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.