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, pervading books, video games, TV and movies.
Lest we are tempted to think these creatures a passing fad, the economics say otherwise: they generate an estimated $15 billion industry. So what are we to make of the undead? What does the Church teach about zombies? Nothing! Since they don’t really exist, there is no catechism 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” and its opposite: the “false, bad and ugly.” Sometimes the opposite or inversion of something that is true can powerfully teach about the truth. When it comes to the zombie myth, what spiritual truths can they highlight?
First, they 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. 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, and “killing” them can signify conquering the inclinations of our fallen nature.
Second, they can indicate the desire to answer the question of what happens to us after we die: “What happens to me after I 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 their rotting flesh.
As Catholics we cannot agree with this nihilistic worldview because we profess our belief in the “resurrection of the dead” and the “resurrection of the body”. Our souls continue after death and we look forward to 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 point to a distortion and twisting of the truth to confuse and distract. This is one of the devil’s tactics. As the father of lies and master of confusion, he cannot create, so he takes good and true things and twists them, and discernment is necessary.
The zombie myth comes out of Catholic Christian cultures where the faith was taught. They 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 behind the myth.
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.
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).