The Silver Lining on the Zombie Apocalypse

In his upcoming book, a university professor explores the horror—and the hope—of pop culture’s favorite disaster scenario.
The Silver Lining on the Zombie Apocalypse
Image: Courtesy AMC

In our current cultural moment, most of us are probably familiar with the myth of the “zombie apocalypse”—the idea of a sudden, widespread uprising of undead that threatens civilization and, more often than not, forces humanity to fight off hordes of shambling corpses to prevent its own extinction. This basic premise has been the starting point for films, TV shows, and other media texts for nearly half a century, from George Romero’s foundational 1968 masterpiece Night of the Living Dead to AMC’s popular series The Walking Dead, which recently concluded its seventh season.

Given the myth’s current ubiquity, it may be tempting to think of zombie-themed media as a passing fad. In his upcoming book, Living with the Living Dead : The Wisdom of the Zombie Apocalyse, however, writer and Baylor University professor Greg Garrett argues that our fascination with apocalyptic scenarios filled with undead creatures speaks to many of the anxieties—and, oddly enough, the hopes—of our contemporary world.

Today, we feature an excerpt from Garrett’s book, which examines the surprising silver lining on the dark cloud of the zombie apocalypse.

On the surface of it, the apocalypse seems to be nothing but negative. As a story, it is an acknowledgment that things are going wrong for the world in which we live. At the opening of the film Gravity, astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) says, for the first of many times, “Houston, I have a bad feeling about this mission.” Following as closely as it does on a title that reads “Life is impossible in space,” we are inclined to give that premonition some weight.

Yes, it’s the end of the world. Yes, life is impossible. We know that full well.

In telling stories about the zombie apocalypse, though—even the ones where there seems to be little or no hope—we are offering an essentially optimistic narrative act. By admitting that things are bad, by sharing our dread, and by allowing ourselves to mutually agree that we are all a part of this alarming reality, we are at least taking away the suffering experienced by I Am Legend’s Robert Neville (Will Smith) in his solitude. We are not alone, for others suffer alongside us.

In his essay “The Man on the Train,” the Catholic novelist Walker Percy tells a story about a lonely man who is miserable in his life and riding a commuter train into work. This is horrible solitude. He is trapped in his own misery, alone in his awareness that the world is not going well. On the same train, there is another unhappy man, who happens to be reading a story about an unhappy man on a train. The difference is striking. Yes, this second man says. This is exactly how it feels. Someone understands what I’m seeing and feeling. The world is a mess. But at least I’m not alone in knowing it, seeing it, and feeling it.

As Percy put it, “The nonreading commuter exists in true alienation, which is unspeakable; the reading commuter rejoices in the speakability of his alienation and in the new triple alliance of himself, the alienated character and the author. His mood is affirmatory and glad: Yes! That is how it is!—which is an aesthetic reversal of alienation.” Telling the truth—that the world seems to be falling apart—allows readers and audiences to know that they are accompanied in their own experiences, that however they might feel in the moment, they are not alone.

Does it feel like the end of the world to you?

Yes! Me too, sometimes.

See how that works? The simple act of telling a story about the end of the world is in itself an affirmative act, no matter how bleak the story. But in some of these stories, much more happens: In some of them, the characters—and through them, the world itself—are rescued and restored. One of the religious ideas of the apocalyptic is that things are bad, but if we are faithful, we will live into that new world where all will be put right. It is this notion behind the Book of Revelation. Despite the fact that the world is ending, hope is ascendant. John the Revelator hears that the world is in the process of becoming the kingdom of God:

Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, saying,

“The kingdom of the world has become
the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah,
and he will reign forever and ever”….

Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant was seen within his temple; and there were flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, an earthquake, and heavy hail.

A great portent appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of 12 stars.

