Rebeccah Redden recently contacted me for an interview for her blog "Where Did You Dig Her Up From?: The Critical Zombie"
RR: The Zombie is not considered a sexual being. Why, out of all the popular monsters, is the zombie regarded as something either without a sex, or sexually unattractive. Is it the animalistic qualities, the lack of consciousness, the taboo on necrophilia, or something different?
SJ: Foremost, zombies are unsexy because they are rotting corpses. From a very early age humans are psychologically primed to be fearful of anything that reminds us that we are mortal and physiologically vulnerable. As numerous psychoanalysts and psychologists have proposed, cadavers epitomise disgust because they inescapably remind us of our corporeality. On a more instinctual level, humans live interdependently: from birth, we rely on others to ensure our welfare. That trait continues into our adult lives where we live in social groupings. When one member of our closest groupings dies, we instinctively mourn their loss. Broadly speaking, the adage that “a part of us dies with them” is true insofar as part of what constitutes our stable psycho-social environment is lost when our loved ones cease to exist. In that sense, when others die, it is a reminder not only that we will expire ourselves, but also that we are vulnerable on a social level. Corpses symbolically stand in for that potential fragility and loss: by that I mean both loss of others (whom we love) and partial loss of ourselves. Given all of this deep-seated baggage, it is unsurprising that zombies – corpses who will not stay dead and buried – are not high on many people’s lists of turn-ons.
Another reason that zombies are not sexy is because they are without self. Being animated shells, they do not have conscious identity. Since sexuality is an identity facet, it is illogical for zombies to have sexuality (and thus they are not “sexy”). Interestingly, in zombie fiction there has been a notable movement towards imbuing zombies with identity since the mid-80s; I am thinking specifically about Bub from Romero’s Day of the Dead (1985) as one of the first “conscious” zombies. Since then, there have been more and more zombie texts that blur the line between undead and living human. In a film such as Robin Campillo’s They Came Back (2004), the zombies are simply resurrected, fully conscious humans, for example. Alongside that progression towards consciousness, zombies have been treated as sexual beings much more frequently in culture. For instance, zombie-porn films such as Rob Rotten’s Porn of the Dead (2006) depict the living dead instigating and engaging in explicit sex acts. In Otto, or Up with Dead People (2008), Bruce LaBruce uses sexually active zombies to explore homosexuality in some highly complex ways. It might not be that these zombies are “sexy”. For instance, I find Rotten’s film utterly horrific, not erotic. However, the living dead are certainly more openly sexual than they have been in previous eras.
It is worth noting that this shift is one of overtness and explicitness. In some senses, all zombie narratives have a sexual quality inasmuch as the undead are driven by carnal desire. They are obsessed with their craving for flesh. That yearning manifests in very intimate forms of contact (biting), which could be considered sexual. It may have taken a while for portrayals of zombies to become overtly sexual, but the trend is the logical conclusion of the carnal desire that zombies manifest.
RR: What do the repressed sexuality of the zombie and the explicit sexuality of the surviving humans say about the culture who watches them?
SJ: Fundamentally, zombie sexuality exposes how uncomfortable we are with sex. By that I mean that sex is treated as taboo, as something private, as something to be hidden. Again, that repression stems from bodiliness: it is akin to the urge many of us feel towards hiding forms of illness from those around us, or even burying (hiding away) corpses. In some respects, sex is much more directly interlinked with those aspects of existence than we would like to admit. Sexually transmitted infections mean that sex is medically “risky”. In an age where HIV has been discursively associated with sexual communicability, the fear of death haunts our sexual landscape. As several recent studies have demonstrated, many of our major disgust elicitors (such as sweat, saliva, semen, vaginal fluids) are implicated in sexual activity, because they stem from the body. Being connected with our animal nature and our corporeality, sex is subject to social cloaking because those aspects of existence are distressing.
Powerfully, the zombie’s desire is not usually limited to specific genders or erogenous zones: all flesh entices them. Although they are slaves to their endless desire, they are wholly free in another sense. The living protagonists view zombies as destructive because they infect humans by tearing skin and shedding blood. The living are not simply fearful of zombies then, but also of their own physical vulnerability. Zombies are at one with their disgusting corporeality and give in to their cravings. In contrast, the living are terrified of their own bodies and of losing control over themselves. The presence of zombies spotlights how uncomfortable we are with fundamental elements of our existence: with our own bodies and desires. In that sense, it is to be expected that zombies are not considered “sexy”, since our sexual identities are bound into various forms of inhibition and disavowal. Denying that zombies have sexual identity is part of that inhibition process. So too is characterising the undead – beings that are openly attuned to their bodiliness and animal desires – as monsters.
