The Undead and Theology: A Review

If you’re looking to celebrate Halloween with a good book, then look no further than the new release, The Undead and Theology, a collection of essays edited by Kim Paffenroth and John Morehead. Again, this is a bit of a shameless plug, in a way, because I have a chapter in it on The Walking Dead comic books. On the other hand, I’m not seeing a dime from this, so I can still say without reservation that this is a really great read with some strong contributions. Read on for a detailed summary of the offerings. Happy Halloween!

Paffenroth and Morehead organize this collection of essays around three broad themes, vampires, zombies, and “other undead.” In that last section, contributors focus on topics as diverse as the Golem, Gothic subculture, and evolving notions of hell. Each contributor offers fresh perspectives on some increasingly well-worn subject matter. A common theme that stretches across each section is the way in which these undead narratives infiltrate our real-world experiences from Arnold T. Blumberg’s discussion of the Golem of Prague to W. Scott Poole’s history of vampire scares in ’60s and ’70s Britain to Morehead’s analysis of Zombie Walks. As a result, The Undead and Theology proves to be not only a work of deeply competent academic and theological reflection on pop culture but a signpost pointing to the ways in which these narratives shape many people’s lived experiences. Read on for highlights from each essay. You can purchase a print or Kindle version of the book over at Amazon.

“Vampires and Female Spiritual Transformation: Laurel K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter” by Vicky Gilpin

In her analysis of Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter, Vicky Gilpin shows how the series takes a rather postmodern approach to notions of good and evil, melding religious methods and complicating human and vampire identities. Paralleling the rise of SBNRs (spiritual but not religious) and Nones in American religious experience, Anita Blake, according to Gilpin, reveals that “faith, not the flavor of belief, is most important in fighting evil.” Gilpin’s reflection on Blake’s reaction to the monstrous has implications for our own experience of “the other.” She writes, “Her humanization of ‘the other,’ of vampires (and Fey, werewolves, psychics, etc.), also alters her perception of religion through the series.” Perhaps, as we dialogue with people of other faiths (or none at all) and genuinely listen to and share in their lives, we will begin to see our own faith commitments in new and fresh ways.

 “Crossing the Spiritual Wasteland in Priest” by Joseph Laycock

Joseph Laycock draws inspiration from Douglas Cowan’s book, Sacred Terror: Religion and Horror on the Silver Screen, in which he outlines three narratives most often used to set up the “metataxis of horror,” inversion, invasion and insignificance. Through one or a combination of these narratives, the religious world (morals, notions of right and wrong, and authority) is turned upside down. Laycock turns his attention to the religious blockbuster, Priest (2011), to show the horror that emerges not only from “the vampires as a manifestation of demonic evil, but the possibility of an anomic world where the sacred order is undone, and good and evil are no longer meaningful categories. With the protagonist, the audience is left in a wasteland where our assumptions about the sacred appear to lie in ruins.” The question then arises as to how we move forward when notions of good and evil are no longer meaningful categories…or mean something completely different?

“Vampires are People, Too: Personalism in the Buffyverse” by Jarrod Longbons

Buffy the Vampire Slayer has been a rich source of material on which theologians and religious studies folk have reflected from a variety of perspectives. Here, Jarrod Longbons shows how “the soul in BtVS is a secular parody of a more robust Christian personalism put forward by Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI.” Longbons adds, If Stoker’s vampire is a Catholic one, and Rice’s is a secular one (with elements of Protestantism), then BtVS represents a thoroughly postmodern (and secular) vampire world.” Longbons surveys common notions of evil vampires and notes that they are often considered diabolical because they lack a soul. However, BtVS complicates these understandings of both the vampire and the soul. Longbons reveals, “In the Buffyverse, however, the soul has nothing to do with relating to the divine. […] The soul, here, is not an essentialist entity of transcendence that orientates one toward others and God; rather, as Spike shows, the soul existentially allows him to act ethically toward others.” While this might be off-putting to a number of Christian readers and viewers, Longbons continues on to show that such a notion of the soul is not devoid of redeeming and/or theological value. By bringing in Christian teachings of the Trinitarian view of God, we see that “God is not a simple ‘I’ but a self-giving ‘we.’ In like manner, human beings are not defined by strict ‘I’ and ‘you’ Cartesianism, because like God, human persons are defined, first, by their relations.” We are truly human and, some like Longbons might argue, perhaps more divine when we relate ethically and/or morally to one another.

