Ideas can change the entire world
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What makes zombies so scary, Hint: it is not the brain-eating
can be a writer and filmmaker, whose work has appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education, the Boston Phoenix and Carve, among others. He teaches writing at City College and Berkeley College in New York City.
can be a writer and filmmaker, whose work has appeared within the Chronicle of Higher Education, the Boston Phoenix and Carve, and the like. He teaches writing at City College and Berkeley College in New York City.
As you've no doubt noticed (unless you're one too), the zombies have taken over: the walking dead are saved to your TV, on your own commute, and - to widespread ambivalence - inside the East End of London. And though lots of dissertations are already launched on the undead as representative of our anxiety about losing our souls to technology, the terror of zombies predates smartphones by about five millennia.
Nor is it a zombie's relentless compulsion to eat you alive that puts it within the bogeyman hall of fame. Zombies fit in with the realm of problem reports that reappear over and over throughout history - from ancient Mesopotamia to modern-day sci-fi - simply because they raise a more terrifying fear than merely what gory death: the threat of eternal life.
Apeirophobia - the concern with the infinite or eternal - may appear ridiculous at first. After all, from antiquity onwards, human societies are rife with tales of people trying to find eternal life. These stories, however, always contain an undercurrent of the terror that immortality could hold. The dead that Ishtar, the Babylonian goddess of fertility, threatened to produce from your underworld were hungry not for brains, but simply for a good meal: the menace was that they can would tackle the living, not eat them. The great beyond has not been, it seems like, a spot for destination dining; far from your ending of awareness, death meant a meagre and unhappy eternal existence - just like a long haul flight on Spirit Airlines.
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The Greeks, too, knew that forever would be a mighty number of years. For them, eternal life was a chance for Olympic-level sadism. Sisyphus, Tantalus, poor people Danaids - who only wanted to not marry their cousins, for your gods' sakes - Greek punishment was intended to torture not simply with pain and hunger and relentless chores but specifically using endless repetition. It's just a grander version of our own quotidian nightmare: it is possible to handle commuting to work, or grading papers, or making your kids' lunch today, and in all likelihood tomorrow, but forever,
And that's the torture of the apeirophobe: unbearable time, day in, outing, spinning in to a future the length of which we can't even conceive. In an interview , Richard Dawkins said hello as clearly as possible: ‘our brains aren't created to manage the eternal'. The mere regarded it leads to an existential despair that one can trace through Dante and Kafka to its much more frightening modern incarnations.
Once people began to know how big the Universe in fact is - and exactly how old - these were forced to fully confront two things. First, the immeasurable; and after that, abjectly, humankind's place in that immeasurability. To those who fear the infinite, David Bowie's Major Tom wasn't simply a martyr to the space age: his tragedy, further amplified through the German musician Peter Schilling's sequel, was he could be ‘drifting, falling, floating, weightless' without hope of end. ‘No one understands / but Major Tom sees…' Schilling sings - and what he sees, while on Earth they mourn him and move ahead, may be the endless light and solitude and sheer size of space.
Stephen King's short story ‘The Jaunt' (1981) can make it even more explicit: within it, a medically knocked-out family travels from Earth to Mars instantly - no less than physically. When they awake they realize that their rebellious son skipped the sleeping gas and experienced the trip as nearly infinite, mentally. Thought upon thought upon thought through the vastness of space turns the boy, King writes, into ‘a creature more than time masquerading being a boy', with ‘a snow-white fall of hair and eyes that had been incredibly ancient…' The boy screeches with lunacy about along his trip, literally driven mad with the endlessness of energy. The story will be the apeirophobe's worst nightmare.
Zombies embody this horror perfectly. The creepiest thing about them is which they are, essentially, us: all zombies lived their lives - wakened each morning, had coffee, worked at petty beefs making use of their spouses like loose teeth, held their children's hands for the way to school - before whatever it was that overcame them. And, just as with anyone in Dante's Inferno, the state they're in is really a claim that will last not only until the end of time, but beyond. A zombie trapped in a properly will remain there forever, getting hungrier and hungrier since the millennia pass. That is infinity.
Time is nothing to fool with, because these ‘entertainments' do. A zombie forever wandering the earth, or possibly a character the need to listen to ‘I Wish it could be Christmas Every Day' for a multitude of years - played for laughs! - is just in regards to the most terrifying thing an apeirophobe are able to see. There's a reason, in fact, the CIA uses some time and repetition to torture people.
To be immortal, to call home forever - it couldn't be further from the adolescent fantasy of untold riches and wondrous lives. Just imagine that existence: everything who are around you dies, everyone you like, everything you know, quickly enough all humanity, and in no time too the Earth itself, the galaxy, after which the Universe. Most discussions of eternal life your investment fact that the globe ain't gonna be here everything long (relatively).
And the other option, needless to say, is death - not exactly a popular outing on people's bucket lists. To die, or to reside forever: this paradox will be the true vision of soul-crushing terror. To be apeirophobic would be to often be staving off that debilitating dread. The night, much like so many fears, will be the worst. Peeling away the blue sky reveals, once again, the Universe's unfathomable hugeness, and presents us while using pressing compulsion to take into account it. It's devastating.
Because forever features a bad ending. What could be scarier than to reside forever in a very Universe which will end in a very billion-year-long dissolution into nothingness , I can't imagine.
Zombies, everywhere, raise this spectre, over and over. Their insatiable hunger, their endless searching, even their constant decay - a parallel in our ageing selves - beckons on the world that eternally awaits, providing strength to a mirror of which we cannot help but flinch and say: ‘There but for that grace of your non-existent god go we.'
Sigmund Freud was the established genius; Carl Jung the youthful upstart. They began as friends, and ended as bitter enemies.
Help us create an animation about one of the great intellectual feuds with the twentieth century.
David Andrew Stoler
is really a writer and filmmaker, whose work has appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education, the Boston Phoenix and Carve, and others. He teaches writing at City College and Berkeley College in New York City.
Ideas can transform the world
Aeon is often a registered charity committed to the spread of data and a cosmopolitan worldview.
But we can't do it without you.
Aeon can be a registered charity devoted to the spread of information and a cosmopolitan worldview. Our mission is to build a sanctuary online for serious thinking.
No ads, no paywall, no clickbait - just thought-provoking ideas through the world's leading thinkers, liberal to all. But we're not able to take action without you.
History of Ideas