Concerning the Zombie Apocalypse

If we were decent, self-respecting animals, we would naturally prefer good environments — in which all our needs were met — over bad ones. As it turns out — and as a brief survey of popular culture makes apparent — we are currently thirsting for an environment in which all our needs are threatened by animated corpses seeking to slurp out our brains through crazy straws. I speak, of course, of the Zombie Apocalypse.

The Zombie Apocalypse has become such a common part of daily discussion amongst my generation that we should take a brief moment of silence to contemplate the utter strangeness of the phenomenon.

Thank you.

Zombie movies are being born faster than gnostic heresies. We’ve gone from possessed-corpses-rising-from-graves to the viruses of 28 Days Later and The Walking Dead. We’ve gone from screaming, helpless women being rescued by attractive non-zombie-men, to frighteningly realistic, gritty end-times, erryone-dies scenarios. In short, we are doggedly trying to push the Zombie genre from fantasy to the real world.

And this transition isn’t limited to fiction: There are countless books and websites devoted to surviving the apocalypse. Embedded in the subconscious of every suburban teenager is a plan regarding What To Do When the Zombies Attack. We’ve got awkward TV shows documenting people who really do believe — at least for as long as they’re on TV — that the End is Extremely F****** Nigh:

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The Center for Disease Control and Prevention has released Preparedness 101: Zombie Pandemic (They later made a statement denying the existence of zombies. (Thanks, federal government.)) The U.S. military started holding zombie invasion exercises. News channels can’t stop hinting that their just might — just might – be something to this whole zombie craze: DID ZOMBIES ROAM MEDIEVAL IRELAND? and DEADLY FUNGUS TURNS ANTS INTO ZOMBIES! being among my favorites. And then we have to deal with actual studies on zombification, and Cracked’s classic 5 Scientific Reasons a Zombie Apocalypse Could Actually Happen.

Now what interests me is not so much why our culture is mildly obsessed with the total annihilation of our culture, but why contemplating this annihilation makes us so darn happy. And it certainly does make us happy. As the common phrase attests:

The world ending, which is supposed to be the sum of all fears, has provided more delightful escapism for the bored than any utopia could. There are few men — I cannot speak for the women — who have not imagined themselves taking up arms, turning their house into a bunker, and saving their loved ones.

Yet this is precisely what is supposed to not be the case. We have been told, and told, and forever told, that man thrives by way of comfort and need-fulfillment. He loves a good environment and hates a bad one. If we were to add to Washington D.C.’s collection of monuments a testament to the ethos of our age, it would be a marble cube emblazoned with the words “Avoid Suffering.” Convenience is the Christ of the hour.

Thus we are to start families — because we have a need for family — but only on the condition that we can legally leave that family when it becomes a point of suffering for us. We are to have food and drink, but it must be fast, convenient, cheap, and already known. (Woe betide the town that doesn’t have a Taco Bell.) We are to have a religion — because what real American doesn’t, right? — but not to the point of extremism. We are to live our religion insofar as it gives us a “church community” and other pleasant feelings, not to the point where we are called to suffer for it, bother anyone else with it, radically change our lifestyle for it, damage our reputation in its name, or actually follow its demands and give our money to the poor. We are to have sex lives, for sex is a need, but we are to avoid children, for children are inconvenient. In all things, fulfill needs, and suffer less.

But creeping underneath this bored and boring age is a strange, but oh-so-human desire for the entire edifice to burn. Man was not made for convenience, but for greatness. He was born for more than mere contentment. A thought experiment from Walker Percy elucidates this well:

Imagine you are a member of a tour visiting Greece. The group goes to the Parthenon. It is a bore. Few people even bother to look — it looked better in the brochure. So people take half a look, mostly take pictures, remark on serious erosion by acid rain. You are puzzled. Why should one of the glories and fonts of Western civilization, viewed under pleasant conditions — good weather, good hotel room, good food, good guide — be a bore?

Now imagine under what set of circumstances a viewing of the Parthenon would not be a bore. For example, you are a NATO colonel defending Greece against a Soviet assault. You are in a bunker in downtown Athens, binoculars propped up on sandbags. It is dawn. A medium-range missile attack is under way. Half a million Greeks are dead. Two missiles bracket the Parthenon. The next will surely be a hit. Between columns of smoke, a ray of golden light catches the portico.

Are you bored? Can you see the Parthenon?

Explain.

