Growing up I NEVER watched horror films or TV shows. They were not even allowed in my house.
And rightly so. My mom did not want to bring the kinds of grotesque, vulgar, morbid, profane, terror-ridden stories into our house that were prevalent in the horror films of the 70's, 80's, and 90's.* She did not even want me watching Bambi after being so upset with how Disney had the mother deer get killed and how that might affect my fragile burgeoning psyche. She wanted life giving stories, stories of joy and hope, stories where people loved each other, and stories that most certainly always ended on a happy note.
And I am the kind of goody-goody kid who respects his mom and actually listens to her. To this day I find horror flicks distasteful, especially the torture porn or over the top supernatural schlock pervading today's cinemas** that seem to get off manipulating and continually circumventing their audience's expectations and emotions. I just have no desire to see any of it, that is, unless it is a movie or TV show about zombies.
Zombie stories are different and I am certainly not the first to reflect on this. They are still certainly in the horror genre and are often schlocky, usually containing the greatest amounts of gore, but in almost every case I can think of a zombie flick is about more than exploiting our greatest fears. Perhaps I am selling other horror films short when I say this (of which I am mostly ignorant) but it would seem to me that on the whole zombie films are specifically formulated to challenge us to think about two basic dilemmas universal to us all:
1. Learning to face our biggest fears; to rise up against them and destroy them.
2. Coming face to face with the sins that eat away at and destroy the heart of humanity.
I would say I am still a Zombie film/show novice, having only seen Night of the Living Dead, Day of the Dead, Shaun of the Dead, 28 Days and 28 Weeks Later, Zombieland, and most of the series The Walking Dead (and, I should add, the documentaries Doc of the Dead and Birth of the Dead). But in my viewing I have begun to think a lot about what zombies stories are trying to tell us.
So here now are 10 ways zombies cause us to think about our lives (if we let them):
1.) I'm definitely going down, and you probably are too: Let me state unequivocally from the outset that I do not have what it takes to survive the zombie apocalypse. I'll leave some room for the possibility that my baser instincts would kick in, but for the most part I think I would quickly get infected or killed. I'm not the quickest draw when it comes to trauma. I'm a ponderer: "Hmm....that pack of rabid decaying humans is attacking me and my family...I wonder what it all means....?"
2.) Zombies are a metaphor for sin and the death it brings: Here's an idea for a larger reflection, something I would do if somebody paid me for it: read Romans 7, which deals specifically with the sin that dwells within us, in the light of everything we know about zombies (what causes them, how they come back to "life", and what they need to subsist), especially when Paul says "it is no longer I who do it [sin], but sin that dwells within me" (vs. 20). Using zombies to read Paul can be a powerful way to cause us to confront, despise, and destroy the sin that lives inside us.
3.) Zombies make me love my family more: Honestly, although I'm now a bit more paranoid than I should be, I now cherish my family so much more, knowing how precious they are and how fragile life can be. The lives we've been given are a precious gift and we should cherish every moment with each other. It's now not so important how many possessions I have or what my status in life is. Having my family with me is enough; having each other is what's most important. I have zombies to thank for helping me realize this.
4.) We are always surrounded by death anyway, through people killing people or through "natural causes": To start with, zombies remind us that we are our own greatest threat. Sure, the zombies themselves are a constant threat, but really most of the time spent in a zombie narrative surrounds the conflicts the living are having amongst each other, conflicts nearly always resulting in someone's death. And how exactly is this any different than the way things are now? Zombies or no zombies human history (without the redeeming work of Christ) is basically one long account of kill or be killed.
Then, whether it's terminal illnesses, natural disasters, crimes of passion, freak accidents, and the necessities of war, deaths never stop occurring. They are ongoing. We are, in a sense, perpetually surrounded by death or the threat of death. We usually deny this, thinking we might somehow be immortal. But zombies remind us "nope, your death is coming, you just don't know when." And thus...
5.) Our deaths are inevitable and perhaps imminent: Up there on the screens we watch our zombie stories on (for our viewing pleasure!) our lives play out in miniature. Whereas "normal" life gives us the illusion that life will be long, zombie stories remind us that life could end at any moment. They make our deaths seem imminent, they compress the timeline of our lives down to a few spare moments causing us to ask ourselves "Are you ready to die? How will you spend the next few moments until your life ends? Or if things seem safe for the time being, how will you seize every moment either enjoying life or working to ensure you might live longer?"
