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Paradoxical as it may sound, the one thing that each us of must do alone – namely die – is the most social of all acts. That is because we construct our lives so that they will have meaning after our death, and we depend on others to sustain that meaning. What we call culture is communication between our ancestors and descendants; what we call tradition is the link to past generations which we transmit to future ones. When we cease to construct our lives this way – when we reject tradition and transgress the culture – we also know that our lives have no meaning beyond our physical existence, and we begin to feel dead.
That explains the improbable popularity of the zombie sub-genre. A search of the International Movie Data Base for productions with the term “zombie” yields just under 1,000 titles, the same number as the search term, “cowboy.” Thankfully, only one title in the
IMDB data base combines the two genres.
Zombies are boring by construction, even more boring than cowboys. All zombie films, moreover, have the same plot: some untoward event turns people into zombies, and people killed by zombies also turn into zombies, until no-one is left but a tiny band of human survivors. Of all the formulaic genres, zombie films are most predictable in terms of plot and the least suggestive of new of special effects. The fact that they are especially cheap to produce does not explain why people watch them.
There are any numbers of reasons for the why monsters command the attention of movie audiences, including the fact that our world is beset by real monsters who perpetrate inhuman acts (How the hijackers changed the culture, Asia Times Online, September 8, 2011). One out of 10 Hollywood features released in 2009 was a horror film, according to the International Movie Database; 10 years ago only one in 25 belonged to the horror genre. During in the 1930s, the proportion was one only in 200.
Why zombies, though, of all supernatural creatures? Vampires, werewolves and other monsters can have personalities – I still find the 1931 version of Dracula creepily effective – but all zombies are the same. The zombie sub-genre depends entirely on the appeal of an image and a situation, which was done rather well in the 1968 film “Night of the Living Dead,” and which filmmakers have remade almost a thousand times since.
Nonetheless the zombie theme continues to gain popularity, presently through the American Movie Channel’s “The Walking Dead” series, now in its second season. It is the most popular series in the history of cable television among men aged 18 to 34, and one of the most popular of all time.
There is something iconic about the struggle of survivors against the zombie herd. Modernity tells us that each of us is alone in the universe to wrest what meaning we may from our brief span of sentience. That is a hopeless task; if we must invent our own meaning, then by implications, the meanings that our ancestors invented will be just as meaningless to us as our meanings will be to our descendants, if any. The notion that we must find the meaning of life for ourselves ultimately negates itself, as I argued recently in this space (Why you won’t find the meaning of life, Asia Times Online, August 30, 2011). Any sense of meaning that applies only to us, but not to our ancestors or our descendants, will putrefy along with our flesh. That is why we cannot invent meaning for ourselves: we can only receive it from tradition and pass it on. Call this the existential paradox.
If we detect no meaning in the lives of our ancestors, to be sure, we are unlikely to bother to bring children into the world who will only come to despise us the way we despise our own parents. Demographers across the ideological spectrum, including secular liberals like Eric Kaufmann and Kevin Phillips, agree that people of faith tend to have children while the non-religious tend not to have children.
In the long term, secular modernity will liquidate itself through infertility. But in the meantime, people trapped in the existential paradox experience a kind of death in life – the reverse of the religious idea of life in death, thanks to the God “who keeps faith with those who sleep in the dust,” as Jews pray daily. That helps to explain why zombies, the most tedious of film personalities, fascinate young-adult audiences.
Zombie film plots may be stupid and repetitive, but there is something preternaturally compelling about the image of dead people walking. Why this should be the case becomes clear if we consider the opposite case, namely the Jewish and Christian ideas of eternal life. These are not identical, but are closely related. Eternal life is God’s gift to his people; individuals partake of it by virtue of membership in God’s people, as Harvard professors Kevin J Madigan and Jon D Levenson of Harvard University explain (Life and death in the Bible, Asia Times Online, May 28, 2008):
What does not die is the people Israel, because God has, despite their grievous failings, honored his unbreakable pledge to their ancestors. Israelite people die, like anyone else; the people Israel survives and revives because of God’s promise, despite the most lethal defeats.
That, the authors write, is what Isaiah meant when he proclaimed the abolition of death:
He will destroy death forever.
My Lord GOD will wipe the tears away
From all faces
And will put an end to the reproach of His people
Over all the earth –
For it is the LORD who has spoken. (Isa 25:8).
