Zombs and Zombibility

May 2008

Every Zombie movie has some variant of this scene:

One of the heroes, our human survivors, is scratched or grazed in an altercation with a zombie. It's not a deep enough wound to kill, or to instantly turn him into a mindless zombie, but he's now infected.

We, of course (having seen this sort of thing before), know that it's only a matter of time before the infection destroys his mind and unleashes his flesh-eating depravity, turning him into one of those he is currently fighting, and threatening the survival of his companions.

He knows this, too, but individual self-preservation trumps tribal survival. He conceals his wound, and pretends everything is alright. The infection spreads; he looks increasingly ill; fellow survivors ask more and more frequently if he's okay. He continues to shrug off their questions, claiming to be fine, only to reveal the infected-and-spreading wound all too clearly to us when he examines it in secret.

Eventually, the inevitable happens. He turns. Sometimes there is a moment of internal conflict, of resistance‍—‍time enough to shout a warning maybe‍—‍and sometimes there isn't. Sometimes he kills those allies closest to him, sometimes not, but either way resolution is swift. He is killed or confined, as quickly as possible‍—‍where there is hesitation, more people die.

His companions‍—‍those who have just killed him‍—‍are usually pretty understanding. Someone will ask ‘why didn't you say something?,’ but even as they ask they know the answer. They are left with not much more than a sense of sorrow and grief at the loss of one of their own.

There's two dynamics in here I find really fascinating:

  1. What makes someone threaten the tribe for the sake of their own survival? Are there ever any exceptions?

  2. Why are the tribe so accepting of this? Why is there no anger or blame?


Well, first of all, there are exceptions. Sometimes‍—‍rarely, but it happens‍—‍the bitten hero will reveal his wound, and will tell his companions to go on without him. Often this gives him an opportunity for explosive martydom; he slows down the hordes as his companions escape, and everyone gains‍—‍he was lost already, anyway.

Sometimes, he'll reveal the wound, and the tribe will keep him with them, in the hope of finding an antidote, or because even in his infected state he has some use to them, or because they cannot bear to part with him. (This usually ends as the first story; he turns and attacks his tribe. Sometimes, however, they're sufficiently prepared to deal with him.)

Still, most of the time the wound is concealed, and the infected turns at the worst possible moment.

The deception and concealing of the wound is generally portrayed as a moral failing‍—‍simply a lack of courage, usually. It's hard to face death well, especially a death that leaves you not properly dead, but a mindless monster. Cowardice shouldn't be all that surprising a response. I can't recall any examples, but it's possible that denial is also a factor.


Still, even with deception being par for the course, I cannot think of a single example where blame has been doled out. There's always a sad, shaking-of-the-head, ‘why?’, but it's never a question that needs an answer. Everyone knows it could have been them.

That doesn't mean nobody wanted it to turn out differently, but what were the options? Any rational tribe would (assuming no antidote) kill or abandon their infected; they know it, they know that their infected companion knew it‍—‍did they expect him to accept death that easily?

Ideally, of course, he would, but everyone knows that people aren't good at that. When a moral failing is so common, we stop seeing it as a moral failing, and we accept it as a part of being human.

In the same way that there is no blame dispensed for his deception, there is also no blame distributed for his inevitable death. The survival of the group was threatened and the appropriate action was taken. The vet doesn't take the blame when a sick animal needs to be put down. (Responsibility, yes; blame, no.)


This obviously all has some distant relation to recent events, but I don't think I need to bother nailing any conclusions to the wall. I think I'll leave it with this:

The central tenet of the field of social psychology is that if under a given situation, all or nearly all individuals will engage in the same unwanted behavior, then there is less to be gained by stigmatizing those individuals and lauding the ones who don't than by studying the situation with an eye towards changing it.

Not That the Actual Forbidden Knowledge is as Interesting as That There Is Forbidden Knowledge