6.) Death is often random, subject to chaos: Death is certain, but HOW we will die is not guaranteed, and sometimes seems to be at the whims of chaos theory. In a zombie story you think you're on your way to safety when out of nowhere a rotting hand grabs you and you're now bitten, your death in the near near future. (You can also find examples of this in World War Z, with Brad Pitt's character randomly picking the right vial of sickness to inject himself with or the people of Jerusalem singing just enough so the zombies heard them and were drawn over the walls.
7.) Outside threats (that is, the zombies) create internal threats: Something outside ourselves and the community within which we live causes us to turn on those we trust, love, and need in order to survive. This lesson has certainly become central to TWD's story as the seasons have gone on. Compared to the living, zombies hardly cause a threat anymore!
8.) Violence can become a necessity: I believe nearly all situations in life can be solved with non-violent solutions, or at least that nearly all parties involved in conflicts could always do much more to work towards non-violent ends. Indeed, as a Christian I have deeply held convictions that Christ calls us to all but non-violent and thus peaceful lives among friends, enemies, and neighbors. Zombies don't give us this option. No, one mandate is clear: We got to kill them things! Now, of course it gets much trickier when it comes to dealing with the humans still alive in a zombie narrative, but eventually it seems most characters find themselves in inescapable situations where they must kill other humans in order to protect their loved ones and eventually to keep themselves alive. (Please note: many zombie narratives dwell on "consequentialist" ethics, where the contemplated act of violence would be done or not done based on the outcome. It's a pragmatic worldview. I am much more for a "virtue" ethic kind of guy, based in the works of Alasdair McEntyre and Stanley Hauerwas [and, I guess, some guy called Aris Totle], where people behave according to their developed character [I also get the feeling Jesus might be a virtue-ethicist].)
9.) They force us to consider whether our morals are situational and pragmatic or whether they stem from deeply rooted principles (virtues). Relating to #8 in this list, finding ourselves in a world overrun by zombies puts us in the position of figuring whether or not our morals change from situation to situation depending on what are current needs are or are our morals founded on unchanging principles. In a world where you have to make quick decisions regarding how to treat others you find out really fast if your morals are not grounded in more than in the principle of whatever benefits me the most. This is the difference of being a pragmatist or a virtue ethicist.
10.) We see the cycles of history condensed: Zombie narratives, like all post-apocalyptic narratives, remind us that history is cyclical, and has gone through many previous times where humanity is weeded out for various reasons. If we happen to find ourselves in an era where the population is increasing and our peoples are prospering we should be grateful (and if people of faith, we should praise God), for we never know when me might be caught in the next cycle of purging.
In relation to the cycles of history, through zombie stories we get to see history re-enacted on a micro level right before our eyes. When brother fights against brother and one small town battles against another even smaller town, this is simply an allegory of history. The most dire of circumstances (pervasive death and lack of basic resources) has caused us to have to fight each other for survival. Using the high concept, often ridiculous device of zombies the course of history is played out right in front of us as a parable. (Note to history teachers: If you haven't discerned it yet, yes, I'm basically advocating for history teachers using zombies narratives as object lessons in their classes. I'm sure parents will love that!)
One final note of critique:
“You will be torn apart by teeth or bullets...”
—Morgan from The Walking Dead
"In this life now you kill or you die...Or, you die, then you kill."
—The Governor from The Walking Dead
So, is the world really a kill or be killed, survival of the fittest, eye for an eye, my tribe against your tribe kind of world as zombie narratives would have us believe? Well, much in our world both past and present would have us believe it were so, but I believe an alternate story is being told, indeed, that an alternate reality is being made. To see what I mean feel free to read my more long-form essay "We Know How the Story Ends":
Also, check out my followup articles: The Walking Dead, Gun Control, and the Syrian Refugee Crisis: Zombies & Current Events and Obvious Conclusions: Zombie Edition
So...have fun watching a zombie flick, but don't forget there are plenty of principles worth considering within them, principles we have to think about fast because you never know what's around the corner!
*this would include but is not limited to the Nightmare on Elmstreet [Freddie] films, the Friday the XIIIth [Jason] films, Childs Play, Hellraiser, The Leprechaun, The Exorcist, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Blair Witch Project, any of a number of Vampire movies, and anything having to do with Mr. Evil himself Stephen King (somehow Stand By Me, Misery, and The Shawshank Redemption managed to slip by her).
**this would include but is not limited to the Hostel films, the Saw films, the Paranormal Activity films, The Human Centipede, and I suppose many others.
Related posts on the theme of death:
Battlestar Galactica and Reflecting on Death
Lost in the Swirl of the Gun Control Debate