TagZombies

The Meaning of Monsters

jplenio / Pixabay

I have this theory about monsters and what they mean.

Although they are antagonists, they are not the same as villains.  They are much more interesting.  Heroes are about what we want to be.  Villains are what we don’t want to be.  Monsters are what don’t want to be, but we might be anyway whether we like it or not.

Heroes and Villains

Heroes are our ideal.  They represent our best selves.  They stand for what we want to stand for as a group. They have the characteristics that we value, and wish we had more of.   Heroes are always courageous because this is a universally admired characteristic.  Heroes tend to defend the innocent and the collective good.  We normal humans don’t always do these things, but we like to think of ourselves type of person who would.  We project all this awesomeness onto our heroes.

Our heroes change because we change.  The great hero Beowulf bragged about his heroic exploits.  Today, we’d find his sort of arrogant pride to be villainous, but Anglo-Saxon listeners loved boasting if you could back it up.  When the great Achilles wasn’t harvesting Trojans, he could be found weeping by the seashore.  For Greek audiences, this wasn’t a sign of weakness, but passion–a virtue, until he took it a little too far; the Greeks also liked a tragic flaw.

Villains are the opposite of heroes.  They have qualities and characteristics that we castigate.  Villains break promises or they are cowards or they threaten the lives of the innocent and the virtue of women.  They possess the characteristics for which we punish our children.   Not all otherness is a threat.  Villains represent the bad side of “otherness.”

And so we have a fence around our identity.  Within the fence, we find our people and the values we espouse.  What lies outside the fence is otherness–other people and the values that we don’t hold, some of which we reject.

Heroes are how we see ourselves, villains are the opposite, and monsters represent the nasty bits of ourselves we'd rather not admit to. Click To Tweet

Narrative Identity

Philosopher Paul Ricoeur (1913-2005) describes the relationship between narrative and identity suggesting that when we tell our stories, we are clarifying our identity.  Stories constitute the identity of individuals, but the mechanism is the same for collective identities.

Ricoeur suggests that identity is revealed through the interplay of two competing forces within narratives. The first force presses on the narrator to represent his role in the story in a way that is consistent with his view of himself—this Ricoeur calls the “demand for concordance.” We like to think of our identity as having some permanence, so we are compelled to tell our stories in a way that is consistent with this idea we have of ourselves.

The second force at work in the recounting of past events is what Ricoeur calls the “admission of discordance.”  This force presses the teller to accurately represent himself in thought, word, and deed.

These two forces are not always in concert.  Sometimes how we think of ourselves is inconsistent with reality.  A small divergence can be easily suppressed, but small divergences can build up and large ones are not easily ignored.  The discordant force threatens the supposed permanence of the teller’s identity. The competition between these stories can create tension in our narratives. It is out of this tension, says Ricoeur, that his identity is shaped and expressed.

Let me tell you a personal story that which illustrates this dynamic.

A True Story

When I was around 19, I went to a midnight movie with three friends, Jim, Marylou, and Stewart—I think the movie was Animal House. After the show, I stopped briefly to chat another friend in the theatre lobby, so I left the theatre alone a few minutes later.  As I stepped outside, four guys in an old car aggressively pulled up to the curb and, completely unprovoked, flipped me the bird.  Without thinking, I responded in kind, then turned to walk down the dark alley in the direction of the car.

I sensed that I might be in some danger when I heard the car doors slam behind me.  I knew they were coming when I heard the sounds of pursuit behind me. I picked up my pace, just a little.  I didn’t need to go any faster because I saw that I would make it around the corner before they caught me.

My friends were ready.  Jim had already told MaryLou to get into the car and lock the door.  He stood leaning against the car, waiting.  Stewart had taken off his jacket and was lighting a cigarette.  I don’t know how they knew what was happening but, I was glad they did.  I turned and prepared to meet the threat, with fists if necessary.  It’s all we had, and I hoped it would be enough.

My would-be assailants, thinking they would catch a vulnerable victim, rounded the corner at a run, eager for blood. When they saw that it was going to have to be a fair fight, they slowed to a walk, nodded, said “Hey,” and kept walking past us.

The Demand for Concordance

I’ve told this story many times, and it’s the same every time.  When I analyze these events, it’s not to hard to find some tension between the demand for concordance and the admission of discordance.

I think of myself as a nice person and a peacemaker. I am good at navigating around conflict.  In my recounting of the above story, I suppressed those little things which were inconsistent with this identity as I saw it.  I didn’t really behave like a peacemaker when I returned the obscene gesture, but I soften this inconsistency by describing my attackers as aggressive and my role in this altercation as, merely unthinking.  But there is an even more powerful challenge to my identity than the one against my peacekeeping ideals.

Am I a coward?

