Zombies, Fear, and Hope

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Santa Clarita Diet (Netflix)

We have finally reached “peak zombie.” Popular culture’s fascination with the cannibalistic undead has turned a corner and maybe, as show biz people say, jumped the shark.

Netflix brings out “Santa Clarita Diet” this week, a TV series starring two irresistibly charming actors, Drew Barrymore and Timothy (“Justified”) Olyphant. The domestication of zombiehood is complete: a nice, suburban couple kills other people, yes, but only bad people, and only because Mom (Barrymore) has become a zombie. After all, a woman’s gotta eat.

Zombies originally were figures of terror in the folk tales of Haiti. Voudon (“voodoo”), the dark amalgam of native religion and the Roman Catholicism imposed by Spanish invaders, featured newly dead people raised back to life as mindless slaves of wicked magicians.

George Romero gave us the definitive American version in “Night of the Living Dead,” the 1968 movie at the headwaters of all subsequent Hollywood zombie-ism.

Romero’s zombies, however, were the figures of nightmare: slow, shuffling, moaning creatures whom one could easily outrun, but could never escape. Inexorable, relentless, and seemingly infinite in number, they came on, and on, and on, until your defenses were exhausted and surrender was inevitable.

Today’s zombies have sped up, in our quick-cut, hyperactive age. What was sub-human has become super-human: zombies now scream and run and jump and attack with wild swiftness and strength.

Why, though, are zombies so popular?

My theory: because we got tired of vampires.

Remember vampires? They once were ubiquitous, too. It took a while to get from the strange little Bela Lugosi in Dracula (1931) to the fearsomely sexy Kate Beckinsale in Underworld (2003), but once vampires arrived, there was no stopping them.

There was, however, the faint hope of taming them.

Our fond hope eventually came true, in fact, as writers played out every other writing seam. Buffy the Vampire Slayer fell in love with Angel, a handsome vampire who tried his best to resist his antisocial urges and use his powers for good, rather than for evil.

Buffy and Angel aged, alas, and were replaced by Twilight and the adventures of Sookie Stackhouse (no relation), stories that also featured beautiful, helpful bloodsuckers.

The same arc has now been traversed by the zombies. Originally bad, they became worse. Then they became funny. And now? They’re on our side, whether as medical investigator Olivia Moore (“iZombie”) or, yes, the nice couple down the street in “Santa Clarita Diet.”

What’s going on here?

Vampires became particularly frightening when they stopped looking and sounding like Eastern European nobility and started looking and sounding like us. The great pay-off scene in countless vampire movies is the sudden realization that one of us has “turned,” and we find the threat right here in our midst.

Zombies, likewise, became truly fascinating when anyone could be in the early stages of zombiehood, and when even our closest friends, even family members, could be infected and turn—on us.

In a generation marked deeply by betrayals of trust, is it surprising that we fixate on zombies? When it seems laughable to trust our politicians, stupid to trust business leaders, dangerous to trust scientists, and perverse to trust priests, what happens to our collective psyche when millions of marriage partners can’t be sure of each other, and millions of kids can’t count on their parents to keep the family together?

What happens when anyone could turn on us?

Could these powerful, awful creatures who can injure us so badly, and especially those who are closest to us and to whom we are most vulnerable, ever be anything other than mortal threats? Could someone like that please help us, instead of hurting us?

To introduce Christianity at this point seems jarring, perhaps. But it is weirdly interesting that Christianity worships a man who died and came back to life.

It is strangely pertinent that this man is super-human, possessing amazing powers, and is now seemingly unstoppable.

It is wonderfully encouraging, however, that this man is not turning on us, even though we killed him. Instead, he opens his arms to us in love, and welcomes us into his embrace.

It is amazingly hopeful, furthermore, that this man promises to use his powers on our behalf against our enemies and to give us everlasting life.

It is truly bizarre, however, that he tells us the only way for us to enjoy this eternal life is to willingly die, here, now, and, like him, rise again from the dead.

Intrigued?

Drop by a church sometime to get the whole story…

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John G. Stackhouse, Jr., PhD, serves as the Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick. A graduate of Queen’s University, Wheaton Graduate School, and the University of Chicago, he was formerly Professor of Religion at the University of Manitoba and held the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Chair of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Vancouver. He has given interviews to ABC, NBC, CBC, CTV, and Global TV as well as to CBC Radio from coast to coast. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, The Atlantic, Time, and Maclean’s. Author of over 700 articles, book chapters, and reviews, his tenth book is scheduled for release later this year: “Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World” (Oxford University Press).