I teach theology courses at a non-denominational, evangelical Christian high school outside of Fort Worth, Texas. We study the history of the Christian faith, work our way chapter and verse through at least 15 books of the Bible over the span of our high school courses, examine all the major topics of systematic theology and comparative religion, and even take a stab at developing what I call “street level apologetics.” We learn about what Christianity is and what Christianity does, both in our individual lives and in the broader society. And we talk about zombies.
But let me back up for a moment.
In the late 1970s and early ’80s, eleven o’clock on a Saturday evening meant it was time for the horror B movies of yesteryear to make a grainy, black-and-white appearance on our small television screen. Pushing the boundaries of my early adolescent bravado, I would turn on the lights in the kitchen, sit in the semi-darkness of our living room, and make sure my pocket knife was handy.
I was never particularly bothered by vampires, werewolves, or mummies. The Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney classics were standard fare and had enough campiness for a modern kid to see them as comedies more than horror pictures. Nor did rampaging escaped gorillas or building-sized reptiles truly frighten me, as they were more visual testimonies to advances in special effects than they were disturbing.
It was the zombie movies that got me. Moaning, semi-rotted corpses with death grins and a lust for cannibalism were enough to make me think twice about trips to the hallway bathroom, and almost certainly resulted in an extra trip to the kitchen for a larger knife.
By the late 1980s and early ’90s, jump scare movies became prevalent and trained us to yelp at every creaking door. These films also served as guessing games: Which twentysomethings in the movie were virtuous or good-looking enough to make it through to the credits?
Then the zombies came back. Michael Jackson initiated the revival in the mid-’80s with his “Thriller” music video, which paid homage to the classic films which scared my generation a few years before. The flood gates were thrown fully open 15 years later, when cinemas were again full of the familiar half-dead wretches out for human flesh and box office dollars. These new zombie stories reflected the concerns of the day. In one, nuclear waste spawns flesh-eating hordes; in another, the cure for a hated disease causes zombie-like mutations worse than the malady; and in yet another, a virus spreads at unstoppable speed and turns much of the world’s population into death machines. Our modern societal concerns became the backdrop of our fear.
And, as evidence that the zombie formula had become an established cultural meme, zombie parodies appeared. Shaun of the Dead (2004) and Zombieland (2009) showed the genre was able to poke fun at itself while still reaching commercial success. The Walking Dead was a television hit for nearly ten seasons, helping zombies make the jump from theatres to living rooms. These terrible creatures have become part of our mainstream consciousness more than any other staple of the horror genre.
I think there’s a deeper reason why this is, and I find it important enough to talk about with my students.
In chapter two of his Epistle to the Ephesians, the Apostle Paul writes that the human race of its own volition is “dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked…following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience…” In the first chapter of the Epistle to the Romans, the apostle states that humanity suppresses the clearly revealed truth of God, resulting (as he states in Romans 3) in our becoming a race of the walking dead: bleary-eyed, blind to goodness, following the lord of death, seeking to promote the same in those around them, physically animated but spiritually deceased. I wonder if Paul’s tribe of Benjamin ought to be receiving royalties from all the copycats Hollywood has produced within the zombie genre.
In my Bible classes, I ask my students why they think zombie movies and television shows remain so successful despite rehashing the same tired basic formula, to which we return repeatedly to watch the newest version play out.
Very often my astute and distinctly American students quickly identify one of the major motivations: money. If zombie movies and shows keep making money, we will keep seeing them. True, I respond, but this is not foundational. What explains why these cookie cutter pieces of entertainment keep making money, when the attending audiences could guess the next five scenes before they happen? Here, as bright as they are, my youngsters are stumped.
I think the answer is that audiences recognize something both truthful and terrifying about what a zombie is: a ruined human, somehow simultaneously dead and yet resembling the living. They walk, they vocalize, they pursue, they consume, and they even congregate. If zombies are ruined humans, who ruined them? We did. We contaminated them with nuclear waste, subjected them to a cure gone wrong, exposed them to an untreatable epidemic. We caused this. In a horrible irony, the half-dead state was thrust upon them by their own kind. And what do these wretched creatures invariably desire? They want the destruction of those who possess true life. They gather in hordes or in isolated spots and wait for those not yet mutilated, and they either destroy them entirely or contaminate them, bringing them into the Clan of Sheol.
Why do we tell the zombie story over and over again? Here, almost invariably, is where they understand. We tell this story so often because it is part of the human story we know best. It is ingrained in what we understand about the time between midnights. It is our story. We are the walking dead, groaning in our fallen state as outlined in Romans 3. How amazing it is to see the light of realization on their faces.
What about other genres? What happens in the Blade Runner, Matrix, and Terminator movies? What about I, Robot or The Age of Ultron? The technology we create to make us godlike becomes the mutated form of our own destruction. Again, we kill us, ourselves the agents of our living demise. Postmodern vampires bring their cosmetically improved society of death to the local high school or into the workplace. We are truly at the Twilight of our existence.
It is exhilarating for these teenagers to suddenly be able to better see the narratives around them, to begin to decipher the messages which flood their minds. It is exhilarating right up until they feel the hopelessness which these same stories convey. If we are ultimate, and yet are walking self-destruction, whence comes hope? After his opening salvo in Ephesians 2, Paul states that, even when we were walking dead, we were loved. Loved to the point of being rescued “by grace through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God.”
The devastating critique of Romans 1 through 3:20 is, most thankfully, followed by 3:21-22: “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law…through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.” We are not ultimate and, accordingly, we do not have all power. What power we do possess is the power to continually pursue our own destruction, yet the ultimate power of a gracious savior brings the dead back to life. In Romans 5, we see that His power to give life is greater than our power to bring and promote death. There is, in fact, a cure for the zombie condition.
J.R.R. Tolkien, whose dread Nazgûl are another species of living dead, famously proselytized his younger colleague, C.S. Lewis, by convincing him to think about the true story behind common myths. Why is it, he asked, that across cultures and ages so many familiar archetypes and narratives find their way into folk stories? Lewis, then a modernist atheist, believed these myths had developed due to evolutionary benefits and, although they were helpful in personal and societal improvement, their content was pure fantasy. Mankind, in his view, tells these stories for pragmatic benefit, not to illuminate truth. Tolkien suggested another option. Perhaps all the stories take the same shape because we as humans are struggling to get our minds around their deeper truths which, in fact, do exist. Perhaps we are taking a stab at telling the real story of humanity, but only through the lens of metaphor.
We keep going to see zombies on the screen because, in our deep consciousness, we realize we are daily seeing them on the street and possibly even in the mirror. And whence comes the hope? It is found in the ultimate and most powerful of narratives, that of Holy Scripture. Rescued from death and raised to newness of life, the corrupt becomes the blessed and a new story begins. Let us see a few more such resurrection tales on both the screen and in our homes.