Are we human or are we zombie?
The search for purpose and transcendence.
As a culture, we are obsessed with apocalypse. Beyond the fear-mongering of political groups and fringe religious sects, we are perhaps more aware than ever that our world is in a bad shape. Faced with gloomy prospects of environmental decay, poverty, massacre and injustice in countries on the margins of the world economy, the belief in apocalypse lurks in our imagination like a pillar of dark clouds.
There is perhaps no better place to find evidence of this fixation than Hollywood. The genres are familiar. We have the Post-Alien Invasion, Zombie Apocalypse, the Plague or Virus, and Post-Nuclear fallout, or some combination of the above.
Each one of these is incredibly profitable and popular. Variations on the theme come out each and every year, pounding the fear deeper and deeper into our cultural psyche. The Zombie form of the apocalypse has particularly wooed us. A quick Google search for “best weapons to survive the zombie apocalypse,” will quickly reveal just how real this is for many people. There are companies that make a living selling Zombie Apocalypse survival kits. The case of various-sized machetes from Walking Dead is a real product, made by a real company, available online.
We are so convinced that the world is headed toward something catastrophic that we aren’t really concerned with the form it takes.
In The Road, for example, we are never given a clue into what caused the apocalypse. But it doesn’t matter. The vision of a brutal, cannibalistic anarchy in the film still hits a deep nerve. What is most important in these stories is the shape of hope, of human survival in the aftermath. How do we stay human when all of our usual social structures collapse?
Why are we so convinced? What makes these types of movies and stories so popular and are they doing us any good? Are they helping us solve any of the problems we face? An expert in contemporary fiction, Trinity English professor, Dr. Stephen Dunning, believes that these types of films are so successful because they tap into some of our deepest fears as a culture while providing a safe, external form in which these fears are resolved. Zombies for example, could represent our fears about the loss of sanctity of our bodies and of death.
Trent Dejong, an English teacher at Abbotsford Christian, recently wrote a masters thesis on what the zombies represent in the films of George Romero, the “Godfather of Zombies,” (Dawn of the Dead). Dejong concluded that zombies represent our fears of what life is like in a purely elemental world, that is, a world with no spiritual reality, no transcendence. If there is no transcendence, no access to a greater spiritual reality, if we are just physical bodies made of atoms that will one day scatter, then how are we really any different than zombies?
If zombies represent our fears of being nothing more than matter, superheroes could be seen as an attempt to regain the spiritual or supernatural significance which we feel we have lost. But in the end, these movies translate that significance back into a purely elemental key. The superpowers are mostly explained by science. There is no real spiritual transcendence offered.
Instead, Dunning suggests that these superhero tales might act as sorts of “fear stories and cautionary tales,” about the powers we already do have, through technology. They are more about human responsibility and morality in the face of the power provided by new technologies. Beyond presenting us with our fears, the apocalypse genre provides a forum in which we can watch our inner wishes fulfilled. The 2009 blockbuster, Zombieland, for example, is really just about finding family, a story of isolated individuals finding their place in society.
The zombie apocalypse provides a particularly bizarre form of wish-fulfillment for men. In a gender-confused society, the masculine is given little place. The appeal of gangs, survivalist culture in the States, and the revolutionary unrest of young men throughout the world all reveal an element of masculinity that is denied in mainstream society. But, in the zombie apocalypse, men can be violent and useful. After always wondering what he was going to be good for, the protagonist of Zombieland finds his purpose at the end of the movie, exclaiming with joy, “turns out I’m good at killing zombies.” In the bleak, harsh world of zombie apocalypse, the inner Ron Swanson is suddenly rewarded and given reign.
But perhaps the greatest reason for the popularity of the apocalyptic is that it gives us the purpose we crave. Humans are narrative creatures. We need a story to make sense of our lives. And what story could possibly be more exciting than a zombie apocalypse? War is what people crave, wrote Walker Percy. It is walking down the street on a Wednesday afternoon, the tyranny and quiet desperation of normal life that we cannot stand.
By watching apocalyptic films we fulfill our wishes of participating in an exhilarating story and in superheroes we try to regain spiritual transcendence. Yet scripture constantly reminds us that we are spiritual beings participating in a greater, often violent, narrative. Ephesians assures us of the reality of this battle and of transcendence-that we are somehow actually seated in heavenly realms. Or in the gospels, how Jesus calls each disciple out of his daily routine and into a completely wild story of a radical kingdom. For superpowers, demons flee and nature obeys.
When we have lost sight of the spiritual realities found in the gospel, we have Zombie movies and superheroes to fulfill our desire to participate in an great story and epic battle.
But just how real is the hope offered in a movie like Shaun of the Dead? Most apocalypse movies simply reassure us of the possibility of survival. In any of the apocalypse scenarios, the chances of survival are most likely little to nil.
Dunning suggests that most apocalyptic movies may leave us stuck in a false binary in transcendence is not an option. In most zombie movies, for example, there is little difference between the community of survivors and the zombies themselves.
Isaac Marion’s 2011 novel, Warm Bodies also shows that there is no solution within the traditional binary between survivors and zombies. The novel, set to come out as a movie on February 1st, features first person narration from a zombie who recovers as he recovers language and eventually, the capacity to love. It’s a step in the right direction. Warm Bodies gets us to think more about what makes us human rather than just providing entertainment based on our fears and desires. And there is clearly a lot of money to be made in manipulating our fears and desires.
For the most part, however, it seems the apocalypse genre will continue to exploit our fears and desires instead of focusing on those elements of transcendence that make us human. Check out trentdejong.com for more on zombies in our culture.