In my narrative, there is no mention of the fear I felt at the time, but I was scared.  This omission is a result of my reluctance to admit the possibility of cowardice. I don’t remember if there were four or three attackers, but I went with four because it excuses the fear that still clings to this memory.  In the retelling, I emphasize that I picking up my pace was strategic, and not out of any fear.  Their unwillingness to fight even with numerical superiority transfers cowardice onto them.  Lastly, I don’t know if Stewart calmly lit a cigarette and, although I think Jim leaned against the car, I’m not sure he was that casual. These details suggest a calm in my friends, which is transferred to me by association.  I also remember trying not to hurry, but was I as successful as my story recounts?  There is no lie here, just nuance that comes from the demand that my story concords with my held identity.

It is conceivable that new experiences would reveal that I was not a peacemaker, or I was in fact, a coward.  If this turned out to be true it would have gotten harder and harder to admit this discordance relative to me self-understanding.

This can happen on a collective level as well.

Here is where the monsters come in.

When Monsters Attack

Monsters show up–with any kind of strength–only under particular circumstances—when our collective identity is in crisis. When the stuff we’ve been suppressing begins to create weak points in the boundaries between the “us” and otherness.  The monster is what prowls around the fence and attack it at its weakest point.  The weak points of our identity are those places in the boundaries of our collective identity where we begin to lack certainty about who we are.  The parts that are getting harder to suppress.  Discordance that is beginning to demand admission.

The fascinating thing about monsters is they don’t simply represent otherness. This is too simplistic. Monsters are the projection of uncomfortable possibilities.   The monsters that intrigue us, the ones that, again and again, find their way into our stories, are the ones that most directly challenge our understanding of ourselves.  By their very presence, they ask us the questions that, deep down, we have already been asking ourselves—Is this really who you are?

The hero is what we are, or at least want to be. The villain is what we are not. Monsters are the embodiment of what is perhaps the truth that we want to suppress. They appear as the suppression begins to fail.Click To Tweet

Our Monsters

The Greek’s had the Minotaur and Medusa. The Anglo-Saxons told stories about the monster of the moors and marshes, Grendel and dragons.  Demons and witches terrorized the medieval identity. Later came Frankenstein’s monster, the Wolfman, and the vampire who attacked the boundaries of Modern identities.

Each of these monsters terrorized a particular cultural identity that was in crisis. If Anglo-Saxon storyteller had conceived of Frankenstein’s monster and, the next night in the mead hall, told his story about a creature made from corpses, he’d receive an awkward silence and some puzzled grunts from his Anglo-Saxon audience. Such a monster would not have intrigued them, and the first telling would also have been the last.

Monsters scare and fascinate a people because the monster is tailor-made for that culture. Its form is the embodiment of particular doubts about who we are. It attacks the fence that surrounds our identity at exactly the point where it is the weakest. This is why we can learn a lot about a culture by studying its monsters.

This is why we can learn a lot about ourselves by studying our monster—the zombie horde.

The Meaning of Life: Consumption

 

A manufactured object obviously has a purpose that was built into it by its designers, but a lot of people do not believe this is true for human beings.

comment on TED in response to the question, “Does humanity have a purpose?” says, “Humanity has no unified purpose and I suggest that history shows us that giving humanity a single purpose can be disastrous (religion, eugenics…).”

It is true that giving humanity a single purpose can be disastrous, but perhaps this is only true when the single purpose is one for which we were not designed.  If I use a swivel office chair as a ladder, the results can be disastrous, but this doesn’t mean that the swivel chair has no purpose.

Giving humanity a single purpose can be disastrous, but perhaps this is only true when it's one for which we weren't designed. If I use a swivel office chair as a ladder--disastrous, but this doesn’t mean that the swivel chair has no purpose. Click To Tweet

There is a danger in living for the wrong purpose, but perhaps it is just as dangerous to avoid purpose if we were actually created for one.

Our Default Purpose–Consumption

In our culture, one of the purposes we have collectively chosen for ourselves (or perhaps it has been subtly imposed upon us) is that of consumer–we buy things, lots of things.  The things we buy are designed to wear out after a time, or they are improved upon, so we throw out the old thing and buy another thing.  We are manipulated to be ever discontent and then offered things that will make us content.  It doesn’t work, of course, but that’s OK because contentment would be bad for the economy.

Were we made to consume?  Is this the purpose for which we were designed?

Zombies and Consumption

This question is a weak spot in the fence of our cultural identity and the hands of the undead are pawing at it.

The zombie is the picture of humanity which lives only to consume.  It ever eats, but is never satisfied.  It takes and takes, but no matter how much it takes–brains, liver, thigh–it’s still empty.

Perhaps humans were not made for religion, but the zombie tells us that we weren’t made for consumption either.

If we were made for another purpose, the cure for the zombie is to orient its whole life toward that purpose.

The zombie is the picture of humanity which lives only to consume. It ever eats, but is never satisfied. It takes and takes, but no matter how much it takes–brains, liver, thigh–it’s still empty.Click To Tweet

Designed for Relationship

I suggest that humanity is designed for relationship.

Not just any relationship, but the kind that is more interested in the flourishing of the other than the flourishing of the self.  Most people have caught at least a glimpse of what this relationship can be like.  Some lovers are like this–they are so interested in the happiness of the other one that they forget themselves.  Parents constantly set the needs of their children higher than their own.

