Pop Culture Theologizing with “The Walking Dead”

*Caution: This post contains spoilers.*

It was summertime and I was home alone for a few weeks. AMC was replaying their series The Walking Dead all the way through and, although I’m not a horror/suspense/zombie fan per se, I’d seen enough chatter by Facebook friends to give it a shot. I’m glad I did. On its face, The Walking Dead doesn’t seem to be FHE fodder, but you’d be surprised at the deep theological and philosophical reflections zombies can foster.1

The Walking Dead follows a small group of survivors from Atlanta struggling to endure a zombie apocalypse. In their world, the idea of zombies didn’t previously exist, so the characters are forced to work out for themselves the nature of what looks like a spreading disease. Government structures are in complete disarray and people are fending for themselves. “Walkers” roam the streets seeking to eat human flesh; their bites and bodily fluids spread the disease. The virus essentially invades human neurobiology, killing the consciousness of its host and taking control of the body through the brain stem. The only way to kill a Walker is by destroying the brain.

Instead of being a scare-em-and-shoot-em-up thriller (though it has its moments!), overall the series finds its real emotional power in the conflicts of the human protagonists. Its true genius is underscoring the fact that many of the problems we encounter aren’t black and white; The Walking Dead focuses on complexity and shades of gray.2 The rest of this post highlights three areas of off-the-cuff theological reflection the show spurs. 

1. Fall/Redemption

The writers do a brilliant job depicting how different personalities respond to the tragic circumstances. Daryl Dixon and his brother are rednecks, cut-throat motorcyclers, plenty racist and plenty arrogant. But they have a strong ethic of family loyalty. After losing his brother, Daryl nurtures kinship with the Peletier’s, the other white-trash-esque family in the group. When young Sophia Peltetier goes missing he risks his life trying to track her down. Daryl’s character begins to find redemption, purpose, and a sense of caring for others which he lacked before the world spun out of control.

While Daryl is elevated, another character, Shane, seems to deteriorate. Shane is a police officer with a strong Southern ethic of protecting the women and children. But his ethic takes a dark Machiavellian turn as his desired ends (trying to save the life of a boy) justify some terrible means (shooting another man in the leg, turning him into Walker-bait in order to provide for his own escape). Through these characters the writers show how the same circumstances seem to exalt some and damn others, depending on their respective reactions to the situation. There is soul-shaping afoot.

2. Faith and Doubt

Officer Rick Grimes is the de facto leader of the group, but he’s finding the role too burdensome. In the first episode of season two the group comes across a church while searching for Sophia. After dispatching the creepy Walkers sitting in the pews Rick approaches a large crucifix at the front of the church (an oddly Catholic statue despite it ostensibly being a Baptist church!) and offers a “help thou my unbelief” type of prayer:

“I don’t know if you’re looking at me with what — sadness? Scorn? Pity? Love? Maybe it’s just indifference. I guess you already know I’m not much of a believer. I guess I just chose to put my faith elsewhere; my family, mostly, my friends, my job. The thing is we — I could use a little something to help keep us going. Some kind of acknowledgement, some indication I’m doing the right thing. You don’t know how hard that is to know. Well, maybe you do. Hey look, I don’t need all the answers. Just a little nod, a sign. Any sign will do.”

He gets a sign. He and his young son are traipsing through the woods searching for Sophia when a deer leaps into their path and stops, allowing them to bask in its beauty. Then a distant shot rings out and the son collapses. A shotgun blast hit the deer, scattering shot into the stomach of the boy. This tragedy leads the group the an isolated farm where a physician named Hershel tries to save the boy.

3. Human Anthropology

Most characters in the series are neither extremely religiously devout or academically trained in the sciences, but their religious and scientific views inform their reactions to the Walkers nevertheless. Dr. Jenner at the Center for Disease Control believes he’s facing humanity’s “extinction event,” but he works to find a cure anyway until all avenues are exhausted. Through direct experiment he develops a solid grasp on the nature of the virus and believes that as it takes over the body it kills the human host early on. The lights are on but nobody’s home. The body is just a shell, a machine employed by the virus to feed itself.

Hershel Greene is a physician and a devout Christian who lives with his extended family on an isolated farm. Undoubtedly Hershel would argue that life begins at conception, but more importantly here, he believes that life does not end at infection. He views the Walkers as temporarily disabled and hopes a cure will be found.

