Written by guest blogger James R. Crooke.
Zombies, as we know them in pop-culture—apocalyptic, cannibalistic, infectious-plague monsters—were first depicted in George A. Romero’s 1968 film, Night of the Living Dead, which pioneered an entirely new horror genre: the zombie apocalypse. This was the first time zombies communicated, and they have been communicating meaningfully ever since.
A typical trope of their message is the indictment of human societies and, consequently, human nature. Philosopher-filmmakers aim to scare us with our nature and prick our consciences by bringing darkness to light, exposing what is evil and ugly.
Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002) exemplifies this par excellence. Its sufficiently zombie-like rage-monster was inspired partly by his objections to the social intolerance and distemper of the nineties, when rage was all the rage. It provoked him to ask: why are we like this? One purpose of the movie, then, was to shine a spotlight on the audience, so that they might reflect on this predicament and ask the same question. Among other things, he achieves this by using two staple cinematic devices of the genre, disfiguration and comparison.
Disfiguration concretises the human spirit, fashioning a monster in our image. Generally, it externalises some particular sub-rational, aberrant trait in order to give definite form to it. Boyle’s monster externalises rage, which mirrors our own rage back at us, so we might see it for what it is. Comparison reinforces disfiguration when survivors’ behaviour conforms to the monsters’. This blurs the lines between human and zombie, signalling the real monster: us. Boyle’s narrative develops so that one protagonist, Jim, eventually behaves so indistinguishably from a rage-monster that another protagonist almost dispatches him. Most startling is that his behaviour, whilst monstrous, is so recognisably human.
Anyone who agrees with this comparison will recognise how relevant Boyle’s critique is to a culture wherein rage is still so pervasive that, since 2014, various media outlets have judged every year a year of outrage. We are behaving like a horde of zombies biting and devouring one another. Zombies, then, cut through the philosophical fog of postmodernist agnosticism to expose boundaries, distant and hazy horizons recollected. Whatever intellectual doubts we might have about normative humanness, Boyle’s zombie reassures us that we know that rage is not it. Frozen in its headlights, we are exposed, and yet enlightened that rage dehumanises us. The corollary of this realisation is the sense that we are, or should be, greater than this; that our capacity to rage and our succumbing to rage indicate the loss of a significant stature or dignity.
As my article, “Zombies! ‘They’re Us’”, demonstrates I am not only interested in cultural exegesis but in how a Christian theological hermeneutic of culture interacts with pop-cultural phenomena, their worlds and their transcendentals. With respect to the analysis above, Christian anthropology has continuities with Boyle’s representations. It affirms that rage-monsters tell the truth about ourselves: rage is a dehumanising, destructive evil, not a rational, creative good, and our capacity for rage is indicative of a ruined state. It affirms the desire for dignity this assumes, and the paradoxical juxtaposition of darkness and dignity in the human condition. But it wants to fill the conspicuous silence of his representation—and indeed in zombie movies generally—concerning the cause of this darkness. The Christian faith answers Boyle’s question by shining a light on an even darker, sub-rational force then rage: sin. Explanations of sin differ in Christian discourse (e.g. self-incurvature, pride, self-love, idolatry, enmity against the Creator, transgressing the Creator-creature distinction), but whatever the preferred term, this radical corruption at the centre of our personhood is the Christian answer to Boyle’s question, rejecting merely social explanations or justifications for rage.
The Christian response, however, is not merely an epistemological claim, but a soteriological claim. Christianity responds to the human darkness and longings for human dignity exposed in ragemonster representation by reassuring us that all is not lost and inviting us to bring this darkness to the light, to a dignity restored in the image of the one, who said, “I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness”—Jesus Christ.
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3 John 12:46 (ESV).
A shot of me finding light in the darkness.