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Revived Resuscitated Reborn
By Clay Morgan
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2012 Clay Morgan
All rights reserved.
THE LIVING DEAD
Death is a very dull, dreary affair, and my advice to you is to have nothing whatsoever to do with it. —W. Somerset Maugham
After teaching a class at the University of Pittsburgh one crisp, autumn day I walked around a corner and was attacked by a zombie. It's probably not what you think; there was no biting, moaning, or hacking. The zombie just mistook me for a human.
Humans vs. Zombies (HvZ) is a game of moderated tag being played by tens of thousands of people, particularly college students, all over the world. Games involve strategy and teamwork and take a few days to complete. Bandanas indicate participation—on the arm for a human, on the head or neck for a zombie. Since the creation of HvZ in 2005, the phenomenon has grown so much that student clubs and organizations dedicated to it already exist on campuses around the globe.
Pittsburgh is a fitting setting for zombie mayhem, since, after all, the modern popularity of the living dead can be traced to George Romero's cult classic movie Night of the Living Dead, filmed in the 'Burgh in 1968. With that film, Romero revolutionized an entire genre and converted zombies from the more traditional witch-doctor victims they had long been into flesh-eating hunters. Eventually, human brains became the entrée of choice for these monsters, and more than forty years later, the undead continue to draw in viewers and consumers by the millions.
Books, movies, and video games drive zombie zeal in the twenty-first century. We just can't get enough of them these days. Thanks to the internet, a massive zombie subculture exists across a variety of websites and social media networks. There are even plans for a zombie musical as Broadway producers have already secured the rights to Michael Jackson's "Thriller". The American government even got in on the hype in May 2011 when the Centers for Disease Control released a Zombie Apocalypse preparation guide as a clever gimmick to raise awareness for appropriate responses to natural disasters. Reaction to the humorous ploy was so overwhelming that the website crashed for a few hours.
Like the creatures at the heart of this phenomenon, the popularity of undead creatures doesn't seem to be dying anytime soon. Well, technically zombies are already dead, but that's the problem. You can whack off their arms or put one in their chest and they'll just keep marching toward you like they were strolling down the aisle in a grocery store.
We are compelled by beings that can't be stopped by death. This attraction makes a bit more sense with something like vampires, who are increasingly portrayed as romantic, beautiful, and heroic. That's quite a different thing than zombies, which represent only decay and death and are considered to be completely beyond redemption. On the surface, the popularity of horrible creatures that are frightening, gruesome, and evil doesn't make much sense. Yet the undead generate billions of dollars in revenue worldwide.
ZOMBIES IN THE MIRROR
What do we see in a zombie that's so compelling? The short and perhaps surprising answer is that we see ourselves. Zombies were people once. They were humans who ate Skittles and had babies and danced badly at weddings. They drank coffee, shopped for bedding, downloaded music, blew out birthday candles, and attended church. This familiarity is seen in the way they're dressed: frightening ghouls wearing bathrobes and name tags and Dockers. When we see them ambling down the street, we fear them and imagine how close we are to becoming them at the same time. Other monsters are different since we usually don't understand where they came from or what they even are, but we know exactly what zombies are: regular people who didn't stay dead. Ultimately, we project ourselves onto monsters because it helps make sense out of our human nature.
We also see one another in zombies. Relationships drive zombie stories, and they are filled with friends, siblings, spouses, and parents who can transition from loved ones to enemies in seconds. We're compelled by the idea of a loved one becoming a deadly enemy so quickly. In 28 Days Later, one of my favorites, a likable character named Frank is accidentally infected by the "rage" virus, which takes effect very quickly. Frank realizes instantly that he's been infected and has only seconds to tell his teenage daughter, Hannah, that he loves her while trying to stagger away and not hurt anyone. In an instant he goes from protector to threat, and his friend Jim is suddenly faced with the terrifying task of doing whatever must be done to stop one of the few people left in the world to care about. It's not just imagining what we would do if grandma or hubby suddenly became a flesh-eating monster. It's about betrayal, a piercing emotional hit by someone we trust.
We also see zombies in us. We're self-centered in that we only get one narrow perspective through which to process reality. Call us self-focused if that erases the sting a bit. We simply look at ourselves more than anyone else. We want to like what we see, but that's usually not the case, so we present versions of ourselves that will appeal to the rest of the world. Those public masks may fool the people around us, but it's a different story when we look in the mirror. Truth always claws its way out of our hearts. Those dark parts of who we can be when we're at our worst can repulse us like decay-riddled zombies. Zombies represent complete depravity, pure evil, the worst a person can become. They offer nothing but death. They have no hope. We cheer for their destruction because conquering evil is good. And when we applaud the end of such evil, a part of us feels vindicated as though the darkest parts of us can be overcome.
