All Alone in the Night

Night of the Living Dead isn't really about zombies. Zombies are just a metaphor in zombie movies (and zombie musicals). George Romero has made a zombie film in each decade since the 1960s (though his pace sped up in the 2000s), and the metaphor changes with the times.

But regardless of the metaphor, Night of the Living Dead is about fear. And how people behave (and misbehave) when they're governed by fear. As Romero has said about his films, "My stories are about the people that deal with it, don't deal with it, deal with it improperly, deal with it stupidly. The stories are about how people screw up." Because they're afraid. And that's what makes Romero's movies so compelling, why they connect so powerfully to audiences. He's always really talking about us, right now.

I told the actors that no matter what's happening on the surface, we can never lose that palpable underlying layer of extreme fear. All of them literally fear for their lives from the beginning of the show to the end. They never escape the fear, even for a minute. And the audience will feel that fear with us.

All human drives can be boiled down to three things: appetite (for food, water, sex), safety (shelter, protection), and meaning (purpose, love, connection). A zombie apocalypse threatens all three. And we all fear the loss of all three.

What do we fear in the real world? Pretty much everything. Which means the zombie threat can stand in for many different things to different people. Like classic fairy tales, we take from these stories what we need. And everybody needs something different.

And yet it all still boils down to fear.

There's our obvious fear of terrorism, more pronounced since the Sept. 11 attacks, which is fundamentally connected to that most primal fear of The Other. Our ancient, primitive ancestors feared The Other because there was good reason when tribes were competing for limited resources. That fear of The Other, which is usually irrational today, has not been evolved out of us, even though we have very little reason to fear The Other in this modern world. According to Washington Post article, you're six times more likely to die from hot weather than from a terrorist attack, and you're 11,000 times more likely to die in an airplane accident than in a terrorist attack involving an airplane. Also, the vast majority of white murder victims are killed my white murderers.

And yet we fear on...

And of course, human religion is built on fear (or, more to the point, control through fear) – fear of eternal damnation, primarily, but also lots of other things. In fact, human religion was created as an answer to our primitive ancestors' fear of death. Most religion is chock full of rules, and accompanying punishments for breaking those rules. Metaphorically, it's pretty easy to see Night of the Living Dead as a kind of purgatory where these people are trapped together because of their/our "sins."

And even beyond that, the zombie physicalizes all the issues religion grapples with, like "lost" souls, the end times, resurrection, eternal damnation, etc. Most of the Great Sins are about human appetites, and the Catholic Church still practices a ritual in which believers eat the literal flesh of their god.

But politics is also based on fear. Well, that's not quite true. Conservative politics is based on fear – fear of The Other, fear of change, fear of loss, and generally fear of the unknown. Seriously, turn on Fox News sometime and you'll see what I mean – once you become aware of it, you'll see fear suffusing every news story and every debate. The same is true of every debate in Congress; Republicans will always argue fear. Today, that translates into fear of the radical socialist Obama, fear of Obamacare, fear that Obama will take away your guns, fear of loss of freedom. Remember the last election? Obama's "death panels," Obama "palling around with terrorists," Obama as socialist, Kenyan, witch doctor... and now you can add to all that voter fraud, gay marriage, Benghazi, and brown people.

The fact that these fears are as irrational as the fears that drive religion doesn't make that fear feel any less real to the frightened.

I read a really amazing book last year, Chris Mooney's The Republican Brain, that summarizes recent brain research (and there's been a ton of it since the invention of the real-time MRI) in an attempt to understand the differences between conservatives and liberals. And it turns out there are actual physical differences between the average conservative brain and the average liberal brain. In most liberal brains, the anterior cingulate cortex is larger, the part of the brain that processes complexity, conflicting information, nuance, tolerance for uncertainty, and here's a surprise – empathy. It's also the part of the brain where curiosity and openness to new ideas come from.

