One of the signs that we live in a culture of death is our obsession with “dead things” like zombies. The presence of these “undead” or “living dead” is ubiquitous: books, comics, graphic novels, video games, television, and movies.
Lest we are tempted to think these creatures a passing fad, the economics say otherwise: they generate an estimated $5 billion industry. So, what are we to make of the undead? What does the Church teach about zombies? The answer? Nothing! Since they don’t really exist, there is no Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraph we can turn to where they are mentioned. However, what is popular in the culture is often a good indicator of what is on the minds and hearts of people. It can point to the deeper questions of life that are “eating” at us. And to those questions, the Church does have an answer.
Stories and myths that may not be true can nonetheless communicate real spiritual truths. They may do this through depicting the “true, good, and beautiful” or the “false, bad, and ugly.” Sometimes the opposite or inversion of something which is true can powerfully teach about the truth. When it comes to the zombie myth, what spiritual truths might they highlight for us?
First, they can help us make sense of our struggle with temptation and sin. Once Adam and Eve sinned, they became the first “Living Dead” and “Walking Dead.” Their sin removed the life of God within them. They were physically alive but spiritually dead. In the undead mythos, the disease which begins the zombie apocalypse is often of human origin and its spread is rapid, comprehensive, and deadly. Original sin is the “disease” contracted from our first parents which deprives us of the life of God in our soul and leaves us wounded in our human nature with darkened intellects, weakened wills, and disordered passions. Zombies can represent temptation and sin in our life and “killing” them can signify conquering the inclinations of our fallen nature.
Secondly, these stories can indicate the desire to answer the question of what happens to us after we die. “The thing that makes me me(the soul), does that remain after death? Do I continue living? What happens to my body after I die?” The zombie narrative proposes that we return as reanimated corpses. It claims there is no continuation of a soul but the body of the recently deceased person returns from the grave with rotting flesh. A common motif in this genre is to have a character encounter an undead version of a loved one. Is this thing in front of them really their beloved family member or friend or a flesh-eating monster? What is the difference between a human and a zombie?
As Catholics we cannot agree with this nihilistic worldview. Every Sunday we profess in the Nicene Creed, “I look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” In the Apostles’ Creed we proclaim as an article of faith our belief in “the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting.” Our souls continue after death, and we joyfully anticipate being reunited with our bodies in a glorified state at the final resurrection.
Stories of zombies may not only illustrate questions the culture is struggling with, but they also may highlight a distortion of the truth. The devil, the father of lies, cannot create, so he takes good and true things and twists them to confuse and to distract us. Therefore, discernment is necessary. The zombie myth comes out of Catholic Christian cultures where the faith was once taught and learned. The undead have an insatiable hunger, desiring human flesh—and as long as they are not “re-killed,” they will live forever.
There is a Catholic truth to be unearthed. We are called to eat flesh and live forever but not in the way the unredeemed world of the undead professes. In the Bread of Life Discourse, Jesus Christ proclaims: “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day” (Jn 6:54). The stories of the undead are a distortion of Christ’s revelation of the gift of the Eucharist.
As we are besieged by the ever-growing season of Halloween, we need to perform a cultural exegesis on this topic. It is so easy, like a zombie, to mindlessly consume the ideas and practices which surround us in our society. Yet, Pope St. John Paul II reminds us of the importance of discernment in his encyclical The Gospel of Life, when he writes “In our present social context, marked by a dramatic struggle between the culture of life and the culture of death, there is need to develop a deep critical sense capable of discerning true values and authentic needs” (#95).
Our culture of death is expert in knowing the counterfeit myth better than the truth it distorts. The challenge for us is to make the truth better and more widely known. And that means we have to better know and love the One whose death has trampled Death, the One who has died but lives never to die again; the One who is the answer to all the deep longings of the human heart—Jesus Christ. “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen” (Lk 24:5).