But we also see other things in these fearsome creatures. One of their most striking features is that they, in a sense, conquer the grave. At the very least, death does not stop them. If we fear death, then what do we make of someone who can't be stopped by it? Any being with that kind of power gets our attention.
Ironically, living-dead beings like zombies are a cultural phenomenon because they reflect something that's true about people, both who we think we are and who we actually are. Observing them opens a window into how we think about mortality, eternity, and life as we know it, and that's what this book aims to do: explore issues of life, death, and life after death.
THE UNDEAD ARE DAMNED
I'm guessing that most of us today don't contemplate the possibility of eternal damnation each morning while sipping on coffee and munching on cereal. I mean, on Mondays maybe, but every day is just overdoing it. It's hard for us in the twenty-first century to understand what a preoccupation that concept was for most people in earlier centuries. As I study and teach the first few thousand years of Western civilization I'm struck by how focused those societies were on securing eternal salvation. Ancient Sumerians, Egyptians, Hebrews, and many others lived in a dangerous time of short life spans. Most of them expected to face eternity sooner rather than later. And they believed in an eternal existence.
In the seventeenth century, William Penn—the man who founded my home state of Pennsylvania—casually described the natural mind-set of his contemporaries when he said, "Death is no more than a turning of us over from time to eternity." The logic of ancients followed pretty simply from such a foundation. Life is short and then you die. After that, some sort of an accounting would be necessary. History is filled with the creation of one religion after another as people attempted to work out a system for securing a win at the end judgment.
Conversely, these days we spend most of our time thinking about how to prolong our time on earth, because we can—at least we think we can. Through the science of vitamins, gyms, plastic surgery clinics, and more, we are hoping to manufacture the Fountain of Youth. But the simple idea of having food every day and free time would have blown the minds of ancient folks.
Yet despite our modern luxury of distraction, apprehension over the hereafter is still woven into our DNA. Postapocalyptic stories such as zombie movies force us to think about such things. We have to admire how themes of life and death, eternity and damnation are bottled up in the dialogue of these tales. The characters who grapple with such issues never get squeaky-clean resolution because reality doesn't work that way. Life is frustratingly gray, although we're often preoccupied by simplistic notions of black and white, right and wrong. So if life is this confusing, how much more lost are we when it comes to death? There's a reason the afterlife is often called the great unknown.
One of the interesting ways we can measure this human fear is by looking at folklore from around the world over the centuries. Every society tells stories of monsters; vampires, for example, appear in some form in legends from many different cultures. Modern vampires of the cinema make us forget some of what made those creatures so frightening to previous generations. They were damned souls—that's why religious items such as crosses and holy water were used to combat them. The biggest fear was not simply that they had sharp teeth and fast feet but also that they were soul takers. To be bitten and turned was to be lost forever, condemned to the dark side for all eternity.
We can't understand how terrifying that prospect was to highly religious societies of centuries past, when a higher percentage of people believed in the existence of a soul and an eternal destination for that soul than is typical today. This children's prayer from more than three hundred years ago shows us a little about the mentality of past centuries:
Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep,
If I shall die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.
That doesn't sound like a typical bedtime thought for our kids today, at least not one I would teach my kids. Modern vampires have been holy-watered down, becoming soap opera characters with gelled hair and pouty expressions who feel like no one understands them. The transformation in how we view such monsters has something to do with a culturally diminished focus on eternity; if eternal damnation doesn't matter to us as much these days, then vamps lose some sizzle in the theological impact department. This cultural shift from sizzle to sparkle provides a clue about our current level of focus on eternal things.
The undead can also get our attention by making us think about our soul, whether or not it exists, and what that reality means to each one of us. We are moved by the idea of a creature without hope of redemption. We are compelled by the hopelessness of the soul. Can there be any redemption for a vampire or zombie? It's hard to imagine any redemption for the undead. There is a totality to the nature of these beings; they are all-consuming, solely focused, and completely beyond salvation. So as thoughts of redemption cycle through our minds we can't help relating to the questions in a personal way: What about my soul?
THE UNDEAD REPRESENT THE END OF THE WORLD
One of the reasons that zombies intrigue us in a different way than some other creatures is because they tend to represent the apocalypse. They aren't exactly introverts, after all, but prefer to get out and mingle and welcome new friends into the fold. Bites become the new handshake. It's more effective than Facebook, really. As a result, the population of those who still prefer Twinkies to brains dwindles rapidly. World War Z author Max Brooks says that, "Other monsters may threaten individual humans, but the living dead threaten the entire human race.... Zombies are slate wipers."
