Zombies are all the rage these days. They are the dead who will not stay dead, the dead who feed on life, the dead who must be killed again—and again. We have Dawn of the Dead (2004), preceded by 28 Days Later (2002), and followed by Night of the Living Dead: Genesis (2017). Apparently, Zombies have no sense of time. Even the stars have come out to fix our zombie addiction: Jeremy Renner in 28 Weeks Later (2007), Brad Pitt in World War Z (2013), and Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, and Emma Stone in Zombieland (2009). And believe it or not, we even have Attack of the Lederhosen Zombies (2016), Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2016), and Kicking Zombie *** for Jesus (2017).
In my younger years, we didn’t need the undead to get our thrills. We were scared out of our wits (and closer to our dates) by those who were still alive and made no pretense of being dead: Jason in the first installment of Friday the 13th (1980), Vietnam soldiers in Apocalypse Now (1979), and—gasp—a teenager in Carrie (1976). It was quite unnecessary to bring someone back from the grave and send them after us—with the exception of Deliverance and “the hand” that lunged out of the water. Back then we didn’t need five undead sisters from Pride and Prejudice, Lederhosen Zombies, or The Walking Dead Youth Pastor Zombie to get our thrills. But not now, today we need a threat that refuses to die, an enemy that only appears to be dead and gone. For us it’s only a matter of time before someone develops a Vacation Bible School with the theme: Killing Zombies for Christ!
Such a strong movement in popular culture doesn’t come out of thin air; it’s not created ex nihilo (out of nothing). Instead, such interest and fear comes to us as the result of societal undercurrents—something going on among us. This much seems clear. The challenge comes when we try to identify the specific social concerns or trends that create our appetite to feast on zombies. For example, perhaps our attraction to the undead has something to do with our fear of the past. It might be a skeleton in the closet that comes out just in time to devour our political campaign. Or our zombie addiction may stem from the fear of frightening events in the past that we put to death. We dealt with our demons; we killed them, or at least we thought they were dead and no longer had power over us. But we’re not so sure anymore; they seem to be digging out of their graves, growing stronger and more terrifying than ever. We thought a worrisome problem was settled; we had the answer that gave us peace. Lately, however, we’re not so sure. The issue has reappeared in a slightly different form with a new set of questions that threatens our stable view of the world and our lives.
Obviously, my analysis proves that I am no anthropologist or sociologist. Without doubt a dozen dissertations have already been written on our fascination with zombies. All I can say is that it seems to me that all the zombies running around at the movies and on our televisions come from somewhere. And maybe, just maybe, they are emerging from some underlying, even unspoken fear that something in our past is not nearly as dead as we thought or hoped. We may have buried it six feet under or wrapped it in chains with sacks of concrete and thrown it into the ocean. Either way, we’re still terrified that it might come back—that it has come back, twice as ugly and powerful than before.
I have no way of seeing into your life to identify the dead but not dead fears creeping around in your heart. If I could, I might see the undead spirit of cancer—healed but brought out of the grave once a year at your annual appointment with the oncologist. I might see an unexpected pink slip and loss of work you enjoyed, redeemed by a new job with better pay—along with a fear that haunts you: it could happen again. Or I might catch a glimpse of other demons you fought and killed—ready to reach out of the grave and grab you again: depression, anxiety, stress or addiction to drugs, alcohol, sex, food, spending money, or gambling. At the moment, I’m in a good place with my CRPS (Chronic Regional Pain Syndrome); it’s stable though ever present. But at least it’s not racing out of control as it did for so long—and with this stability, my depression is much better: an improvement that is largely due to acceptance, living within my abilities, and a sustained rhythm that works for me. I am ‘retired’ and don’t have the stress of work hanging over my head: preparing for classes, getting to school on time (whether I feel good or not), expending all my energy teaching, getting papers and tests graded, and the dozens of other tasks that come with work. My CRPS isn’t dead, but at least its growth is comatose for now. The example isn’t perfect, but I try to live without the haunting fear of my CRPS coming out of its coma. It’s like walking through a graveyard at midnight, watching out for some zombie hand to reach up and grab me. Some day it probably will, I just hope it’s not today.
The bigger question is what or who are the dead/undead zombies lurking about in our part of the world? What demons have we fought, killed, and buried in our culture—or at least we thought we did? What still plagues us from the grave? I’ll let this question haunt you for a week before we go about the task of chasing down some undead zombies. In the meantime, if you spot one, send me an email at [email protected] and tell me what it looks like (what is it?). We need all the help we can get!
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Glenn Pemberton is a minister turned professor turned writer. After serving churches in Texas and Colorado, Glenn completed a Ph.D. (Old Testament). He then taught at Oklahoma Christian University before coming to Abilene Christian University in 2005, retiring as professor emeritus in 2017 due to a severe chronic pain. Glenn now spends his time writing for the church. Along with short essays he has published four books, including The God who Saves: An Introduction to the Message of the Old Testament (2015), and Hurting with God: Learning to Lament with the Psalms (2012). Glenn and his wife Dana continue to live in Abilene, Texas.