Back in October 2013, Open University researcher Stephanie Lay published a study revealing why zombies are so scary to us. Lay spent approximately six years studying the uncanny valley theory, which was first proposed back in the 1970s and suggested that we are scared of zombies because our minds cannot process images of things so visually similar and yet different to human beings.
To test this theory, Lay showed numerous study participants a series of images which included robots that became gradually more human-looking. Results showed that those involved were more likely to affiliate with the robots that had more human features, that is until they became too similar to us. After that point, participants found the images eerie and even repulsive. It was this point where what is known as the uncanny valley effect took over, an emotional response evoked by the inhuman-human-looking robot.
Lay then went on to test the same theory but with zombies by showing images of human eyes located in inhuman faces. The results suggested that when participants saw these pictures “normal processing mechanisms” failed to kick in, leaving them feeling unsettled. Ultimately, Lay’s study revealed that the more something monstrous looks human, the more likely we are to find it scary and disturbing.
However, this study was conducted four years ago when the public’s obsession with zombie-based media was just peaking. For centuries, there had been a steady build-up of intrigue surrounding reanimated corpses beginning as far back as Ancient Greece when Phlegon of Tralles wrote the tale of Philinnion and Machates. In more modern times, the public was thrilled by Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein and in 1932 White Zombie starring Bela Lugosi became the first zombie movie ever.
The notion of a zombie apocalypse didn’t appear until 1968 though, when George Romero released Night of the Living Dead, perhaps the most influential horror movie ever made due to scenes like the one above. This led to a variety of other movies starring z-heads, but for a time the undead were more of a gimmick than a truly frightful notion, especially when pitted against the various other monsters that were appearing in the horror genre.
It wasn’t until the millennium rolled around that the herds of undead managed to enter the mainstream market. In 2002 alone there was Resident Evil and 28 Days Later, followed in 2004 by Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead reboot and Shaun of the Dead. Due to the sudden popularity zombies were gaining, author Max Brookes wrote The Zombie Survival Guide and released the novel World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War later in 2006.
Needless to say, the public’s interest in zombies was rising, and on Halloween 2010 AMC’s hit television show The Walking Dead aired. Over the next couple of years, few horror sub-genres could compete with the popularity of zombies as the Walking Dead ravaged the world, scaring anyone and everyone out of their minds.
Alas, as we said earlier that was years ago. In the last five years, we’ve been inundated with zombie-based media including continuous series of The Walking Dead and its spin-off Fear the Walking Dead, iZombie, World War Z, Dead Snow, Warm Bodies, The Girl With All The Gifts and fan favorite Zombeavers, just to name a few. Even seemingly unrelated works have been caught by zombies, with Game of Thrones featuring hordes of the cold dead and Pride and Prejudice receiving a little zombie makeover.
It hasn’t just been television and cinematic media who have adopted zombies either. As gaming became more popular, so too did zombies as games such as The Last of Us (2013), the Left 4 Dead series and Minecraft (2008) continued to push the zombie agenda. To this day Resident Evil games continue to sell, while other popular games such as Red Dead Redemption received zombie-themed DLCs. Even the iGaming industry, which usually deals in glamour rather than gore, has boarded the zombie bandwagon with games such as the Zombie and the Lost Vegas video slots appearing on numerous online bingo and slots sites such as Magical Vegas.
After so much zombie-related media, can we really say that the undead frightens us as much as they used to? For years the true trick to scaring people was to put them face-to-face with the unknown, but now we know almost everything we ever possibly could about zombies. We’ve met the different types, we’ve seen how different characters survive when faced with them and most of us have decided that we’d probably just set them on fire and run: what else is there to be scared of?
Once upon a time, zombies represented everything we feared about death, dread and the unknown, but maybe it is time to admit that zombies just aren’t that scary anymore. But we’d be very happy to see that change.