The paradox in these sorts of relationships is the more you give, the more you get back–and not usually from the kids or even your lover.  It comes from someplace else and it’s so fulfilling.  It’s like you are a swivel chair being used as a swivel chair.

Sadly, not everyone has experienced this sort of relationship.

Zombies haven’t.  They are too busy eating other people.

In a consumer culture, other people can easily be reduced to something we can to use–in essence, something to consume–it makes us zombies.  Some people treat their employees this way.  Some men treat women this way, and women men.  Some kings, their subjects and some mothers, their children.

The good news is that there is a cure for zombies.

Here’s more analysis of the meaning of zombies.

A Walking Dead Zombie Christmas Message

Ahmadreza89 / Pixabay

We’ve seen nine seasons of AMC’s The Walking Dead.  The remaining children are still alive.

At the end of the mid-season finale of the 8th season AMC’s The Walking Dead, Carl Grimes reveals that he’s been bitten.  Fans were upset. 50,000 fans signed a petition to remove showrunner Scott Gimple from the show. He was removed.

Why were they so upset?

I think it’s because children, Rick’s children, Carl and Judith, and Maggie’s child, unborn at the time, mean something. They are a glimmer of future hope in a very dark world. Perhaps they represent our hope as well, because, for some of us, the real world is very dark as well.

In season 9, Henry is spared and Carol burns a group of former Saviours alive to protect him.  It’s a trade we all accept.  Why?

Besides innocence, children represent hope.  And to kill a child is to kill hope.  To save a child is to preserve hope.

AMC's The Walking Dead brings Christmas Hope. Click To Tweet

The thing is, we shouldn’t be all that upset with Gimple for killing off Carl Grimes. Gimple, or any loss of a child in suture seasons because this is what  zombie storytellers always do–they give us characters that embody things that we value and then the kill them.

Night of the Living Dead

This goes all the way back to Night of the Living Dead in which most of the traditional values are murdered.

  • Barbara embodies devotion–dead.
  • Johnny, cynicism of every kind–dead.
  • Ben, the hero–dead.
  • Tom and Judy, romantic love–dead and dead.
  • The Coopers, the nuclear family–dead, dead and dead.  This, of course, includes little Karen, representative of innocence, who slays her mother with a cement trowel.

Zombies Are Trying to Tell Us Something

If you are watching a show about zombies, get ready for the things you hold dear, and the characters who represent them, to snuff it.Click To Tweet

Zombie narratives force us to face the contradictions between what we profess and what we actually believe. It’s why monsters appear, and why the zombies have been so popular for the last fifty years.

On the one hand, we profess that there is no God, no universal truth, no ultimate meaning in life.  In our culture, individuals get to make these things up for themselves.

On the other hand, we believe that families and promises and honesty and courage and fair play matter. We live and act as if things like these are universal and objective.  We believe it’s wrong to deny someone their rights.  We believe that it’s wrong to exploit the weak. That it’s wrong to use women for sex against their will. We believe it’s wrong to kill and eat other people. We believe these things to be universally wrong.  We profess that life has no universal meaning, but we love the parts in TWD where the characters talk of the “something else” that we are fighting for that goes beyond survival.

Zombie narratives don’t let us get away with these inconsistencies.

Much of what Carl did in the final episode of Season 8 was to make his life have some meaning before he died–I can’t recall exactly, but I think his last words included, “I did this” as he pointed to all the people he safely evacuated from exploding Alexandria.

Does Carl’s life have meaning? Does his death?  Yes or No?  We can’t have it both ways.

His future is now certain–he will either be dead or he will be lurching-dead–that’s it.  In the fictive world of The Walking Dead, millions have already met one of these two ends.

But the central question to zombie narratives is, if there is no transcendent meaning, is our existence any more meaningful than a zombie? Death is certainly at the end.  Perhaps we can say, “I did this.”  Is this adequate?  Is this all there is?

Don’t get mad at Gimple.  This is all our idea.

Unless, of course, there is a transcendent God in whom Truth and Meaning dwell–who Loves the world so much that he has come to us as a baby, to live among us to show us the way out of zombieland.

Merry Christmas

The Meaning of Zombies

If you are interested, here is the first post of a series about the meaning of zombies: Zombies: A Whole New Kind of Monster

Zombies and the Resurrection of the Dead

Some people refer to Easter as “Zombie Jesus Day.”  I’m guessing they are being provocative or trying impress their like-minded friends.  Perhaps it is because of this attitude that Christian writer Eric Metaxas has taken the position that zombies are a parody of the resurrection of the dead.  I think zombies are much more than a parody, and they can be part of a gospel conversation with our children and even with our unchurched neighbours.

Jesus died and, after that, he walked around.  These are two of the main things that zombies do, and it is upon these two qualities that the case for zombie Jesus is based.  Missing, of course, is the third main characteristic of the ambulatory dead: the mindless consumption of living human flesh.

