Peter J. Leithart recently had a little fun with a New York Times editorial that implies that the rising popularity of zombies shows that Americans are subtly racist. He says that the argument—that zombies hungry for brains represent immigrants hungry for American wealth—is ridiculous, and he’s quite right. But he also says she’s asking a good question: Why zombies? Why now? He still hasn’t heard a persuasive answer.
So I think I'll take a stab at a persuasive answer: the zombies do represent something. But the zombies aren't foreigners, they're us.
There’s no denying the popularity of zombies—by which I mean the modern brain-hungry, shambling, disgusting, undead-or-plague-infected monsters, not the traditional figures from voodoo culture. The modern craze started in the late 1960s and 1970s with George Romero and John A. Russo’s Night of the Living Dead in 1968 and the movie franchises that followed it. But recently the popularity of zombies seems to have grown dramatically. Movies like Zombieland, 28 Days Later, and Shaun of the Dead seem to come out every year; books like Max Brooks’s World War Z and the young adult novel The Forest of Hands and Teeth climb the bestseller lists; and video games like Dead Rising and Left 4 Dead sell millions of copies.
There is a clear pop-culture fascination with zombies. Part of this, I’m sure, is just an expression of our culture’s enjoyment of seeing violence performed on seemingly deserving subjects: Zombies can be killed in a variety of creative ways, and since they don’t feel pain and are already dead, there’s apparently no need to feel guilty about it.
But what if this fascination is about more than just gross-out gore and action thrills? What if it represents a subtle, subconscious understanding that something is wrong—spiritually wrong—with our culture.
Zombies represent the appetite divorced from everything else. They are incapable of judgment, self-awareness, or self-preservation. Though they still move and act, they are not really alive. They hunger and are never filled. And they aren’t just hungry for anything—they specifically want to eat the living, and even more specifically the brain, seat of rationality and self control.
In Pauline terms, they are the sarx in its purest form. Without a soul to control it, the flesh is a slave to its own desires. The rise in popularity of zombies, then, may reflect a rise in anxiety over the elevation of appetite in modern life, a popular recognition that appetite has gotten out of control, and that unchecked, unreflective, and immoderate appetite is a form of death.
It’s not always subconscious, actually; Romero's Dawn of the Dead overtly uses zombies to satirize consumerism. The humans are besieged by the walking dead in a shopping mall, and one of them says that the zombies have gathered there because that's where they always went in life. Shaun of the Dead uses zombies in the same way, though more humorously. It takes a very long time for Shaun to realize that all of the shambling, vacant-eyed, disgusting people around him have actually become zombies, as their behavior really hasn't changed all that much. (At the movie’s end, Shaun’s friend Ed’s lifestyle doesn't seem to have changed at all after his own transformation into a zombie.)
The zombie phenomenon is very interesting theologically, as it’s sort of a “return of the repressed” way of recognizing the deadness of appetite-driven modern culture. As we become more and more zombified, as our culture becomes ever more adept at amplifying our desires through advertising, pornography, and a media culture obsessed with gratifying every appetite, we can see the inevitable results of that process shambling along on their rotting legs.
Another fascinating feature of most modern zombie stories is that, most of the time, the zombies themselves are not actually all that dangerous. They’re usually slow and clumsy, almost never use weapons, and are too mindless to formulate any tactics. They just plod forward toward their victims, and only their numbers, persistence, and resilience to damage make them much of a threat.
No, what really makes things scary for the protagonists in a zombie story is not the zombies’ power, but the humans’ own weakness. The survivors in Night of the Living Dead could have easily withstood the besieging zombies if they had stayed cool-headed and followed their most intelligent member’s plans. But instead they degenerate into infighting and hysteria, and that gives the zombies an opening to overwhelm them.
The theological lesson here is that it’s the frailty of our human wills that gives the sarx its power over us. When we’re faced by naked appetite, we are all too often defenseless and paralyzed. And of course, the worst fate that can befall the victim of a zombie—far worse than being eaten—is to be turned into a zombie oneself. What seems at first like merely an external physical threat can get inside us, corrupt our humanity, and turn us into just another mindless, ravenous drone.
So zombies tell us more than just that Hollywood likes to come up with new ways to show gore. They also tell us about our own souls. When we watch or read or play a story about them, we see ourselves as both zombies and the victims. We know it, but we don’t realize it. What we need to realize is that we’re already undead, and that the only cure is regeneration.
Ethan Cordray is a recent graduate of Wheaton College now working as a librarian in Jefferson City, Missouri. He has also written for Touchstone.