What makes us human? For centuries, at least in the west, the definition of humanity has been substantialist: humans are defined according to identifiable characteristics or abilities, in addition to simple biology. Our memories, our language, our ability to self-reflect, our ability to make choices–all of these things make us human as differentiated from animals. But this view would leave out infants, the comatose, or people with severe intellectual disabilities.

This question comes to the fore in what was one of the most powerful television watching experiences I’ve ever had; the mid-season finale of The Walking Dead. The group has been staying at Hershel’s farm while Rick’s son recuperates from his gunshot wound. They spend their days searching for Sophia, the lost little girl. Hershel begins pressuring the group to move on despite the protestations of his daughter, who turns to a New Testament passage to ask her dad why he won’t take these strangers in for good. The group discovers that Hershel has a locked barn full of Walkers, including his own wife. Any Walker who stumbles onto the farmland is rounded up and put in the barn. Rick takes a pragmatic approach to the situation, trying to appease Hershel while preparing to convince him that the Walkers are an extremely dangerous lost cause. Shane’s dark descent is nearly complete, knowing that Hershel’s barn poses a direct threat to everyone in the group. In a rage, Shane opens the barn and, a feeble Hershel looking on, opens fire as the Walkers emerge. But the line between human and Walker is most starkly drawn when the final Walker emerges from the barn–little Sophia.

I’ve left out so many details that this spoiler fails to carry its full weight, so you can still get a lot out of watching the series. Suffice it to say, The Walking Dead should give you much to reflect on concerning our assumptions about what it means to be a human, and how such assumptions are entwined with powerful ethical and moral questions.

What other sort of unique Mormon/Christian questions are raised by The Walking Dead?

-Is such a large-scale disaster threatening enough to warrant a warning revelation? Suppose no new revelation was received beforehand. A zombie apocalypse doesn’t fit particularly easily with our current readings of the scriptures regarding end times. Would such an event lead to a prevalent questioning of the utility of the restoration? Some characters in the series continue to pray and have faith in God.

-How does resurrection shake out in this world? If a zombie consumes other human flesh and thus incorporates said flesh into its own body, who gets that bit of flesh in the resurrection? (Sam Brown’s recently-published In Heaven As it is On Earth: Joseph Smith and the Early Mormon Conquest of Death discusses related questions on biology and human resurrection on pp. 56-64.)

-Is killing a Walker “like unto murder” (D&C 59:6)? Is it like taking life in a war situation? And hey, here’s a toughie: Would it disqualify one from taking the sacrament?


-Feel free to discuss The Walking Dead below with any LDS questions you can think of in regards to the impending zombie apocalypse.

________________________________________________

Footnotes:

1. Amongst philosophers, zombies have provided grounds for discussion about the weight of thought experiments and conceivability, consciousness, physicalism, and the nature of the human mind, among other issues. See Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on “Zombies.”

2. All this isn’t to say the series doesn’t mess up at times. Some of the dialog is overwrought, the acting in the first season was pretty uneven, and the level of violence will certainly unsettle some viewers. I tend to squint really hard whenever they depict with great detail a zombie head getting mashed in.

Comments

  1. Footnote #2 is to suggest that The Walking Dead should be used for FHE’s only when children have reached the age of, say, 13 and above. Hopefully this write-up will be included in a future email from LDS Living. Just need to think of a good recipe for a treat to go along with it. Suggestions are welcome.

  2. MikeInWeHo says:

    “A zombie apocalypse doesn’t fit particularly easily with our current readings of the scriptures regarding end times….”

    This is the most awesomest post ever.

    Since it’s technically inaccurate to say we “kill” zombies (which are already dead), it seems clear no worthiness issues are involved. There needs to be a better way to describe what we do to zombies. De-animate them, perhaps?

  3. Too many awesome lines to quote them all, but when a post has the following in the first paragraph, you know it’s going to be amazing:

    “On its face, The Walking Dead doesn’t seem to be FHE fodder, but . . .”

  4. To my understanding, zombies aren’t really dead anymore. Now being a zombie means you’ve contracted a particular virus that like a parasite uses your body for its own purposes. You’re no longer you but your body isn’t technically dead. This new breed of zombies is different than the undead zombies of a generation ago. Or am I wrong about that? I could very well be. My knowledge of pre-28 Days Later zombies is pretty limited to 1950s movies and references to them in re-runs of TV shows from that era.

