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Zombies, pop culture, and the wage slave

I remember listening with amazement to a friend’s sermon once wherein he used the “Christian myth of the vampire” to illustrate a sermon point. Many cultures have some kind of monster-myth equivalent to our vampire. But we clothe ours in a brilliantly Christian way.

The short version of the story: The vampire represents the anti-Christian. The Christian gives her body to God that her soul may live forever. The vampire sells his soul to the devil that his body may “live forever” (in “undeath,” of course). In order to maintain her life, the Christian feeds on the body of the God-man through the Holy Eucharist. In order to maintain his state of undeath, the vampire consumes the blood of his fellow man, yet he fears the “host,” the sanctified eucharistic bread. The Christian strives to reflect, to mirror her Lord. The vampire has no reflection. In this season of Easter, I find it illustrative to note the mythic inverse-reflection of our Lord’s Resurrection in the vampire’s dearly purchased, false “immortality.” The parallels go on and on. It is fascinating.

These connections got me thinking about the way the “zombie” has become such a huge cultural phenomenon. Is there something similar going on?

I found a great article in The Atlantic by Mark Mariani: “The Tragic, Forgotten History of Zombies.” In the article the author concludes that the awful conditions of slavery that form the true origin of the zombie myth in Haiti have been forgotten, that the myth has been trivialized, and that this trivialization is a shame. He states that modern takes on the zombie turn “the undead into a platform for escapist fantasy,” rather than a cultural critique of economic oppression.

It would indeed be a shame if we altogether forgot the origin of the zombie myth. (Thankfully, folks like Mariani will keep reminding us.) But perhaps the myth is not being trivialized and its origins are not being forgotten; perhaps they have shifted and have been reapplied to take on new meaning in the face of a new kind of slavery. The current cultural portrayal of the zombie has shifted from the horrible slavery of the West Indies to a far less physically horrible, but arguably still soul-crushing, wage slavery. The shift in the myth may not be a bad thing, but is instead a natural cultural progression of relative applicability and felt relevance. It goes without saying that the chattel slavery of the West Indies and the wage slavery of the contemporary cubicle are both results of the development of the market-economy in Western society.

Perhaps the zombie may be a myth at home in the post-Christendom of late modern society as the vampire is a myth at home in Christendom. (That the vampire myth is no longer “at home” in our post-Christendom culture can be seen in the many ways in which the myth has been reinterpreted and oddly sanitized in its most recent portrayals.) What if the zombie is the negative mirror of the ideal modern, post-Enlightenment, radically free individual as constructed by our current culture of consumption?

“Modern Man” is free due to his unlimited capacity to consume prefabricated, advertised products, whether necessary or not. The zombie is enslaved to consume the flesh of the living but never return to life and health. “Modern Man” is willing to work to the top in a dog-eat-dog world. The zombie involuntarily passes on his contagious condition by biting his peers. The vast majority of “modern” folks find themselves trapped in dead-end jobs that do not reward creativity and that demand highly repetitive, low-skilled tasks, just to make ends meet. The zombie is trapped in a state of undeath, mindlessly searching to meet its “needs.”

And then there is the “smombie” (“smartphone” + “zombie”). A “smombie” is someone who walks while using a smartphone in such a way as to endanger others. Our smartphones keep us constantly plugged in to consumption and “social networks” while drawing us away from living, local, human interaction. The zombie colludes with other zombies to consume whatever is left of the local social network! I think the parallels go on, but you get the picture.

I am suggesting that the currently popular version of the zombie myth may be a subconscious protest against consumer culture’s failure to deliver its promised goods. In which case, if the vampire is the anti-Christian, the zombie is simply the anti-consumer. In either case, the undead monster myth shakes up expectations and awakens us to cultural self-awareness.

(A final note: Zack Guiliano pointed me to the following excellent book, for those interested: Kyle William Bishop, American Zombie Gothic: The Rise and Fall (and Rise) of the Walking Dead in Popular Culture [2010].)

The featured image is a zombie flashmob in London (July 2007), and is licensed under Creative Commons.


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