She was pregnant and was crying out in birthpangs, in the agony of giving birth. (Rev. 11:15, 19, 12:1–2, NRSV)

It’s the end of the world; it’s also new birth. Out of this brokenness, out of this disaster, yes, even out of the end of the world, something good is coming. Many times when we think of apocalypse, we think only of the death and destruction; we see only the zombies. But apocalypse also suggests the opportunity for new beginnings. J. R. R. Tolkien, who wrote with some creativity about apocalyptic things like dragon attacks and dark lords ascendant, wrote in an essay on fairy tales about the “good catastrophe.”

Can there be such a thing? Well, on an individual basis, the eucatastrophe is often just a plain old disaster. However, in other stories, individuals and even the larger world not only survive but thrive because of the challenges—and this is a story we need to hear, living as we do in our own catastrophic times. “The eucatastrophic tale,” Tolkien said, is the truest fairy tale, and in it we see “its highest function.” In a tale where we come to the point of disaster—and then see that disaster somehow miraculously reversed, or see characters change, grow, and mature because of that disaster—we are brought to believe that such reversals are possible, right, and just.

We are taught to see the world through the lens of hope.

By the time the characters of The Walking Dead have reached the season two episode “Cherokee Rose,” many things have gone wrong. Not only have they lost members of their community, but now one of their children, Sophia, has gone missing following a zombie attack. Daryl (Norman Reedus) brings a flower to Carol (Melissa McBride), the grieving mother, and in the midst of their own apocalypse, he tells a story about another flower:

The story is, when American soldiers were moving Indians off their land on the Trail of Tears, the Cherokee mothers were grieving and crying so much ‘cos they were losing their little ones along the way: exposure, disease, starvation. A lot of ’em just disappeared. So the elders, they said a prayer. Asked for a sign to uplift the mothers’ spirits. Give ’em strength. Hope. The next day, this rose started to grow, right where the mothers’ tears fell.

I’m not fool enough to think there’s any flowers blooming for my brother. But I believe this one bloomed for your little girl.

In the darkest night, a light shines. At the moment of greatest hopelessness, hope is still possible. And here the story—and the flower—are borne by an unlikely messenger. Daryl, who has always said that he works best alone, demonstrates compassion. He shows that he is capable of evolving. His development is one of many positive things brought about by the apocalypse.

Has there ever been a starker or more terrifying few pages than the ones in Blackest Night, in which Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Arrow, and Superboy are transformed into members of the living dead? In one of the bleakest comics events ever, death walks the earth, and the light of the universe appears to be on the verge of dying. But the Flash arrives on the scene, and as he does, he speaks the words of Julian of Norwich: “All will be well.”

More pertinent, perhaps, even than these words (which are repeated throughout the Blackest Night graphic novel), are other words from Julian of Norwich. Although she lived at Ground Zero of the Black Plague (Norwich lost something like 75 percent of its population to the disease), she had this vision that all would be well, that humanity would not only survive, but thrive. The final message she received from God, which came “with very great certainty, referring to all of us,” is this: “You shall not be overcome.”

It is in our nature to destroy ourselves. Humanity may seem to be on the ropes. The living dead may outnumber the living. But in many of our stories of the zombie apocalypse, we discover something hopeful: humankind rising from the ashes of our culture and creating something new and beautiful. The zombie apocalypse can also be a transition to a great future for humankind as well as a catalyst for individual humans. In this vision, life after the apocalypse is not so much about restoring things to the way they were, many of those ways flawed by consumerism, selfishness, prejudice, classism, and other human and institutional vanities, but about renewing the planet, about the kingdom of God coming.

The eucatastophe then, is good flowing out of the disaster that ended the old world. Perhaps that good is physical, perhaps it is cultural, perhaps it is something else. But in coming back to the metaphor of a glass half-filled, we begin to see that what may emerge from the eucatastrophe is hope.

Living with the Living Dead is being published by Oxford University Press on June 1, 2017. It is available for purchase now.

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The Silver Lining on the Zombie Apocalypse