  5. john, according to the CDC doctor, the virus basically causes a fever, then leads to a shutdown of the brain and body, so it is clinically dead. The virus then reactivates the brain stem and controls the body that way.

  6. I think the morality of killing them isn’t that they aren’t alive, its that they are not classified as human anymore. We view animals as being alive.

    From a religious perspective I think we view the Zombies as not having a spirit (spiritually dead). In non-religious terms I think we would say they do not have a conscious. This seems to be what makes us human. And the rules for killing things that are human versus non-human change drastically.

    I wonder if the current popularity of the Zombies isn’t a fear that we are losing our humanity when we only view ourselves as animals, and fear all our values and morals can reduced the desire to reproduce.

    Is there a point that we too can become non-human?

  7. Okay but this is still substantively different than 1950s vintage zombies, isn’t it? I had understood those were undead in a creedy occult type of Halloweenish way. Not something medical like post 28 Days Later zombies.

  8. *creepy* — having a lot of trouble typing today.

  9. That’s what I gather, john f., I think you’ve drawn a fair distinction between recent zombie depictions. We’ve moved from occult-type stuff to scientific explanations, which reflects the respective milieu’s of the presentations, I reckon.

    Sundance, when we place the bar of humanity at the level of consciousness don’t we have to ask questions about the humanity of someone with severe intellectual disabilities too? Also, yes we could make the move that zombies no longer have “spirits,” but I’m not entirely sure how spirits and our bodies really interact, given Mormonisms apparent material monism. And your question about us becoming non-human, an interesting one. I think some of the characters in the Walking Dead seem to be become walking dead themselves despite not becoming Walkers.

  10. I totally understand with not being sure how our spirits and bodies interact. Is there really a “ghost in the machine” (dualism) or is it just a useful way to model the relationship. I’m not saying its one way or another, but I think our fascination with zombies is way to explore the ramifications it has on how we view being human.

  11. [*Spoilers below, including spoilers about the book/film "The Road"*]

    I love me some Walking Dead (and I especially love me scenes like the barnyard turkey shoot) even when I wish it were better.

    Here is the question that I have been rolling around in my pate for the past year since I started watching TWD and during which I also read and watched The Road: is there a point in an apocalyptic or disastrous event at which I am ethically responsible to kill my own children in order to save them from horrors far worse than gracious death by a loving parent’s hand? Is it incumbent upon me to wait until the last instant of my parental care expires, as in the scene from The Road where the father has the revolver to his son’s head and the cannibals are climbing the stairs and only seconds away from discovering (and capturing, and raping, and imprisoning, and then limb by limb eating) them? What is worse, the bullet from Dad, or chains in a living meat locker?

    Lori and Rick kind of butcher the issue when they treat of it a few episodes back.

    An LDS friend and I were discussing this the other day in the weight-room and he thought that his LDS beliefs demanded that he preserve the life of his kids no matter what, regardless of external circumstance. I (uncomfortably) think otherwise. But like the father in The Road, I would probably fail (or succeed, depending on how you see it) at the moment of crisis. And I am not sure which depresses me more, the thought that I might be willing and capable of killing my own child or that I am too weak to do so and that my child will suffer the extremities of horror because of my weakness (or love, again, depending upon how you see it).

    Also, parents killing their kids is the pretty much the ultimate Christian question, as far as I can tell.

    My hell, I feel lousy now.

  12. Bhodges, I have no idea how you read so many books and manage to watch TWD, but this is a really awesome post.

  13. oudenos, I had to selectively read your comment because I haven’t read/seen The Road yet, but I think I got the gist of what you’re saying. Speaking of sacrificing a son, when Rick asks for a sign his son is nearly taken, nearly killed right after that. This could be seen as a there-is-no-God random and tragic occurrence, or it could be seen as God turning beauty from ashes in that the group is taken to Hershel’s farm as a result where the son is revived and Rick starts to see Hershel’s view of Walkers, and starts to wonder more about his own qualities as a leader compared to Shane. (Granted the analogy is far from exact.)

    Interesting thoughts about the responsibility of a parent. Also, another spoiler, so stop reading if you don’t want spoilers, but the discovery of Lori’s pregnancy is a pretty interesting plot twist too.

  14. Oh shoot, BHodges, I just assumed that you had read/seen The Road! Sorry ’bout the spoilers. If you have half a day free, you can read the entirety of the book (and at the same time ruin your day, night of sleep, and foreseeable future joy!). Or just watch the movie since it is about as close a rendering of a book that I have ever seen on screen.

