Freud Future of an Illuision Kafka oral aggression The metamorphosis The Walking Dead zombies

Zombies – Part 1

Last year I appeared on the Animal Planet television show Lost Tapes in an episode on zombies. Some people who watched the episode thought that I might have been advocating for the existence of actual zombies and that there was a scientific rationale for this. I will go on record now as saying I do not believe zombies as typically seen in movies and television are real. Nor do I believe it is likely that humans could ever be transformed into a zombie-like state (I will talk about some exceptions to this in Part 2). Nevertheless, I do believe zombies are important and have a psychological existence within our psyches.

It seems we have zombies on our minds. My theory (shared by almost every other psychological writer on zombies) is that zombies represent the lower, more bestial aspects of ourselves that we typically keep repressed. These aspects of ourselves cause a great deal of anxiety which we defend against through repression. What about these aspects? They are primitive, oral, and aggressive. Hence the zombies predilection for eating people alive. Zombies may grab you with their hands, but it’s their mouths and teeth that kill you. The preferred food for zombies is brains. This makes sense when we understand zombies to be fundamentally irrational. Both actually, and metaphorically, zombies seek to destroy our higher thoughts and aspirations.

Zombies may also represent fear of the mob. We like to think ourselves safe within the bubble of our lives. But the outside world is frightening. When we read about crime in the paper or watch the news, it sometimes seems as if everything outside is dangerous. It is as if other people are mindless automatons bent on mayhem and destruction. Or as Freud puts it in The Future of an Illusion (1927):

They will have to admit to themselves the full extent of their helplessness and their insignificance in the machinery of the universe; they can no longer be the centre of creation, no longer the object of tender care on the part of a beneficent Providence. They will be in the same position as a child who has left the parental house where he was so warm and comfortable. But surely infantilism is destined to be surmounted. Men cannot remain children for ever; they must in the end go out into ‘hostile life’. We may call this ‘education to reality.” (p. 48).

We may be shocked at the realization of the senselessness of a zombie infested world, so mindless and irrational. A school principal is shot for no apparent motive. His attacker is zombie-like in his mindless, unthinking aggression. The same for school shooters, bank robbers, gang members, disgruntled post office employees, etc. Or perhaps there is a motive – a mugging where someone loses their life over the most trivial possession – but this is also revealed to be another case of zombie-like selfish aggression. Because who in their right, logical, thinking, mind would perpetuate such acts of violence against their fellow human beings? From the aspect of our rational mind most violence starts to resemble the action of zombies. Better to stay away from places where people are gathering. Their cannibalistic, orally aggressive urges linger just below the surface ready to spring forth at any moment. It is better to stay locked up inside, safe in a well-defended home, stocked with food… and plenty of ammo.

 Yet, there is always the insidious threat that someone inside has already been infected and could turn zombie at any time. Best to keep a close eye even on those we know best. This type of paranoia is also an aspect of zombies. In an excellent scene in the television show The Walking Dead, two of the protagonists smear themselves in zombie blood and guts so they can go amongst the undead horde undetected. Apparently the zombies detect normal humans by smell and the fetid offal masks this. The heroes shuffle along pretending to be zombies, while the ‘real’ zombies eye them curiously, sniffing at them. The ruse works until it starts to rain, their disguise is stripped away, and they are revealed as human.

This scene reminded me of the Kafka story – The Metamorphosis, where the protagonist is no longer able to go through the motions of fitting into human society (in this case because he has turned into a giant cockroach). His facade of humanity removed, he is revealed as a monster. The Walking Dead episode delivers a message that is just the opposite! We must act like monsters to be part of a deranged society, and if our zombie-like attributes are stripped away we will be persecuted for our humanity. How many of us can relate? How many of us at one time or another have had to metaphorically cover ourselves in something disgusting in order prevent negative attention to our true selves? Perhaps this is the adaptation we must make to venture out amongst the ‘hostile life’, the ‘education to reality’ that allows us coexist with our fellow zombies?


Freud, S. (1927). The Future of an Illusion . SE, 21: 1-56.

Kafka, Franz (1915/2005). The Metamorphosis. Project Gutenberg:

Kirkman, R. (2010).  The Walking Dead [Television series]. Hollywood, CA: AMC.

Zombies.” Television Appearance. Lost Tapes, Animal Planet. Sep 28, 2010. (

Barbara Gonyo Edvard Westermarck Freud Mackenzie Phillips Patrick and Susan Stübing Westermarck Effect

Genetic Sexual Attraction and the Westermarck Effect

The revelation by former child actress Mackenzie Phillips this week in her book High On Arrival of her 10 year long sexual affair with her father is making its rounds through the media this week. Phillips blamed the affair on serious drug use by herself and her father. By all accounts, Phillips’ father was not much involved with her when she was growing up and the affair did not occur until she was 19. While shocking, Phillip’s incestuous relationship may not be as uncommon as commonly thought.

