Natalie Haynes: Night of the living metaphors

The thing is...

The thing is that zombies are on the increase, and they have been for some time. Only last weekend, zombie fans conducted a test attack on Leicester, prompted by a Freedom of Information request about the city's readiness to face hordes of the undead. Luckily for the people of Leicester, the inexorable march of the reanimated is a largely fictional affair. A couple of years ago, it seemed like there was nothing but vampires for the discerning monster fan. But then the zombie apocalypse caught the public imagination, and a cult hit, like The Walking Dead comic books, became a mainstream TV success.

So why have zombies suddenly become the monster du jour? Like vampires, they operate as virtually any metaphor you wish. Zombies represent the mindless consumerism of our age – hammering hopelessly on the windows of a mall in Dawn of the Dead, they look like nothing more than deranged shoppers, desperate to get in to the sales.

But they are also a powerful device to dramatise free will and mental capacity. The great fear of our time is that our minds will die but our bodies remain – that's why dementia is such a uniquely terrifying prospect. And the zombie – which still looks like the person it once was, but with their personality gone – personifies that fear completely.

There's also a financial subtext. Vampires fitted into the world order and used it to their advantage, which is why they were the perfect monster for the boom years: they moved among us, preyed on us, but looked so like us that we couldn't see them coming. Find me a better metaphor for bankers and I'll buy you a bottle of Tru Blood.

But when the credit crunched, we needed a different monster, one which better represented the apocalyptic headlines, and especially our fear of contagion. If a bank collapses on Wall St, or the Greek economy hits the buffers, we sense that the plague of unemployment, repossession and disaster will touch us too.

The shambling hordes of the undead don't fit into society as we know it; they create a new world order. They are terrifying precisely because there is no reasoning with them, and they reduce us from citizens of the world to its survivors. So, if you're still worried about financial matters – you should be. We can only really be sure that the economy is growing when the zombie threat recedes.