The saying “you never know what you’ve got till it’s gone” isn’t true. You may know precisely what you have when you can fully conceive of the possibility of not having it. You can see the Parthenon when it’s about to blow up, and you can love your neighbor, adore the good earth, and take hold of human life as an infinitely precious gift the moment the rotting horde threatens the earth, your neighbor and your life, and you are forced to fully conceptualize that The Lord can giveth, and the Lord can taketh away.

Blessed be the name of the Lord.

The fact of the Zombie Apocalypse has the tremendous effect of stripping away our obsession with comfort and convenience, forcing us to value life and the living of it. All that we truly want to discard, but in our weakness cannot, is happily discarded for us: Our stupid arguments with our siblings pale when the first window breaks. Our constant desire to just get a little more money, a little more pleasure, or a little more status is blown up with the zombie heads. Our constant, nagging questions — does life matter? Am I truly living? — are answered when life is threatened.

This is simultaneously the awesomeness and the sadness contained within our obsession over the zombie apocalypse. It is a dream of something being done for us, that in reality, we alone can do. We will not — in our weakness — shake the tyranny of convenience. We will not love passionately, forgive faults, see the world as beautiful, value human life and personal existence with profound reverence, live courageously, face death without whimpers, and otherwise rip ourselves from the state of boredom. Not unless we are forced to.

So have my prediction for the coming age: The more bored we become, the more convenient our lives, and the further we remove ourselves from suffering, the more zombie movies we’ll make, the more apocalypses we’ll predict, and the more we’ll speak — with happy smiles — of the destruction of all human existence. But if a man could live as if he knew not the day nor the hour; if he could, against all odds, live what human existence truly is — A Personal Apocalypse — then perhaps he could truly live.

Until then, we’ll be the walking dead.

Oh snap! OHHHH — OK I’m done.

  • http://twitter.com/truenorthe Courtney Kirchoff

    We are at our best when we are in our worst.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001837523704 Matt LaMar

    I may reread this a hundred more times, just because zombies and the apocalypse are the topic.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Brien-Hartung/1283742889 Brien Hartung

    Interesting. It’s a good thesis, that we fantasixe about these things because we seek adventure and possible loss. John Medaille pointed out also that we see the instability of our culture, and on a basic level we fear being corrupted by it into homogenous, perfect consumers. His article is well worth a read, and I’d be curious about your thoughts on it:

    distributistreview.com/mag/2011/08/will-there-be-zombies/

  • Colleen

    this is actually one of the more beautiful pieces you’ve written.

  • Tom

    The Zombie Apocalypse wouldn’t even lead to the end of the world. The military could handle it.

    Zombies are easy to identify, and can only attack at extremely close range. We have advanced weapons like assault rifles, flamethrowers, machine guns, tanks, fighter jets, napalm, and, if necessary nukes. We have tactics to minimize damage.

    If you’re in an urban environment, by the way, then block the entrances to the doors of each floor by stacking all sorts of stuff against them, block the stairs, disable the elevators, take any necessary supplies, and go to the roof. If the building has no food, you’re safe for a few days. If it has food, you’re set for a while. Try to make a light to signal your presence and await rescue.

    • Tom

      But anyway, good article.

      • Maria

        Yeah, the only way I could see it plausibly happening in a story is if the zombie disease itself wiped out most of the human population.

  • JRM

    Thomists: this question is a bit off, but just wondering – would the killing of a zombie be the murder of a rational human animal, since the zombie has the form of human?

    • Micha Elyi

      The distinction between shape and form eludes you.
      But don’t bite the heads off of Gingerbread Men, mind you. Heh.

      • JRM

        Unfortunately I’m not intelligent enough to understand that answer. Can anyone else answer my question?

    • Jeremy Keong

      Someone correct me if I’m wrong, but St. Thomas would follow Aristotle in saying that the soul is the form of the body, right? And St. Thomas would of course hold to be true, along with the teachings of the Church, that the human person is a unity of body and soul. If we assume that a zombie no longer has a soul, then in reality it is no longer human, and is thus no longer a rational animal.

  • Caitlin

    Yes. Never thought philosophizing on the zombie apocalypse could make so much sense out of life…

  • Charles

    Marc, you ought not to watch these TLC, Discovery Channel, NGC teaser hours. Stay with Poe, Burroughs, Shelley, Stoker… not some poorly tatted chick from the midwest , a few portly preppers and a couple of sell out profs, even if one’s from Hah-vahd. Stay with really positive fiction/films like “Contagion….Outbreak…..Andromeda Strain.” Life’s short, watch Night of the Living Dead (original) and call it a milllenia.

