The following is an excerpt from The Undead and Theology (2012, Wipf and Stock Publishers), a collection of essays that analyze, from a theological standpoint, the significance of cultural depictions of zombies, vampires, and other undead creatures. In this excerpt, John W. Morehead examines the phenomenon of Zombie Walks and the satirical figure of Zombie Jesus, and how they relate to our culture’s postmodern views of the apocalypse.
Tracing the origins of Zombie Jesus is difficult, but it seems that the figure arose out of the atheist community online as a form of parody of the Christian message related to Christ and his resurrection. Although the idea is offensive to many conservative Christians, it is understandable how one could read the resurrection of Jesus in zombie-like fashion. The Zombie Jesus Day website argues, “Everything that rises from the dead is a zombie. Easter is touted as the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. So let’s call a spade a spade, eat lots of chocolate, and celebrate Zombie Jesus Day.” In addition, the Jesus Was a Zombie! website connects New Testament texts to the concept, arguing that Jesus came back from the dead in keeping with Acts 2:24, and that he “encourages zombie like behavior,” referencing John 6:53: “Jesus said to them, ‘I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.’”
The presence of a satirical religious figure at some of the Zombie Walks provides hints that these events can at times reveal more than an expression of fun or performance art. Scholars and film critics have long noted that zombie films provide commentary on contemporary social life, and their related pop-cultural spinoffs, including Zombie Walks, should be no exception. Some of the commentary comes in the form of political critique as evident in certain Occupy Movement protests where several participants dressed up as zombies. But the presence of Zombie Jesus at various gatherings indicates that at times satirical religious commentary related to “the End” is also present. When the Zombie Walk and Zombie Jesus come together it represents a form of postmodern apocalyptic reimagining.
America has a long history of would-be prophets setting dates for the end of the world. Harold Camping of Family Radio, in one recent example, made repeated predictions about the end of the world and the Second Coming of Christ beginning in 1994, but almost two decades later fine-tuned his calculations, and as a result two different sets of dates were presented for May and later October of 2011. The apocalypse did not come on these dates either, and after apologizing, Camping resigned from his ministry. As of the time of this writing yet another would-be apocalyptic scenario is on the horizon as one of the Mayan cyclical calendar systems is set to end in December 2012. A diverse group of individuals across the globe are united in their doomsday panic concerning this event, from New Spirituality adherents to survivalists to entrepreneurs cashing in on items for purchase related to the coming day of doom, whether weapons, food, survival gear, or shelter.
But it is not only people with religious orientations who speak of apocalypse. It is not uncommon to hear commentators refer to any number of events as potential doomsday happenings and label them as apocalyptic, whether global warming, an asteroid strike, the threat of nuclear war, or the potential for worldwide economic collapse. A major secular apocalyptic threat (overlapping with various religious communities) presented itself as the year 2000 approached and with it a great deal of controversy arose, with concerns over the alleged Y2K computer problem. Proponents of this doomsday scenario argued that when the world’s computers switched from 1999 to 2000 great problems would arise that would lead to the collapse of international banking computer systems, the failure of power grids, and even aircraft falling from the sky. The world’s calendars saw January 1, 2000 arrive without a major Y2K incident, but this was hardly the only apocalyptic panic to grip the public consciousness.
Apocalyptic imagery is often at the forefront of the Western imagination, particularly in the United States. Daniel Wojcik has traced the pervasive influence of apocalypticism in American thinking, stating that the
ideas and images about the end of the world permeate American popular culture and folklore, as well as popular religion, and are expressed in films, literature, music, poetry, visual arts, dance, theatre, cartoons, comics, humour, and commercial products… Today, millions of Americans embrace beliefs about the imminence of societal catastrophe. Apocalyptic thinking is an enormously influential and pervasive means of conceptualizing the world and one’s place in it.
The term apocalypse comes from the Greek word apokalypsis, which means an “unveiling” or “revelation,” which in the Judeo-Christian tradition refers to things known to God which are revealed as a means of providing comfort and hope of ultimate divine deliverance to a persecuted people. In the Christian tradition, the biblical book of Revelation is most commonly associated with apocalyptic. Although a variety of interpretations have been offered as to how to properly understand this text, in much of Protestant fundamentalism and evangelicalism, as well as rank and file popular culture, the book is read as a prediction of events in the “End Times,” the final chapter of disobedient human beings brought about by divine judgment through a series of catastrophes. So while the New Testament apocalyptic material speaks more to the unveiling of divine mysteries (which can include predictions of judgment), it has increasingly been understood as referring to doomsday, and this concept has permeated popular culture to the extent that any number of potential disasters are referred to as apocalyptic.
As America shifted from the modern to the postmodern, the concept of apocalypse has changed with it. Although the Judeo-Christian apocalyptic continues to be extremely influential, postmodernity puts interesting twists on the concept. Elizabeth Rosen writes that “postmodernists have remained interested in the apocalyptic myth, even as they reject the myth’s absolutism or challenge the received systems of morality that underlie it.” One of the aspects of the Judeo-Christian apocalyptic rejected by postmoderns is the idea of divine rescue and the resting place in a New Jerusalem for the redeemed. The postmodern apocalyptic is more pessimistic concerning human nature and its chances for surviving the apocalypse. In this scenario, writes Rosen, “[t]he neo-apocalyptic variant assumes that all mankind is beyond renovation, that this degeneracy is so complete that the Ending can only be so, too. There is nothing beyond this Ending, no hope of a New Heaven on Earth, precisely because there is nothing worth saving.”
It is in this apocalyptic context that the Zombie Walks can be understood. Zombie films have long depicted the rise of the living dead in end-of-the-world terms, and it is common to hear reference made to “the zombie apocalypse.” The father of the contemporary zombie film, George Romero, is one of the strongest influences in this area, having established a strong sense of pessimism and nihilism in his zombie narratives, beginning with Night of the Living Dead, although a certain level of optimism is found in his later work, such as Land of the Dead, where it is intimated that zombies and humans might be able to co-exist in some fashion (a feature echoed in zombie comedy-horror films like Shaun of the Dead and Fido). Despite a few instances of more positive zombie films, the majority of them, as well as television programs like The Walking Dead, are still largely negative in their depictions of the chances for survival for the human race following a zombie rising, understood in apocalyptic terms. The dominant pessimism in zombie apocalyptic concerning humanity fits well within the “neo-apocalyptic variant” of postmodernity where human beings are beyond saving. The best one can hope for is a “resurrection” from the dead, but one without any divine saving agent, and where no New Jerusalem on a New Heaven and Earth is available, even with the presence of Zombie Jesus. So while the Zombie Walks with Zombie Jesus may be interpreted as reflecting Christian eschatology, it does so in a postmodern fashion where the Judeo-Christian narrative is challenged and combined with the zombie narrative reflecting the pessimism of many of the depictions of the zombie apocalyptic in horror.