This Easter morning, I was riding a train to Salt Lake, snow-covered mountains, bathed in sunlight while their tops are erased by the cloud cover. It was a beautiful scene, reminiscent of the fickle nature of spring along the Wasatch. This visual combination of the light and the dark, the warm and the cold, winter and summer, and the living and the dead seemed especially appropriate for Easter. And, because I am who I am, so did contemplation of zombies.
I’m nothing like a connoisseur, but I do love zombie movies and the zombie mythos. There are several flavors. Original flavor finds comes from Haiti and voodoo: mindless slaves, built from the bodies and souls of the dead, who do as they are told in suits without buttons and the pockets sewn shut. Menacing primarily for simply being the walking dead, there is no implication of personal menace. They are, rather, a kind of personification of slavery: a creature that exists solely to serve some other, at the cost of their life and soul.
Regarding the second sort, George Romero has always rejected any sort of explanation aside from “Hell has no more room.” His shambling, walking dead are menacing, not because of strength or anger, but because they will slowly and implacably follow you forever. As a symbol, they seem to represent the death itself, inevitable and gruesome. Romero has tried to dress them up as a commentary on the foibles of modern society, but it always comes back to death. No matter where you run, no matter how you barricade yourself, death will get through and get you.
The most recent iteration is the virus version. Popularized by 28 Days Later, but prevalent earlier in other movies and in video games, this sees zombification as the result of some disease, usually communicable by bite or exposure to blood, that turns the ones affected into inhuman monsters that crave human flesh. Like all zombies, these creatures don’t appear to feel pain or fear and they don’t die (unless the brain is destroyed), however they come from people, regular people just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. I tend to read this iteration as a commentary on our current cultural malaise. We no longer know (or trust) our neighbors, we have a vague sense that there are no safe places left, any idea of community or bonhomie must be clung to with raw, bleeding fingertips. We feel the fracturing, seeing it in our zombie movies (which always make the point that people are more dangerous than zombies) is natural.
So, why bring it up at Easter? Some of it is obvious. The dead who live (sorta), the craving for the flesh and blood (of anybody, not just Christ). Christianity is a wonderfully morbid religion and the zombie mythos vaguely resembles it. Mormonism is no different in this: if we imagine telestial and terrestrial beings as, essentially, happy slaves for the celestial folk then I’m not sure how different from zombies they would be. While their bodies aren’t perfect by our standards, who knows with God? Only your hair is guaranteed protection, not your brains.
That is, of course, silly. Besides, those comparisons miss the point. Orson Scott Card has argued that science fiction is the last place in literature where religion can actually be discussed seriously, but I think he is wrong. I think that every horror novel is a religious novel, explicitly so, and that they have a great deal to say (more, on average, than your typical sci-fi novel, I think). In horror, ordinary people are faced with powers beyond their comprehension and beyond their ability to counteract. Religious or not, they are most often placed in situations where God can’t or won’t help them. A world where malevolent forces reign and people have only themselves to turn to for escape or protection, that is the world of horror novels. The question is: is it our world, too?
Certainly, we expect a more active God in our lives, but not one so active as to obviate faith. For that matter, we tend to accept that sometimes God allows bad things (even horrible things) to happen to good people, to innocent children, even. The problem of evil is the basis for most things mysterious about God. So, even though we are firm in the believe of a loving God, we should not expect him to save us in the moment of crisis. It may not be His will.
What is definitely His will is that we learn from what life on earth gives us. This brings us back to zombies (and to horror in general). If you see such movies as being primarily about the monsters, you are missing the point. If zombie movies, like Easter, are meant to symbolize the new life, it is the people, not the creatures, that change. A constant in all zombies is that they are a known problem. Once understood, they aren’t all that difficult to deal with (relatively). But people, as stated above, are different. They are capable of change, for good or ill. Monsters, though menacing, are static; only people contain the dynamism necessary to inspire or disappoint.
Zombies, like all of life’s horrors, offer the opportunity for a new life. Characters who do not adapt to the new die in the first act. If you are looking for an explanation of evil, the Fall, or the fascination that horror holds, it is in that. Reading or watching horror, we wonder what we are capable of, what we could do, what we would become. Those are the same thoughts generated by reading the scriptures. The reality of terrible things is that they can turn us to God and, hopefully, to change for the good. Easter, symbolic of life after death, of life coming from death, is our greatest evidence of this.
Consider how central Easter is to our worship and our beliefs. In the Book of Mormon, they frequently note that without the Atonement, without Christ, we are children of the devil. The Pearl of Great Price notes that it is by blood that we are cleansed. The entire New Testament draws on the image of the broken Christ, bleeding, bleeding, as the means of our salvation. Our safety coming from God’s pain; could there be a motif more rife for the horror treatment?
The power of terrible things, in horror and in the Gospel, is in the transformative strength it gives us. The living dead may pursue and destroy, but it is only us, the once-dead, now-living, that may build and create, by the grace of God. In this, too, we may be like Him.
I come today to preach repentance and Christ crucified. And reborn. As we may all be. Amen.