Today a family, community, and the entirety of humanity is at siege, in mortal peril, and gripping the attention of viewers in the popular television series called, "The Last of Us." Two generations ago a radioactive event in George Romero's 60's sci-fi movie classic, "Night of the Living Dead," brought cadavers out of their fetid slumber to startle viewers out of their seats while they stalked and relentlessly pursued human flesh. A decade earlier, audiences of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" cringed as they watched family, friends, and members of the community furtively replaced with replicas hatched from cryptic pods left by an alien race. Zombies and ghouls have populated modern cinema to captivate the human imagination and psyche.
Zombies in Nature
That someone or thing might be controlling our minds is a very unsettling and disturbing idea. Even worse when it is directed in hypnotic fashion to destroy us, and horrifying when it is used to direct our minds to do it to ourselves. We are fascinated to learn about creatures in nature who use their power in this way to overtake and feed on their prey. The television series, “The Last of Us,” is about an emergent fungal mutation that infects the human race to cannibalize itself. This is science fiction, albeit a hypothetically plausible event. There are in nature instances where this actually does occur. The jewel wasp, for example, injects its victim with a venom that, rather than merely kill, transforms it into a slavish zombie willingly led toward a living crypt to be consumed by the wasp’s future progeny. This gruesome fact of nature may become even more unsettling when applied to us humans.
In Western civilization, themes of cannibalism may be found as far back as ancient Greece. In Euripides’s play, “The Bacchae,” the character, Agave, at the behest of a vengeful plot by Dionysus, the god of ecstasy, dismembers her son, a practice in ancient Greece called “sparagnum,” presumably for the purpose of consuming him (literally, in Greek, “omophagia,” the practice of eating raw flesh).
Whist we may be thankful that instances of actual cannibalism among humans is exceedingly rare in modern civilization, genocide may be regarded as a form of cannibalism in the sense that through it we are destroying our own kind in order to "serve" ourselves. Nazi Germany of the mid-twentieth century is arguably the most deservedly reviled episode in modern civilization mainly because it systematically tortured and exterminated millions of its own people. Its infamous leader, Adolf Hitler, relied on mythical symbolism and promises of cultural redemption at the expense of a "blighted and parasitic portion of our species" to promulgate genocidal propaganda. Hitler achieved this in part by appealing to the emotions of the German people with the charisma of his fervent speeches and the massive rallies that bordered on mysticism as vividly portrayed in Leni Riefenstahl's film classic, "Triumph of the Will."
The act of cannibalism also finds a modern derivative in our language when we say we feel “consumed,” especially when it involves human relationships. More literally, what we mean by “to be consumed” is that we lose ourselves to the experience. As a young boy, I was often exposed to an uncanny phenomenon in the evangelical church that my family attended on Sunday mornings. The term, “glossolalia,” refers to the phenomenon of speaking in tongues. It was an unwelcoming experience to watch, as the sermon during church services reached a feverish pitch, certain members of the congregation breaking into what appeared to be gibberish or speaking in a foreign language. Many of the congregants, even those who were not speaking, were emotionally consumed by the experience that had built up to those fitful moments. It is as if the entire congregation, in those moments, became one, enthralled in the passion and spirit of what was called “the holy ghost.”
The Psychological Dimensions of Cannibalism
All of these phenomena, charismatic tirades and mass rituals, Dionysian rites to celebrate oneness with nature, and speaking in tongues, share something in common. Each involves the surrender of one’s sense of self. When one surrenders willingly to the experience, it can bring ecstasy. When it is imposed against one's will, as in the case of zombies, horror. But when it is imposed surreptitiously, it becomes an effective instrument of power that relies on stealth to do its bidding as in "The Invasion of the Body Snatchers," and the classic early 1950's film, "The Manchurian Candidate" about a repatriated prisoner of the Korean War who had been brainwashed to carry out the nefarious plans of a hostile political regime. These stories gave expression to the fears in post-World War II America about the spread of communism.
The investigation of systems designed to cloak reality for ulterior purposes he called “hermeneutics of suspicion” was first studied by the existentialist philosopher, Paul Ricoeur. According to Ricoeur, the concerns of philosophers, such as Friedrich Nietzsche and Michel Foucault, for example, exemplified a narrative that illuminates how a false reality may be used to harbor power for the sake of cultural institutions that resist change. For psychoanalysts, such as R.D. Laing, a false-reality process he called, “mystification,” may be used to maintain the status quo in family systems at the expense of some of its members. And for some cognitive scientists such as Paul Hoffman, our experience is more a tool of natural selection than a reflection of reality. Even Freud proposed that the mind itself is a system designed to expurgate experience that is too disturbing to face. While in Freud’s and Hoffman’s cases, we may say the deception of experience serves a potentially benign purpose, it is unsettling to realize how our experience deceives us and understandably more disturbing when it used for nefarious purposes or against our will and greater interest.
