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Christ and culture…and zombies

Move over Edward; vampires are so yesterday.

It’s the zombies who are lumbering their way to the forefront of popular culture now, dragging bloody limbs and collectively moaning their one demand: “Brains!” Well, from the looks of it, they may be after a chance at stardom as well. Who would have thought? The walking dead — generally a standoffish bunch — aren’t that shy when it comes to the spotlight. In the past few years, they’ve managed to stumble out of obscurity and claw their way into blockbusters, best-seller lists, and prime-time television spots.

Now I’m not all that savvy when it comes to pop culture, but I can tell you the moment the reality of this burgeoning zombie revolution hit me. I was sitting on my friends’ couch, half paying attention to the screen in front of us while we talked and they played some recently-released first-person shooter. “Wait, what’s going on?” I said, interrupting our conversation, a little startled by what I saw. “Oh, those are Nazi zombies,” my friend replied nonchalantly, as if that combination of words was as natural as “macaroni and cheese.” I didn’t really know what to say, but kept watching, until, you guessed it, we were transported to the moon in order to fling bullets at Nazi zombies . . .  in space.

I did a little research, and it turns out it wasn’t just video games. The zombie has become a gory fixture in pretty much every niche of contemporary media. We’ve rewritten Victorian classics, playfully amending Pride and Prejudice with the addition of the undead, making high school English class a little less dull and a little more bloody as result. The Walking Dead, first a comic book and now a network television series, is already in its third season, with a growing fan base. Brad Pitt (bear in mind this is Brad Pitt we’re talking about here, not some no-name, first-appearance actor) is set to star in the upcoming zombie flick, World War Z, and, if you drop by your local bookstore, you’ll be able to find, among other zombie titles, It’s Beginning to Look at Lot Like Zombies: A Book of Zombie Christmas Carols.

Perhaps most startling is the zombie’s move beyond the comic book and the big screen towards a participatory symbol. Back in 2003, six horror film enthusiasts donned tattered clothes and fake blood then wandered about the streets of Toronto. The zombie walk was birthed. Over the next decade the concept would end up growing into a global phenomenon, where there are now annual zombie walks held all over the world. Just a few months ago, the world record was again broken, when, in Mexico City, more than 10,000 men and women gathered to participate in the city’s zombie walk.

It’s enough to make one consider stockpiling for the “zombie apocalypse,” the tongue-in-cheek end of the world scenario zombie enthusiasts often warn about (with varying levels of seriousness). While you are stacking up your canned goods and spare candles, you might want to consider enrolling in one of several boot camps intended to train individuals for survival should a zombie revolution take place.

All joking aside though, what exactly is it about the undead that has got us so excited? Why is it that our generation has so enthusiastically latched onto these rotting figures and bought into what the film executives and marketing geniuses down the street have fed us?

Our faith does not celebrate death, not even ironically, and we ought to take seriously even what is meant to be entertaining or humourous.

It might help to take a step back and look at the surprising history of our beloved zombie. You see, he didn’t always look the way he does now. Like so many cultural symbols, the modern living dead bear little resemblance to their earliest ancestors. Unlike other iconic symbols of Western horror narratives, which are generally either products of natural cause or human design (think werewolf and Frankenstein), the zombie has spiritual origins. Influenced by West African folklore and mythology, the zombie first emerged in Haitian voodoo practices. Witch doctors would perform “resurrections,” animating otherwise lifeless corpses.

The zombie was first made known to the western world largely through the English language writings that came as reports from visits to Haiti, most notably William Seabrook’s The Magic Island, written in 1929. The first major film appearance of the zombie was in Victor Halperini’s White Zombie in 1932. This still largely Haitian portrayal (which included the witch doctor and his incantations) made several minor appearances in decades following, but its undisputed Hollywood debut was in George Romero’s 1968 cult classic, Night of the Living Dead.

Romero removed the witch doctor, added the element of cannibalism, and relocated the moaning menace to an American landscape. He later filmed several follow-ups to Night of the Living Dead, further portraying the modern zombie, allowing it increased exposure to Western culture and solidifying its place as horror cult classic. The zombie continued to have a place in film, especially horror, seeing a resurgence of interest in the early 2000s, with films such as 28 Days Later, I am Legend, and Resident Evil.

The zombie has now outgrown not only its cult status, it has moved beyond the horror genre altogether (consider the film Shaun of the Dead — essentially a zombie romantic comedy, a zom-rom-com, if you will, and pardon the wordplay) and become a sort of cultural obsession — an increasingly present figure in film, music, video games, television and fiction.

So what is it about this modern zombie that we’ve come to love? Is it a way of dealing with the seriousness of death and mortality without really having to be confronted with it? Is it a playful engagement of actual fears we might have regarding how the world might end? Or is it just plain fun, and if so, why has such an unlikely (and frankly kind of terrifying, when you think about it) symbol come to be celebrated? I’m not sure. If anything, it’s probably a combination of all of these things, and then some others.

Do you and I make up Generation Zombie as some have suggested? Does our culture mimic the symbol we have come to love? The transience, restlessness, and the lack of purposes of our generation have many cultural critics suggesting the image fits. Not because teenagers today mill about with decaying limbs, nibbling on brains, but because, perhaps more than generations previous, we are living and yet we are something less than alive. While the generalization definitely isn’t true across the board (I know a lot of respectable adults who seem to love zombies as much as their unemployed, uninspired teenage counterparts do), there is something there worth paying attention to.

I for one can’t stand the sight of blood, real or fake, without getting more than a little faint. Hanging out with a bunch of folks who look like they ought to be in the nearest emergency room, no matter how friendly a group of zombies they may or may not prove to be, doesn’t really appeal to me. But apparently some people can’t get enough of it. And the gore? I get nauseous seeing people get flu shots, so when it comes to the likes of severed limbs, I’ll pass, thank you.

It does beg the question, though, of what we are to do with all of this as Christians? Is it caution to the wind and wide-armed embrace of our undead brothers and sisters, or do we keep our distance for the sake of our personal safety and spiritual conviction? Is it cool to mix faith and fake blood? Well, those are complex questions, and probably require discernment specific to each situation, depending on whether that means participating in a zombie walk, watching the latest horror flick or killing Nazi zombies in space. Like most cultural phenomena, the wisest approach often lies somewhere between the two extremes (of complete rejection or whole-hearted embrace), while still involving spiritually-informed decisions one way or the other (buy the game or let it sit on the shelf; watch the movie or opt for another choice). What I will say, however, is this: our faith does not celebrate death, not even ironically, and we ought to take seriously even what is meant to be entertaining or humourous.

In the event of a zombie apocalypse, I will be sorely unprepared. Apologies to any enthusiasts out there, but I’ve got better things to worry about. I will, however, be watching this growing zombie revolution because I find it fascinating, and because it shows a lot about who we are as a culture. It’s hard to say what will come next. Will our fascination with the living dead peak or find new cultural expressions? Will the spiritual nature of the creature be rediscovered? Will the zombie evolve into some new pop culture incarnation? We will just have to wait and see.

Flickr photo (cc) by rodolpho.reis