In a recent blog post at the church and postmodern culture group blog Bryne Lewis Allport links the popularity of zombie movies with anxiety about cloning. She notes that, for example, tissue cloned from stem cells is, in a sense, zombie tissue. It is “reanimated flesh devoid of the human characteristics of intellect, will, and emotion.” She writes,
“Although I am not anxiously anticipating a zombie apocalypse, the need to readdress the relationship of body and soul has never been more important in light of the very real possibility that our bodies may indeed exist, at least in part, apart from us. When our ability to identify a person extends to an individual cell, what happens to personal identity? When the soul is unquantifiable and the body is potentially reproducible, how do we continue to make a case for the unique human condition of being, at once body and soul?”
Allport suggests that if, as Christians have traditionally held, “body and soul exist as a unified whole, both being essential to our identity in the world”, then it follows that my body (whether living, dead, or “undead”) is, in some sense, me. The consequence is that a zombie is still some-body and, therefore, still deserves some moral consideration.
It had never occurred to me that there might be a “moral quandry” involved in “killing” zombies. Zombies are already dead, so how could “killing” them be problematic?
Zombies are dead bodies. So the question is how we should treat a dead body. Christians think that, at death, the soul leaves the body and, therefore, the body is no longer of any importance, right? Not so fast. It turns out that the Judeo-Christian tradition has long held dead bodies in deep respect, hence the practice of burial. Before the Roman Empire became Christianized, pagans didn’t bury their dead. Cremation was the norm, and still is in non-Western cultures. Conversely cremation used to be forbidden by Christians and has only recently become acceptiable. Some Christians (e.g., the Eastern Orthodox) still oppose cremation, as do Orthodox Jews.
Why would Jews and Christians reject cremation? Because it reduces the body to mere matter, a nonessential shell for the soul. For Christians, this is not too far from denying the reality of Incarnation. When God became human, God became a body. God did not simply “possess” a body like a demon does. Jesus’s dead body may have been reanimated, but he ain’t no zombie. (Contrary to popular belief… see here and here.)
Allport also mentions Rowan Williams’s discussion of movie violence in The Truce of God, a book about the way societies attempt to absolve themselves of responsibility for violence (especially war). Williams opens the book by arguing that horror movies teach us to view violence in an amoral way. The most “disturbing” thing about the violence in horror movies is that our society
“is incapable of seeing this as a moral problem — as something to do with power, vision, understanding and choice, with the ways in which we decide to make sense of our lives. And it is incapable of turning a critical eye on itself, asking how far the condition of chronic insecurity it experiences has roots in its own preferences and options.” (Williams, p. 9)
Williams discusses “disaster movies” where either technology or nature runs amok (so both Towering Inferno and The Birds), and horror movies which include “the fantasy of occult terror” as well as the “insane violence” of “the psychopathic mass murderer” (so both The Exorcist and Halloween) (Williams p. 4-6).
He then synthezises the overall lesson of cinematic “fantasy violence”. Here’s a (very) long quote from p. 7-8:
“The family resemblences between all these types of fantasy have to do with the source and nature of violence: all of them clearly reflect the sense that violence is something done to us by agencies over which we have no control. It isn’t even a question of apportioning ‘guilt’ for violence to someone else: the agents of it are beyond or below moral assessment. Violence ‘happens’. Without real human causes, without roots, without a history, tremendous destructive energies surge up to mutilate and kill. In a sense, they cannot help it any more than we can; psycopaths, animals, natural or supernatural forces simply obey their own inner laws. And the conclusion that is implied in all this is that violence is never something ordinary human beings decide to do.
I think this implication is still there in the way these fantasies deal with people’s reactions to the unpredictable attacks made on them. There certainly are reactions, counter measures are taken, and often they are bloody and extreme. Those thought to be ‘possessed’, for example, can be tied up, beaten, deprived, and so on (which is of course just how such people have so often been treated in our history); animals can be mutilated and killed. It sounds violent enough; but because it is legitimate and unavoidable defence, it will not count as ‘real’ violence. As a natural and instinctive reaction, it is rather like the attack which provokes it in having very little to do with choice and morality. Extreme circumstances dictate harsh and dramatic responses.
So if we try to feel our way towards a general sense of what the contemporary fantasy world is telling us about violence and destruction, the result seems to be this: pain and injury and sudden death are unpredictable, not planned or chosen by anyone like ourselves, yet always threatening, always around the corner. Against this threat, we defend ourselves as the situation dictates — without many qualms about how we do so, because we are not dealing with agents like ourselves, whose motives and methods would need scrutiny, about whom we might make considered predicdtions. Violence does not belong in the moral world; it has nothing to do with human responsibility, with the kinds of choices by which we make up our lives from day to day. You could almost say that it is a non-human phenomenon, in the sense that it is so strange and specialized a happenning. And it always begins ‘somewhere else’ — in the mysterious and uncontrollable world Out There.”
As Allport points out, zombie movies “typically offer an answer no less bloody than the affliction: the infected are inhuman and therefore all forms of retaliation are not only warranted, but demanded.” Characters who have qualms about killing zombies are usually themselves killed before long.
One partial exception to this general rule is Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive (Jackson, 1992; AKA Braindead). Dead Alive is one of the only zombie movies with a funeral. Even after the main character’s mother turns into a zombie, her son still has enough respect for her body to attempt a traditional burial. And after she is “resurrected” (as the priest’s humorous line suggests), far from dismembering her corpse as is standard in zombie movies, he takes her home and cares for her like an invalid, clothing and feeding her and continuing to refer to he as “mother”. Is this what a Christian response to zombies would look like? A kind of zombie leper colony on the model of the L’Arche Community?
This is probably not a sustainable reading of the movie as a whole. The main character is really just a more likeable version of Norman Bates, a guy with Oedipal issues who must learn to let go of his dead mother. It is not accidental that the mother’s transformation into a zombie is intercut with the son’s sexual encounter with another woman. When her presence continues to haunt him, impeding his love life even after she is dead, he turns to a German doctor for help (Freud, anyone?). In the end he not only kills his mother, but also dismembers dozens of other people with a lawnmower. So, not exactly an alternative to the narratives of violence Rowan Williams is criticizing!
(And the Christian character is the worst. While the main character “respects” his mother’s body, though clinging to it in a somewhat unhealthy way, the priest sees dead bodies as completely worthless in exactly the way Allport criticizes. When zombies attack, the priest has no trouble brutally attacking them. He turns into a super hero: “Stand back boy! This calls for divine intervention!” And after (temporarily) deafeating the zombies he declares, “I kick ass for the Lord!” This scene serves as a nice critique of Christians’ supposed rejection of the body in favor an immaterial soul.)
But the questions remain. Shall we simply let the undead bury the undead or do zombies deserve moral consideration? And what does our answer imply about our theology of violence? These are odd questions, but questions that nevertheless need to be taken seriously. As Williams puts it, “A society’s fantasies are anything but trivial” (Williams, p. 8).