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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. Brian

    They should reference http://www.interviewwithazombie.com

    December 20, 2010 at 12:18 pm |
  2. steeve mqueen the great escape

    they say in arabic the dogs are barking but the carravane is moving ahead i would like to ignor the dogs but i just want to see them barking more because they are going to die barking because of hate and rage , islam is a religion of choice and moving forward as good americans do not the hate mongers who keep barking.

    December 20, 2010 at 12:18 pm |
  3. Diana

    Funny that a discussion about zombies turned into a discussion about terrorists. I love it when people stray from the topic at hand. It shows their ADHD in a very amusing light.

    December 20, 2010 at 12:11 pm |
  4. Scott

    The love of the zombie apocolypse represents people's disgust with current civilization. The zombie represents all the sell outs. The liars, the cheats, the average everyday joe that maybe at one point was cool... but eventually sold out (btw, thats most of you losers out there). The 'survivors' represent those who haven't given up, who fight against the ravenous mob who just want more and don't care how they get it. The survivors have to live off the corpse of the old world, looting stores and such, off the land, a more simple life... taking only what they need. Not big screen tvs or fancy sports cars, but weapons, food and maybe a sturdy vehicle. The survivors represent what should survive.. and the zombies what should die.

    December 20, 2010 at 12:10 pm |
    • A. Zombie

      Scott, we zombies are the ultimate capitalist consumers. We eat everyone and don't create new jobs.

      December 20, 2010 at 3:32 pm |
  5. Justin

    Souls don't exist.

    December 20, 2010 at 12:05 pm |
    • Diana

      Perhaps you don't have a soul. I do.

      Souls exist.

      December 20, 2010 at 12:12 pm |
    • Jake

      Diana – any real basis for believing that? (i.e., books of fairytales don't count).

      December 20, 2010 at 1:00 pm |
    • Bill In STL

      Jake, I think a better question is "Can you prove it either way" and I am asking this of you!.... Same rules apply. I think the answer is no ... so until you have definitive evidence it is still not certain...

      What we know now is that Diane believes she has a soul and you don't believe you have one. So why do you disrespect her for here beliefs?

      December 20, 2010 at 2:04 pm |
    • Godless

      Can you prove zombies don't exist? There's as much proof of a soul as there is proof of zombies (that is, none).

      December 20, 2010 at 3:51 pm |
  6. steeve mqueen the great escape

    hitler stalin sharon sadam guns in america kills thousands of americans

    December 20, 2010 at 12:04 pm |
  7. pketpket

    I really enjoyed reading this article. I enjoy this sort of non-news yet thought provoking work. Zombies are also SCARY! Why didn't the author mention that? The zombie creature is nightmarish and demonic to me. Video games make is fun to shoot zombies because even though they look like people they aren't so you don't feel bad. Isn't that why zombie games came about to begin with? Weren't censors concerned about kids shooting at other kids so by changing the pixels around you get zombies which are just people who are already dead. It almost is a good thing to kill a zombie, like you are putting it out of its misery. Like a deer wounded by a shot you have to follow its trail and ends its life quickly when you find it for its sake not yours. I would like to see a follow up article that talks about the mercy of those that give a second death to the zombies. If I became a zombie I hope my loved ones that survive would know I would not want to have even the shell of my body going around hurting people. People fear death because it is unknown and like darkness we fear the unknown. That is why so many books, movies, TV shows and video games capitalize off our fascination with the unknown.

    December 20, 2010 at 11:59 am |
  8. Reality

    The definition:

    (ZOM-bee)

    noun, also zombi

    1. A person behaving like an automaton: listless, wooden, or lacking energy.

    2. A snake god in West Indian, Brazilian, and West African religions.

    3. In voodoo, a supernatural force or spirit that can enter a dead body; also, the soulless body that is revived in this manner.

    4. A computer process that has died but is still listed in the process table.

    5. A drink made of various kinds of rum, liqueur, and fruit juice.

    Those who follow the koran definitetly fit the first definition. Reminds one of Sir Salman Rushdie's take on the laws of Islam:

    From his book "Satanic Verses", p. 376, paperback issue – also for those 1 billion Muslims to read as they are forbidden to purchase or read said book:

    One of the passages that prompted the crazed Ayatollah Khomeini to issue a fatwa against Sir Rushdie:

    Mahound = Mohammed
    Gibreel = Gabriel

    "The faithful lived by lawlessness, but in those years Mahound – or should one say the Archangel Gibreel? – should one say Al-Lah? – became obsessed by law.

    Amid the palm-trees of the oasis Gibreel appeared to the Prophet and found himself spouting rules, rules, rules, until the faithful could scarcely bear the prospect of any more revelation, Salman said, rules about every da-mn thing, if a man farts let him turn his face to the wind, a rule about which hand to use for the purpose of cleaning one's behind.

    It was as if no aspect of human existence was to be left unregulated, free. The revelation – the recitation- told the faithful how much to eat, how deeply they should sleep, and which se-xual positions had received divine sanction, so that they leamed that so-domy and the missionary position were approved of by the archangel, whereas the forbidden postures included all those in which the female was on top.

    Gibreel further listed the permitted and forbidden subjects of conversation, and earmarked the parts of the body which could not be scratched no matter how unbearably they might itch.

    He vetoed the consumption of prawns, those bizarre other-worldly creatures which no member of the faithful had ever seen, and required animals to be killed slowly, by bleeding, so that by experiencing their deaths to the full they might arrive at an understanding of the meaning of their lives, for it is only at the moment of death that living creatures understand that life has been real, and not a sort of dream.

