Key to the analysis of the Toronto Zombie Walk is the definition and interpretation of fun. Typing ‘fun’ into the search engine Google results in approximately 3,060,000,000 websites. Likewise, Amazon.com finds 56,609 book titles containing the word (search engine figures at November 2011). According to Merriam-Webster, the word “fun” can be defined as: “what provides amusement or enjoyment” and “a mood for finding or making amusement” (m-w.com). In a recent article, psychologists McManus and Furnham (2010) suggest “Conceptualising fun is not straightforward, in part because of the number of synonyms…Fun is therefore a complex word with multiple meanings referring to affective and motivational properties” (3). The multiplicity of interpretations of the word demands a decoding of what fun is intended and what this fun means in this performance.
The etymology of the word fun can be traced back to the 1680s, when as a verb, its meaning was to cheat, or to hoax. It is likely a variant of the 15th Century Middle English word befool (etymologyonline.com). This essay argues that it is within the realm of the more sinister meanings of the word, the idea of making fun, that the Zombie Walk produces social commentary. Sasha Cocarla suggests that, “it is within the space of performance and play that the zombie walk is able to momentarily subvert dominant social norms and replace them with the utterly grotesque” (116). This play-space is a theatrical locus where fun can be explored and experienced. The Zombie Walk can be seen as modern version of the medieval carnival, where the everyday is interrupted by performance. In his analysis of Rabelais, Bakhtin describes this carnivalesque atmosphere as “a second life, a second world of folk culture is thus constructed; it is to a certain extent a parody of the extracarnival life, a ‘world inside out’” (11). Similar to medieval carnival, the walk mocks and inverts the ruling ideologies of society.
The medieval carnival and the contemporary zombie performance make fun through an exploration of the human body. In the Walk, zombies become the fools/clowns of a modern carnival experience. “One of the main attributes of the medieval clown was precisely the transfer of every high ceremonial gesture or ritual to the material sphere” (Bakhtin 20). Medieval carnival promotes the celebration of the human body through exaggerations of bodily functions–eating and drinking, defecation and sexual life–what Bakhtin defines as “grotesque realism,” (19) where “the bodily element is deeply positive” and “the images of bodily life are fertility, growth and brimming-over abundance” (19). Similarly, zombies’ leaky, open sores and deteriorating bodies remind us of our materiality, our constructed sense of beauty, and our mortality, a kind of grotesque grotesque realism. Where medieval carnival imagery serves as a celebration of our physicality, zombie imagery challenges our dismissal and fear of our material selves. Physically, zombies are human-like in many ways. “Never forget that the body of the undead is, for all practical purposes, human” (Brooks 6), a “biologically definable animated being occupying a human corpse” (Dezner 21). The zombie, having at one point been human, maintains a close connection with human beings and shares and reflects our materiality, literally embodying and occupying our selves. The fact that the zombie virus can be transmitted to humans points to this human-zombie intimacy as viruses generally only travel between similar species. Medieval and zombie imagery can be seen as a exploration of the abject, defined by Kristeva (1982) as “what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules” (4) and also “the place where meaning collapses” (2). Bakhtin writes that “the essential principle of grotesque realism is degradation, that is, the lowering of all that is high, spiritual, ideal, abstract; it is a transfer to the material level, to the sphere of earth and body in their indissoluble unity” (19-20). Both performances promote a degradation, a coming down to earth, an examination of flesh.