A couple of years ago, I moved from Georgia to Los Angeles to try to be an employed writer and performer. Maybe you can imagine my great delight and frustration when I realized one of this season’s break-out television shows was set and filmed in the Peach State. You may not know of which show I am speaking if your tastes in viewing don’t include graphically violent comic book adaptations about monsters, specifically zombies. Yes, I mean AMC’s “The Walking Dead”.
Zombies have always scared the- well, you know- out of me, along with vampires and ghosts. Sometimes werewolves. But they scare me in the I-don’t-believe-in-them-but-it’s-fun-to-pretend-while-sitting-in-a-well-lit-house kind of way. I’m not particularly a horror fan, though. Most horror movies, especially the ones made these days, are too much for me.
“The Walking Dead”, though a television show and not film, is based on a comic book series which began in 2003. Maybe because of its being adapted from comics, the show manages to provide those thrills which fantasy horror can, without the shock-torture element of the “Saw” movies, for example. That’s not to say “The Walking Dead” isn’t shocking and really scary. Graphic barely begins to describe the series, but to me, the story is well worth it. It offers so much more than vicarious thrills and adrenaline bursts. Its characters are rich, and do not fit the outsider’s stereotypical view of people from the deep southern United States. There are characters who reflect some of the ignorance and conflict which still exist in the south, but they are the minority in the show, as they are in Georgia today. And nothing offers a better setting for character development than good old end-of-the-world monster fiction. In fact, I could write an entire article based on every episode, each so worthy of being dissected based on its conflicts and ethical questions: in a world where it really is survival of the fittest, how much emphasis can humanity place on the spiritual need for something more?
That really brings me to the crux of this article. What can we, followers of Christ, learn from a story about the walking dead? Let’s look at the monster itself for a minute: the zombie. In this series, and in pretty much all of the zombie fiction I know, the desire of the monster is to feed on flesh- carnality in itself. The monster has already passed out of the human life, and has not been raised from the dead to life, but is raised to a state worse than death- a state of literal carnality for which there is no cure except a second death- in this case, fatal trauma to the brain stem. This science behind the disease is explained in the season 1 finale, but allow me to go back and give a little more groundwork for the show itself, so that I can better explain my frustration with the last episode.
SPOILER ALERT: MAJOR PLOT POINTS ABOUT TO BE DISCUSSED…
In the first episode, Officer Rick Grimes wakes up in the hospital, after having been shot in the line of duty, and realizes that the world has come to an end around him. After trying to find water and escape from the hospital without being eaten by a “walker” (zombie, in case you couldn’t crack that code), Rick manages to get to his old home to find his wife and son not there. Not surprising, since basically everyone else is gone, too. Grimes does notice, thanks to his keen cop eye, that their photo albums and pictures are gone, too, meaning that his family left, rather than being taken. He believes them to still be alive.
The officer is determined to find his family, but first runs across a man and his son, who save his life, and are hidden out in their house. They reveal that their wife/ mother became a walker, a process which happens like an infectious disease: if an infected one bites or scratches you, you in turn become infected. Since it is like a disease, many figured that the CDC would be where survivors would be hiding out, so Rick heads into Atlanta on horseback (you may have seen the striking image of the traffic jam of stalled cars trying to get out of the city, and Grimes and his horse in the lonely lanes heading into Atlanta. I could make a joke about Atlanta traffic here, which can feel like the end of the world, but I digress).
As you can probably guess, things do not end well for the poor horse. In a horrifically graphic scene, the swarms of zombies roaming around West Peachtree Street take it down, and somehow Rick gets away. Meanwhile, his wife and child are hiding outside of the city with a small camp of survivors, including his former partner Shane, who has begun a relationship with Rick’s wife. Seem kind of quick to you? Me too! I guess mourning periods aren’t really a priority when a zombie might eat you any second.
Many exciting things happen over the course of several episodes, and eventually Rick is reunited with his family in the camp. Within the camp, the dynamics of living with others of different background, race, and philosophy are explored, though the action moves so quickly, they really only scratch the surface with this. I look forward to seeing more of this next season, for though the camp itself is broken, and some are scattered or killed in a terrible ambush at the camp one night, most of the characters remain together.
After the ambush, Rick decides that the best idea is for the whole group to try to reach the CDC in the hopes that there are survivors there working on a cure. They get there, and there is one lone doctor alive, who is able to explain with computer graphics how the brain is infected, taken over, destroyed, and then the brain stem alone is reactivated. The parts of the brain that make you you, he explains, the creative parts, the decision makers, are no longer engaged, and all that is left is the brain stem, and its driving need to fill the basest of human desires.
The irony I find in this explanation of the zombie state is the naturalistic view of humanity- our own zombiism. There is no mention of the spirit in his explanation, no recognition of the why which drives our human existence. Zombies represent naturalism in its purest form. Our magnificently designed brains may provide the how of our lives, but not the why. Naturalism, by boiling humanity down to its material parts, is no better than the zombie questing after flesh.
Zombies, to me, represent absolute evil, a walking hell. They are the antithesis of all we can be in Christ. Their walking after death is no incorruptible life after death, but a putrid state of walking decay, and their feeding on human flesh can be seen as a complete opposite of how the Christian is sustained in being a new creation in Christ- by feeding on His flesh, by drinking His blood. The zombie is devoid of even human spirit, and the child of God is filled with the Holy Spirit of the living God.
The tragic irony of the insufficient scientific explanation of the zombiism in “The Walking Dead” is thankfully balanced by characters who actually reference God as, well, God, and not the universe, as so many shows today have taken to doing. Even in that practice, we see the result of naturalism. When we say material and desire is all that exist, we will then deify that material and desire, whether it is the universe, or human flesh.
As I find to be the case in so many shows which deal with these huge questions of human existence, the literal is usually not where the Truth can be found. The Truth is hidden in the themes, in the interactions between the characters, and the symbolism. And the Truth is often there in ways the writers themselves cannot recognize. These characters will not make the sacrificial choices we crave to see our heroes make by engaging the how of their existence, but the why of their existence- the spirit. In a world where it really is survival of the fittest, how much emphasis can humanity place on the spiritual need for something more? The answer is when there is no longer recognition of spiritual need, we have become the monsters.
Again, I will warn viewers that “The Walking Dead” is, in layman’s terms, really freakin’ gross, and there was one scene with sexual content which went a bit far, I thought, for basic cable. Other than that, though, it’s great storytelling with excellent, thought-provoking themes for the follower of Christ.