They've terrorized a shopping mall in "Dawn of the Dead," been folded into classic literature, and even crashed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website.
Seriously. What is the deal with zombies?
The shuffling (or quick-as-lightning, depending on your preferred version) hordes are horror-movie staples, but they've lately skyrocketed in fame with humorous takes such as in the book "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" (Quirk Books, 2009) and the movie "Shaun of the Dead" (2004), which follows a sad-sack salesman during the zombie apocalypse. In 2011, the CDC capitalized on zombie fever with a blog post dedicated to preparing for a zombie uprising, driving so much Internet traffic that their servers crashed.
The reason for this popularity may trace back to an unexpected source, according to a new analysis: In fact, zombies may be helping us cope with the aftermath of World War II.
"We use fictional narratives not only to emotionally cope with the possibility of impending doom, but even more importantly perhaps to work through the ethical and philosophical frameworks that were in many ways left shattered in the wake of WWII," Stanford literary scholar Angela Becerra Vidergar said in a statement.
Imagining the end
Vidergar, a doctoral student in comparative literature, analyzed mass disaster stories in pop culture for her dissertation. She found that mass disasters such as the Holocaust, Hiroshima and Nagasaki opened up new realizations about the human capacity for violence, casting doubt about the upsides of modernized society.
"Instead," Vidergar said, "we are left with this cultural fixation on fictionalizing our own death, very specifically mass-scale destruction."
Predictions about the end times are nothing new, of course. Doomsday believers have been promising that the end is near for centuries, with the December 2012 "Mayan apocalypse" just one in a long line of failed predictions.
But Vidergar found that apocalypticism is up. An increasing number of books, movies, television shows and graphic novels have portrayed post-apocalyptic worlds over the past century, with nuclear explosions and pandemics as common starting points. [Doom and Gloom: Top 10 Post-Apocalyptic Worlds]
In the aftermath of traumatic events like World War II and the Sept. 11, 2011, terrorist attacks, interest seems to spike, Vidergar said. Shows like the National Geographic Channel's "Doomsday Preppers" profile people who go beyond pondering the end and start planning for it.
The zombie apocalypse
Though few real-world preppers worry about zombies, fantasies about the zombie apocalypse make up a large chunk of post-apocalyptic pop culture, Vidergar found.
Shows like AMC's "The Walking Dead" and movies like 2007's "28 Weeks Later" help people work through how they'd act in a survivalist situation, she said.
"Zombies are important as a reflection of ourselves," Vidergar said. "The ethical decisions that the survivors have to make under duress and the actions that follow those choices are very unlike anything they would have done in their normal state of life."
What's more, Vidergar said, zombie apocalypse tales actually invoke hope amidst destruction and death, as survivors battle for their lives.
"Even if as a society we have lost a lot of our belief in a positive future and instead have more of an idea of a disaster to come, we still think that we are survivors, we still want to believe that we would survive," Vidergar said.
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Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.