THE ARCHETYPES WE HAUNT OURSELVES WITH
Super Heroes & Zombies
What Are We Trying To Tell Ourselves?
The question of a collective unconscious has been both supported and rebuked by modern psychology and sociology. Within its turbulent existence, its definition has been manipulated countless times in order to fit its countless applications. With that in mind, and for the purpose of maintaining some stability in this article, we will adhere to the most scientific definitions.
First, however, let’s talk about memes!
Richard Dawkins proposed and defined the idea of the ‘meme’ in his 1976 publication, ‘The Selfish Gene’. He sums the meme up as being an idea that spreads like a virus.
In a 2013 talk at the Saatchi & Saatchi New Directors’ Showcase Dr. Dawkins expounds on the meme by saying, “Memes spread through human culture as genes spread through the gene-pool. Memes can be good ideas, good tunes, good poems, as well as driveling mantras. Anything that spreads by imitation, as genes spread by bodily reproduction or by viral infection, is a meme. As with genes, we can expect the world to become filled with memes that are good at the art of getting themselves copied from brain to brain — or from blog to blog.”
A meme, whether it is a good or bad idea, will replicate and spread if it is ‘catchy’ enough to do so.
But what causes a meme to be catchy?
We already know that a meme’s viral spread has nothing to do with it being good, or healthy, or helpful. We also know that the rate of propagation for the same meme can vary wildly depending on when and how it is introduced. Some memes will burn through a community like wild-fire; often leaving just as much destruction behind. Others quietly peter out and disappear, never to be heard of again — whether or not it might have saved the world.
The propagation of memes depends on a complex web of ever-changing and interdependent variables; something we have yet to indisputably identify.
So, what is the collective unconscious? Simply put, it is that which modulates the propagation of memes throughout a culture, generally residing outside of the collective’s awareness.
If that’s the collective unconscious, then an archetype is simply a meme that symbolically represents a meaningful generalization.
To further extend our our analogy from the original Freudian concepts, then books, movies, music, and the media are the ‘dreams’ of our collective unconscious.
Without diving into this too deeply, it would seem that the news and other non-fictions would carry less weight than fictional works. Though these memes and archetypes could bleed into current events and even more so into how these events are delivered; it seems more likely that works of fiction would be much more yielding to the ebb and flow of our collective unconscious.
If we are to accept the logic of this train of thought, then as an individual might ask their self about the meaning of their dreams, we might ask ourselves concerning the meaning of our collective dreams.
Zombies have been around for a while. The idea of the zombie (originally spelled without the ‘e’: zombi) has its roots in Haitian Voudon. The lore goes that a subclass of Voudon priests and practitioners called Bokor have obtained the magical knowledge necessary to turn people into mindless creatures of servitude.
There have actually been some academic attempts to uncover the exact recipe used which is thought to have used a mixture of natural neurotoxins such as puffer fish and toad venom, and psychedelic drugs to put them in a mindless and willing state.
The idea of the modern zombie began around the same time as slavery in the United States. Many of the men and women who were captured and brought to the U.S. as enslaved workers brought the Voudon beliefs with them. Today, Voudon is more commonly referred to as Voodoo.
Slowly, but surely, the zombie meme embedded itself into American culture. Why? Who knows. What we do know is that it was ‘catchy’ enough.
We see zombies in cartoons, movies, and comic books. We read about zombies in magazines and books. We even hear about zombies in music and Halloween radio dramas.
The zombie, for better or worse, has become tightly knit into our social web of useful memes. From using the meme literally, as some modern black magicians might honestly attempt a Voudon ritual, to using the meme symbolically to express the distasteful lemming-like behaviors of some portions of the population. The zombie is here to stay.
The anomaly we’re interested in, however, is the explosion of the use of the word ‘zombie’ at or around the release of The Walking Dead in 2010.
If we take a closer look at the zombie graph on Google’s Ngram Viewer, we’ll see that the use of the word accelerated in the 2000’s. Then, a small anomalous dip right after The Walking Dead premiered, followed by its peak in 2015, and then a sudden drop-off.
You might think that this acceleration is to be expected because of the advent of the internet and better printing technology; but you’d be wrong. The word ‘the’ takes a deep dive and is currently just above its all-time low; which, incidentally, was in 2018. The word ‘love’ was used way more in the 1800. ‘God’ is just under it’s all-time high.
Zombie, vampire, and super hero all share a similar curve. They all show an explosion of interest over the past ten to twenty years.
As you can see above, both zombie and super hero peaked in 2014 and then began a decline. Then, in 2018, zombie looks like it’s thinking about coming back up, but it doesn’t. Where zombie fails, super hero takes the turn upward and is currently at its all-time high.
The Walking Dead threw even more fuel on an already amped-up topic. The frenzy was so intense that the CDC wrote an article on surviving the zombie apocalypse and now they have an entire zombie preparedness blog.
So why are we screaming “ZOMBIE!” and “SUPER HERO!” at ourselves? Is it because we just like zombies and super heroes? Or is it because there is something going on, just outside our collective awareness, that’s amplifying these memes? And if so, what is it that we’re trying to tell ourselves?
One might speculate that we are on the verge of realizing that we are all one. That the unemployed is just as vital of a part of our collective as the lower corner of the kidney is to the body. That the homeless population is just as vital to humanity’s health as the atrial valve is to a human’s health. That the down-trodden and the forgotten are just as important to our collective coherence as myolin is to the neural coherence within our bodies.
We all suspect this on some level. Yet we continue to run the rat-race, and lead our lemming-like lives, and we tell ourselves that either it’s not our problem, or that we do enough by handing a dollar or two to a beggar under the overpass. Perhaps, with the zombies, we’re trying to wake ourselves up because the human collective, the human supra-organism optima, can feel the sickness within itself; eating away at its tissues and organs. Perhaps we’re trying to tell ourselves that we will never be whole until we find a way to be WHOLE. And the only way to do that, is to find a way to shut down the lemming-farm. And for that, we’ll need a super hero.