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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. Geoffrey Hamilton

    Wrong,

    It comes from our desire to bury it all and watch it all come crashing down around us. The theology of zombie is much more aligned with the ideals presented in Fight Club than with Christianity. Some of us burn for something more important and relevant than what celebrities are doing or buying the latest and greatest piece of crap we don't need. Zombies are a counter-cultural icon more than a reflection of any conventional ideology. Underneath the veil of civilization, the human is nothing more than an animal who wants out of the cage.

    December 21, 2010 at 2:08 am |
  2. MacGog

    Look, Zombie films don't have that much to do with religion, other than showing massed groups of stupefied people crowding together for a common purpose (in this case to eat brains). The reason zombie films appeal to many people of all backgrounds is that they tap into the human survival instinct. If you don't feel some adrenaline while watching a zombie film then it's not any good. These movies are about scrambling to survive in a desperate situation. In this technological age we have to carefully manage lots of little, boring tasks on a schedule in order to survive, but we no longer have to run from tigers or bears or wolf packs or neighboring cannibal tribes, so while we are much better off, our lives are not as exciting (or short) as the lives of stone age people. That is why we love zombie films (and also films like Alien, Predator, etc.), they appeal to our primal instincts and create a physiological response. Have you ever shouted at the TV during a zombie film? Don't open that door! Run! Aim for the head!

    December 21, 2010 at 1:42 am |
    • Frogist

      @MacGog: LOL! Yeah... I try not to shout at the tv... Sometimes it can't be helped...

      December 21, 2010 at 10:16 am |
  3. F. C. Hochschild

    I love zombie movies! But i just think that most people find Zombies entertaining simply because it is so fascinating. I like to see how the people left stay alive. And I love when a zombie POPS out and makes me jump! haha

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

    A lot of live humans are far worse than zombies. Justice is the matter of time for all.

    December 20, 2010 at 11:09 pm |
  5. tallulah13

    Somehow I missed all the metaphor about zombies. As a kid the original Night of the Living Dead scared me spitless. As an adult, Pride, Prejudice and Zombies cracked me up, and I thought WWZ was a thoughtful commentary about human behavior in a time of crisis. Not once did I associate these things with any god or religion. I still don't. As a previous poster said, sometimes a zombie is just a zombie.

    December 20, 2010 at 10:44 pm |
  6. Tyler b

    How did this discussion go from the mere zombie to being delusional, if you were to ask me i think were jus wasting our time.

    December 20, 2010 at 10:42 pm |
  7. Keepinga Grip

    Metaphors??

    Sometimes a zombie is just a zombie...

    December 20, 2010 at 10:35 pm |
  8. max86234

    “Our higher spirit prevents us from doing stupid and violent things like, say, eating a neighbor.”

    on a list of things i'd like to eat, my neighbor isn't even in the top five. maybe the top ten, but that's neither here nor there.

    December 20, 2010 at 10:01 pm |
  9. the other r0b

    i wonder if R0b IS a zombie??!! Hmmmmmm..

    December 20, 2010 at 7:29 pm |
  10. Sherry

    Get an Ozkew...

    http://www.ezombiez.com

    December 20, 2010 at 7:27 pm |
  11. Sherry

    Get an Ozkew is all I have to say...

    http://www.ezombiez.com

    Check it

    December 20, 2010 at 7:25 pm |
  12. Marine Guy

    BRAINS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    December 20, 2010 at 5:58 pm |
  13. Ed.

    Amazing. 148 comments, and not a single "Sweet Zombie Jesus!"? Where are all of the Futurama fans?

    December 20, 2010 at 5:18 pm |
  14. PAGANGRL69

    I Love "Rob Zombie" does this count?...He totally Rocks!!!...Horn's Up Babeee!!!666
    lolololololol...Oh! oops wrong "Zombie"..."Oh well"!...I still Love "Rob Zombie" anyhow...(smile)
    Blessed Be..."The Law of Three"...Karma'

    December 20, 2010 at 5:15 pm |
  15. 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 5:07 pm |
  16. moonie

    I don't like fast moving super zombies. Zombies should move slowly. Are all zombies Christian, or can there be Jewish and Muslum zombies? And in and unrelated matter, what about vampires and crosses? What about Jewish, Muslim or Buddist vampires, I don't think crosses bother them. And if zombies don't take themselves too seriously, should all these comments be so serious? Oy Vey!

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

      @moonie: Zombies have no denomination except the Catholic ones who you can pick out by their pointy hats. Jewish vampires can only be dispatched by blessed latkes or kosher dill pickles. I wouldn't worry much except about the sparkly vampires... they're mormons. And defnintely not gay! (Except in those fanfics that no one likes to talk about...)

      December 21, 2010 at 10:10 am |
  17. Kate

    Hey guys remember when zombies belonged to nerds and not everyone and their frigging mother was on the z-day bandwagon?

    December 20, 2010 at 4:05 pm |
  18. RightTurnClyde

    The same [people] who like this kind of thing can go to a movie and be convinced there are witches in Amityville, exorcisms on Elm Street and UFO's in area 51. It's a free country. Who knows Bigfoot might be out there.. D.B. Cooper, chupacabra, vampires, werewolves ... different strokes.

    December 20, 2010 at 4:02 pm |
  19. Zombie Encyclopedia

    t-it
    c-unt
    f-uck
    s-hit
    just testing the word filters folks – move along, nothing to see here.

    December 20, 2010 at 3:44 pm |
  20. KT

    @Ron: 28 Days Later is *definitely* a zombie movie. Just like the flexible vampire mythos, zombies don't have to fit a certain mold to be called zombies. They can be the staggering kind or the bum-rush kind. They can be the dead risen from their graves in a religious sense or the dead re-animated by a virus such as in Resident Evil.

    December 20, 2010 at 2:23 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.