If you’re anything like me, religion is not the first thing you think of when mention is made of the flesh-eating undead. Instead, what spri...

The Glorious Undead: Zombies and Religion

If you’re anything like me, religion is not the first thing you think of when mention is made of the flesh-eating undead. Instead, what springs to mind are endless hordes of ghouls hungry for your brains that can only be stopped by a bullet to the head. But beyond the rotting veneer of your everyday reanimated corpse, there lies a host of archaic religious meanings stretching from Christianity to mythology of Ancient Sumer.

The zombie, like the vampire, has strong ties to the symbolism that drives the Christian religion. Jesus did die and rise again on the third day after all, and this resurrection finds a monstrous parallel in the zombie that crawls from its moldering grave to attack the living. So too does the zombie’s hunger for human flesh. Christian ceremony places special importance on receiving the blood and body of Christ in a metaphorical if not physical way.

Once again the zombies’ flesh eating desire, like the vampire who sexualizes of the taking of Christ’s blood, is a monstrous inversion of what should be communion with the divine. This leads me, naturally to a discussion of Zombie Jesus, the ultimate parody of Christianity and its beliefs. The very idea that a man could rise from the dead is horrifying enough, and the figure of the zombie puts just the right comedic spin on the situation. This is probably why they didn’t go with a Vampire Jesus, because the metaphor is more overtly threatening in its explicit sexuality.

The zombie as a creature also capitalizes on fears of becoming one of the mass, a sheep among sheep. This is made clear by Romero’s gang of consumerist zombies who, long after death, still roam the air conditioned halls of the local strip mall. The zombie is a mindless follower driven by the singular urge to feed and create more of the undead, which makes it the perfect monster for a religious lampoon. Films like Zombies of Mass Destruction do just that and the undead stand in as religious zealots who seek to convert more followers to their cause. The best example of this is when the local preacher claims he can rehabilitate one half of a gay couple that has taken refuge in the church. Much to their horror, he tells them once the conversion (religious and sexual) is over “you’ll be just like one of us,” another moral majority zombie.

Despite the use of the zombie as a lampoon for the religious right in the modern day US, zombies have played major roles in other religious around the world. Far from subverting the dominant ideology, these zombies are used as objects of horror to reinforce the established order. In ancient Sumer The Epic of Gilgamesh features the undead. The vengeful god Ishtar demands:

" Father give me the Bull of Heaven,
So he can kill Gilgamesh in his dwelling.
If you do not give me the Bull of Heaven,
I will knock down the Gates of the Netherworld,
I will smash the doorposts, and leave the doors flat down,
And will let the dead go up to eat the living!
And the dead will outnumber the living!"

Ishtar’s threat is obviously against the dominant order that keeps the dead in the underworld separate from the living. The idea of the dead eating the living is a horrifying thought as Ishtar threatens to collapse this system. Whether it’s modern Christianity or Ancient Sumerian mythology, the figure of the zombie strikes a chord with religious symbolism as both a figure of parody and terror.

2 comments:

  1. Some really fascinating ground you've covered here, and entertainingly so. The deeper themes of zombies and other monsters is a field rife with analysis. I enjoyed hearing your position on the matter, particularly the point you made about a zombie being just another member of the moral majority. Very deep. Great work!

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  2. Thanks for tackling this important topic and noticing the connections between these monstrous creatures and religion. I've noticed such connections and others myself.

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