Let’s meet Patrick and Susan Stübing a married couple with two children. By all outward appearances they are a normal family living in Germany with one important exception: Patrick and Susan are siblings. As is common among consensual adults engaged in incestuous relationships Patrick and Susan did not grow up together. As reported by the BBC, Patrick was adopted out of his birth family at a young age and did not meet his biological mother and Susan until he was 23 years old. Both Patrick and Susan report that they had an immediate attraction for one another. After their mother died they began their relationship and have been living together for the past 8 years, excluding the time Patrick has served in prison for the crime of incest. Patrick and Susan claim they are not bothering anyone and have been persecuted for their forbidden love. They have been trying to overturn Germany’s Paragraph 173 of the civil code which makes incest a crime. Medical and genetic experts claim there is a good public health reason for the law. Children produced by incestuous relationships are much more likely to have medical issues. Indeed Patrick and Susan’s son has epilepsy and learning difficulties, while their daughter is a special needs child. Nevertheless they maintain that these problems are not the result of the incestuous pairing of their genes.

The attraction that Patrick and Susan feel for each is called Genetic Sexual Attraction (GSA) and has also been reported in cases of mother-son and father-daughter incest. In all cases of GSA the relatives affected were not present during the childhood of one or both parties. The term GSA was first coined by Barbara Gonyo who founded the group Truth Seekers in Adoption – a Chicago based organization which provides support for long lost relatives who have reunited – and the website In her book I’m His Mother, He’s Not My Son, Barbara speaks frankly of the intense emotional feeling she experienced when she was reunited 26 years later with the son she gave up at age 16. Barbara describes her initial contact as a ‘honeymoon period’. She became obsessed with wanting to touch and smell her son. She is convinced that these feelings were the result of ‘missed bonding’. She recognized her son as related to her – perhaps accentuating the loss of bonding a mother experiences with her infant. These feelings may result in an intense desire for closeness which can manifest as sexual behavior in adults. In a 60 Minutes interview with some GSA couples New York psychotherapist Joe Soll characterized GSA;

“It is an attraction that develops between people who, generally speaking, have not been raised together and don’t have a taboo. They just want a hug, they want to get close and if they don’t have the taboo and they’re not careful it can turn into sex”.

The taboo Soll is speaking about is the so-called “Westermarck Effect”. Postulated by anthropologist and sociologist Dr. Edvard Westermarck,  it simply states that people raised together rarely see each other as sexual partners. It may be that the Westermarck Effect is a form of reverse imprinting where early exposure to others in the environment causes them not to be seen as future sex partners. Westermarck’s discovery is readily observable throughout human cultures and has been seen in children raised in the Israeli kibbutz system (Shepher, 1971) and marriage customs in China (Wolf & Huang, 1982). More recent research by Walter and Buyske (2003) at Rutgers University has verified the effect for females in Morocco but not males. Other research by Weisfeld et. al. (2003) and by Schneider and Hendrix (2003) supports the notion that sexual inhibition among family members has been selected for through the mechanism of natural selection and that it may be mediated by smell.

Freud was the most famous psychiatrist to write about sexual prohibition among close relatives. He claimed that unconscious lust for the opposite sex parent leads to an incest taboo (via fear of castration for males) and identification with the same sex parent. Westermarck’s theory, on the other hand, has no need for unconscious lust; the incest taboo would evolve through natural selection.

In another article Walter (1990) has speculated that since females have a greater investment in their offspring (i.e. a long pregnancy) they are more choosy than males for genetic fitness, and hence would be more likely to experience the Westermarck Effect. Certainly Walter’s later research in Morocco supports this notion. He also speculates that without the Westermarck effect older dominant males would likely exert control over younger males through control of their sexual impulses. Again this is readily observable in traditional societies around the world where adolescent rites of passage for young men involve separation from the group’s females for a period of time, not to mention proving their genetic fitness through arduous tasks. As Spain (1988) suggests, if we consider this phenomenon without the biological underpinnings it is actually similar to what Freud describes.

Unlike Mackenzie Phillips’ father, Barbara Gonyo was able to avoid a sexual encounter…but mostly because her son wasn’t interested. Eventually she was able to work through her emotions and develop a healthy relationship with her son. GSA is thought to occur in up to 50% of reunions of close relatives. The advent of in-vitro fertilization where the one or both parents do not contribute DNA to their children, could lead to a future epidemic of GSA. At the very least this is something to be aware of in the future.

– Kevin


Gonyo, B. (downloaded 2009). I’m his mother, he’s not my son. (Self-Published).

Phillips, M. (2009). High On Arrival New York, NY: Simon Spotlight Entertainment.

Schneider, M.A. & Hendrix, L. (2000). Olfactory sexual inhibition and the westermarck effect. Human Nature, 11(1), 65-91.

Shepher,  J. (1971). Mate selection among second generation kibbutz adolescents and adults: Incest avoidance and negative imprinting. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 1(4) 1573-2800.

Spain, D. H. (1988). Incest theory: Are there three aversions? The Journal of Psychohistory, 15(3), 235-253.

Walter, A. (1990). Putting Freud and Westermarck in Their Places: A Critique of Spain. Ethos, 18(4), 439-446.  

Walter, A., & Buyske, S. (2003). The Westermarck Effect and early childhood co-socialization. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 21, 353-365.

Weisfeld, G.E., Czilli, T., Phillips, K.A., Gall, J.A., & Lichtman, C.A. (2003). Possible olfaction-based mechanisms in human kin recognition and inbreeding avoidance. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 85(3), 279-295.

Wolf, A.P. & Huang C. (1982). Marriage and Adoption in China, 1845-1945. The China Quarterly, 90, 310-313.