David's Desk is my opportunity to share thoughts and tools for the spiritual journey. These letters are my personal insights and opinions and do not necessarily reflect the sentiments or thoughts of any other person in Lorian or of Lorian as a whole. If you wish to share this letter with others, please feel free to do so; however, the material is ©2018 by David Spangler. If you no longer wish to receive these letters, please let us know at info@Lorian.org.
I want to write about zombies. Why zombies, of all things? A couple of reasons. First, I thought you might like to read about something different from all the social and political upheaval and conflict going on this month here in the United States. And second, I’d like to celebrate Halloween, one of my favorite times of the year. In an election season that seems filled with nothing but tricks, it’s nice to think of giving away treats!
I realize that Halloween is not everyone’s cup of tea, but I have always loved the spookiness of it, the dressing up in costumes, the groups of children trick or treating, the decorations that can turn an ordinary house into a borderland between the realm of the living and the subtle regions beyond the physical world.
Since our children have grown up and gone on to homes of their own, we don’t decorate as lavishly as we used to. A few ghosts and skeletons strategically placed in windows here and there, and that’s about it. Nothing as elaborate as the zombies I once had clawing their way out of graves we’d created on our front lawn.
Ah, zombies. They’re very popular these days. “Zombie apocalypse” has become part of our cultural lexicon. The Walking Dead is one of the most popular shows on television. One can make, and many have, all kinds of analyses about what this means in our collective psychology and the metaphorical significance of the surge in zombie-ness as it relates to popular sensibilities. Simon Pegg, the British actor, has produced a classic zombie satire, Shawn of the Dead. In one brilliant scene in the movie, you see dozens of commuters going mindlessly to their jobs, and in the next scene, the zombie apocalypse having struck overnight, you see dozens of zombies moving mindlessly about—and there’s no difference between the two groups! The same blank stares, the same aimless motions, the same lack of vitality and life characterize both.
Modern zombies, though, are not the same as the ones I encountered in classic ghost stories when I was growing up. In those stories, part of the horror lay in the fact that you didn’t know what was animating the dead. What mysterious force brought corpses back to life? It was supernatural, through and through. Further, zombies didn’t arise in mindless hordes, seeking human brains as a late-night snack. The zombies I read about were solitary for the most part and, like a heat-seeking missile, were aimed at a specific person or group. They rose for retribution or to right a wrong. They were payback for someone who had violated justice in the universe. They were instruments of karma, rebalancing something that had gone out of whack due to someone’s actions. The laws of life and death were overturned because someone had done something to overturn the moral laws governing creation. (A classic, and wonderfully understated, example of this is "The Monkey’s Paw", a short story by W.W. Jacobs, first published in 1902.)
Modern zombies, though, are a disease. A supernatural or moral reason for the dead to rise doesn’t fit well into modern sensibilities. We want a rational cause, a technological explanation. We’ve banished the supernatural as a cause for fear and substituted science and technology in its place. Therefore, the zombie apocalypse is a pandemic.
It used to be the zombie was a force of nature, left unexplained. When a child on Halloween dressed up as a zombie, he or she became a supernatural creature. Now, they’re just a plague victim. The modern zombie is someone infected with a virus. Further, unlike the classic zombie who returns to the grave once justice has been meted out, the modern zombie can be cured or at least stopped, if only the right antiviral medicine can be discovered. The misuse of science visits horror upon us, but the right use of science can restore order and normalcy. All very rational.
This makes zombies a medical phenomenon, strange and horrible, yes, but ultimately explainable. Science and technology may have gone wrong, but they are familiar, part of the world we know. The modern zombie is frightening and dangerous; it can kill you. But so can cancer, or ebola, or the flu. It’s a danger that can be met and understood and potentially overcome with the right knowledge. We may be threatened but our worldview is not. The classic zombie, however, was a force of mystery from another world altogether, one beyond reason and science. This made it far more unsettling, for it demanded a revision of our worldview. It proclaimed the existence of the irrational and the unexplainable. Society doesn’t think in these terms much anymore, which is why our modern zombies are, well, pedestrian and ordinary, products of moral relativism even while being decaying and horrific.
I’m writing in generalities here, and I’m hardly an expert on zombie literature and films. But these are my impressions. I bring them up not simply because I’m getting into a Halloween spirit, but because I think this shift tells us something important.
The zombies I read about growing up were agents of a living universe. They could exist because in some manner the world itself was magical and alive in ways humans didn’t fully understand. The modern zombie, though, truly is the walking dead because we see the world itself as dead: unliving matter to be used however we see fit and never mind the consequences. Now, with climate change and other environmental challenges, we see this “dead” world rising up to confront us.
Our image of apocalypse, whether caused by zombies or something else, is one of destruction and collapse. The familiar world is torn down, and yet, fundamentally, it remains the familiar world, though with a new element—the walking dead—within it. These zombies are a disease, and we can think of them in those terms.
But the word “apocalypse” originally meant “revelation,” the gaining of new knowledge that changed how we thought and saw the world. An old order based on different conceptions might come to an end as a result of this new knowledge but not necessarily in destructive ways.
We face challenges in the world—poverty, corruption, a dehumanizing greed, terrorism, disease, climate change, to name a few—that are more horrible than anything that will knock on my door today and yell “Trick or Treat!” Meeting these challenges calls for a true apocalypse in the form of new ideas, new vision, new knowledge, a different way of understanding ourselves and our role in the context of a living world. This would be less a “zombie apocalypse” than an “awakening to life” apocalypse, as the argument could be made that we are the zombies now, shuffling towards the end of a civilization and eating our own brains as we go.