I’ve been writing a fair amount this year about fear, primarily because our unresolved anxieties can be a significant obstacle to both optimal parenting as well as a buzz-kill to a life richly and fully lived.
While it’s often relatively easy to see other people’s “issues” in stark relief, it’s our own Shadows that lurk behind us as we face the sun. Hence a tour of one of my worst, albeit absurd (at least for a “grown-up” who is also a clinical psychologist), fears…
It was a Saturday night and my parents were out (but then, at least in my mind, they were always out. They would say otherwise, but the fact that they made me feel that way speaks, at the very least, an emotional truth—and I digress here because parenting is not a legal proceeding, but an emotional reckoning and we want our kids to feel like we enjoy them and to feel like we’re actually there, which happens to be the opposite characteristics of zombies, but now I’m getting ahead of myself).
I was around eleven and the local PBS station was showing Night of the Living Dead, which is a classic low-budget independent horror film. While I was fan of “Creature Features” on the local WGN station, the Dracula, Frankenstein and Werewolf movies they showed were only mildly frightening, and furthermore broken every few minutes by commercials. In contrast I lay on my stomach on the rust shag carpet of my bedroom watching the black and white TV play an uninterrupted black and white movie I knew nothing about—learning as I watched that it was about a likable black man surrounded by white zombies in a very real-seeming small town—where a nuclear family devolves from bickering to stupefied literal “consumerism”… of each other.
This movie stunned me with its authentic, matter of fact verisimilitude (the possibility of zombies existing being its only suspension of disbelief). Night of the Living Dead sucker-punched me in the unconscious by confronting my undeveloped mind with a pitch perfect metaphor for what was wrong with my own life. Without doing anything more at the conscious level than frightening me, completely, Night of the Living Dead also entered my psyche like a truth-telling ghost.
Unable to analyze, I was merely left terrified by zombies. What I could not do at that point was consciously realize that my parents, my neighborhood, my school district, my up-sprouting shopping malls and my nation still at war in Vietnam were, at heart, zombies. George Romero, the film’s director knew this, deliberately expressed this; sophisticated moviegoers recognized this and lauded it—but yours truly was Neo-ly trapped in some sort of zombie Matrix with no Morpheus to talk to.
The zombies in my neighborhood didn’t come right out and eat human flesh, but they ate your soul and you ended up with their soulless disease. I knew in my heart that something was terribly wrong with my world, but I couldn’t put my finger, much less my conscious brain, on what it was. And everyone I knew was there to tell me that “normal” was good and that my problems were all in my head; all in my lack of robust manly killer instinct—the very thing that seemed to make one a zombie, disconnected from compassion, understanding, authenticity and love.
A couple of years later my best friend was killed. I couldn’t wrap my mind around that either, thus I was still in a mentally tender state regarding death when Dawn of the Dead came out—and the reviews were fantastic: a scathing indictment on empty consumerism as zombies take over a shopping mall, a lurid comic book blood bath and a feminist gloss to boot.
And yet I was secretly scared to go and see it when invited by a friend. Embarrassed by my fear, now as a teenager, I did what I needed to do in order to prepare: unlike Bill Clinton, and far far from Oxford, I actually inhaled. And this only made the entire experience exponentially more terrifying. I simply could not convince myself that all this slow-footed flesh eating was only a movie. These zombies were in living color and were completely typical mall denizens turned flesh-eating lizard brains. Oh my god, the whole thing was too thinly veiled, too close to the awful truth about the way my world actually seemed to be. I got the metaphor, but it did nothing to allay my sheer terror.
And that was it. I was henceforth resolutely terrified of anything zombie. I could not bring myself to see Day of the Dead, the third in maestro Romero’s trilogy.
Flash forward to nineteen-eighty-six. I’m just out of film school and brash (or naïve) enough to land a job directing an episode of Tales from the Darkside. We’re halfway through filming on a soundstage in Astoria Queens when the executive producer of the show, George Romero himself, comes to review the goings on. I’m introduced to him and shake his hand as he shoves a pastry and some Dionysian grapes into his mouth from the crafts services table. He strikes me as a cross between Hunter Thompson and Stanley Kubrick, and for reasons entirely to do with the dark magic of his filmmaking I am silent and scared.
He sweeps off and I plod clumsily through directing scenes. By the end of the day I’m in hot water, having violated a cardinal budget-rule by going one stinking minute past quitting time, which triggered a multi-thousand dollar consequence for payroll. The line producer literally pulled the plug on the entire soundstage in the middle of my last take, and we were plunged into absolute darkness.
