Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, a film based on the 2009 book of the same title, will be released in February. The story involves exactly what you think it does: the characters in Jane Austen’s novel, including the Bennet sisters, live in an early 19th century world where a zombie outbreak has crippled their society. They also find love.
Seth Grahame-Smith, who authored Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, as well as a novel called Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, has made a gimmicky career placing contemporary monsters in antiquated time periods. What Pride and Prejudice and Zombies didn’t account for was the very real and very odd cultural fascination with dead bodies in which early-19th-century people engaged. From historical evidence, we know that the Bennet sisters wouldn’t have become militarized and fought zombies the way people in the late 2010s would. They may have done more to survive, but the initial reaction among Elizabeth Bennet and her contemporaries wouldn’t have been “get out the swords!”
We now see dead bodies as disgusting, partly because of our advanced knowledge of biohazard decay and infection, but back then, dead bodies were considered precious and mysterious. As Smithsonian magazine describes, so many people cut and wore locks of President Lincoln’s hair after his assassination that “one wonders how he made it to the grave with any hair at all.” These locks of hair, sometimes called blood relics, were a commonplace accessory for those who had lost loved ones. The hair of dead presidents was sold at auction in 2012, and The New York Times reported on the sale, as it was unusual at the time. Preserving and collecting the hair of dead figures had gone out of style over a hundred years ago.
But the trend was more than just hair. During the early 19th century, when Pride and Prejudice is set, many people took post-mortem family portraits whenever a relative died. It was considered normal, respectful even, to prop up the dead body in the frame and pose around it, as a goodbye to the deceased.
It’s not that the average person in that time period just happened to be more macabre and freaky than the way we are now; post-mortem photos and blood relics simply speak to their unique relationship with death. Whereas modern undertakers use chemical treatments and cosmetics to make open-casket bodies look uncannily alive, folks in the Pride and Prejudice era weren’t turned off by the visceral fact of a dead body. The taboo, and the innate fear of death, that inspired the zombie apocalypse trend — how could the dead body of my loved one be moving?? — just didn’t exist back then.
Consider the death’s head, which appeared as iconography on gravestones during Elizabeth Bennet’s time period. We now tend to use images of angels, saints and peaceful landscapes when designing paraphernalia for funerals, but back then, most graves featured a grotesque, winged skull creature called a death’s head.
In his Handbook of Death and Dying, Clifton D. Bryant estimates that society’s romance with death ended in the 20th century, and sexual liberation became the talk of the period. Bryant says that while contemporary ideas of grief emphasize keeping pain private and learning to sever the bond between the living and the dead, 19th-century people were encouraged to be public with their losses, carrying out long mourning periods in which they dressed and spoke differently. Those in the 19th century believed the “rupture” between the dead and the living was not permanent, and, therefore, the bodies of the dead were a negligible part of the process.
So what does all of this mean for zombies? If a zombie virus broke out in the 19th century, it’s likely that many, many more people would have been killed in trying to reason with, cuddle with, or generally enjoy their contact with the bodies of the dead. The zombie apocalypse in the 19th century would have looked a lot like Shaun keeping Zombie Ed in his shed to play video games in Shaun of the Dead.
Elizabeth Bennet, as an average citizen of her time period, would not have been immediately repulsed by the dead coming back to life. If horror is a byproduct of existing in Freud’s uncanny valley — that is, the space between what seems real and what could not be real — Elizabeth Bennet’s uncanny valley would have been a lot smaller than ours. The concept of “walking dead” wasn’t all that far out of her time period’s cultural imagination, so Pride and Prejudice and Zombies militarizing the movement to kill zombies is hugely missing the point.
Why bother to set a zombie apocalypse in a different time period if you’re not even going to examine how characters in that time period would have viewed death? Wouldn’t a Pride and Prejudice and Zombies with an altered viewpoint have been far more unique, and fun?
If zombies are going to stick around (and considering the top show on television is still The Walking Dead, they probably will), filmmakers will have to keep their ideas linked to the core horror of zombies: that they grew out of a contemporary, 20th-century fear of death and decay. Writing horror films and setting them in alternate time periods must involve an examination of what society feared most during that time period. The upcoming film The Witch seems ready to tackle this subject, and the combination of home invasion and ghost scares in The Conjuring, set in the 1970s, does the same. Horror, as with all genres, has to reflect the concerns and values of its time period. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies doesn’t.