Five posts in and already I’ve fallen off the getting-beyond-zombies wagon. I can’t help it–the undead were one of my first loves. (That and killer sharks, but Discovery Channel’s taken care of that for all of us, haven’t they?)

We’ll blame this post on the fact that I saw ParaNorman yesterday. I’m not going to write a review, although you can read some here, here, and here. But really, you should just go watch it, because it’s awesome. You know when it feels like a book or a movie was made just for you? That’s how I feel about ParaNorman. It reminded me why I love the horror genre in general and zombies in particular.

What is this fascination with flesh-eating ghouls, you might ask? Well, it’s more than a love of the grotesque. I would argue, actually, that zombies are one of the most versatile monsters we have. For many reasons, but especially because they’re so liminal–they exist between the boundaries of definitions, they are trapped between one state of being and another.

A zombie, we know, is neither living nor dead. Neither human nor beast. They were people once and they look like people, but we can’t define them as people anymore. After all, people are alive. And in most societies, people don’t eat other people. (If we did, what could we say about our enemies to discredit them? Eating babies is about the worst thing we can think of, no?) Zombies are the ultimate transgressors–they once belonged to the orderly human world and (through disease, black magic, or radioactive satellite dust) have since abandoned it. And that’s scary, because we can recognize ourselves in them.

At some point or another, we’ve been liminal, too. Yes, maybe (probably?) you’re not trapped between life and death, but you most likely have been trapped between adulthood and childhood. Maybe you lived somewhere that was on the border of two places (hello, suburbia). Maybe a relationship got stuck there, or your employment status. Historically, we see women in this position fairly frequently. For instance, widows who haven’t remarried yet. They weren’t maidens–they weren’t matrons–what were they? Not to mention your general undesirables, people who don’t fit whatever norms you’re trying to push. If you live on the fringe, you’re in monster territory–you’re not safe. Safety exists neatly within the bounds of cultural norms and language.

But the really brilliant thing, the really terrifying thing is that because these liminal sorts are on the edges, in the between places, they retain aspects of humanity. They are recognizable, or at least similar to, the normal folk who stay within the lines. Which means, too, that there’s always the possibility, the threat, of conversion. After all, if something’s not at all like you, unrecognizable as even a little bit human, you don’t have worry about seeing yourself in it. But if there’s even a small resemblance, well. That could be you, couldn’t it?  You could end up stuck, snagged between culture and chaos, society and wilderness, roast beef and babies. It only takes a small shift, one moment of exposure to the wrong element. Or, if we go back to zombies, you get bitten. And as simple as that, you shift from human to once-human, alive to undead.

  1. I’m going to have a roast for dinner tonight. Now I’m worried it might actually be a baby. I suppose it’s still a roast, even if it is a baby, just… not the type of roast I was expecting.

    I was thinking during your last paragraph about how we also seem pretty convinced or afraid that once your cross a line, you can’t go back. You can’t unconvert, you can’t cure zombies, you can’t go back to being a child, and once you eat that baby roast, well. You’re a baby eating cannibal.

    Which makes sense, seeing as the part of the Hero narrative arc that makes the character a hero is the fact that he or she *does* make it back from the scary liminal place, when others would have failed to do so.

    Also, I’m really really going to go see ParaNorman.

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