The 'zombie theology' behind the walking dead
December 20th, 2010
06:00 AM ET

The 'zombie theology' behind the walking dead

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.”

- CNN Writer

Filed under: Art • Culture & Science • Death • Trends • TV

soundoff (229 Responses)
  1. Sutemi

    This person doesn't understand zombie fans at all. He's viewing the zombie genre through his own theological prism, which reveals his own theology but says nothing to "zombie theology", which is non-existent. He is, in fact, glomming attention from the current popularity of zombie cinema. I only clicked on this for the zombies and when I read the article it was completely off base and laughable.

    December 20, 2010 at 11:13 am |
  2. littledebbieoatmealcookie

    this is kind of cool. it's a soul getting away from some dude ... http://littledebbieoatmealcookie.wordpress.com/explosion/

    December 20, 2010 at 11:02 am |
    • A. Zombie

      It looks more like an ad for duct tape to me.

      December 20, 2010 at 4:45 pm |
  3. prophet

    people who do not believe in God are those who are the walking dead, this is a fact and this is why we have been offered the chance to be saved.

    December 20, 2010 at 11:02 am |
    • Denizen Kate

      A fact? Seriously? Do you really believe this? If so, you are far beyond delusional and should probably see a doctor.

      December 20, 2010 at 12:33 pm |
    • Random

      It's funny how religious people who maintain to adhere to a philosophy of supposed peace, forgiveness and understanding are always the most intolerant and quick to judge.

      Let's say god is real; 80% of you will be sorely disappointed come the afterlife when you realise that you've spent your entire life using his name to be spiteful to others and using his name only to fabricate reasons that you are always right. By the very definitions of your belief this is sin, only you do it subconsciously due to a life of slow indoctrination.

      December 20, 2010 at 1:56 pm |
    • Muneeb (yes it's my real name)

      I've noticed that too! I'm Muslim and I always find it a bit annoying and immature when instead of engaging in an intellectual conversation with someone who's abusing religion or simply stating their beliefs, the people who call themselves stuff like "true religion" or "jesus" etc. etc. will immediately become super-defensive and go off on some rant. i.g. Jon from the E.R. or Muneef.

      People need to be more civilized instead of immediately getting emotional. Use your heads, people!

      December 21, 2010 at 8:43 pm |
    • Muneef

      Juneeb, Hi there.
      First time I see your name showing and already you are already giving examples using my name?
      So what do you call that then? Any way never mind I will let it pass although do not know what examples you thought of...
      Oh just forget it and move on...

      December 21, 2010 at 8:55 pm |
    • Muneef


      Too much civilized and too cool only means that you are not here but up high on the sky....smoking your head of..

      December 21, 2010 at 8:58 pm |
  4. David Johnson

    The resurrection of Jesus is my favorite zombie story.

    Someone told me that some people, actually believe the story is true!

    Do the fundies not get a clue, when Jesus hasn't come back in over 2000 years? He said He would be back in the 1st Century. Of course He also said all that stuff about prayer moving mountains and asking for anything we want.

    Fundies do not believe in Christianity because it is true. To them Christianity is true because they believe it.


    December 20, 2010 at 10:58 am |
    • ttwp

      "First of all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires." 2 Peter 3:3

      December 21, 2010 at 12:10 am |
    • David Johnson


      Dude! Are you dim? There have always been scoffers. I could make a good argument that scoffers put Jesus on the cross.


      December 22, 2010 at 8:27 am |
  5. Doc Vestibule

    Catholicism is full of zombist doctine.
    The Eucharist is symbolic cannibalism – the consumption of teh flesh of the Zombie Messiah

    December 20, 2010 at 10:47 am |
  6. A. Zombie


    December 20, 2010 at 10:41 am |
    • Magog

      I googled that and laffed. Hail Karlok!

      December 20, 2010 at 10:52 am |
  7. Lisa

    The author has a preconception that without God we're all just evil. If it takes God to be "good", how do moral atheists exist?
    This notion taints the whole article.
    Zombies are the quintessential monster and the movies are a lot of fun.

    December 20, 2010 at 10:33 am |
    • Denizen Kate

      I'm with you, Lisa! Zombies, vampires, werewolves, all very fun in movies, books, comics and video games, but NOT REAL. Morals and ethics exist without belief in the imaginary friend for grown-ups. I don't need a white bearded man in the sky, or fear of eternal burning, to make me behave with courtesy and kindness towards others. Religion is the placebo of the masses.