Zombies turned up in popular culture about a century ago, but they really took off with George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) and they’ve been going strong ever since.  Why this popularity?  The simple answer is that there is something about the zombie horde that resonates with our culture.  Given the popularity of zombie narratives, it must be resonating a lot, and has done so for almost fifty years.  Why?   By materialism I mean the belief that reality is material, and material only.  There’s no room for the spiritual–no such thing as God or the human soul.

More and more we have organized our lives and our society around materialism.  On a popular level, we don’t really dig too deeply into the implications of materialism on human identity and the meaning of life.  In general, we don’t have time to read and think about these heady issues.

But we do have time to go to the movies.  Many movies reinforce a materialist philosophy, but some question it.  Zombie movies are among these.  The zombie is a monster and, like all monsters, it is trying to tell us something about ourselves, something that we are trying to suppress.  Zombies are an embodiment of our fears of a possible future if materialism is true.

[tweetshare tweet=”Zombies are an embodiment of our fears of a possible future if materialism is true.” username=”dryb0nz”]”We are human beings, so we have first-hand experience with what one is.  We know how human beings respond to a beautiful waterfall.  We know what it means to fall in love and we know what it means to be very, very sad.  We not only think thoughts, but we can think about our thoughts.  Is any of this possible if materialism is true?  Even in a secular society, there is enough in this question to cause some doubt.  Monsters turn up when we have doubts, and they keep coming back until they are dealt with.  With the popularity of the zombie, we know that there are some doubts about being human in a materialist context.  If there is no spiritual dimension to reality, would we response to beauty as we do?  Have emotions like love? Could consciousness signify that a human is more than matter?  If materialism were true, wouldn’t we be zombies?  Are we zombies?   

The Apostle Paul’s faced some resistance to the resurrection of the dead as he proclaimed it.  The ancient Greek culture, too, had some incorrect ideas of what a human being was.  Gnostics and Platonists taught that the body was evil, or at least inferior to the spirit.  The resurrection of the body didn’t make any sense to them.  Why would we want to resurrect that old thing?  We can see very well what happens to the body after the spirit has left it—it rots and wastes away.  If humanity were to live beyond death, it would be in spirit, the good part, not in the body.  Paul’s response to this incorrect anthropology is found in 1 Corinthians 15:35-44.  Paul writes of a someone who seems to be stating that the resurrection of a corruption like a rotting corpse is impossible.  Perhaps this “someone” imagined a shambling horde of animated, partially decomposed corpses.  Paul declares this talk foolish and explains that as a dead seed goes into the ground and comes out completely new, so too, the “perishable” body goes into the ground and is resurrected “imperishable.”

[tweetshare tweet=”Paul argues against zombies in 1 Corinthians 15:35-44. ” username=”Dryb0nz”]The error of Paul’s audience reduced the essence of humankind to spirit, where modern materialism reduces man to mere body.  Paul says that you will get the resurrection all wrong if you fail to understand that a human being is both body and spirit and that the resurrection will be of the whole person.

When Jesus rose from the dead, he had a new, resurrected body.  This is what Paul’s audience needed to understand about the resurrection.  Paul’s words to the church in Corinth apply to our culture as well.  We need to understand that Jesus wasn’t just reanimated body, but a heart and mind and spirit as well.  Consequently, he was nothing like a zombie.  And rather than eating living human beings, Jesus was satisfied with eating fish with his friends (Luke 24:42-43).  This is very unzombie-like behavior.

It is clear that AMC’s The Walking Dead TV series, one would rather be truly dead than one of the “walkers.”  A materialist resurrection is much worse than the nothingness of a materialist death.  Disrespectful  internet trolls aside, I don’t believe that the zombie apocalypse is a parody of the resurrection of the dead, I believe it is a lament that resurrection isn’t what it used to be before we grew out of our belief.

The Gospel message to the zombie culture is that human beings haven’t changed.  We have always been a lot more than our material bodies and we still are.  Our need for salvation has also not changes—there are no true zombie movies that don’t clearly present the truth of human depravity.   The good news is that the God who made us with, not just a body, but a heart and a soul and a mind as well, loves us so much that he redeems all of me.  Jesus wasn’t a zombie, and neither am I.  This is the resurrection we celebrate at Easter.

[tweetshare tweet=”#Zombies are much more than a parody, and they can be part of a gospel conversation” username=”dryb0nz”]

This article was first published for The Christian Courier at christiancourier.com.

World War Z is not a Zombie Film

I liked Word War Z.

Brad Pitt was pretty good and because he was in it, my wife would see the movie with me.  And that’s a good thing.

I especially liked the representation of the zombies which embodied the characteristics of both raging water and marauding ants.  This combination was new and interesting and scary.

I liked it, and there were zombies in it, but it wasn’t a zombie movie.

Zombie Movie or Movie with Zombies?

I make this claim because it doesn’t line up with some of the most important characteristics established by the first modern zombie movie, George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, and most of the zombie movies that followed.

In a true zombie movie, there is no immediately identifiable cause for the zombie infestation.  Characters often speculate, but there’s no definitive answer.  To have a cause would confer meaning on the catastrophe and the true zombie movie is far more interested in shredding meaning along with the living flesh of the victims.

