Every culture and time period has stories that turn into folktales, stories repeated over and over. These folktales have similar motifs, but the specifics, the morals, the beliefs attached to them change with the times and represent the concerns, the struggles and the norms of the period. Often times, these stories address popular social worries and conflicts in a way that neutralizes that conflict, punishes that transgressor or corrects for social inequity. Disney has the formula down, of course. The little guy wins and dreams really do come true. We want this to be true, even though we are aware it often isn’t. When little girls re-tell the story in their playroom with their dolls, but add some aspect of their own lives, a sister who gets more attention, a dog-monster who eats their food, that is also an important part of the story and its work in culture.
When we read Grimm’s fairy tales, the stories seem violent to us, and the moral judgements are delivered in harsh physical ways — hot iron shoes, immortal life as a statue. The reason it seems harsh to us is because life was more violent when those stories where told, and punishment was more physically painful in that time period. We often think that the time of folktales has past, but this is completely untrue. We just can’t see our own tales, because we have a hard time recognizing the forms they come in and what they tell us about. Other people stories are folktales. We consider ours as pop culture, or sometimes as “truth.”
Zombies are a newly popular folk narrative. They are an invention of our time, but also a take on an enduring kind of monster — a threat, a fear. In the story, we laugh at them, or fear them, but at the end of the story, Max Brooks “World War Z” for example, they are neutralized. Humanity learns, and life goes on. What do the zombies mean? The story of the walking dead is the story of a threat we all feel. This time period cuts us off from “life” and turns us into media zombies, people who don’t eat, don’t know how to take care of ourselves and feel lost. Everyone has noticed how people in front of screens look like blank-eyed zombies. Scarier still, ever caught your own reflection in the screen? Terrifying! We fear that the walking dead (in the form of video game-playing teenagers or our computer-dependent jobs) will overwhelm us. When we overcome zombies in movies, computer games, board games and play, we are looking at threats and neutralizing them. The book, not the movie, “World War Z” is a fabulous exploration of the zombie theme. In the book, zombies are all we turn a blind eye to, what we will not see, our greed and our laziness. When the zombie’s take over, people are slow to respond, sometimes selfish, and above all unwilling to let go of the social status that forms our ego structures but does nothing, Brooks seems to suggest, of real use.
An opposite, related, but very different social narrative is the “start-up” story — the miraculous helpful start-up that earns status and money for its amazingly independent creator and also does social good. I’m thinking of Tom’s shoes or Chris Guillebeau’s blog, books and products. The start-up story isn’t a folktale, but a narrative of success. It works in a really similar way though, and maybe years from now, we will see it as a folktale. I love this narrative. (In fact I want to live it. I believe it! I think it is brilliant! It gives me a lot of hope.) But I also can see it for what it is, a story that might be doing some of the same work as a Disney narrative. It takes the current threats — too big and too lazy failing bureaucracy, run-away capitalism with no moral or ethical center, rising inequity, a loss of belief in personal and social good — and neutralizes them, making them seem to go away or become irrelevant. Perhaps, we won’t know for a decade or two (or more) whether the start-up story can lead to lasting social change or whether it is a story we use to teach capitalist beliefs, while making the inequity and poverty of a great chunk of the population seem to disappear. Either way, it still is a tale that does cultural work. And it is important to realize that.