In iZombie, zombies aren’t just mindless, shuffling corpses with skin rotting off their bones. Not if they have access to a regular supply of brains, anyway. The series’ main character, Liv Moore, is a member of Team Z, and she does the best she can, not only to survive in her new life but also to help others.
She gets her meals by working at a morgue where she can sneak brains into her stuffed gnocchi on a daily basis. And because eating a brain allows her to see the dead person’s memories, she helps a police detective solve crimes by chowing down on murder victims’ cerebrums.
As iZombie progresses, though, it becomes apparent that Liv isn’t alone. Seattle’s zombie population is surprisingly high, though most have learned to hide their presence (and ghoulish appearance) with hair dye and spray tans. This is a fact that Liv’s ex-fiancé, Major Lilywhite, learns through a traumatic series of events that ends with a zombie attempting to murder him.
“I wasn’t crazy,” he tells Liv. “Zombies are real… And don’t worry, ‘cause I’m gonna kill them. I’m gonna kill them all.”The entire show explores the dangers of dehumanization as Liz learns to humanize others by consuming their brains.
Major automatically assumes all zombies are evil, and you can’t really blame him when brains are the main item on their menu. After hallucinating that Major accepts her zombie status, his announcement of a zombie hunting spree is shocking news to Liv. She continues to hide her true nature because she’s afraid he will hate her for it; she’s afraid he won’t think of her as a person any more. Not surprisingly, he’s less than happy when he does learn the truth.
Brains and Empathy
The entire show explores the dangers of dehumanization as Liz learns to humanize others by consuming their brains. In addition to catching glimpses of the deceased’s memories, she takes on their personalities, quirks, and passions.
In one of my favorite episodes, she eats the brains of Dungeon Master Dan, a geek obsessed with role-playing games. As a result, she becomes passionate about storytelling, even arranging a game of Dungeons & Dragons for her friends in an attempt to trigger a vision that will help solve the murder.
Major: I am Sir Jay Esclaborne, the human paladin.
Liv: I don’t remember your character earning a knighthood.
Major: Oh, he’s not a knight. His first name is “Sirjay.”
Liv: Clever. I’ll be watching you.
Liv would’ve never associated with this kind of geekery, and would probably have even mocked it, before eating the Dungeon Master’s brains. I like this episode because I’ve often felt misunderstood for similar passions; it demonstrates the validity of Dan’s interests through her actions, but also through her friend Ravi’s childlike delight in the role-playing game and detective Clive’s transformation from an extremely bored cop humoring his partner to a dwarf who “cleave[s] this undead hellspawn in twain with my Ax of the Dwarven Gods.”
Every episode of iZombie is like this. Liv takes on odd, terrifying, addictive, amusing, annoying, or sometimes even dangerous personality traits that allow her to empathize with the minds of people she wouldn’t normally relate to.
The Danger of Removing Humanity
As the general population’s awareness of zombies increases throughout iZombie’s (so far) three seasons, panic, hatred, and misunderstanding spread. Though many zombies lead otherwise normal lives that include families, jobs, and hobbies, and aren’t out to murder innocents, they’re viewed as something other. Major’s initial response to destroy what he does not understand is common, and dehumanization is necessary in order for him to live with himself.
“Zombies don’t deserve our mercy, so just put that thought out of your head… Sure, they look like us, they sound like us, but if you think of them as brain-eating atomic bombs, you’ll sleep like a baby,” says Vaughn Du Clark, the major antagonist in iZombie’s second season, as he employs a zombie assassin.
“Dehumanization has the function of decommissioning our moral sentiments,” writes David Livingstone Smith, PhD. “In dehumanizing others, we exclude them from the circle of moral obligation. We can then kill, oppress, and enslave them with impunity. Taking the life of a dehumanized person becomes of no greater consequence than crushing an insect under one’s boot.”
We’ve seen this mentality accepted throughout history: wars, slavery, colonization, and intolerance toward Muslims and immigrants are examples that immediately come to mind. Psychologists were so interested in understanding how people allowed the atrocities of World War II to happen that they conducted experiments related to human nature, such as Milgram’s Lost Letter Experiment, the Stanford Prison Experiment, and the Asch Experiment. What they found was that people in power have a tendency to abuse others. Furthermore, the dehumanization of other people can be easily triggered, especially by those in authority.
But we see it in our everyday lives too. “Dehumanization doesn’t only occur in wartime,” says psychologist Nick Haslam. “It’s happening right here, right now. And every day, good people who don’t see themselves as being prejudiced bigots are nevertheless falling prey to it.”
Consider road rage. Drivers who wouldn’t normally raise their voices at another human being yell and swear at someone because they’ve disregarded the other person’s humanity. They see the other driver only as the operator of a vehicle that just cut them off, and nothing else.
When I consider someone else as “less than” in any way — because of their race, sex, job, marital status, religion, clothing, or some other factor — I’m dehumanizing them. I can do it without thinking when I compare my job to the barista selling me coffee, move to the other side of the street because a strange man is approaching, or talk to someone who disagrees with my faith.
Breaking the Cycle
So how do we break this cycle that comes so easy to us? Jesus set a pretty good example. He made time for the lowliest and most despised people of his day — lepers, tax collectors, prostitutes — and spoke to them like they were people who mattered. He didn’t condemn them or treat them as other. Instead, he saw them as individuals rather than as part of a people group.
Likewise, when Major finally discovers that Liv is a zombie, he has to rethink his attitude toward zombies as a whole. He realizes that there’s a bigger picture than the one he’s seeing — that Liv isn’t a monster but is still the woman he fell in love with — and that might mean other zombies should be respected too.
The best way to overcome our tendency to dehumanize others is the most difficult as well as the most rewarding — it involves getting to know people who are different from us. Such relationships can open our eyes to an attitude of empathy and respect that we can emulate in our treatment of others.
Getting to know the “zombies” in our lives won’t result in our brains being eaten. It will, however, likely result in new friendships and contributing a small slice of peace to a warring world.