In World War Z, where Brad Pitt’s character, Gerry Lane, sets out to find the cause of the zombie infestation.  If a cause can be identified, a solution will certainly follow.  Gerry Lane’s courage, character, and analytical skills result in his discovery of the cause and through the greater power of science, the menace is eradicated.

This sort of optimism is not found in zombie movies.

The true zombie movie is fundamentally about how all the things in which we put our faith are inadequate. Government, friendship, money, true love, God, these things are all equally ineffective in helping us with the zombies.  Zombie movies are sort of depressing that way, but its what they are about.

In World War Z we go back to that old savior of modernity, science.  A true zombie movie is anti-modern, but this one is an affirmation of our faith that science will solve all our problems.

A second way in which World War Z strays from the conventions of zombie narratives is its view of human beings.  This movie contains several examples of humans playing nicely with others.  The most poignant of which is Israel’s response to the crisis.  Because of their foresight, they’ve built a huge wall and have systems in place to keep the zombies at bay.  They are safe and secure.  The incredible part of the story is that they’ve opened up their gates to help the rest of humanity–the neighbours on that cul-de-sac don’t usually get along at all.  Even more poignant is this “love your neighbour” attitude results in the annihilation of Israel (this sort of irony is typical of zombie movies).  Almost everywhere Lane goes, he runs across people who are basically good, often scared, but good.

The idea that human beings are essentially good is exactly the opposite presentment of humanity in a true zombie movie.  Usually, once the doors are secured and the windows boarded up, the zombies would cease to be a problem if it weren’t for the actual people who are with you behind the barricades.  Here the selfishness and fear and pettiness and every other human vice are amplified by the threat of the zombies outside the door.  To make matters worse, there is almost always a pack of hoodlums, bent on exploiting the absence of authority.  The living are more of a threat to the survival of the protagonists than are the zombies.  Movies in the zombie genre are consistent in their portrayal of humanity as selfish and brutal.  Again, World War Z goes back about (about a hundred years) to claim that human beings are inherently good.

I don’t think any of this accidental–someone involved in the making of this move is optimistic about human nature and has faith that science will ultimately save us.  Or perhaps, given the environmental, political and economic concerns under which we travail, perhaps the filmmakers wanted to encourage us with a story where we come out on top after some very difficult times.

That’s fine.  And I enjoyed this very aspect of the movie, but that doesn’t make it a zombie movie, just a movie with zombies.

Nazi Zombies

I’ve watched Dead Snow (2009).  In it, a horde of frozen Nazi zombies attacks a group of young people in their mountain retreat.

If I recall correctly, the zombies aren’t just the zombified remains of a WWII German army killed in a mountain pass; they are still ideologically Nazis.

Or at least, really, really mean.

Movies that feature Nazi zombies, and the other bad guy zombies–Imperial Japanese, Soviet Russian, and Viet Cong varieties–are not zombie movies.  They are movies with zombies.

At least, they aren’t real zombies if they maintain their ideological nastiness.

Yes, I am old school–the true zombie is the Romero zombie (Night of the Living Dead [1968]).  These are the standard by which all other zombies are to be measured.

As I’ve written earlier, zombies cannot be fit into categories of evil.  Zombies are monsters that embody philosophical materialism, a philosophy for which there is no room for moral classification of evil.  Nazis are evil.  Zombies can’t be evil.  There is no such thing as Nazi zombies, only zombies wearing Nazi clothes.

Zombies are monsters that embody philosophical materialism, a philosophy for which there is no room for moral classification of evil. Nazis are evil. Zombies can't be evil. There is no such thing as Nazi zombies, only zombies wearing Nazi clothes.Click To Tweet

Zombies are only hungry, they are not evil.

Nazi zombies break the rule.   When they don Nazi ideology with the uniform, they aren’t true zombies.

The film Dead Snow goes so far as to imbue its zombies in a stereotypical Nazi hatred of, well . . . everybody, and also gives them, if I recall, a revenge narrative.

Perhaps we are not comfortable with a monster that isn’t evil; we cannot face the implications of our own worldviews that the zombie monster interrogates.

But just because we hid under the blanket, doesn’t mean the monsters disappear.

Next Zombie Post: World War Z is not a Zombie Film

Warm Bodies: The Movie

Warm Bodies (2)

Like the book, the movie, as social commentary, suggests the modern-secular self is already largely zombie.  Early in the film, R walks through the airport with a bunch of zombies sitting around or bumping into each other.  He recounts an earlier, better time, when humanity meaningfully interacted with others—the scene shows an airport full of people absorbed by their electronic devices bumping into each other like zombies.

The Need for Connection

Many zombies have gathered at the airport—airports are about waiting, and they are all waiting for something.  R tells us what he’s waiting for: “I just want to connect.”

This desire is reflected in his collection.  R collects a lot of things, and, from what we are shown, everything reflects this craving for connection.  Every slide in the stereoscope shows a boy interacting meaningfully with a girl.  The snow globe he acquires on the same excursion on which he acquires Julie presents lovers holding hands on a footbridge.  And all the songs we hear from his record collection are about missing someone.