      December 20, 2010 at 12:47 pm |
    • Frogist

      @Lisa: You're right about that. That's his interpretation. He doesn't consider that the opposite of what he is saying is sometimes much more true. Much evil is done under the cover of religion. It can be the ultimate excuse to follow some leader or mindset to do horrible things without consideration of how cruel or immoral one is truly being. The survivors can be compared to the non-believers who follow their own path away from the masses. They only survive because they have the capacity to think for themselves.

      December 21, 2010 at 9:32 am |
  8. Dan

    If your worried about Zombies here is an article to help you survive.
    That and Rule # 1. Cardio. =)

    December 20, 2010 at 10:30 am |
    • Denizen Kate

      Thanks, Dan! That was awesome! I needed a nice Monday morning giggle.

      December 20, 2010 at 12:59 pm |
  9. Charles Dexter Ward

    Zombies are nothing. Just waitin until Cthulhu comes a'callin'. Ia! Ia!

    December 20, 2010 at 10:26 am |
    • Bob Howard

      Wait, do you have clearance to know about SITUATION NIGHTMARE GREEN?

      December 20, 2010 at 10:42 am |
    • ArdDruid

      You know that Cthulhu has long appendages I think He is the Flying Spaghetti Monster in a Halloween costume. But to be on the safe Side ....... YOG-SOTHOTH....... Chanting

      December 20, 2010 at 11:00 pm |
  10. Reg

    Maybe we should call Stephen Colbert to get them. There is
    a funny video stephen Colbert Zombie Hunter:

    December 20, 2010 at 10:09 am |
  11. Trevor

    Zombies and religion. What a useless article.

    December 20, 2010 at 10:05 am |
    • Chad

      If this was facebook i'd hit LIKE on your comment.

      December 20, 2010 at 11:22 am |
    • M.

      If this were real life, I'd hit YOU in the face.

      December 20, 2010 at 11:50 am |
    • Marcus

      I'd hit LIKE as well, completely agree.

      December 20, 2010 at 11:51 am |
  12. Derek

    I think people like the zombie genre because it's a safe way to explore our greatest fears. Fear of the total collapse of society as we know it & living in a never-ending nightmare where death awaits us around every corner. Even though I'm a rational human being who intellectually knows zombies don't or won't ever exist, there's some part of me that thinks it is possible for a zombie apocalypse and that we should be prepared for that day.

    December 20, 2010 at 10:05 am |
    • Russ

      Yes, zombies are a metaphor for disease, meteor strike, nuclear, whatever ends the world. Zombies are the backdrop for the survivors whose story is told. The Walking Dead's zombies are a horrible, relentless plague but once the survivors figure them out they can stay ahead of the mindless danger. The true dangers are other humans, their dramas, wants and needs. Human politics on a village level are played out against a backdrop of a sea of mindless zombies.

      December 20, 2010 at 12:34 pm |
  13. chris patrick

    I'm sorry but I never thought the Zombie genre had anything to do with religion, it was politics. No? Who said it's religion again? This has to do with blindly following along various political beliefs.

    December 20, 2010 at 10:04 am |
    • Frogist

      @chris: It has to do with conforming. Blindly following for the sake of following. It has always meant not questioning, just going along without thought. I think those ideas can be applied to religion as well as politics or economic themes. I think it speaks of how not considering one's actions is dangerous especially in masses of people. The usual comparison is with Nazis. One person with Nazi mentality, easily got rid of. A hundred? A little harder to do. Let them overrun the world, no one is safe. The only refuge is to live underground, or die valiantly. And the worst end you could come to is turning into one of them.

      December 21, 2010 at 9:23 am |
  14. Jason

    Who participates in those public pretend zombie events (main article pic)? I always feel embarrassed *for* them. It's so incredibly lame. I wouldn't know how to react to one in the street. Though it would probably be how I would react to opening my door on Halloween and seeing a group of 30 year olds in costumes and masks asking for candy.

    December 20, 2010 at 10:02 am |
    • Bob

      I also feel bad for the civil war creationists. What a bunch of lameoids.

      December 20, 2010 at 10:40 am |
    • Bubba

      The Civil War actually happened ten thousand years ago and left behind a bunch of fossils with Confederate flags.

      December 20, 2010 at 1:23 pm |
    • Ronnie

      Actually A LOT of people participated for the Zombie event, it was all tied to the premier of AMC's The Walking Dead and zombies were showing up around the globe the weekend of Halloween. I highly doubt it's something people do every Saturday... If they do however, so be it, let them have fun, nobody points at all the zombies wearing sports gear and laughs(mainly because they already know how stupid they are)...