When I came back to my senses I was in the little office the line producer had up in the catwalks above the stage and lights and grids. It’s a bit of a haze, but he was certainly hollering. The gist of it included that I would never work in this business again, and how dare I go over time, and how much money I had cost him. How strange that the mysterious George Romero, savage satirist of our collective culture, was somehow present to my ongoing zombified horror.
Entertainment was a world where, stupidly I must admit, I had desperately hoped to escape the soul-eating, money-obsessed, flesh-eating consumerism of my depressing childhood. I’d finally made it into (at least some fringy corner of) “Hollywood,” the land of fantasy and make-believe (where the monsters were not supposed to be villains until I said, “action” and would behave and laugh with me when I said, “cut”) yet I was as scared and out of control as ever. There was no escaping the zombies.
Certainly there are many nice people in Hollywood. Okay, there are a few nice people in Hollywood, but I’m fortunate enough to know a good number of them as friends and clients. What I was not yet ready to face in my puppy-dog days of narcissistic and neurotic fear-frozen unresolved trauma was that the ultimate zombie, my doppelganger, was to be found in the mirror: my own Shadow.
Jane Lynch’s quip at the Emmys, after a clip of Ricky Gervais being bitter and snarky, was, “Someone didn’t get enough hugs from mommy and now it’s all Hollywood’s fault.” Ouch. Could Night of the Living Dead be better understood as Nightmare of the Unhugged Babies? Could it be true that “zombies” and other emotional and economic cannibals are really just hungry and scared babies?
Fears, if avoided, tend to generalize. One goes from fear of spiders and snakes to fear of everything under the sun and the moon; soon agoraphobia (fear of living in Agoura) ensues. From zombie-avoidance I learned to fear all horror films, and thus my avoidance of the entire genre deepened my dread of fear itself. But I think it was people who scared me more than anything—they can be so hungry and so unpredictable.
And then I became a parent. And then my younger kid got old enough to develop an aesthetic. And then that kid became an avid, perhaps a little rabid, horror fan. Will tricked me into seeing my first zombie film since 1978, I am Legend (saying it was about a scientist trying to cure a disease; true, only the disease happened to have made everyone in Manhattan except Will Smith into zombies). I was leaping out of my seat and holding onto my son, Will, while he found my exaggerated fear rather hilarious. From there we went on to watch The Crazies and Paranormal Activity but I was still shaken more than stirred. Will’s guest blog about horror movies is well worth a read.
Slowly I started to overlay my fear of zombies with my psychological knowledge of fear and anxiety; I began to look at myself, the scared man in the dark theater, though the eyes of myself the psychologist (funny how long something like this can take to arrive). What was I really scared of? All I knew was that I had to keep watching zombies until I lost my fear of them.
Thus I sat watching the Netflixed TV series, Walking Dead, last week… finally accepting that while zombies consciously creep me out, my core fear is not the fear of being eaten alive by zombies (although that would suck) my real core fear is of abandonment (mom’s post-partum depression, parents always out if not traveling, insecure attachment).
Being chased by zombies is a paranoid version of being “wanted” or desired (even if as a snack), and thus serves as a defense against an even worse fear: being utterly unwanted.
If one secretly cannot imagine being loved and lovable, and one fears dying alone on the street, homeless, abandoned, shamed and as unwanted as the walking dead… then one may, oddly enough, become a real life zombie in counter-phobic response: one may dumbly pursue drink, random sex and blind-alley consumerism as a can’t-beat-‘em-join-‘em sort of mass cultural soul-suicide.
I’m getting ready to watch the next season of Walking Dead with my family, as a conscious act of healing. Perhaps the reality of having a family now gives me the courage to confront the feeling of not quite having had one in the past.
As parents, and as humans, the value of discovering our fears, whatever they may be, and then confronting them head on, can liberate us from the lonely traps of the past. When we fear loss and abandonment (and, after all, who doesn’t?) it serves us to realize that we all entered the world helpless and utterly dependent, and while the nature of memory is such that we don’t consciously remember our early infancies, we viscerally remember their feeling tones (and if they were less than secure, we may have great dread about a feared future of abandoned unwantedness that is really a failure to be conscious of the unremembered past).
The “zombie” is the human who is not conscious of their hungers, their fears, their primitive desires; “bad” parenting is really fear-driven and unconscious parenting, zombie parenting. We’ve all done our share of that. Here’s to being awake to both our fears and also to our love; through being connected with each other in authentic ways we find the courage to heal and break out of the prisons of our own past hurts and fears. It serves all of us to find joy and playfulness as monsters grow silly in the loving light of day, and it serves all our collective children who cast shadows just like the rest of us, yet need not fear the dark.