Zombies, Cannibals, and the Meme Cycle

On May 26th, Rudy Eugene ate the face off Ronald Poppo. He reportedly did not respond to police intervention even when shot. The internet community immediately pointed to this as proof of a zombie attack, and shortly thereafter began berating itself for the joke. Isolated cases involving cannibalism kept this cycle of joke and lash-back shambling along for the next few weeks.

As a known fan of zombie movies (I once drunkenly extolled the virtues of a three-way fight between a shark, zombie, and half-naked diver to a room full of uninterested friends) it is inevitable that I will receive multiple forwards of any and all zombie related news. I thank even the umpteenth messenger, as I’m pleased that people think of me enough to relate information that may actually interest me.

This incident caught my attention and held on. I absorbed the jokes and the censure, the repetition and recrimination, and I pondered why this was such a familiar pattern that seemed so unusual. At length I worked out some explanations that make sense to me.

To start with, the assailant and victim were both naked. It’s not prurience that makes this important, although some of the comments made tittering note of it. Clothing makes us human. It represents our involvement in society and to some extent our status. An unclothed attacker strikes us an inhuman, bestial, and absent of reason.

Both men were identified as homeless, putting them on the fringe of society to begin with. Their lack of clothing symbolically confirms that they exist outside of civilization. Through the lens of status, they are not individuals but feral creatures.

The nature of the attack reinforces this theme. Beyond the question of why anyone would commit such an act, the victim was literally defaced. His identity was removed — no, consumed — by a man who’d lost his humanity.

Faceless Man

Face of the Unknown

Much is made of the attacker’s reported lack of response to bullets; it often serves as the foundation of the zombie jokes. It’s little more than a convenient hook, I think. We’re culturally used to hearing about drugs making people violent and insensate. I remember Toma coming to my high school to warn us with the usual sensational examples of drug-induced dementia: raging PCP super-junkies and bad trips that end in cooking babies.

And that’s when I realized that the whole incident sounds like an urban legend. “Did you hear the one about the guy who got high on bath salts and ate another guy’s face?” Except that urban legends have morals; they teach us a lesson about the dangers of being incautious or imprudent. Here we have the horrific aftermath without the lesson.

That’s the key, I think. We’re left wondering how this happened. What went wrong? How can we keep it from happening to us? So there’s fear behind the humor — an attempt to minimize the shock and frame it in a context we can understand and dismiss.

Above all we don’t want to know that we’re just animals, cloaking ourselves in the trappings of civilization. We certainly don’t want to realize that it takes an unimaginable act of mutilation for us to notice the homeless.