  15. Actually Rick and Lori have pretty much the same issue to deal with as The Road. Do you bring a child into this world of potential sorrow and pain? Lori initially decides that she can bare to bring another child into this world, and even attempts to take some pills to abort the baby, but then changes her mind. I see this motif as a struggle to sustain the lightness in the midst of the darkness. It seems easy of course when there is a lot of light, but when the darkness starts to overtake it becomes more and more difficult. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” -John 1:5

    Another movie that comes to mind that deals with this motif is the 1986 movie The Mission (PG). (stars Jeremy Irons and Robert De Niro). Warning: This is a really intense and challenging movie to watch.

  16. MikeInWeHo says:

    re: 11
    There is a German movie called “Downfall” about the final days of the Nazi regime in the bunker in Berlin. It’s very powerful. There’s a scene at the end where one of the Nazi mothers kills all her children so they won’t be taken by the Russians. Apparently it really happened. Here, from 1:54 – 2:00 or so. Warning: Upsetting content.

  17. The whole sacrificing a son thing has another recent horror example in The Mist. SPOILER Where the protagonist makes the choice to kill his child to save him from the monsters in the mist only to learn salvation was only minutes away.

  18. “A zombie apocalypse doesn’t fit particularly easily with our current readings of the scriptures regarding end times.”

    Actually there is fairly good evidence that there will be a zombie apocalypse as this prophecy from Joseph Smith suggests.

    Great post Blair. I love this. I’ve only seen the first episode, but I’m hooked (though time has been slim it’s my over the holiday TV plan). Actually, I used to use philosophical zombies in my honors consciousness philosophy class. They are great for exploring the edges of consciousness. But I love the idea of using this show as a springboard for looking at theological and ethical questions. One scene in the first episode (spoiler alert) really touched me. He finds a particularly maimed zombie without a lower half crawling through the park. A few days later as an act of compassion he tracks it down (at no small risk or inconvenience ) and dispatches it–puts it out of its misery (I don’t think he knew yet they were without consciousness. What makes us human is something about our compassion for those in need (the need to be fully-dead here) our desire to relive suffering, and to help the downtrodden, I kept wondering why he did this unnecessary act. But it’s clear. He was a human being and that’s what we do.

  19. Steve, that post of yours re: White Corpse Prophecy garnered 17 comments, and you posted the link in the 17th comment of this post. This is a sign of the opening of the 17th seal, signaling the zombie apocalypse.

  20. #16, reminds me somewhat of the final M.A.S.H. episode, a heart-wrenching scene.

  21. #20 – That was an amazing episode – and it fits so well the discussion in this thread. I watched it “live”, and it’s something I won’t ever forget.

  22. /as opposed to watching it “undead”, I guess.

  23. I’m just worried that when we’re first ressurrected and crawl up out of the grave….that’s how we’re going to look!

  24. MikeInWeHo,

    Yeah, Downfall is an amazing movie and that scene is brutal. The folks killing their children are none other than the infamous P. Joseph Goebbels and his wife (whose name I don’t know).

    I guess it’s a good thing that Hitler having a meltdown meme from Downfall became so darned popular on Youtube, otherwise that movie would just be depressing.

  25. re: 24
    Let’s just call her Mrs. Goebbels.

    YouTube parodies or not, the movie Downfall is depressing but still important. We sit around talking about zombies when that actually happened within the past 100 years! Maybe we need zombie apocalypse fantasies to take our minds off what has happened throughout history, and what may be looming just over the horizon.

  26. What is the definition of “life”? In the same episode, a key character contemplates abortion, and instead of getting into a debate about whether a fetus is alive in that episode, the same episode presents a debate about whether the zombies are “alive” in any meaningful sense. See http://watching-tv.ew.com/2011/11/28/walking-dead-season-2-episode-7-sophia/

  27. Right on, John, thanks for the links!

  28. Just started the series, on ep. 3 and am loving it. I am surprised with the well crafted philosophical issues that are brought about. Thanks for the post!

  29. So what happens when people really do start rising from the dead? Are we going to have to deal with vigilante groups with chainsaws attacking innocent ancestors? Will there be bigotry against the undead? Is the increase in curiosity and antagonism for the undead happening in preperation for the real (and non gory) ressurection?

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 8,625 other followers