Cultural Fascination with Zombies

July 31st, 2013

Movies and TV

Though it may not be the all-out apocalypse that often frames their appearance on TV and in the movies, it is evident that zombies are everywhere in today’s pop culture scene. According to the July 15 box office report on, Brad Pitt’s undead offering World War Z was number seven on the list, grossing $9.4 million dollars that weekend and raking in $177.09 million total so far.

The small screen has not been immune to the zombie plague, either. The March 31, 2013, season three finale of AMC’s blockbuster show The Walking Dead had a record number of viewers: 12.4 million, according to, which also noted that 8.1 million of those viewers were in the 18–49 age range. Seven million were in the 25–54 age range, highlighting the show’s crossgenerational appeal. These kinds of numbers leave us to wonder why this particular genre has so much of an impact in today’s culture. Also, as people of faith, we might naturally wonder if the gospel message has any answer to this fascination with not-dead-but-notreally- alive, brain-craving, pseudo-human creatures.

Origins of Zombie Traits

The image that appears in our minds when we hear the word zombie today can be traced directly back to 1968 and the George Romero film Night of the Living Dead. It was here that the slowwalking, ever-so-persistent monster first premiered. Prior to 1968, the creature associated with the term was more closely linked to the folkloric origins of zombies, first written about at length by William Seabrook in the 1929 book The Magic Island. Seabrook visited Haiti, where he learned about a voodoo curse that caused people to die and then, after death, be rendered vulnerable under the control of a “sorcerer.” Seabrook allegedly even saw zombies working on a plantation. “Seabrook went up to each of the zombies in turn, and found them to be little more than dumb brutes, working mindlessly. The eyes were dead, unfocused and vacant,” writes Tim Kane in his article “The Un-History of the Undead: From Superstition to Celluloid.”

The zombies of folklore differed from the Romero version in a couple of important ways. First, one did not become a zombie through catching a virus or being bitten by a zombie. As mentioned previously, the unfortunate fate came about through a voodoo curse. Also, according to Kane, it was possible to be cured from the condition. He tells of two ways to be free of the curse: “kill[ing] the zombie master” and “with salt.” The zombie master was the sorcerer who brought the person back to “life,” and the salt would cause the zombie to kill the master and then return to the grave. Kane even describes the case of Clairvius Narcisse, who died but was seen 18 years later, claiming that he was a zombie but escaped after another zombie killed his master.

Current Cultural Fascination

Kane’s article makes it clear that the image many of us have when we hear the word zombie is not the same one the word evoked when Seabrook wrote about the creature almost a century ago. The questions are why does the Romero creation have such resonance, and why do these images dominate pop culture.

In his review for the movie World War Z for National Public Radio (NPR), Kenneth Turan briefly explores these questions. “Why are zombies so omnipresent today?” he asks. “In a world where we all feel more threatened than we ever have by a myriad of forces beyond our control, from global warming to spying governments, it’s comforting perhaps to see the personification of these fears in creatures that also cannot be stopped.”

Turan hits on the concept of zombies as a metaphor. They don’t simply represent things we fear, but they can also personify our own worst tendencies. In his article for America magazine, Jack McLain, a Jesuit priest, treats the subject of zombies as a “metaphor for human consumption writ large.” McLain considers the book version of World War Z, written by Max Brooks, in light of the financial crisis the world has recently experienced. He compares the “insatiable hunger for profit” displayed by financial institutions to a menacing horde of the undead “devouring their prey” and asks, “Zombie banks, anyone?”

The monsters themselves, compelling as they are as metaphors, are not the only draw in a zombie apocalypse film, book, or TV show. After viewing a few episodes of AMC’s The Walking Dead, this writer has observed that the zombies are mainly a set piece. The real heart of the show is how the human characters deal with what has happened to their world. In the face of the complete breakdown of society, how will they react? How will they treat one another? Who will make it to the next episode? These are the really compelling questions that draw in viewers week after week and season after season.

Not Undead, but Raised From the Dead

How might the church respond to the cultural fascination with zombies? We need to acknowledge that the zombie genre offers the world a very grim and frightening narrative about the future of humanity and the planet on which we live. If we go with the concept of zombies as a metaphor for everything we are afraid of, then these narratives are simply mirrors where we see our greatest fears reflected in a horrific way.

The gospel message is the antidote to the zombie narrative. It offers hope to answer every fear. Granted, the picture of the end times painted in the Book of Revelation is frightening enough to rival anything Hollywood can produce; but the final outcome depicted is of a creation fulfilled, of a lush, rich garden and a flowing river “of life-giving water, shining like crystal, flowing from the throne of God and the Lamb. . . . On each side of the river is the tree of life . . . for the healing of the nations” (22:1-2). Instead of a world falling into a nightmarish hellscape of despair, we see all things made new; and the prevailing characteristic is not death but life––blooming, streaming, growing life.

For humanity, too, we have a message of salvation that contrasts with the vision of the zombie apocalypse. In the “Origins of Zombie Traits” section of this article, we saw how the modern image of zombies is quite different from the creature of Haitian folklore. In the latter case, there was a chance for the creature to return to his or her former state. In zombies a la George Romero, there is no such chance: Once a zombie, always a zombie. This is part of what makes the creatures so terrifying. The person who catches the bug goes from minding his or her own business one minute to being a horrible monster the next, with no hope for redemption.

How different the message of the gospel is! In Luke 15:11-32, we find the parable of the prodigal son. The younger son in this story, it could be said, becomes a kind of zombie. He suddenly goes out of his mind and devours his inheritance, becoming “unclean” spiritually and literally, winding up feeding pigs and hungering after their food. The Common English Bible says the son “came to his senses” (verse 17) and returned to his father’s house. The father’s generosity and largesse are well-known, and the entire episode ends with the father telling his older son that the younger “was dead and is alive” (verse 32).

These two scriptural examples, Revelation 22 and Luke 15, highlight the message of hope the church can offer to contrast with the underlying fear and anxiety that our cultural fascination with zombies represents. Instead of death, decay, and a hopeless future, our faith proposes a future of life, completion, and redemption.

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups. FaithLink motivates Christians to consider their personal views on important contemporary issues, and it also encourages them to act on their beliefs.

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