In the average conservative brain, the amygdala (the most primitive part of the brain and the location of our fear center) is larger. Mooney says, "The amygdala plays the same role in every species that has an amygdala. It basically takes over to save your life. It does other things too, but in a situation of threat, you cease to process information rationally and you’re moving automatically to protect yourself.” It's just that many conservatives today, partly due to the commercial Fear Industry (Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, et al.), perceive themselves to be always under threat, so they process information irrationally much of the time.

Dune tells us that "Fear is the mind killer," and it's true.

(Now to be fair, the amygdala is also where loyalty and family bonding come from. And research doesn't tell us yet whether conservatives are born with bigger amygdalas, or if a conservative environment causes the amygdala to develop more.)

In one study, "Conservatives showed much stronger skin responses to negative images, compared with the positive ones. Liberals showed the opposite. And when the scientists turned to studying eye gaze or 'attentional' patterns, they found that conservatives looked much more quickly at negative or threatening images, and then spent more time fixating on them." Mooney concludes that this "new research suggests that conservatism is largely a defensive ideology – and therefore, much more appealing to people who go through life sensitive and highly attuned to aversive or threatening aspects of their environments."

Whenever I hear this lyric of Ben's in the show, I also hear the Tea Party in 2010:
No, this can't be happening...
No, can't be happening here...
I don't know how a thing like this can be happening...
No, no, no...!

Variations on this (like "What's happening here?", "Why is this happening?", etc.) are all over this show.

Imagine how frightening it must be to be a hard-core conservative with an enlarged amygdala in the era of Obama. As Salon describes their worldview, in an article about Mooney's book, "The White House has been usurped by a Kenyan socialist named Barry Soetero, who hatched an elaborate plot to pass himself off as a citizen of the United States – a plot the media refuse to even investigate. This president doesn't just claim the right to assassinate suspected terrorists who are beyond the reach of law enforcement – he may be planning on rounding up his ideological opponents and putting them into concentration camps if he is reelected. He may have murdered a blogger who was critical of his administration, but authorities refuse to investigate. At the very least, he is plotting on disarming the American public after the election, in accordance with a secret deal cut with the UN and possibly with the assistance of foreign troops."

That's as scary as a zombie apocalypse. Which is kind of the point.

The point of zombie movies isn't that zombies are way scarier than the things we fear in the real world. The idea is that they're exactly as scary. In a time of 9/11, of school shootings, of movie theatre shootings, of the Boston marathon bombing, and ever increasingly lax gun laws, zombies aren't really beyond reality – they represent reality. At least as we see it.

Of course, the truth is that Americans have never been safer. Violent crime is at the lowest levels in decades, and there are fewer terrorist attacks today than in the last forty years. But it seems no one told our fear centers.

We're built to fear. We have to choose not to fear.

In Night of the Living Dead, Harry stands in for conservative America, and Ben stands in for liberal America. Ben feels great empathy for the catatonic Barbra, while Harry wants a gun because Ben has one. Ben wants to find a way to escape, while Harry wants to barricade himself in the cellar. Ben tries to help the others, while Harry wants to protect only him and his family. Ben accepts that there's much here that they don't know, while Harry keeps insisting it must be the KGB – in 1968, there was no easier target for fear than the Soviet Union. In 2013, I'm sure Harry would be convinced it was the Muslims out to get them.

It's no wonder this script and score spoke to me. As a politics junkie, I've been watching irrational fear drive our national debate since 2008. Well, really, since 2001...

And after all, the point of horror movies and roller coasters is to exercise (or maybe exorcise) our fear, to place ourselves in a situation where our primitive brain can be scared while our intellectual brain knows we're actually safe.  There is a kind of rush, a thrill, in being scared. Which is why a lot of horror movies (the less gross ones) are often called thrillers.

Then again, when horror stories are out-gunned in fear-mongering by "news" outlets, it's a brave new world... And maybe it is a world to fear...

Watch out! It's Nancy Pelosi coming to eat your brains!

Long Live the Musical!