  • The Other Weirdo

    Anybody who takes the zombie apocalypse seriously is a bit soft in the head. At its most basic level, it is nothing more than a disease run rampant, it’s the fictional Black Plague of the 20th and 21st centuries. It’s also a storytelling plot device, mostly about how people react to disasters.

    I’ve also seen a PhD thesis written on the zombie apocalypse with a disclaimer at the top of it saying that it is merely a device used to describe an out-of-control disease outbreak.

    It is also entertainment, not just in book or movie form.

    Anybody who thinks it is anything more than this should be slapped upside the head at the earliest opportunity. Several times.

    • Thoughtful

      I think a really great point is being made here. Zombie apocalypse is just the attention grabbing back-drop. The point is that we ache to throw off our obsession with comfort and convenience. We ache for greatness and the pursuit of a more worthwhile life. Would there be a zombie apocalypse, our wasteful comfort and convenience would be ripped from us. Then, we could pursue the greatness to which we are called. Of course, there are other ways to pursue the greatness to which we are called, many of whihc do not require the end of the world.

      • Micha Elyi

        Throw off your obsession with comfort and convienience. Join the Marines.

        • http://www.facebook.com/jubal.freeman Jubal Freeman

          Or be a Saint…

          • http://fora.tv/myfora/9668/Invictus_88 Invictus_88

            Or both!

      • Dan

        That is it! I sometimes think I am crazy because I will read something about a coming financial meltdown or potential doom and wish it were so. It is so that people will stop obsessing over the utter drivel that our culture has to offer like the Kardashians, Justin Bieber, Britney Spears, Lady Gaga, etc. and start thinking about important things like loving our neighbors, helping those in need and helping to create just society and stop killing our babies in the womb and blashpheming God!

    • MichelleMarie

      WHOOSH!

  • Pauly

    “(Men) are walking in their sleep and trying to wake themselves up with Nightmares.” G.K Chesterton, chapter 8 The Everlasting Man.

  • http://www.facebook.com/kimberlyAknight Kimberly Knight

    Hey, GREAT piece! I am working with some other authors on a project that we would love to talk to you about. Can you contact me on FB? https://www.facebook.com/kimberlyAknight

  • Mary Kochan
  • Fred

    What about all the people who watch romatic comedies? There are a few zombie movies being made, but they’re not the only form of entertainment. I don’t think you can build an entire thesis about the world based on movies that not everyone watches.

    Also, I don’t think you would see the Parthenon in the second senario. I think you’d be too focused on the people trying to kill you.

    I enjoy a zombie movie now and then. It gets the heart pumping. That doesn’t mean I would want to live in zombieland. The appeal of a movie is that when it gets too scary, you can pause it and go get a nice cup of tea, or change the channel and see what else is on. There are people still living in zombielands, and what most of them long for is a comfortable life where no-one is shooting at them any more and they have enough to eat.

  • Hunibee23

    Bravo, well said

  • http://wusti.blogspot.com/ The Byzantine Bandit

    Brilliant post!
    I was expecting this: “The way to love anything is to realize that it might be lost.” -G.K. Chesterton

  • https://sites.google.com/site/aislamthegovernment/introduction Abdul Nasser

    I enjoyed reading your article. I want to expand your mind and just remember that thought experiment of the Parthenon, but replace it with Wall Street and the Occupy movement. If you compare National Movements around the world with people in the Bible, we can look at verses with a different perspective:

    Mark 5:15 (from the NIV 1984 according to http://bible.cc/mark/5-15.htm) When they came to Jesus, they saw the man who had been possessed by the
    legion of demons, sitting there, dressed and in his right mind; and they
    were afraid.

  • http://twitter.com/notesontheway Torri.

    I think you are absolutely brilliant. Thank you so much for taking the time to share your insight in such a well-articulated, beautiful, and relatable way. You’ve really captured the human spirit in this post, and it echoes well the paradox that is the desire of mankind. You remind me a lot of C.S. Lewis (which, coming from me, is a huge compliment) in how you express these complex theological concepts in ways that not only make sense of the theology, but help us to make sense of our lives. I so appreciate all you’ve written. Thanks, yo.


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