      December 20, 2010 at 4:58 pm |
    • Frogist

      @Jason: Why are you embarrassed for them? They are having fun. Maybe you're just embarrassed for yourself? I'd love to do a zombie walk! I have friends in three states who would love to go. I love Halloween! There's nothing wrong with being someone else for a while. It's all for fun.

      December 21, 2010 at 9:12 am |
  15. Jessy

    Oh my God! This is so ridiculous. This article makes no mention of Islam (let alone any other religion besides Christianity), yet you bring up Islam and talk about it like it's the plague. This article is about Zombies theology and how its theme is based on Christian fears and beliefs. Keep Islam out of this discussion.

    December 20, 2010 at 10:01 am |
  16. Bubba

    I don't believe in Gog.

    December 20, 2010 at 9:57 am |
    • Magog

      You must accept Gog into your life or perish.

      December 20, 2010 at 10:45 am |
    • Roy

      My god Crom can kick all butts before him...

      December 20, 2010 at 11:34 am |
    • Conan

      By Crom, Mitra, and Leno!

      December 20, 2010 at 12:54 pm |
  17. Gog

    Me and Magog want you to quit talkin' smack about us. We ain't even tried to go through no barrier.

    December 20, 2010 at 9:56 am |
    • Muneeb (yes it's my real name)


      December 21, 2010 at 8:32 pm |
  18. God

    Bubba, that is because no one has ever returned from the dead.

    December 20, 2010 at 9:41 am |
    • Roy

      Wayne Newton?

      December 20, 2010 at 11:32 am |
    • TinCanOnAString

      Betty White?

      December 20, 2010 at 2:01 pm |
    • GetOverIt


      December 20, 2010 at 2:28 pm |
    • darp


      December 20, 2010 at 2:44 pm |
    • atheist

      Jim Morrison!

      April 25, 2011 at 4:44 pm |
  19. jeff

    If you want a real live example of a zombie, go to google and search on this:

    The killing of 13 citizen soldiers at Ft. Hood by a follower of the koran

    Then, click the link to show all links from cnn dot com. You will also find them at onfaith dot washingtonpost dot com and www dot freerepublic dot com.

    Reality is, we already have zombies among us...

    grace and peace,


    December 20, 2010 at 8:40 am |
    • Muneef

      Those you refer to are the servants of your country unity and should not be accused like that with out finding out the causes behind their actions...The real Zombies here are yet to come for which read the following;
      Al-Anbiya sura21:
      In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful
      Until the Gog and Magog (people) are let through (their barrier), and they swiftly swarm from every hill. (96) Then will the True Promise draw nigh (of fulfillment): then behold! the eyes of the Unbelievers will fixedly stare in horror: "Ah! woe to us! we were indeed heedless of this; nay we truly did wrong!" (97)..

      December 20, 2010 at 8:55 am |
    • Muneef

      They said: "O Dhu al Qarnayn! the Gog and Magog (people) do great mischief on earth: shall we then render thee tribute in order that thou mightest erect a barrier between us and them?" (94) He said: "(The power) in which my Lord has established me is better (than tribute): help me therefore with strength (and labour): I will erect a strong barrier between you and them: (95) "Bring me blocks of iron." At length when he had filled up the space between the two steep mountain― sides, he said "Blow (with your bellows)." Then when he had made it (red) as fire he said: "Bring me, that I may pour over it molten lead." (96) Thus were they made powerless to scale it or to dig through it. (97) He said: "This is a mercy from my Lord: but when the promise of my Lord comes to pass, He will make it into dust; and the promise of My Lord is true." (98) On that day We shall leave them to surge like waves on one another; the trumpet will be blown, and We shall collect them all together. (99) And We shall present Hell that day for Unbelievers to see, all spread out― (100) (Unbelievers) whose eyes had been under a veil from Remembrance of Me, and who had been unable even to hear. (101)

      December 20, 2010 at 9:02 am |
    • Bob

      Who cares what a bunch of illiterate muslims said? I bet if I showed them a David Copperfield magic trick they'd proclaim him a messiah or prophet too. Remember, if you eat dates in the morning, you can stave off hunger related sicknesses.

      You know, because sickness is caused by hunger, not by bacteria or viruses.

      December 20, 2010 at 9:24 am |
    • jeff

      @Muneef, sorry that you missed my intent; focus on the poster, not the subject.

      December 20, 2010 at 9:51 am |
    • Muslim Zombie

      I ate jeff's brain long ago.

      December 20, 2010 at 9:59 am |
    • Matt

      Two words: Timothy McVeigh. Or does he not count, since he was white and Christian and only dark-skinned heathens can be terrorists?

      December 20, 2010 at 10:58 am |
    • richunix

      Muneef, nice story. Guess what, I saw Elvis in a potato chip and a Zombie was eating it.

