Ghosts, Ghouls and God–Zombies

Posted: March 24, 2011 in Uncategorized

When the new Pastor Matt blog launches, I will have a regular column entitled, “Ghosts, Ghouls and God” to discuss the rise of neo-paganism and gothic culture.  I hope you enjoy this little preview.  

I am currently writing a book about zombies.  Why would a minister and attorney spend his few free moments writing about the stuff of schlock direct-to-DVD movies?  

As conservative as I am, I appreciate the theological method of the late great liberal theologian Paul Tillich.   Tillich argued in Theology of Culture that one with eyes to see and ears to hear can discern the deep questions of meaning that those around us are asking by studying culture and that theology can answer those questions.  Tillich called it the method of correlation.  

I believe that which frightens us, says a lot about our culture and, at least for now, zombies are the hottest monster on the block.   Why?

First a little background, zombies are really the only truly American monster.  One finds little or no mentions of zombies before the publication of the travel book The Magic Island by William Seabrook in 1929.  The book focused on the little known culture of Haiti and became a bestseller thanks largely to the tales of the island’s “undead.” 

The book quickly spawned plays and films such as the classic Bela Lugosi movie “White Zombie.”  These early fright fests kept the zombies in the background as strong but mindless tools of evil voodoo chieftains.  George Romero changed all of that in 1968 with the film Night of the Living Dead

Romero took the mindless zombies of voodoo lore, deleted the evil priest in exchange for radiation from a fallen satellite that re-animated corpses, added the horror of cannibalism and paid homage to Richard Matheson’s novel “I Am Legend” by placing the characters in a home under siege.  Thus, Romero, a native of Pittsburgh, created the modern zombie archetype.  Werewolves, vampires and witches all travelled the Atlantic from Europe to reach our shores but flesh-eating zombies were made in the USA.

Night of the Living Dead, which was a clever commentary on the Vietnam War and racism (something I will unpack in my book…I’m too conservative to give the good stuff away for free!), was a smash hit and defined an entire genre of horror.  Romero’s sequel Dawn of the Dead (1978), (a great commentary on western consumerism), was an international sensation as well but zombie cinema largely faded in the eighties only to storm box offices again roughly 10 years ago in the wake of September 11th. 

9-11 was obviously a force behind the zombie revival, especially the zombie apocalypse tale.  The terrorist attack fueled fears of society falling apart leaving us to fend for ourselves.  Yet, while the shock of the fallen twin towers and the smoldering pentagon has largely faded (for good or for ill) from the public’s memory, the living dead remain more popular than ever.  There is a hit television series (The Walking Dead), bestselling books & graphic novels, games and scores of new films on the way.  Why?

 I think there are a number of reasons for the ongoing popularity of the undead that Christians should note in order to be better missionaries in the culture we are called to reach.  First, the zombies are us.  In every post-Romero film, book and game, ghouls attempt to eat the living even though they don’t need food.  Their existence is meaningless.  Many in our culture (even many in our churches) feel the same way.  Second, zombies are most frightening when they are loved ones.  Why? I think it is because we are such a co-dependent culture (i.e., we define ourselves by our standing in the eyes of others) that we fear betrayal by a loved one above almost all else.  Third, oddly enough, zombie apocalypse films nearly always balance the fear of betrayal by a loved one with a new community of persons forced to rely on one another.  We are lonely people and there is an appeal to belonging to such a group, especially one that lives to combat evil.  It is exciting…and most of us (in or out of a church) are bored.

Does theology have anything to say to these issues raised by zombie films, books and games and readily embraced by so many? Absolutely! 

Scripture presents us with the opportunity to live a life defined by a God who loves us and will never turn his back on us rather than defining ourselves by others who are often motivated purely by self-interest.  It is a life that matters and calls us into a community of meaning that has pledged loyalty to the one true king of creation.  Lord Jesus has commanded this community to go into the darkness and fight on behalf of the Kingdom of God.  Such a life may be difficult, even painful, but it’s not boring!

The church can learn a lot from the undead and it has a lot to say to those who are captivated by the zombie apocalypse.  

This has been a wee taste of the book I am working on and would appreciate feedback. 

Grace and peace.

  1. Alex Humphrey says:

    I am going to really like this series! Lol

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