The Zombiepocalypse and Religion: Be Careful What You Wish For.

George Romero's Night of the Living DeadThe Walking Dead

Zombies have been a mainstay in popular culture since George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Today’s most popular incarnation is The Walking Dead tv-series. While I read the Walking Dead graphic novel, I have only recently caught up on the television show. Watching the series puts me in mind of a few insights about Zombies that a religious studies perspective can bring to the phenomena as a whole. In this post, I only want to touch briefly on a few things: the apocalyptical or dystopian aspect of the zombie myth, the underlying ideology of the myth, and, of course, some observations about us that our zombie stories tell us.

First, I’d like to talk about Zombies AS myth.

In popular culture, we often pretend there is a hard distinction between myth and truth. As if myth is the wrong fables of the past and truth is “out there” to find. When it comes to understanding myth from a nuanced religious studies perspective, nothing could be further from the truth. Myth and religion are narratives, stories, symbols that we use to help us interpret the world around us. They are semiological necessities. From this perspective, myth is true in the exact same way that science is true. Whether one is a fundamentalist or an atheist, the same process of meaning-building occurs. The difference is what people choose as their guiding narratives for interpreting the world. The science for understanding this kind of interpretive activity is called hermeneutics.

However, this perspective has spawned an innovative and substantially interesting set of inter-related scholarly fields that study popular culture. The premise (whether explicit or not)  is that modernity itself has begun to create new myths: Star Wars, Star Trek, Saint Oprah, The Secret, vampires, etc. The constant retelling of these myths are a kind of secular religiosity that is telling meaningful stories that touch people and provide meaning for them.

Zombies are no exception.

Taking the zombie mythology in this light, I find it a quite interesting myth. It speaks quite clearly to a post-WWII anxiety about modernity itself. Humanity devolves into hordes of mindless ex-humans, their life no longer meaningful except for the insatiable desire to consume. Romero’s zombies were a metaphor for consumerism run rampant, and no doubt one could argue that this is a mainstay of the genre. That zombies exist only to consume is a critique  of capitalism, consumer culture and so forth. But it is also a tragic tale of the impossibility of authenticity within capitalism. The fact that Zombies crave “brains” (even though they usually will eat any human flesh) is a reference to the loss of agency, intelligence, personality, uniqueness–in short, authenticity. No matter how one fights zombies one cannot win. There is no safe place. Those not yet infected are fighting a losing battle to keep their authenticity among the masses (of zombies? of consumerists?). What I think makes the Walking Dead so interesting in this light is that its zombie cosmology [spoilers ahead] says we are all infected already. Inauthenticity is in us, just waiting to take over. The structural analyst in me squees with delight at this insight. Indeed, the debate between the scariness of “slow” versus “fast” zombies leans towards the horror of slow zombies signifying the relentless, steady, insurmountable onslaught of inauthenticity.

Now, just to be a party-pooper, keep in mind, these ideas about modernity and the loss of authenticity have been around since at least the 19th century. Hegel, Nietzsche, Marx, and Heidegger were all trepiditous of the consequences of modern progress and were concerned about how to retain our authenticity (whatever that means–what if the authentic is just another KIND of zombie? Can one be inauthentically authentic?). We should pat ourselves on the back, and thank George Romero, for such a creative mythology to speak to these fears.

These modern myths about the fear of lost authenticity are combined with other modern myths. Another is the myth of unfettered progress and its dystopic consequences. While in the 80s Japanime had probably the most powerful mythology regarding the perils of runaway progress (see Akira), this too is now firmly embedded in Zombie mythologies. It is telling that most zombies today are caused by viral outbreaks escaping from scientific labs. Unfettered science is dangerous. The dystopia of the zombiepocalypse is a critique of progress for progress’ sake–the hallmark of critiques against the modern.

What else can the Zombiepocalypse tell us about ourselves? Frankly, the fact that it IS an apocalypse (in the pop cultural sense of the term, not the linguistic sense) taps into how Christian apocalypticism has shaped modern thought. I remember once saying, before the WTC attacks, that North Americans were yearning for an apocalypse. Each year Hollywood blew up more stuff and called for a new beginning after the destruction. An excuse for our righteousness action. The attacks fit that narrative like no other. I don’t find that this process has abated.

In the popular consciousness is a yearning for destruction that will let those worthy survive. The environmental dystopia that is our actual likely future appeals to the resentment of environmentalists. Economic collapse appeals to anti-capitalists. Revolutionary collapse of the status quo appeals to so many different kinds of people, I don’t even want to start listing. The Zombiepocalypse taps into this dystopic revolutionary attitude. The resentment against progress, capitalism, inequality calls for a leveling of everyone to equal status, a reversal of progress, the end of all systems. Indeed, though Nietzsche would despise the resentment underlying some of the revolutionary zeal of the Zombiepocalypse, it can speak to some of our best instincts. In the Zombiepocalypse there are two kinds of people, Zombies and the Living. Ideally, social, racial, gendered and other kinds of inequalities will be eradicated. We are all in the same boat! We have to unite and help each other survive! It is an extreme version of what social justice activists and human rights organizations are already attempting to do today.

Sadly, as the graphic novel The Walking Dead so elequently shows, this idealism must be tempered by a realism of our worst survival instinct; and as we know from history, revolutions often continue the inequalities of the past. What about people with disabilities? The obese? Those with mental illness? How will they fare without support? How do gender roles play out? In the Walking Dead we see gender roles reinforced. While race seems like a non-issue for the series, sadly I think that tells us much more about the current state of American racial politics than anything. From this more critical perspective, what at first seemed like something that pointed to a silver lining, a fresh new world… the idealistic impulse behind our desire for apocalypse becomes the worst case of social evolutionary planning.

The Zombie myth thus encapsulates a number of modern mythologies: the myth of progress, the myth of inauthenticity, and an apocalyptic yearning. I think one thing we must be clear on is that modern secular apocalypticism is really no different than Christian apocalypticism. If
we believe in the myth strongly enough, we will make it a reality. We want to make it real (whether Aliens, Zombies, technological failure, etc.). And though a part of us might cherish the idea of the apocalypse, it cannot be both a utopia AND a dystopia (or can it?). It will be dystopia, because that is what we dream of.

We must be careful what we wish for.

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One Response to “The Zombiepocalypse and Religion: Be Careful What You Wish For.”

  1. marlanaesquire Says:

    Hello! Great post. Would you be interested in cross publishing this piece in Lehigh Valley Vanguard? LVV is a new online, regional publication that tries to feature subversive, critical prose. You can find us at http://www.lehighvalleyvanguard.org.
    In any case, I really enjoyed this post. Thank you.
    lehighvalleyvanguard@gmail.com

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