In terms of what the rise in zombie-sex implies about social attitudes, there are two distinct possibilities. The first is that we are becoming more liberal about sex: that a greater range of sexual expression is being tolerated in culture. Zombie sex might reflect a gradual shift towards becoming increasingly comfortable with our own bodies. Alternatively, the rise of zombie sex could signal precisely the opposite. Zombie sex is free, but it is associated with the conventions of horror. If sexual freedom itself – personified by the undead – is envisaged as disgusting and destructive, then the taboos surrounding sex are reinforced. In that reading, zombie sex signals a “need” for increased conservativism.
SJ: If we take the view that zombies signal liberation from constraints of civility and even mortality, it is clear why zombies are attractive figures. Either in the sexual or anthropophagic senses, when zombies fulfil their desire for flesh, they do so in a frenzy of activity. They are completely uninhibited. They know precisely what will satisfy them, and simply attain it. They are not hindered by other’s judgements. They are not encumbered by concerns over their shame or dignity. They care not for the person they engage with, whether they cause pleasure or pain.
The description I have just outlined is of pure hedonism: a fantasy of enjoyment and fulfilment from the undead consumer’s perspective. It may also be clear why that fantasy is as disquieting as it is appealing. Total self-fulfilment violates one of the fundamental aspects of sociality I previously outlined: interdependency. From an outsider’s perspective, the zombie’s freedom clearly causes pain to others. The real problem is that zombies are free because they do not care that others suffer to satisfy them. In fact, being without self, the zombies are incapable of empathy. Consequently, it could be argued that there is no self who can enjoy the pleasure: zombies are selfish, but also self-less. As a result, their freedom is destructive and futile. The flipside is that while humans are reliant on social connections with others to survive – and zombie movies often depict the living protagonists as an interdependent cluster – zombies have a kind of perfect autonomy. They may have no self, but they are driven only by their own fulfilment.
That paradoxical balance resonates with taboo forms of sexuality, which are commonly treated as counter-instinctual or puzzling. For example, Julie in Brina Yuzna’s Return of the Living Dead III (1993) is characterised as monstrous, yet sexually alluring within the narrative. Julie engages in extreme self-harm to hinder her desire for flesh. Those moments of injury are accompanied by her moans, which could certainly be construed as masochistic sexual pleasure. The lines between pain, desire and violence are utterly blurred in the film, just as they are in masochistic sexuality. Since these elements do not fit commonplace understandings of sexual pleasure, masochism is a socio-sexual taboo. It is not commonly and publically discussed. This zombie film is a cipher via which masochism can be discussed, albeit via a proxy (the undead Julie).
More recently, Marcel Sarmiento and Gadi Harel utilised an imprisoned female zombie to explore rape in their film Deadgirl (2008). It presents a disturbing fantasy in which all of the young men engage in rape, apparently because they can “get away” with it. It might also be argued that the Deadgirl herself stands in for rape-fantasy from the victim’s perspective. In such a reading, her zombiedom and imprisonment are indicative of helpless passivity. I am among the viewers that found the film disturbing, but rather than angrily rejecting the film, it is worth reflecting on that source of discomfort. The horror stems from socially constructed norms regarding what can and cannot be voiced about sexuality. The zombie is used to flag such areas that need to be understood rather than discounted simply because they are difficult.
These depictions cannot be “popular” per se because they are dealing with taboo themes. In fact, if these portrayals were accepted in the mainstream, it would be a sign that the ideas contained therein were no longer taboo. Some of the sexual zombie’s appeal may stem from being taboo, from transgressing norms. Those norms have become especially fraught in the last decade due to the instigation of several legal sanctions against necrophilic pornography, and various forms of ‘war porn’ (of soldiers distributing images of war casualties in exchange for pornography, for example). Given that backdrop, explorations of zombie sexuality (which clearly carry necrophilic overtones) are unlikely to find the kind of freedom that the sexual zombie itself embodies.