The connection issue is shown in the community of the Living as well.  Their major project involves the construction of a huge wall to separate the Living from the Dead.  Lead by Julie’s father, the Living strive for the symbol of division.

Like the figures in the snow globe, R and Julia supply the bridge between the Living and the Dead.

When the zombies see R and Julia holding hands, they are profoundly affected–the cure has begun.   R describes the effect of the gesture when he says, “Julie and I were giving the others hope.”  All this is a lot of fun.  I enjoyed the movie, but, sadly, they resorted to mere convention.

Love Does it Again

This is where, disappointingly, the movie takes a significantly different approach to the cure than does the book.

In the book, romantic love is metonymy; it is one of several things that represents all things transcendent, like beauty, soul, and mystery.  Not so with the movie; here the cure is simply romantic love.   All the indicators of “true love” are present: hand holding, kissing, accelerated pulse, the inability to look away when her shirt is off and taking stupid risks, not to mention a literal balcony scene.

This is not a surprising solution to the zombie problem.  Mainstream movies almost always solve all their problems with romantic love.  It is able to overcome all barriers of social class, age, race and ethnicity, and personal conflicts.  Why not overcome death?

In Warm Bodies, the movie, romantic love is salvation. Not a surprise given it overcomes every other barrier: social class, age, race and ethnicity, and species. Why not overcome death? Click To Tweet

I was a little disappointed at this, for it seems like a cheap solution, especially when the book offered romantic love as one of the means, rather than the end in itself.

In the end, we are asked to put our faith in romantic love, for only this is powerful enough to “exhume the world.”

Where the book hints that we need to recover of a view of reality beyond philosophical materialism, the movie suggests romantic love is the solution to all our problems.  This is not to condemn the film, I actually enjoyed it, it just means it is a romantic comedy — and little more.

Read my review of the book.

Next Zombie post: Nazi Zombies

Warm Bodies: the Book

Warm Bodies

You know you’re an English teacher, if, when a movie is released, you buy the book.

The cover of my version of Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion is the movie’s poster, but it is better than a silly romance which cover seems to suggest.

The book’s first-person narrator is R — it’s all he remembers of his own name because he’s a zombie.  The undead always have identity issues.

R describes his life as a zombie:

We do what we do, time passes, and no one asks questions . . . . We grunt and groan, we shrug and nod, and sometimes a few words slip out.  It’s not that different from before” (4).

  “It’s not that different from before.”

This is one of the main themes of the novel,  suggesting that, in many ways, people are like zombies long before they become the decomposing brain-eaters.

 R finds himself the protector of Julia–she’s alive and pretty amazing.  She’s unlike any of the Living or the Dead.  Where R’s cognitive abilities are severely compromised, what with being dead and all, Julia is clever in a philosophical sense.  She  explains that the source of the “plague” was not anything like a virus or nuclear contamination, but was from “a deeper place.”  She actually uses the word “sin.”

Its source is not any direct divine judgment per se, but because we’ve “crushed ourselves down over the centuries” (221).

I think we crushed ourselves down over the centuries. Buried ourselves under greed and hate and whatever other sins we could find until our souls finally hit the rock bottom of the universe. And then they scraped a hole through it, into some … darker place.

In the last few centuries, we have crushed ourselves, indeed all of reality, down into the very small container of matter only–material reality is reality.  We have rejected all transcendence: anything beyond the physical.  We have come to believe the world is ruled by immutable and impersonal laws, that humanity is just a bunch of genes trying to get ahead and that time is a mindless and purposeless march toward personal and cosmic oblivion.  This view of the world could be called “Philosophical Materialism.”  It holds that matter is the only reality and that everything, including thought, feeling, consciousness, and will, can be explained in terms of matter.  The world described by philosophical materialism is closed to the transcendent.

 This idea has crushed us.  We’ve largely lost our sense of mystery and little evokes wonder.   More and more of us believe that everything from mountains to sunsets, from music to love, is a product of physical or chemical processes.  We no longer value things for their own sake, but for how economically useful they are–trees have become lumber and pigs have become pork.  It is just a matter of time when people will be valued only for their utility.  Or has this happened already?

We are Zombies

The book asks, if this is our conception of reality, what then is the difference between being a zombie or one of the Living?  Julie doesn’t see a lot of difference anymore.  While looking at a daisy Julie says, “We don’t even have flowers anymore.  Just crops” (70).

We don’t even have flowers anymore.  Just crops.

Julie believes that human beings are no better than zombies if they lose their sense of wonder — when they cease to see the world and its inhabitants as beautiful in and of themselves.  Her father, only concerned with practical survival is no longer any better than the Dead he hates.  She says of him, “Dad’s dead. He just hasn’t started rotting yet” (202).  Julie believes life is more than physical and that simple survival isn’t enough.  She says, “I mean obviously, staying alive is pretty . . .  important . . . but there’s got to be something beyond that, right?” (71).

“I mean obviously, staying alive is pretty . . .  important . . . but there’s got to be something beyond that, right?”

