Last fall, because of the Twitter buzz among my friends, I started watching The Walking Dead on AMC. This was a completely new genre for me. I can count on both hands the number of horror films I’ve watched from beginning to end. When I was kid I went to the movies with a friend and his mom took us to see Poltergeist. It messed me up for days. I was afraid of my dog, afraid of my sister’s dolls, and afraid to look in the mirror at night. It was an early inoculation against scary movies.
The first episode of The Walking Dead grabbed me by the throat and took a big ole bite out of my attention span. I developed a strange fascination with Zombies. I read the first volume of the comic book graphic novel (ahem) upon which the show is based. I started listening to a dramatized podcast of another Zombie story. I walked around the house practicing my Zombie stagger.
I started thinking about why Zombies are so popular. Why can’t we look away from stories about the undead who come either to feast on or infect us? Since I’m not a lifelong Zombie aficionado, I don’t have a working knowledge of the Zombie mythology. I haven’t read any commentary on or critical analysis of the Zombie genre. I’m trying to figure all of this out for myself.
I’ve come to the conclusion that Zombie stories are an enduring part of our culture because they teach us life lessons that remain stubbornly hidden until backlit by the macabre.
Here are a few that come to mind:
1. Zombies give us perspective. They remind us that no matter how bad we think things are in the world today, they could always be much, much, much worse. Bummed that you just lost your job? Marriage failing? Dealing with rebellious kids? Lose all of your money in the stock market? It could be worse, your neighborhood could be overrun by flesh-eating Zombies. The Democrats suddenly don’t seem to be quite as menacing a presence do they? Zombies teach us to be thankful for the imperfect world we have, which maybe isn’t so bad after all. (I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my Zombie fascination began at about the same time my professional world was falling apart last year.)
2. Zombies confirm our suspicion that most of the living aren’t really alive. We’re surrounding by the walking dead, staggering through lives of quiet desperation, devoid of purpose and passion. Not alive, not dead, always hungry, never satisfied. We are in constant danger of being consumed and converted by the meandering horde of those infected with the status quo. The survivors’ struggle against the zombies is the battle of humanity against meaninglessness writ large.
3. Zombies are a modern embodiment of divine judgement. Zombie stories are magnifications of the plagues that come around and weed out the human population every few centuries. Whether God causes the plague or merely allows it to come upon the earth is beside the point. The plagues are a form of judgement. By grace, God always preserves a remnant, the survivors who learn from humanity’s mistakes and carry on after the carnage has passed. Zombies teach us to be careful, because God is watching. (Yes, you read that right. The story of Noah’s Ark is a precursor to Zombies.)
4. Zombies force us to take responsibility for our lives instead of waiting for someone else to show up and solve our problems. Zombie stories begin with the survivors assuming that help is on the way. Eventually they conclude there is no one “out there” coming to the rescue. They’ll have to stick together, work together, and learn to trust each other if they hope to make it. When the Zombies are closing in around your house, don’t expect your president, the military, or FEMA to come walking through the door. The best you can hope for is that your next door neighbor will bring an extra shotgun to the party.
5. Zombies force us to embrace our existential hopelessness and then decide how we will respond. I recently bought my boys an X-Box, along with the Call of Duty: Black Ops game. It has a Zombie mode that is fun to play during the day. Here’s the problem with Zombies: they never stop coming. Kill one and another takes its place. You can’t get ahead. You can’t win. You either shoot enough to give you time to run away or you get eaten. Zombie stories chastise our faith in human progress and ingenuity. They overwhelm our firepower, technology, and strategy. What makes a Zombie story interesting is what the survivors do AFTER they realize they have no hope of overcoming the Zombies. Many give up and die, but a few defy their hopelessness and press on. Why? Because they have no other choice. It’s only when we come to the end of our hope that we discover a deeper kind of faith, born of desperation, that energizes us to keep on walking even though we haven’t a clue where the path is leading.
Could it be that Zombie stories teach us the secret to life? That no matter how bad things are, no matter how hopeless our situation, no matter how hard it is to imagine a better day, the only way to survive is to find a few others we can trust and keep moving forward together.
Zombies are popular for a reason.
They have much to teach us.
Have you hugged one lately?