December 20th, 2010
06:00 AM ET
By John Blake, CNN
Some people find faith in churches. David Murphy finds it in zombies.
Murphy, the author of “Zombies for Zombies: Advice and Etiquette for the Living Dead,” says Americans' appetite for zombies isn’t fed just by sources such as the AMC hit series “The Walking Dead” or the countless zombie books and video games people buy.
Our zombie fascination has a religious root. Zombies are humans who have “lost track of their souls,” Murphy says.
“Our higher spirit prevents us from doing stupid and violent things like, say, eating a neighbor,” Murphy says. “When we are devoid of such spiritual ‘guidance,’ we become little more than walking bags of flesh, acting out like soccer moms on a bender.”
I talked to Murphy after going on my own six-week zombie bender. I watched the final episode of AMC’s record-breaking series “The Walking Dead.” I was one of 6 million viewers who tuned in to see how survivors of a zombie apocalypse fared after finding apparent sanctuary in Atlanta.
I then stumbled on a post by John Morehead in the Religion Dispatches online magazine titled “Toward a Zombie Theology.” That got me thinking.
Is there a religious significance to people’s fascination with zombies?
Some "zombie scholars" say yes. After all, zombie stories grapple with common religious themes: the end of the world, resurrection and the nature of the human soul.
Stephen Joel Garver, a philosophy professor at La Salle University in Pennsylvania, says zombies also resonate with so many Americans today because of the Great Recession.
“We live in a time where we talk about ‘zombie banks’ and ‘zombie corporations’ – the economic equivalent of the walking dead …,” he says. “This points to a bigger anxiety about an ‘apocalypse’ in which the familiar secure structures of our lives fall apart - in the face of economic collapse …”
Garver says zombies represent “human desire at its more unconstrained: ravenous and relentless.” Zombie films often depict authorities showing up to save the day. (The main character in “The Walking Dead” is a sheriff.)
But what happens when there’s no one, or no God, to save us? How do we decide what's right or wrong? Does acting morally even matter anymore? Those are some of the implicit questions in zombie movies, Garver says.
“Are there resources within our nature by which we can save ourselves?” Garver asks. “Is there any sort of transcendent reality - a God, a realm of morals - into which we can tap as a bulwark against the darkness?"
Most zombie movies say no. In most of my favorite zombie movies - “Dawn of the Dead,” “28 Days Later” - there are no happy endings. The government, the military, the scientists - they all become zombie stew.
Zombie theology also asks tough questions about redemption. Many religious traditions teach that no one is beyond redemption.
Not so with zombies, says Rebecca Borah, an English professor at the University of Cincinnati in Ohio. She says zombies are Cain-like figures, cursed and exiled from humanity.
“They represent our basic fears of death, decay and desecration,” she says. “Who wants to grow old, become ill and be isolated from our loved ones or a chance at redemption?’’
The final lesson in zombie theology is harsh, according to Borah.
Many religions stress the importance of forgiveness. But Borah suggests a different theological response to a group of zombies chasing you.
Show no mercy.
“It is you versus them, and the more of an anti-zombie zealot you are, the better for all concerned,” Borah says. “Take them out as fast as you can at all costs because - former loved ones or not - they are the damned and you don't want to catch it from them.”
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.