Julie is a foil to her father’s limited participation in life, but her vitality also provides a more important contrast to the Dead, represented by R.

Julia is less than impressed with R’s stagnant music collection.  He communicates that he isn’t really looking for anything different–that’s the way the Dead are.  She doesn’t accept this as a valid excuse claiming, “Music is life! It’s physical emotion–you can touch it! It’s neon ecto-energy sucked out of spirits and switched into sound waves for your ears to swallow.  Are you telling me, what, that it’s boring? You don’t have time for it?” (54).

The Cure for Zombies

Julie’s love of music, like that for flowers, is rooted in their transcendence–they possess qualities beyond their physical properties.  She is unique in that, unlike her father or the zombie R, she believes that there is more to reality than the physical.

This, it turns out, is salvation for R.

Romantic love is a part of his salvation, but it’s much bigger than love.  It includes flowers and music and everything else that human beings experience.  All the things that are good or true or beautiful, supernatural, spiritual or transcendent things.

Love is the main marker of R’s encounter with a transcendent reality.  Before he meets Julie, R describes the zombie perspective of others, whether Living or Dead; we are all meat–“Nameless, faceless, disposable” (74).  After he falls for Julie, she becomes much more to him than meat, more than a mere physical body.  Consider this passage from near the ends of the story:

 “I look into Julie’s face.  Not just at it, but into it.  Every pore, every freckle, every gossamer hair.  And then the layers beneath them.  The flesh and bones, the blood and brain, all the way down to the unknowable energy that swirls at her core, the life force, the soul, the fiery will that makes her more than meat, coursing through every cell and binding them together in millions to form her.  Her body contains the  history of the universe, remembered in pain, in joy and sadness, hate and hope and bad habits, every thought of God, past-present-future, remembered, felt, and hoped for all at once” (222).

 In Julie’s face, he sees the transcendent and it is inseparable from the physical.

This has always been true of everything, he just forgot–this is the essence of the zombie.

Somewhere in the last few centuries, we have separated the soul from the body and then ditched the soul because we couldn’t weigh it.  We lost the enchantment in life.  The novel’s thesis is that if you live long enough in a disenchanted world, you will eventually become little more than a zombie.  It offers a solution too; this story suggests that the first step toward the cure of the zombie curse is the re-enchantment of the world.

In the book Warm Bodies, the zombie, R is representative of all materialists, living and undead. He finds salvation, not a result of romantic love, but in encounters with embodied transcendence in music, flowers, and Julia.Click To Tweet

The movie made one significant change to the story.

Next Zombie Post:  Warm Bodies (The Movie)

  

Want more zombie articles? Start with this one: A New Kind of Monster

Zombies (22) The Crisis of the Modern Identity

Ahmadreza89 / Pixabay

The zombie functions as a monstrous other, transgressing boundary and unsettling the modern identity, as monsters have always done.

But, it goes beyond the scope of traditional monsters in that it also holds a mirror up to the secular self, and suggests to us that without the transcendent, we may be nothing more than animated corpses, or worse.

The zombie film further deprives us of the security of civilization, exposing human beings as Hobbesian brutes.

The cumulative effect of these functions brings us to a crisis of identity and meaning.

External to Internal

In the pre-modern past, the self was a part of a cosmos seen as a “totality of existence because it [contained] the sense of ordered whole” (A Secular Age 60), and in this order held meaning for all things.

In modern society, with the loss of the transcendent, any external referent by which we might understand the self has been removed and the modern self’s construction became an entirely interior process—reality is solely in the mind–“in the sense that things only have the meaning they do in that they awaken a certain response in us” (A Secular Age 31).

With this move from cosmic meaning to meaning residing only in the mind, the modern identity, then, can be understood largely by what it is not—by the things of which it has been emptied.  It no longer has a place in a cosmic hierarchy of meaning, nor does it interact with spiritual forces or charged objects in an enchanted world.

Defined by Absence

The zombie, too, is defined by what is absent.  Much has been lost in the turn away from the transcendent into ourselves.  The zombie brings us face to face with who we are in the context of this loss.

The zombie is the embodiment of this emptiness, for one of the key characteristics of the zombie is that it is “a body which has been hollowed out, emptied of selfhood” (Warner 357).  It is essentially a “description of human existential diminishment” (367) that has been diminished one step further than has the ordinary resident of modernity.

The zombie evokes despair and dread because it presents Modern, secular selves with the potential of being absent from oneself.  This is part of the horror of the zombie, especially in the early twentieth century; it terrorizes the rationalist understanding of selfhood by exposing the fragility of subjectivity.

The destruction of subjectivity is still a significant part of the horror of the zombie, but the events of the mid-twentieth century changed the conception of the self and therefore the monster that threatened it.

After the horrors of the Holocaust and the use of the atomic bomb, faith in reason and the authority of science was abandoned, as had been faith in God in previous generations.  This left humanity without any external authority.

Existential Agent

Sartre’s understanding of the self as existential agent is representative of the post-WWII identity.  Because “it is impossible for man to transcend human subjectivity,”  the new authority was the self.  He believed that unlike the objective world, the existence of the self precedes its essence; “subjectivity must be the starting point.”  Thus, we are completely free to choose our own purpose, our own meaning.

