Monday, April 6, 2015

Identifying with the Undead

I have ben mildly obsessed with zombies lately. Mind you, I've never seen a Ramero film. I've only watched one episode of The Walking Dead. My zombie interest is not, therefore, typical. Rather, it was sparked by BBC3's In the Flesh, a show that many people admire due to its treatment of queerness, and mental illness,  among other things. I love it because of those things, because they are a part of my life, but there's another facet to the zombies on that show that I rarely see acknowledged. They are, in many ways, relatable to me, because of my specific disability, but also disabilities in general. 

First of all, let me say that In the Flesh's zombies are not typical--but the more zombie-related media I consume, the more I realize that the thoughts I've had in relation to the show are widely-applicable. In the Flesh presents a post-zombie rising world, wherein the undead who rose were those who died in 2009, and who did not pass on their condition. While "rabid", the zombies attacked civilians, and the populace did have to rise up and battle them World War Z style--until a medication was introduced that stimulated the Risens' brains in a way that allowed them to regain full consciousness, and dulled their appetite for human brains. They became known as "Partially-Deceased Syndrome Sufferers" and are reintegrated into society, something that does not go as smoothly as either the PDS sufferers or the establishment might hope. 

This is the point at which the TV show starts, and it is also the point at which my comparison begins. PDS sufferers are stigmatized based on what they did in their "untreated state," but also based on their bodies, which are unable to heal and frequently have marks that display their cause of death all to see. One woman in the first episode wears a neck-brace, and at one point a PDS sufferer who has his leg in a cast-boot is asked when his stitches will come out. The answer, of course, is never. He will have to live with his injuries forever, as would any disabled person. 

The idea of unhealed injury, of visible wounds that lead to questions and stigma is one with which I am intimate familiar. My disability, a collagen disorder called Dermatosparaxis, causes easy bruising and tearing of the skin. I frequently get sores and wounds that take months to close. Sometimes, my legs get swollen causing me to have a gait I call "shobbling," and it looks not unlike the traditional shambling walk of the zombie. On In the Flesh, I see myself reflected in a way I never have before, nor probably will again. The PDS sufferers wear make-up to mask the difference between their skin and that of the living--I have done this to conceal bags and scars. They wear contacts to disguise the difference in their pupils and eye color--I have two differently colored eyes, one which crosses in spite of multiple surgeries to correct it. The show's protagonist, Kieran, has mental health issues and a complicated relationship with his own reflection. I see myself, I see myself, I see myself. 

But in the broader world of the series, as well as in the overall genre of zombie fiction, I see the disabled experience in general.  The fictional zombie varies in origin, but the general explanation is a transmutable infection of some sort or another. They vary in mental ability. They are believed to be impervious to pain. They walk on injuries that would incapacitate a "human." They are frequently identifiable by their physicality. They are, in short, everything that the non-disabled fear in the disabled--an othered body that is seemingly unaware of it's own "wrongness." These creatures are also, almost always, out to attack "humans," by default--whether or not this desire has been neutralized--because of course a body this different must want to destroy those who are "normal."

Zombies, in short, allow able-bodied people a metaphor with which to mask their fear of the "abnormal body" and their belief that the disabled must harbor an innate jealousy--a violent jealousy--toward them. After all, they would rather die than become disable--a zombie. Frequently, the trigger warning that comes before an example of zombie media refers to "body horror." The "abnormal" body is, after all, horrible. 

No! you protest. Zombies are simply fictional monsters. They do not represent anything!--as if any fictional monster did not have a real-life counterpart--Able-bodied people are not afraid of the disabled! They are not even made uncomfortable by them, not in the way that the civilians of In the Flesh are! We do not make them sit in a separate section of the pub, for instance.

And that is true. Now. In most places. But even in the America of the Americans with Disabilities Act--a law that is only twenty-five years old--there were laws, called "Ugly Laws" on the books until 1975, with language that stated in at least one case that "no person who is diseased, maimed, mutilated or in any way deformed so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object or improper person to be allowed in or on the public ways or other public places in this city." 

And why is this? Because it made people uncomfortable. Because they were afraid. Because they did not want to be reminded that the human body is capable of imperfection. That there are people who are perfectly content to live lives that include this imperfection. After all, that cannot be possible. These people cannot be fully alive. These people must have some kind of ulterior motive. They must want to make me as miserable, as brainless as they are.

If they came out into the open, the world as we know it would be over. It would be apocalyptic.

But that is not something we can acknowledge openly, is it? Not explicitly. 
And so, the zombie. Fear writ flesh. 


  1. Very thoughtfully written--I completely agree! Illness and disability DO make many people uncomfortable, in a variety of ways, but most commonly underneath it all lies fear. Fear that it can happen to them--hence all of the "blaming", or "helpful" suggestions (Have you tried X? You can't "give in" and need to try harder....Try more exercise., more vitamins, more sun, less sun.. Etc.) If they can believe that your illness or disability is from something you've done or have not done, then it won't happen to them. Underneath all of that is the very subconscious fear deep down in our lizard brains of "contamination" and death, even if their logical minds tell them it isn't so. Skin disorders are particularly affiliated with the idea of contagion, and of course, often highly visible (even though in reality any break or disorder of the skin puts the sufferer at greater risk than anyone touching it). Your analysis of this particular show and of zombies in general is supported by a slew of sociological and psychological studies. That's not to say that those innate reactions can't be mitigated or even completely suppressed but success varies depending on a huge number of factors--just like in the show.

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