    And Gibreel the archangel specified the manner in which a man should be buried, and how his property should be divided, so that Salman the Persian got to wondering what manner of God this was that sounded so much like a businessman.

    This was when he had the idea that destroyed his faith, because he recalled that of course Mahound himself had been a businessman, and a damned successful one at that, a person to whom organization and rules came naturally, so how excessively convenient it was that he should have come up with such a very businesslike archangel, who handed down the management decisions of this highly corporate, if noncorporeal, God."

    December 20, 2010 at 11:57 am |
    • Bubba

      Reality, you have Islam on the brain. I bet you end up converting in the end. Now stfu and let the grownups talk about zombies.

      December 20, 2010 at 1:56 pm |
  9. Cathy

    You all have it wrong. This is all very simple. Zombies represent the sub-human aspects of our nature, and it is something we must destroy in ourselves in order to become true human beings. When the human aspects of our nature are destroyed, the only thing left is a grunting, violent, cannibal. Get a clue.

    December 20, 2010 at 11:56 am |
  10. absurdist

    @Rebecca Borah, a prof etc.etc. etc: that's what the study of literature involves, is an analysis of why we are fascinated by what we are fascinated by, and why culture emerges in the way that it does–at one time, good ol' Chuck Dickens was pop lit entertainment, loved by the masses.
    @all of you fools talking about Muslims: I think extremist Muslims (that tiny fraction who actually kills people) just got wind of all of the people who have killed in the name of Christ over time, got jealous, and decided to try to catch up.

    Incidentally, part of our zombie fascination is why we are fascinated by dolls: they look like people, but are lacking the components of humanity. We are drawn, from infancy, to things resembling human faces, as part of our evolutionary adaptation to band together for survival. A human face=safety and security. When that face decieves us, it causes a bone-chilling fear–not to mention fascination and curiosity–as to what went wrong with one of our most base of cues.

    December 20, 2010 at 11:54 am |
  11. Patrick

    "Zombie theology" in a nutshell. Guilt free genocide. They're enough like humans that shooting them is satisfying, but they're not *really* people. So nobody has to feel guilty or admit it's an expression of misanthropy.

    December 20, 2010 at 11:52 am |
    • Frogist

      @Patrick: Excellent point. You really see that in the original Night of the Living Dead. The hicks who come by and round up the zombies don't care who they kill. They're just out for the killing. It's different for the survivors in the house who actually have a real moral conflict about hurting the zombies. Ben can't even shoot them at first. And Barbara and the mother (I can't remember her name) would rather die than kill the zombies they knew in life.

      December 21, 2010 at 9:43 am |
  12. Chuck

    "Zombies for Zombies" isn't even a good read and I can't believe it's getting any press.

    December 20, 2010 at 11:49 am |
    • david murphy

      sorry you feel that way. really. the goal was to make folks laugh.

      having said that, write a book sometime and get back to me...

      December 20, 2010 at 3:48 pm |
  13. Marc

    Zombies are real, just go to Target this time of year. Mindless, souless...and buying shoddy merchandise made in China. Rrrrrr brains....

    December 20, 2010 at 11:46 am |
  14. Ken dill

    OK, just being silly... Theo means God and ology is the study of.... so zombie study of God is really funny. How about zombiology instead.

    December 20, 2010 at 11:39 am |
  15. turningleaf

    turningleaf.vpweb.com

    December 20, 2010 at 11:38 am |
  16. chris

    Does everyone want to know the real reason we like zombies? People.....the idea of all people disappearing and everything becoming yours. If I want a dodge viper then ill have one....BUT you'll have to survive and rebuild. Its a clean slate.

    December 20, 2010 at 11:38 am |
    • Frogist

      @chris: It's a clean slate with dire consequences... There are few if any happy endings to zombie movies... Well it did work out awesomely for Shaun of the Dead. He is why I keep a cricket bat next to my bed and my best friend tied up in the shed behind the house.

      December 21, 2010 at 9:37 am |
  17. Sean

    I'm with you Rebecca Borah. And I'm a huge fan of zombie folklore.

    Too many weak parallels being drawn between fiction and reality. Now we have academia dissecting entertainment.

    December 20, 2010 at 11:36 am |
  18. Kristy

    Leave it to religion to suck all the fun out of zombie lore.

    December 20, 2010 at 11:34 am |
  19. carl botha

    Just Testing - thanks for the Avoid-Waiting-for-moderation

    The h0m053xu@l always c@ms twice?

    J35u5 was also a z0mb1e - he got up and fly away after I dont now how many days.

    December 20, 2010 at 11:27 am |
  20. Rebecca Borah, an English professor at the University of Cincinnati in Ohio

    Remind me to not send my kids to this school. It would be nice if these bastions of knowledge taught math, science etc for my mega thousands of dollars a year it costs to go to college. Ill be she charges 250 bucks a pop for the classroom material. Really? Zombies? How much did you milk the system for this jewel. A quote from a movie geek? Sure. From a PROFESSER who is paid by parents to teach relevent issues? Big FAIL.
    What a joke.

    December 20, 2010 at 11:18 am |
    • Bubba

      I might think you were actually R. Borah except that I bet she can spell professor. She gave you a C, huh?

      December 20, 2010 at 12:14 pm |
    • Muneeb (yes it's my real name)

      LOLZZZ!! Did you misspell "Professor"? the one in all Caps, I mean? You're "an english professor", lady! (0r so you claim...)
      unless, of course, you meant someone who "professes" something, in which case it's cool.
      (giggles)

      December 21, 2010 at 8:46 pm |
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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.