5

In the recent RadioLab podcast "Quicksand," a reporter was able to give exact metrics on the popularity of quicksand by looking at the number of quicksand mentions in movies from 1909 until the present. In the course of his research, he was able to show that 1 in 1000 movies from the early part of the century used quicksand, but that by the 1960s, that had changed to a massive 1 in 35. Culturally, quicksand spoke to the metaphors of Vietnam, Civil Rights, and other fears associated with that decade.

The current fad, of course, is the "Zombie Apocalypse." I love The Walking Dead, 28 Days Later, World War Z (the book at least), and the like. And, clearly there is something about this fad that has tapped into the current Zeitgeist.

In order to understand that, however, I need data. Is there a study that can serve as a decent proxy to attest to the actual prevalence of zombies in popular culture over time? My gut tells me there would be a spike sometime in the recent past - I don't remember zombies being "big" in the 80s, beyond Night of the Living Dead - but nowadays, even Jonathan Coulton is getting in on the act.

What numbers would help me to quantify the actual prevalance of zombies in popular culture, in order to demarcate the inflection point of this phenomenon?

Clearly, every age has its monsters (vampires, werewolves, killer plagues) and so I don't mind a relative comparison. For bonus points, are there studies that attempt to isolate what about zombies so matches what the culture is trying to tell us?

  • Why the Downvote? – Affable Geek Oct 20 '13 at 12:24
  • I always figured the popularity of zombies was a combination of the fears of atavistic fundamentalism (group-think anti-intellectualists who want to eat your brain and make you just like them) and the fear of a global pandemic. (Slender Man, in contrast, seems to be a combination of fears of faceless uncaring beurocracies, of suffering from mental illness, and of human preditors).Obviously doesn't answer your question, but having been thinking about this kind of thing since I noticed vampires on the rise in popularity in the nineties, I'm just glad to see someone else exploring it :) – LindaJeanne Sep 3 '15 at 18:08
  • (continuing the ramble in my above comment, that could be a good way to go about creating a fictional monster: choose two seemingly-unrelated common cultural fears, and develop something that symbolically references both.) – LindaJeanne Sep 3 '15 at 18:10
  • @LindaJeanne - I just learned that the OP, Affable Geek, died in February. Unfortunately, he won't be able to reply. – Wad Cheber Sep 8 '15 at 3:19
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Google's Ngram viewer is your friend. It searches inside books -- so it doesn't specify popular culture -- but it's a pretty good proxy, I think.

The graph of zombie,zombies,Zombie,Zombies shows

  • very few mentions before ~1925
  • a bump for about ten years, followed by a return to the previous low level
  • an accelerating increase of 50% to 100% per decade

If, for ease of calculation*, we assume the number of mentions doubles every decade, then in a little less than 2500 decades, all books will say nothing but "Zombie, zombie, zombie, zombie, zombies, zombies. Zombies!"

zombies in Google Ngram

  • *The various zombie forms total about 0.00014%, so (1.00014^2)^x=2, and x=2475.
  • 3
    Keep in mind there's over a hundred movies about zombies that do not have any form of zombi/e in the title. Many of them have "Dead" in the title, but not all: The Beyond, Stacy, Hide & Creep, Versus, Pontypool and Fido to name a few. – Meat Trademark Oct 18 '13 at 17:11
  • @MeatTrademark: true, but since that applies equally to all time periods I guess this way of estimating a pattern is pretty good. – Wikis Oct 19 '13 at 20:39
  • @MeatTrademark: Good point. Some of those movies will show up if a review mentions zombies, but not all (For example, Roger Ebert's reviews of Evil Dead 2 and Army of Darkness don't use the Z-word.). Even worse, most film reviews won't show up because they don't get collected in books. – sjl Oct 19 '13 at 23:56
  • That's not very useful - searching for "quicksand" utterly fails to recover the originally stated results. – Superbest Apr 20 '14 at 6:05
0

Some More Information About Your Primary Question:

Yes, this has been studied in great detail in recent years. Here's a sampling of the work:

Graphical Analyses Of Zombie Popularity:

An Older Google Trends Graph I Found:

image

Google Trends in the U.S. Since 2004:

image

Google Trends Worldwide Since 2004:

image

Graph From An io9 Article Positing A Correlation Between Zombie Media And Social Crises

image

Regarding Your Bonus Question:

A lot of research has been done into the issue of why zombies have become so ubiquitous in popular culture. Here is a relatively small sampling:

Some General Interest Articles On This Subject:

Zombies and Psychology, Psychology e-Review

The Lure of Horror, The British Psychological Society

The Evolutionary Psychology of the inevitable Zombie Apocalypse, Psychology Today

The American Fascination With Zombies, Scientific American

Zombie Popularity Peaks When Society Is Unhappy, National a Post article

Some Academic Works On This Subject:

Zombies And Popular Culture, Thesis from a student at the University of Georgia

Fear Rises from the Dead: A Sociological Analysis of Contemporary Zombie Films as Mirrors of Social Fears, Thesis from a graduate student at the University of Regina

Some Considerations on Zombies, Journal of Social Sciences Research

Locating Zombies In the Sociology of Popular Culture, Essay from staff member at the University of Missouri's Department of Sociology

The Anatomy of the Zombie: A Bio-Psychological Look at the Undead Other, Professor Mathias Clasen PhD, Aarhus University

A Pilgrimage of Monsters, Special Issue of the Journal "Studies In Popular Culture

From White Zombies to Night Zombies and Beyond: The Evolution of the Zombie in Western Popular Culture, by sociologist Todd Platts

From Voodoo to Viruses: The Evolution of the Zombie in Twentieth Century Popular Culture, Thesis from a graduate student at Trinity College Dublin

Ethology Of Zombies, Thesis from a student at Köln International School of Design

A Zombie Manifesto: The Nonhuman Condition in the Era of Advanced Capitalism, Article for the academic journal boundary 2

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