Additionally, ideals or beliefs are not reality; action is the only reality, for the only way to determine the value of ideals or beliefs is to perform an act which confirms or defines it” (Sartre in “Existentialism is a Humanism”).

Putting these ideas together, we can claim that, in the post-nuclear world we understand the self as existential agent.

Kevin Boon suggests that human action “in the absence of any external locus of truth—that is, in the absence of a reliable ‘other’ in whom/which faith can be placed—must face the threat of engulfment by the world.”  For the existential agent, the greatest fear, then, is that “it will be absorbed by the other and thus be irretrievably lost” (Boon [in Better off Dead] 55-56).

The Modern secular self faces engulfment by the hostile immanent universe.

Many of the deaths presented in zombie films are of a single screaming protagonist being pulled by countless cadaverous hands into the mass of the undead horde.  This visually symbolizes the engulfment of the existential agent by the indifferent universe.  Romero’s zombies are the embodiment of the challenge to the modern identity.  When one becomes a zombie, one of many within the horde, the subjective self is annihilated and the existential agent is engulfed by a malicious world.

Next Zombie post: Warm Bodies (The Book)

 

Zombies (21): Authority and Hobbes

Ahmadreza89 / Pixabay

Zombie films evoke the fear of how people would respond if there were no authorities to keep the baser appetites in check.  I must admit, for me this is the source of zombie terror for me.  Without the authority represented by the government or any transcendent moral authority, human beings turn on each other.

This fear of others—indeed, of one’s neighbours—is the basis of Hobbes’ analysis in Leviathan published in 1651.

Hobbes’ Leviathan

For Hobbes, the natural state of man, which exists outside the context of society, is one of war.  According to Hobbes, all men are essentially equal in their vulnerability and weakness.  Our natural equality and our conflicting desires result in a state of constant war with our fellow man.  He also argues that competition, diffidence, and desire for glory are in our nature, as we seek gain, safety, and reputation.  We, therefore, live in constant fear because we realize that at any moment we can have everything taken from us, including our life.  This is a reasonable fear, for Hobbes says that we have a natural right to everything, “even to one another’s body,” but to avoid the constant state of war that would ensue, we create contracts in which we mutually transfer these rights.   To ensure that the contracts are performed, a society needs a sovereign who will compel adherence to the contracts through force or through institutional constraints.  We willingly subject ourselves to this authority because it protects us from the state of constant war with others.  The zombie invasion returns us to a state of “continual fear and danger of violent death, [in which] the life of man [is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Click To Tweet the life of man [is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. #Zombies” quote=”The zombie invasion returns us to a state of “continual fear and danger of violent death, [in which] the life of man [is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.””]

Zombies and Loss of Authority

The zombies usher in a world where the Monstrous Humans invoke their natural right “even to one another’s body,” and they can do this because there is no longer a “sovereign” to enforce the contracts that Hobbes describes.

The loss of authority is central to zombie narratives.  Zombies are certainly horrifying in and of themselves, but, as Bishop points out,  “such monsters would not pose much of a threat if actualized in the modern-day world; most probably police or military could quickly exterminate these aberrations” (22).

Zombie narratives are almost always set during (or shortly after) the collapse of civilization, and whatever remains of the police or military, or any other governmental organization, is completely ineffectual and more often, nonexistent.  Zombie movies, then, “offer a worst-case scenario of the collapse of all American social and governmental structures.  Once people start to die at an uncontrollable rate, panic rages through all levels of the government and the military—a literal ‘dog eat dog’” world” (Bishop 23).

At the end of Night of the Living Dead, the zombies have been contained and are in the process of being eliminated; by the end of Dawn of the Dead, they have apparently overrun everything.  Government, military and all other forms of civil authority evaporate.

According to Hobbes, the sovereign is supposed to establish “security and order, enforcing our agreements with others, resolving disputes, and imposing punishment.  Hobbes’ sovereign also determines the ideology of the state (what is right and wrong, just and unjust).  Under his authority, good and evil are absolute” (Fahy [The Philosophy of Terror] 65).

In the absence of such authority, there is no absolute ‘good’ and ‘evil.’  Because culture has reverted to a raw state of nature, only desire and aversion exist.

In the absence of such authority, there is no absolute ‘good’ and ‘evil.’ Because culture has reverted to a raw state of nature, only desire and aversion exist. Click To Tweet

In the absence of “good” and “evil,” each individual determines his or her own morality.  We desire what is good and have an aversion to what is bad.  But individual desires and aversions are pursued at the expense of those of others.  This is the role that the other, monstrous, humans play in zombie narratives.

The biker gang in Dawn of the Dead invades the mall to pillage it, and they will kill anyone—living or undead–to have their way.  Because the living and the undead are both driven by almost equally base desires to “consume” the other, the zombie holds up a mirror to man, revealing what he is in a world without authority.

The line between monster and human is blurred.

Next zombie post: Zombies and the Crisis of the Modern Identity

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