From George A. Romero’s 1968′s cult hit Night of the Living Dead to AMC’s adaptation of The Walking Dead, survival guides to a posthumous (sorry) editing of Jane Austin, zombies have seen a rising (ahem) surge in popularity. What is the cultural draw to zombies? Debates on Christian freedom and horror aside, I think the zombie mythos and the themes of horror in general can offer helpful insight into the human condition, even if one’s conscience (or stomach) will not allow them to take part in the consumption (last pun, I promise) thereof. This essay will take a look at some of those themes, and what light zombies cast on ourselves as human beings.
The Morality of Horror
Before digging into zombies specifically, we should first look at horror in general (of which zombies are included as a particular sub-genre). Horror brings much to the table when it comes to understanding our shared humanity. To give an obvious example, horror gives us a look into what scares us as a society—if the genre did not speak to that which scares us, it would hardly work as horror. And if Horror points out what we are afraid of, it also shows us by extrapolation where we also tend to place our hope and comfort.
One of the more interesting aspects of humanity and horror to be discussed recently is the strong morality, or ethics, of the horror genre. Perhaps this is surprising considering that there is a strong line of thought that considers the genre to be immoral. What that type of thought fails to recognize, however, is that horror functions much like the original (and horrifying) Grimms’ Fairy Tales. Whether by threat of wolf (Little Red Riding Hood) or Lilith (Isaiah 34:14, usually translated
night creature), these dark fairy-tales helped to show and often shape a culture’s morality.
So it is with horror. Sure, we might decry 80s slasher films for gratuitous nudity—but it’s a recognized horror trope that engaging in premarital sex seals a gruesome fate. It doesn’t excuse the medium, but there is a certain irony behind the depiction. Another recognized horror trope that highlights morality is the survival of the innocent. Pick any horror movie before the 2000s and determine which character is the most
pure. They live. But even in those movies that subvert this trope, there’s a morality at work—the audience’s horror stems from a shared belief that this is unjust. Horror is horrifying because of our shared morality.
Zombies and Theological Anthropology
Which brings us back to zombies. What light does the zombie genre shed on human nature?
Fear of Death
We are a culture afraid of death. Zombies confront our cultural fear of death and aging by subverting the first hard rule of life we ever learned: when Fido moves to grandpa’s farm, he ain’t coming back.
From Photoshop to plastic surgery to injecting poison into our faces, we are a culture that says,
with age comes wisdom while attempting to stop the very process. Zombies threaten us with the fact of death and decay. One day we will die—we are in fact in the process of doing so already—and zombies show us what will eventually happen to all the youth and beauty we put so much energy into pursuing.
Zombies elicit a visceral reaction because they are a reminder of what awaits us, just without the aspect of reanimation and cannibalism. As the zombie apocalypse survivors come face-to-face, literally, with death, we the viewer are forced to metaphorically do the same.
The Need of Community
Another aspect of our humanity that this genre highlights is our need for community. No one survives zombies alone. Community is a huge theme of all post-apocalyptic stories, where survivors band together to find safety in numbers. The strength of others cover our weaknesses and vice versa. We fit together, as one ancient theologian noted, like a body—each member of the body provides a function that betters the community isn’t mere utilitarianism, however. It’s the space where our humanity flourishes. This is why solitary confinement often leads to psychological breakdown.
Community and isolation were both excellently highlighted in one recent episode of The Walking Dead. The episode begins with a shot of a few of the main survivors driving down a deserted road where they pass a lonely hitchhiker, screaming for help. It ends with same group driving back in the opposite direction where they pass what remains of that same hitchhiker. They stop to grab the man’s backpack, and continue down the road. In between these two scenes, the necessity of community for survival is highlighted.
It was a well orchestrated plot device, used to show how they have changed in the past year. In the beginning of the apocalypse, the survivors tried save as many as possible; after seeing this optimism backfire, they are now only looking out for themselves. The book-ending scenes were effective at showing this change, but it also showed us something much deeper: it was not the community that ended up strewn across the road.
It’s this sense of community that brings us to a third theme of zombie movies that shed light on the human condition. As survivors band together they form multiple communities, each with its own victories and defeats. Some communities fracture, some flourish, but something interesting happens when they clash.
Zombies and Total Depravity
Inevitably, the threat of zombies fade into the background and a new threat emerges—humans. Zombies themselves are a plot device, a background distraction, that serves to highlight the danger of humanity itself. Stripped of all but what is necessary, humanity focuses on survival, whatever the cost. Again, the recent third season of The Walking Dead is exemplary of this as an early tag-line for the season exclaimed, “Fight the dead, fear the living.” It’s no surprise that this tag-line comes at the moment that the show switched its primary antagonist from the zombies to the Governor, a psychotic leader of another community. Survival horror highlights the total depravity of humanity.
Whether it’s the portrayal of Haitian voodoo and slavery in White Zombie (1932) or the social commentary of George A. Romero’s …of the Dead series, zombie movies have always been a reflection of the still-living. Each portray something of the total depravity of human beings, but it’s the zombies themselves that give us an icon of our natural state. We are the walking dead.
So saith the prophet Rick Grimes in The Walking Dead comic:
You think we hide behind walls to protect us from the walking dead! Don’t you get it? We ARE the walking dead!
Rick Grimes and the Apostle Paul were in much agreement. In an article posted last Halloween entitled Why Zombies Matter, Dr. Russell Moore drives the point home using Ephesians chapter 2—the zombie story is our story:
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath&helip; (Ephesian 2:1-3ESV)
The difference between the apostle and Rick Grimes, however, is that as it is often said,
There is no hope in the Walking Dead. Paul writes to those who have passed from death to life, reminding them at they were the walking dead, but are so no longer.
Hope for Zombies Like Us
Paradoxically, the hope of the Christian life comes from the One who was actually raised from the dead. Jesus’ resurrection was a declarative statement that his work on the cross was enough, and that Satan, sin, and death have been defeated. His resurrection is something greater than simply being undead, he is rather fully alive. We too, through our union to Christ by faith, are raised with Christ (Colossians 3:1). Though not yet released from the physical confines of death, we have been brought through from spiritual death to spiritual life, raised from the grave of judgment. One day, however, we will be physically raised, united forever in body and soul. And in this state we will forevermore be free from our zombified life—free from death and decay, free from the sin that competes with our hearts, and free to live in the community of God’s people in the presence of God himself.
Image from George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, (1960)