In my blog titled, “Vampires of Trust,” I refer to the grifters and cult leaders who rely on stealth and deception to wield power and influence over their unwary victims. The “mantra” of how cults leverage power is a function of the four “I’s,” “infiltrate, isolate, insulate, and indoctrinate.” However, the phenomenon of experience deceiving itself doesn’t necessarily have to be intentional for there to be reason to hide the remnants of a history that tell a story of psychological trauma, the result of abuses of power. In my clinical practice I sometimes treat patients who suffer from what is called dissociative disorders. These are psychological phenomena that reflect the consequences of abusive relationships that have been in many instances repressed. One of the tragic consequences of this disorder is that the victim of these experiences may go through life in some ways like a zombie, without feeling or a firm sense of conviction or agency, and without the benefit of a consistent memory of one’s past by which one otherwise would be better able to thread together a coherent sense of meaning and purpose in life. Though these aren’t the dystopian narratives of a modern-day horror movie they nonetheless reflect the consequences of how the abuses of power, however unintended, can lead to a tragic trajectory for a person who, like the zombie, travels through life either unaware or without due appreciation for the insidious origins and effects that deprive one of an authentic self.
For better and worse, human beings are social creatures. It is what has produced all the benefits of civilization, i.e., science, technology, the arts. Communication and cooperation have served as foundations for who we have become as a successful species. On the other hand, our social nature is also is the source of our insecurities and the maladaptive ways we deal with them. Classic psychological research on conformity and obedience has shown how susceptible we are to influence by other people, especially those to whom are assigned power, status, and authority, including personal characteristics such as self-confidence and charisma. A good measure of circumspection and skepticism, therefore, is always advised before placing our trust in someone we don’t know well. How this may best be applied depends on the circumstances in which an appeal to our trust is enlisted.
I. Zombies at the Cinema
The popularity of zombie themes in stories at the cinema and in television gives evidence to how powerfully this topic resonates with our collective and personal psyches. The popularity of the series, "The Last of Us," was inspired in part by the anxiety associated with our recent pandemic, "Night of the Living Dead" by cold war fears associated with nuclear holocaust. Theater has throughout civilization served as a useful channel to release our emotions through the process of identification. It serves as both a bellwether to assess the most common sources of our collective concerns as well as a personal means to release our anxieties through a psychological mechanism known as catharsis.
II. Zombies at the Political Feast
In order to empower ourselves as active citizens engaged with due interest in the proper governance of our society, when choosing a leader or a political party to support it behooves us to be informed both about the issues at hand and where the candidates stand on those issues. At the more systemic level of political process, those systems of governance that are designed to maintain a balance of power among its governing entities as well as transparency and accountability to the people they represent help protect us from abuses of power. Beyond these measures, we empower ourselves as agents of societal discourse and governance through our efforts to remain vigilant to the lessons of history that help us identify cultists, populists, and fascist leaders who gain power by appealing to popular grievances, dissemination of disinformation, and efforts to scapegoat at-risk populations of the community. These devious methods represent forms of gaslighting, deflection, and "divide-and-conquer" tactics often used by narcissists in interpersonal relationships. Such "leaders" with these qualities inevitably become rulers, instead, inured to the concerns of the people they are supposed to represent.
III. Interpersonal Relationships: The Zombie Within
When our trust is enlisted at the more personal level, it is important to have trusted friends and family members with whom we can share our apprehensions and questions about our judgment. A seasoned therapist is, of course, also a great resource for these purposes. Not least important, however, is the value that self-understanding and the quality of our relationship with ourselves offers us. The zombification that can result in dissociative disorders from abusive relationships, whether in childhood or later in life, stems from our insecurities and psychological defenses that may thereby gain power over us, leading us toward a less mindful existence more easily influenced by the dictates of those to whom we relinquish power.
Our best resource against zombification, then, may be discovered through the potential of the power and awareness that lies within us. Hence, it may become eminently apparent that while at the head of every cult there is a charismatic leader, there can be no influence without surrender. By the same token, the development of a codependent relationship with a narcissist depends on more than the persuading influence of their charisma and gaslighting tactics. For this reason, awareness of oneself and one’s insecurities and vulnerabilities, as well as how willing we are to open ourselves to their possibility and address them, may serve as the most powerful “firewall” to navigate these situations successfully so that we may lead our lives with a sense of agency and confidence that embraces the life we wish to live authentically.
Robert Hamm Ph.D