      December 20, 2010 at 12:36 pm |
    • darp

      wow @ both of you

      December 20, 2010 at 2:40 pm |
    • Muneef

      Noted but you still here ? Thought saw some say you were already eaten?

      December 22, 2010 at 5:38 am |
  20. Bob

    Zombie theology? Isn't that Christianity? Jesus rose from the dead?

    December 20, 2010 at 7:44 am |
    • pete

      Not sure that he tried to eat brains

      December 20, 2010 at 8:37 am |
    • Bob

      Not all zombies eat brains. Some are semi intelligent too, depending on what sort of genre you ascribe to.

      December 20, 2010 at 9:23 am |
    • Bryan H,

      I don't know, guys...

      This IS the origin of Zombie Jesus...


      December 20, 2010 at 9:41 am |
    • jack

      Pete, don't be so sure. Seems to me the religion he promoted has pretty much eaten, or at least rotted, the brains of all its adherents.

      December 20, 2010 at 10:00 am |

      Yea, you are 100% correct

      December 20, 2010 at 10:53 am |
    • jesus

      Jeebus tried to eat our brain by foisting a Bronze Age mentality on his and future generations. He was, even if he was a myth, the most notorious zombie in our history.

      December 20, 2010 at 11:04 am |
    • Roy

      There is that "eating of the flesh" thing too...

      December 20, 2010 at 11:30 am |
    • M.

      I look for the resurrection of the dead, And the life of the age to come. Amen.

      December 20, 2010 at 11:48 am |
    • Jonathan

      28 Days later is technically not a zombie movie. Zombie are supposed to be dead and the infected are living humans infected with rage.

      December 20, 2010 at 12:29 pm |
    • dr André Kruger

      Yes Jesus rose from the dead. Then radiated compassion and wisdom, love and hope. Sure people twisted the message.. that's why many of us Christians are the worst ambassadors Christianity can have.. but deep down in its soul it is the opposite of what the fables of Zombies portray.

      December 20, 2010 at 12:44 pm |
    • Rusty


      December 20, 2010 at 12:56 pm |
    • Karloff

      Jesus was a zombie? Cool.

      December 20, 2010 at 1:01 pm |
    • Sandi

      Absolutely, been saying that for years.

      December 20, 2010 at 1:59 pm |
    • standingwave

      I don't know about religion but I do believe zombie movies are the morality plays of our time.On the one hand you a guy-the zombie-who is unequivocably bad.The zombie looks human but has no humanity left beside base desire.Then you have the survivors.In this situation all of their strengths and weaknesses are exposed.Usually those who's strenths outweigh their weaknesses survive.Those who give into their weak side usually die.Of course luck is involved too.

      December 20, 2010 at 2:33 pm |
    • ZombieNeedsToKnow

      I just want to know one thing. There must be a kabillion zombie movies, books, what have you out there. Each has the same remedy, decapitate it, knock its brains in, that'll do you. So here is the question.

      In all those kabillion movies do they not have zombie movies themselves? I mean, in each and every one of them absolutely no one knows how to do away with the bad guys until they see it on some television news spot that shows someone figuring out finally how to do away with them. Ok, so Return of the Living Dead the guy did know, but that was because of a typical Army "ahem" and there were a couple of the dead guys in the basement but really...

      Where are all the zombie movies in the zombie movies?

      December 20, 2010 at 3:40 pm |
    • ZombieNeedsToKnow

      I tell you what, next zombie invasion I am NOT waiting around to ask what religion the thing is, whappo, shovel to the neck line, off with its head...whatever or whoever it used to worship before its brains became slush...

      December 20, 2010 at 3:45 pm |
    • Jon, Gun Barrel City, TX

      When you are dying you will be screaming for Jesus to save you-I worked in an ER for a long time and the ones that do not believe in Christ cry like children and the horror on their faces says it all. Christians in general went with dignity. Maybe since you don't have dignity inlife you atheists go out the way you lived-whining like a child.

      December 20, 2010 at 5:06 pm |
    • Bob

      > When you are dying you will be screaming for Jesus to save you-I worked in an ER for a long time and the ones that do not believe in Christ cry like children and the horror on their faces says it all. Christians in general went with dignity. Maybe since you don't have dignity inlife you atheists go out the way you lived-whining like a child.

      I can tell you are an intelligent and thoughtful person. It's clear you're not rambling like a moron based on your own idealogy and bias.

      December 21, 2010 at 12:06 pm |
    • billp

      The offspring of Jesus destroy people's brains in other ways then eating them.

      December 22, 2010 at 2:02 am |
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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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.