Zombies and Religion
I’ve written extensively on this subject, so much that it’s now hard to present it in one shot, as I’ve seen my ideas vary and evolve, depending on whether I’m looking at it from a religious perspective (and then bring in zombies), or whether I’m looking at it from a horror perspective (and then bring religion into the discussion). As I write more about zombies, I also see that I approach them differently when I’m thinking about them from the perspective of a fiction writer, or a critic or scholar, or a fan.
So let me focus today on the zombies first and bend it around to more religious ideas. Zombies are probably the most human monsters. Most all monsters are partly human, and either combine the human with some other animal (centaurs, harpies, minotaurs, etc.) or exaggerate some human element to make the thing monstrous (two heads, fangs, extra limbs, one eye, hypersexuality, etc.). Older monsters do so through magic or some divine or demonic intervention, while modern films and books often prefer some pseudo-scientific explanation – viruses, genetic manipulation, aliens, etc. But look at a zombie: it’s just a person – a really dumb, clumsy person who’s overcome with a desire to kill and eat other people. No powers, no change in their physique (except whatever injuries killed them), nothing. It’s not an enhanced or mutated person – it’s just a person minus some basic skills and intellect, plus an exaggerated and misdirected desire for food. So the zombies, more than other monsters, are identified with us. It’s hard not to feel sorry for them, at many points (and feel sorry for the live people who have to callously shoot all these other people in the head, with all the PTSD that’d cause). So when you see the zombies wandering aimlessly, hungering constantly in a way that can never be satisfied, returning to the places that meant something to them previously – you’re bound to feel that their deficiencies are yours: you’re a pre-zombie already, with many of the same shortcomings. The undead thereby work like funhouse mirrors for our own feelings of helplessness and meaninglessness in the modern world, warping and making those feelings funny and scary, but also manageable, since they’ve been moved into a fantasy world of film or literature. Fear and humor work together as a way to cope with our issues in the modern world, just as older myths helped earlier people do so with their anxieties.
Where I think this depiction has very broadly religious dimensions is in how it moves us toward introspection and dread at our own inadequacy and unhappiness. Any religion, I think, is predicated on the idea that we are not our own light – there is something more we long for, something other than the physical that we need in order to be happy. You can call it Brahman or God or the Good or the One or transcendence or ultimacy: I think they’re all labels for the same basic yearning. Zombies play on that desire, even if they only show the frustration of it: they’re completely, merely physical beings, and we’re aghast that we might become like them. So in that sense, considering the plight of both zombies and survivors in these films and books can be a kind of spiritual exercise or meditation on our own weakness and fragility.