine themselves out of the quotidian, out of the work-a-day mundane struggles that sap life away. The trouble, as demonstrated by the mere shock value of the marches, is the current use of apocalyptic narratives falls into the realm of the spectacle instead of the carnivalesque. Apocalyptic films and television inspire the imagination of the viewer, offering possibilities of society’s downfall and imagining how humans would socially order after present civilization crumbles. Especially in zombie-inspired apocalyptic narratives, the grotesque forms of the dancing, shambling, or sprinting dead, depending on which narrative world the story constructs, are the fertile ground for a new social order. While one would hope the new ordering is far more egalitarian or meritocratous, the new social order is often even more rigid.

The struggle for apocalyptic space is moving through the spectacle toward the carnivalesque atmosphere of true social inversion. However, constructively moving toward social inversion and equity in human relations proves difficult. Perhaps the only “romantic comedy” zombie apocalypse film, Shaun of the Dead, illustrates the trouble quite clearly. When the zombie outbreak hits, our protagonist is largely unaware and does not recognize the threat around him. Hilarity ensues as the movie progresses, but the end of the film has society the same as post-zombie apocalypse life with his best friend who was turned to a zombie still mindlessly playing video games with the protagonist, illustrating how zombie-like and how grotesque our contemporary reality already is without bringing about new social orderings. People’s daily lives still reinforce the pre-zombie social order in Shaun of the Dead.

At the present, the apocalyptic aporia remains. While zombie marches contain both the grotesque and unease with the standing order, the production of space based on living and performing apocalyptic narratives merely vents frustration at the standing order without changing it. Suffering, pain, and broken social order marks the overlap period between the present world and the restored, just world to come. The present broken social order is part of the old world. However, current productions of apocalyptic space reinforce the very social order the apocalyptic narrative critiques, and its own grotesque and fertile loam produces more of the same instead of constructing the carnival or feast of fools that would bring about greater social equity and social ordering based more on explicit virtues. Society is unable to move to the world to come and the apocalyptic space created by zombie marches implicitly supports the standing social order.

Society is better suited if the apocalyptic space produced by zombie marches moves from spectacle to carnivalesque. The social ills of an unjust and deadening world that zombie apocalypses highlight are quite real. However, the question remains – can apocalyptic space change the social order? In the case of zombie marches, the answer thus far has been no. While the narratives entertain and express discontent, they remain in the realm of spectacle when carnival would better change the social order they critique.

Discussion and Comments

  1. I am developing a course on Religion and Popular Culrure and would like to include your article as a reading. Do I have your permission to do so? Thanks