Freud and the Zombie Apocalypse

[Some vague spoilery elements follow, though nothing too surprising. Also, you really want to embiggen the pictures – they’re a LEGO zombie apocalypse! Awesome!]

“Something need not have happened to be true. Tales and dreams are the shadow truths that will endure long after mere fact is but dust and ashes, and forgot.” – The Sandman, by Neil Gaiman

Zombieland is a very different movie than Shaun of the Dead, even though both comedies involve huge mobs of zombies. The difference is not simply USAian versus British humor; the difference is Freudian.

Shaun of the Dead involves two friends and the people they know and care about slowly being torn apart. As the movie continues, the group is slowly torn apart by animated thanatos – a shambling death eating everyone. Zombieland, in contrast, shows a group slowly being formed in the face of the zombie horde.

Freud, judging by Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, would approve of these themes.

The text of Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego itself appears to be in plain language, but the thoughts presented are convoluted. He spends a great deal of time setting up other people’s arguments in order to knock them down. Discussions of mobs are insufficient. Simple organization to counteract the dehumanizing and uncivilizing effect of a group is insufficient. Throughout, he posits that a leader is necessary for a group – whether a temporary mob or a persistent, organized group like an army – to form.

But really, it’s not about the leader. The leader is just a focus. Really, it’s about eros. It’s about love.

Freud’s basic argument can be summed up much more simply than he does in the text. As individuals, we are driven by libido – a biological urge for sex. When this urge is met, we no longer need to look elsewhere for connection. But when the urge is not met, things move from the biological to the social realm.

When our desire for sex is obstructed – whether it’s from a hundred other fans all loving the same musician, the impropriety of doing it in the road (no matter what John Lennon said) or social taboos about dating our parents – that desire can’t just go away. Instead, it is re-channeled into other emotions. He calls it sublimation; I call it transformation. Instead of mere biological sex, it becomes affection. Love. When we cannot possess (sexually, of course, this is Freud) what we desire, it becomes important to us. More important, eventually, than our own self.

This is why leaders are important. They are someone we can hang our hopes, our ideals, our love on. When our drives are focused on a group – and therefore, on the leader of the group – it shuts out other avenues for this drive, this libido, to manifest itself.

Freud structures his argument as a series of logical, theoretical propositions. If X is true, then Y must follow. If X does not account for some observed instance, then there must be another, better explanation. It is almost Aristotelian in deductive structure. Unlike the pure logic of Aristotle and Plato, Freud illustrates his account with case studies and examples from his times. Nearly all of his examples – again, save the army and church – point back towards individual people. He describes the individual psychology of the toddler and pubescent, of the women circling a performer, or of his mythical ur-leader depriving his sons of sexual satisfaction. This is not a contradiction.

We form groups to create something larger than ourselves – and perhaps something immortal. But though Freud nominally talks about groups in this text, it is really about individuals. He takes a reductionist view of groups; that is, a group is not an indivisible entity. Instead it is an agglomeration of individuals who have taken a particular libidinal stance towards a leader. That is why, at the end of the text, he returns to the individual instead of the group. Ultimately, groups are an effect of individual psychology, not a phenomenon unto themselves.

Because, in Freud’s view, this group membership is a redirection of the individual libido, we can use personal examples to illustrate the principles of larger collections of people. Smokers – sucking in their own thanatos death wish – spontaneously form groups. The courtly love of the Middle Ages is, to him, no different in principle than a dedicated Obama supporter in 2008 or a fan wearing a Michael Jackson commemorative t-shirt after his death. We can see the same drive that creates groups reflected in couples having sex after a funeral.

Or zombie movies.

Shaun of the Dead leaves us (somewhat – it is a comedy after all) with a bleak ending. Despite the stabilization of the fictional world, the core group we identified with has been largely slaughtered. Zombieland leaves us exultant, even though its universe is far more desperate. In that movie, the group not only forms, but is ultimately strengthened. Regardless of the actual chances of the survivors past the immediate end of the movie, our drives do not know the difference.

Freud’s work has largely been discredited. His explanations – the ur-leader depriving his sons of sex – strike modern readers as ludicrous. His openly misogynistic sexism and heterosexism grates the nerves. Freud’s explanation for bipolar disorder – now known to be a largely organic brain ailment – is at best misguided.

And yet.

Even in our circles of friends, even in our families, there are leaders. There is someone who holds the group together, and when they leave, the groups find a new leader or fall apart.

When we lay dying, we send for these people. We send for friends, family, and clergy. They are all representatives, members, or even leaders of our groups. As we face thanatos ourselves, we wish for the reminders of love. We wish to be surrounded by the members of our group.

And that is the horror of zombies. Instead of eros – or even a sublimated version in our group ties – these characters find themselves surrounded by its antithesis.

Freud is almost certainly wrong. His explanations don’t hold up under empirical evidence. Very few therapists use psychoanalysis the way Freud did. Even at the time, his critics accused him of telling a type of “Just-So Story”, and that critique seems true. He told stories to try to describe what he saw, just as the ancients he alludes to told myths to explain thunder, storms, love, and death.

But his conceptualizations have taken hold in the popular psyche. In a somewhat ironic twist, they’ve hit a Jungian nerve.

Because even though they are stories, and may bear little resemblance to empirical evidence, that doesn’t mean they are not true.