My Great Aunt Mitzie used to always say that the world is going to hell in a handbasket. I still have no idea what that means, but I do know we are obsessed with the end of the world. We've long had apocalypse on the brain. The year 2012 just happens to be the latest date of ultimate doom because centuries ago the Mayan people created a calendar that ends in 2012. We've taken that limit as a sign that the world will end in the twenty-first century, just as the ancients predicted. John Cusack even made a movie about it. Maybe the Mayans knew something about the ultimate end of human existence, but I'm thinking some guy's hand just got tired and he stopped chiseling. In the summer of 2011 a man named Harold Camping attracted a lot of attention by declaring that the rapture would take place on May 21, 2011, at exactly something o'clock, give or take daylight savings time and a boatload of delusion.
Well, we're still here.
You're really taking a risk by predicting when the world is going to end. It's a much smarter play to predict that the world isn't going to end anytime soon at all. That's what I'm going with. Because if I'm wrong, well, no one will be left to say anything about it.
It's fascinating that we can believe anyone who claims to know with absolute certainty when the world will end. Many of these doomsday prophets have attracted followers who believe that the Bible is an important book, but apparently none of them care for the verses of the Bible that say that no one knows when the world will end (Mark 13:32, for example). I've even heard people combine biblical prophecies and science by claiming that God may use a zombie virus plague to end the world.
Though we've been anticipating the end of the world for centuries, lately we've made it a little more interesting by adding zombies and Twitter. The Walking Dead is an intense TV show about zombies and the end of the world. In one episode a character named Dr. Edwin Jenner says of the zombie apocalypse, "This is our extinction event." To many of us, a zombie apocalypse makes as much sense as anything else to wipe out humankind.
Zombies have always been apocalyptic figures. We're drawn to these stories even more when the world seems to be falling apart. The first film in the genre was called White Zombie and came out in 1932, right as the Great Depression was reaching its peak. Another four zombie movies were released over the next decade while the world struggled against economic devastation and the fascist threat of world domination led by the evil regime of Adolf Hitler. Interestingly, zombie films receded through the 1950s, a much more peaceful era of postwar prosperity, particularly in America.
It's also not a coincidence that the movie that basically created the modern zombie canon came out in 1968, one of the darkest years in modern history. George Romero's Night of the Living Dead resonated with audiences that year—one of the worst years America had ever experienced. Tragedies struck in quick succession in 1968: the Vietnam War had already divided the country by January of that year when the Tet Offensive showed anxious citizens that the end of the conflict was not coming soon. Then both Martin Luther King Jr., and Senator Robert Kennedy were assassinated within two months of each other. Racial divisions and protests drove national conflict as many found ways to escape the madness of it all. By that point, flesh-eating zombies fit in quite well with the absurdity of life that millions of people found so hard to understand.
Tragedy and zombie popularity are inversely proportional. The worse things get, the more we buy into the apocalypse. The 1980s and 1990s weren't perfect but were relatively peaceful and prosperous. Not surprising then that you won't find massive mainstream appeal to zombies like we see in a post–9/11 world. Even ZomComs or zombedies (zombie comedies) like Shaun of the Dead rake in millions these days. If the economy's in the tank and the world's about to end, many people figure we might as well find some way to laugh about the demise of everything.
THE UNDEAD ARE UNCOMPROMISING
Some of the greatest people in history have been bravely uncompromising. Individuals such as Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, and Abraham Lincoln lived admirable lives by refusing to flinch as they stood against immoral practices of their day. It's great to watch men and women stand up for what's right without wavering. These are the kind of people we want to get behind and follow.
On the flipside, though, are those people who are equally unwavering in their push to bring evil on others. When it comes to zombies, they just keep coming. No matter how many you kill, they don't stop. They won't recognize you. No reason can persuade them. They don't discriminate as they prey on living things. They are amoral—right and wrong hold no influence over the constant drive of insatiable hunger. You either escape or kill them. Unlike the living, their existence doesn't get blurred in the gray areas.
Chris Weed—one of the guys who created Humans vs. Zombies—says that zombies "represent the inevitability of death. You can shoot one or two but eventually you're gonna die. And you have to come to terms with that. You can run from death as long as you want, but it's gonna get you eventually."
Zombies are driven by uncompromising cravings. Most of us can relate to the dangers of an appetite gone wild. I'm not just talking about food; we all tend to go after something—a job, a drug, or another person, for example—with reckless abandon at some point during our lives. One of the dangers of living in a world chock full of options and freedom is that it doesn't exactly encourage moderation. Many of us have been burned by an inability to give up something that guarantees pain in the end. When stuck in these bad patterns of behavior, we feed an appetite for destruction. Like zombies who climb over one another without regard or thoughtlessly walk off the edge of a cliff while pursuing their one desire, we can easily become blinded to the dangerous realities of an unchecked appetite.
Excerpted from Undead by Clay Morgan. Copyright © 2012 Clay Morgan. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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