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A Brief Theology of Zombies

By William O. Daniel, Jr.

Our world is fascinated with zombies. From revisionist writings in adult literature like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies to children’s books such as Zombiekins, from television dramas of The Walking Dead to major motion pictures like the recent World War Z, as well as quasi-zombies — Boggans — in children’s films like Epic, not to mention the plethora of zombie video games like Call of Duty: Black Ops II, our society is captivated by the undead. What drives this zombie-filled imagination? What is its philosophical and theological import? Perhaps it is just good science fiction. Maybe it is the fear of chemical warfare, concerns of which flood our commercial media and public broadcasts. But why has this new genre of literature and film so mightily fixed our gaze upon the printed page and illuminated screens? Are we all worried about rampant cannibalism, being devoured by insatiable creatures, stoppable only by a “deadly” blow to the head? Or have we simply run out of other good reasons to give Brat Pitt a heroic leading role?

The film and television industries reveal a number of things about modern society. There is a tendency to think that film and media show us where we are heading, and while this is true, it is crucial to understand that these message-mediums are communicating a reality already present. These artistic mediums communicate more than their directors, screenwriters, and actors could ever fully grasp. All art is the result of a particular gaze. In Phenomenology of Perception, Maurice Merleau-Ponty describes this gaze as the habit by which we relate to social space. Dramatists and playwrights communicate a world that is inseparable from their entrenchment in a habitus — a subconscious bodily comportment that conditions a particular way of perceiving the world. Filmmakers are no less conditioned and culturally effected. Within this socially constructed space, the artist, by making manifest her own socially construed gaze or habitus, reveals also to audiences the manner of their own social conditioning. In this sense, the artist carries more than herself along with her in her art; she carries all the social forces at work on her body, which is never other than herself but always more than she is.

Seeing our formative habitus through the lens of the zombie imaginary can help us trace the sources of our socially reified bodies. According to World War Z’s depiction of zombies, they do not infect the sick, but are like lice. Many think that lice get in the hair of dirty children; but lice want clean, well-washed hair that is not oily and neglected. Zombies likewise seek a healthy host. If you are terminal there is no reason to seek you out. (While this may seem a bit farfetched, remember that we’re talking about zombies.)

It is tempting to think of zombies as simply another literary or cinematic category, or something else for teenagers to shoot and kill on a video screen. Zombies are not indifferent, however; they are not merely benign objects of entertainment. Rather, they tell us something about ourselves, especially regarding conditioned human action and reason.

The new fascination with zombies, I believe, has to do with our own body consciousness, a visceral awareness that we are infected with a social disease. It is not viral, according to World War Z; there is no single, locatable source. Rather, it is all around us, penetrating us by our habits of living — the desperate attempts to avoid, or at least delay, death. The portrayal of this affectedness or infection in The Walking Dead shows that everyone is already a zombie in potency, a notable difference from World War Z, which presents the human as a potential host but not as a host in esse. Each portrayal imparts an understanding of original sin. In The Walking Dead humans are sinners at their core, whereas in World War Z humans are inherently good, or at least a tabula rasa. Each reveals human nature as interwoven with the fabric of a communal habitus.

The immediate biblical analogy of host capacity is the story of the Gadarene swine in Luke’s Gospel, which become host to the demonic forces (8:27-33). The character Stepan Trofimovitch is plagued by this story of the swine in Dostoevsky’s novel The Possessed. But as he nears death Stepan finally realizes the meaning of the Gospel passage. “That’s exactly like our Russia,” he says. “Those devils that came out of the sick man and entered the swine. They are all the sores, all the foul contagions, all the impurities, all the devils great and small that have multiplied in that great invalid, our beloved Russia …. They beg to enter the swine; and indeed maybe they have entered into them already! They are we.” We are the swine, the potential zombie hosts; indeed, we may already be zombies.

The zombie bite does not, however, require our succumbing to the venom. “If your right hand causes you to sin, cut if off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for the whole of your body to go into hell” (Matt. 5:30). Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) saves a soldier in World War Z by doing just that — cutting off her zombie-bitten hand so that the venom does not spread and send her into the abyss along with the other swine-zombies. Though maimed, she lives to see Brad Pitt save the world.

The zombie world of feasting on human beings, transforming them into infectious villains — into the image created by the beast of modern politics and economics — to the end of insatiable consumption, is only undone or redeemed by the gift of friendship, the establishment of communities habituated by self-denial and forgiveness. What this new zombie era appears to be groping for, and stammering to articulate, is a vision of human society conditioned by grace. The alternative habitus to that of the undead is nothing other than the liturgy of Holy Eucharist — the resurrected, whereby the human is befriended by God and provided the means necessary to cultivate this life with others.

“At baptism you were wetted with water,” says Augustine. “Then the Holy Spirit came into you like the fire that bakes the dough. Be then what you see and receive what you are” (Sermon 57). We are becoming what we see — that upon which our gaze is cast.

The Rev. William O. Daniel, Jr., is chaplain and professor of religion at St. James School, Hagerstown, Maryland, where he lives with Amanda, his wife, and their two children.


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