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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. ncastronomer

    Old news here in NC – Cape Fear Zombie Watch

    December 20, 2010 at 2:23 pm |
  2. John W. Morehead

    My thanks to the author of this piece for raising important issues as a result of my essay in Religion Dispatches. Those who want to explore zombies and religion, as well as the relationship between horror, science fiction, fantasy and religion may enjoy my writings on this at my blog TheoFantastique (www.theofantastique.com) and Cinefantastique Online (http://cinefantastiqueonline.com/author/johnwmorehead/).

    December 20, 2010 at 2:21 pm |
  3. KT

    The great thing about zombies as a horror element is that they can be a vehicle for so many concepts. Mortality, resurrection (of a sort), the collapse of civilization, redemption, the question of what makes us human, the lengths people go to in order to survive... Even zombie origins can be varied. Zombiehood is a virus in 28 Days Later and Resident Evil, though in the former the zombies are still technically alive and they're definitely dead in the latter. In Dawn of the Dead, the only suggestion of their origin comes from a minister on TV who admonishes his remaining audience with the words, "When there is no more room in Hell, the dead will walk the earth." (Or something like that.) Other zombies are created with voodoo or some other religious or cult ceremony.

    I love zombies!

    December 20, 2010 at 2:19 pm |
  4. Brian

    Zombies are one of the few things that span all cultures and religions. The walking dead that feed on the living is one of the more nightmarish ends of the world. Unlike vampires or ghosts zombies have no intelligence. They are simply animated corpses with only one desire, to feed. That is the most basic need all creatures have with the other being survival. since zombies are already dead only one thing remains. They are abominations of nature and an affront to all religions and their respective Deities. So whether infected by some virus like Resident Evil or some other supernatural event like Dawn of the Dead. The result is the same zombies take over the world and there's not much the living can do even with all the advances in science. But I will say it is fun to go on a shooting spree and slay a bunch of undead!!!

    December 20, 2010 at 2:14 pm |
  5. Ron St. Louis

    Mr. Blake;

    Sorry to correct you but like many critics and movie fans who have made similar comparisons, 28 days is NOT a zombie movie. The movie is based on a virus that infects a number of living people turning them violent. They are still living and suffer all the same weaknesses as the non-infected including starvation which is the demise of the majority of them at the end of the movie.

    December 20, 2010 at 1:55 pm |
    • Frogist

      @Ron: They may not be the definition of zombie as returned from the dead beings. But they behave in similar ways due to the virus. A zombie move is not only one that fulfills the narrow definition, but encompasses the themes of apocalypse, masses acting as one, the lack of humanity, etc etc. So 28 Days Later is still a zombie movie IMO.

      December 21, 2010 at 9:55 am |
    • Frogist

      @Ron: They may not be the definition of zombie as returned from the dead beings. But they behave in similar ways due to the virus. A zombie move is not only one that fulfills the narrow definition, but encompasses the themes of apocalypse, masses acting as one, the lack of humanity, etc etc. So 28 Days Later is still a zombie movie IMO..

      December 21, 2010 at 9:56 am |
  6. Nelson Watson

    What zombies lack is not a soul, but a working flesh. The theological lesson is: "who needs cells, when you have a soul?"
    As in the "witch aprentice", even sweepers can move on their own: just add a soul. Do you lack your body from waist below? No problem: what makes us move is our soul. Blood circulation? Oxygen? ATP? Mitochondria? Who needs energy? A soul is enough. For, after all, our religions were founded when we didn't know about the existence of cells nor how the blood circulation works nor even what makes things move: forces (the gradient of potential energy). It is just plain ignorance at work.

    December 20, 2010 at 1:43 pm |
  7. Jeanine

    I like zombies because they DON'T SPARKLE!

    December 20, 2010 at 1:41 pm |
  8. Brains

    I dont get the Little Debbie Oatmeal Cookie thingy.

    December 20, 2010 at 1:41 pm |
  9. myself and I

    Me, I worship at your feet because I cannot look directly at the brilliance of your intellect.

    December 20, 2010 at 1:35 pm |
  10. me

    Me, you should win the Noble Prize or a people's choice award that award Michael gives out at Dunder-Mifflen

    December 20, 2010 at 1:32 pm |
  11. me

    I agree with the other me, you arethe greatest mind of our time.

    December 20, 2010 at 1:30 pm |
  12. me

    Everyone who commented on this article is a complete idiot(except me) with no life just like zombies but without a taste for flesh.

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

      Me, you are are a genius. No one else can even touch you intellectually.

      December 20, 2010 at 1:28 pm |
    • A. Zombie

      You are not only a complete idiot but your flesh probably tastes bad.

      December 20, 2010 at 3:31 pm |
  13. Plushbottom

    Why don't you publish these responses in chronological order ?

    December 20, 2010 at 1:21 pm |
    • T. Covenant

      The moderator is insequent.

      December 20, 2010 at 4:48 pm |
  14. Zom

    The author says:
    In most of my favorite zombie movies – “Dawn of the Dead,” “28 Days Later” – there are no happy endings.

    -

    Um, "28 Days Later" ended with the surviving protagonists being rescued. "28 Weeks Later" had a much darker ending.

    As for "Dawn of the Dead", it depends on which version you watch. Though neither is a particularly "happy" ending the remake is is much more bleak.

    December 20, 2010 at 1:10 pm |
  15. zombie

    nnnggguuuuuuhhhh!!!

    December 20, 2010 at 1:02 pm |
  16. Oi vey!

    Organized religion is just a big cult with money ... organized religion forces people to think and act in a way that is condoned by that religion, thus the result: Zombies who cannot think for themselves and are too inclined to ignore basic human equality and rights to fit in with like minded, soul sucking hate mongers.

    December 20, 2010 at 1:00 pm |
  17. James Quinn

    Zombie Jesus with wood. What do you know he did "RISE" again:)

    Pagan jim

    December 20, 2010 at 12:51 pm |
  18. Denizen Kate

    Good grief, people, get a grip! Zombies are fictional. Vampires are fictional. They are fun, but they are most definitely fictional. Look up that word in the dictionary if you don't understand it. There is no such thing as a zombie. When a person is dead, they are dead, period. This article was nonsensical garbage put up by CNN to evoke emotional responses, and look how well that worked! Sheesh! Two words - reality check.

    December 20, 2010 at 12:39 pm |
    • civilioutside

      The article's not about people thinking xombies are real. It's about the fact that they are symbolic of issues that concern people in everyday life, some of which may have a theological component. They resonate with people because of the symbolism, not because people really think the dead are about to rise and come bashing through their screen door.

      December 20, 2010 at 2:30 pm |
  19. lukeaolson

    I had no idea that nerds of this nature thought so deeply into the "theology" or "what would a zombie think like" or the ethics of......really? Someone got this article approved? Its funny though, I'll say that. Very funny!

    http://lukeaolson.wordpress.com

    December 20, 2010 at 12:26 pm |
  20. IaCheNeHe

    Earth is very much like a zombieland where its inhabitants are mostly the walking unconscious. They're not aware of anything other than self and even then its to only fulfill the pleasure pain organ they call a brain. They easily identify with external impressions and self justify the need to wreak havoc on this gem of a planet through war and violence. Just watch them in groups liken to lemmings trotting off the side of a cliff every time one of them claims to know the truth. In real life humans are just a bunch of ZOMBIES

    December 20, 2010 at 12:19 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.