This national triumph over death is realized fully in the ultimate resurrection of each individual as a “unity of body and soul,” in a doctrine that Christianity adopted from Judaism. Again, as Madigan and Levenson maintain, “The ancient Israelites, altogether lacking the materialist habit of thought so powerful in modernity, did not conceive of life and death as purely and exclusively biological phenomena. These things were, rather, social in character and could not, therefore, be disengaged from the historical fate of the people of whom they were predicated.”
The Temple at Jerusalem was the physical manifestation of God’s promise in this world, “a paradise-like place where God, for all his purity and holiness, is nonetheless available on earth and his blessing as abundant. It is the antipode to the grave, a “fountain of life” (Psalm 36:9). In ancient Israel the whole male population was required to present itself at the Temple for the three annual pilgrimage festivals, and sang (Psalm 115): “It is not the dead who praise the Lord, those who go down to the place of silence; it is we who extol the Lord, both now and forevermore.”
Much of what we know about Temple ritual clarifies ancient Israel’s understanding of eternal life. A member of the hereditary priest-caste, the Kohanim, couldn’t preside over Temple sacrifices if he had come into contact with a corpse, which causes ritual defilement. Nor could a priest with a physical defect officiate at the Temple, presumably for a similar reason: nothing that bespeaks physical corruption has a place in the Temple service. No animal with a blemish or a defect might be sacrificed, and no priest with a physical defect could perform the sacrifice. The Temple service, the “fountain of life,” excludes all contact with death and the appearance of physical corruption.
Christianity’s salvific claims, in turn, rest on continuity with the Temple. In Matthew 12, for example, Jesus asserts that his disciples have the authority to break the Sabbath and gather grain, by the same authority that allows the priests in the Temple to perform sacrifices on Sabbath. “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath,” Jesus states, in the first explicit Christological declaration in the Gospels. He claims that his person embodies the Temple as the source of eternal life. Pope Benedict XVI in his 2007 book Jesus of Nazareth emphasizes this passage, citing the work of Rabbi Jacob Neusner.
The biblical symbolism of the Temple – the embodiment on earth of God’s promise of eternal life to Israel – is worth contrasting with images of the walking dead. I do not mean to suggest that the makers of zombie films intentionally set out to pervert the symbolism of the Bible – I doubt any of them bother to read Leviticus 22. Nonetheless, the death-ravaged features of the zombie herd convey the concept of collective death just as vividly as the Kohanim represented the ancient Israel’s collective life.
With the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, to be sure, the priestly ritual was suspended. Rabbinic Judaism transplanted the holiness of the Temple into synagogue and home. The detailed attention that observant Jews devote to the rules of the kosher kitchen may seem strange to the casual observer, until it is considered that the Jewish home is intended to be a sort of Temple in exile, and its Sabbath table an extension of the Temple altar.
Among Christians, the identification of holiness with bodily integrity persists in the notion of incorruptibility of saints among Catholics and especially Orthodox Christians.
How quaint, how superstitious these ancient notions of eternal life seem to the secular modern world, and how strange and primitive the rituals which sustained the Psalmist’s conviction that God would not abandon his servants to the grave. Modernity tells that nothing in the universe cares whether we exist or not, and where the meaning of our lives is concerned, we are all on our own.
We think of ourselves as rational folk. And yet we find almost 10 million pairs of eyes glued to the television screen each week when a new episode airs of “The Walking Dead,” enthralled by the same images, but in reverse: the walking dead in place of the dead awaiting resurrection, animated corpses instead of wholesome priests or uncorrupted saints, a terrified band of survivors huddled against encroaching death instead of the happy procession of God’s people to the source of eternal life.
We have dismissed the Jewish and Christian hope of eternal life as superstition offensive to reason, but instead, we find ourselves trapped in a recurring nightmare. We know that we will die, but (as Woody Allen said) we don’t want to be there when it happens. We act as if exercise, antioxidants and Botox will keep the reaper away, but we know that our flesh one day must putrefy nonetheless.The more we try to ignore death, the more it fascinates us. The more we tell ourselves that mortality doesn’t apply to us, the more it surrounds us. And the more we try to fight off the fear, the more we feel like the beleaguered survivors resisting the zombie herd.