“The Vampire that Haunts Highgate: Theological Evil, Hammer Horror, and the Highgate Vampire Panic in Britain, 1963-1974” by W. Scott Poole

W. Scott Poole’s essay is one of the most fascinating of the collection as it focuses on the ways in which religion, pop culture, and “sociophobias” combined to create the perfect storm of terror in Britain during the 1960s and 1970s. He shows how “Hammer Studio films’ use of satanic metaphors in the late 60s and early 70s reflected an increased fascination with the devil as a new kind of horror film monster, as well as anxieties about ‘real’ devil worship.” In the process, he shows how the real-world vampire panic in Highgate teaches us “much about the complex relationship between religion and popular culture in modern society, the strange alliances they sometimes forge in relation to supernatural discourses. Religious conservatives, horror films, and the disastrous state of British life in the early 70s ensured that, in the midst of an increasingly secular society, the devil got his due.” Poole’s research has so many implications for our experiences today and the ways in which we continually employ pop culture narratives to frame discussions of and reactions to real world horrors.

“The Living Christ and The Walking Dead: Karl Barth and the Theological Zombie” by Jessica DeCou

If Poole’s essay is one of the more fascinating contributions to the collection, Jessica DeCou‘s is certainly the bravest. In it, she writes from a fictional perspective of living in the The Walking Dead zombie apocalypse to reflect on eschatological hope. Placing herself in this phenomenal narrative, she asks, “What are the implications of a zombie outbreak for our understanding of fellow humanity, eschatological hope, and the doctrine of bodily resurrection? And what does our zombie test-subject reveal about our rights and duties in relation to him?” DeCou recognizes the risk that her narrative approach could “[veer] over the line into cheesy fan-fiction,” yet she continues with the conviction that it ultimately “allows for a more penetrating exploration of the complexities facing such a world than would cold academic prose.” This essay won’t necessarily be everyone’s cup of tea, but, in my opinion, DeCou nails it.

“Zombie Walks, Zombie Jesus, and the Eschatology of Postmodern Flesh” by John W. Morehead

Having participated in a Zombie Walk almost a year ago, I was eager to read John W. Morehead‘s reflection on this growing pop culture phenomenon as a “piece of eschatological theater shaped by the postmodern apocalyptic imagination.” In his essay, he explores various aspects of zombie walks including “the phenomenon as a form of postmodern apocalyptic that puts an imaginative twist on the Judeo-Christian apocalypse; attitudes toward death, the body and new concepts of the self; and how this relates to resurrection and a broader Christian eschatology of hope in the face of postmodern nihilism.” The value of Morehead’s research is in his willingness to take seriously (and, by implication, challenging us to as well) what so many people see as just a fun night out.

“When All is Lost, Gather ‘Round: Solidarity as Hope Resisting Despair in The Walking Dead” by Ashley Moyse

I appreciate Ashley Moyse‘s contribution because he offers a much-needed hopeful analysis of what, to many, might seem like a nihilistic narrative in The Walking Dead. Here, he challenges us to see that the despair of the zombie apocalypse is “opposed by a hope that may be encountered in the community of humans struggling to flourish in a world gone wrong—in a community capable of encountering hope in the joy of mutual service and faithful labor with and for each other.” Moyse makes the bold claim that “the story portrays a movement toward hope rooted in the response of some to enter the life of their neighbors (their co-survivors) in haste, without want, and out of genuine empathy.” If we pay close attention, beyond all the decapitations and blood and guts we do see this selflessness and service at work, even in the first couple of episodes of this new third season.

“Apocalyptic Images and Prophetic Function in Zombie Films” by Kim Paffenroth

I can never get enough of Kim Paffenroth‘s writings on the apocalyptic images and prophetic function of George Romero‘s zombie films. He delves deeply into this in his book, Gospel of the Living Dead: George Romero’s Visions of Hell on Earth, and also in an essay in Light Shining in a Dark Place, but this book would have been incomplete without his work. Paffenroth again encourages us to see zombies as “overwhelmingly ordinary, which is to say, they are terribly and fully human,” which accounts for their lasting appeal. Through his analysis of a handful of zombie films from 1968 to 2005, Paffenroth reveals that “Romero repeatedly returns to the current versions of those sins in modern America, usually presented as consumerism (not just the hoarding of wealth, but the definition and valuation of oneself as a consumer of goods) and racism (which may well include nationalism, similar to Israel’s discounting of other peoples as somehow less in God’s eyes, but with the added animosity and oppression of racial minorities within the United States).” As a result, he sees Romero as a modern day prophet who exposes society’s sins and warns of the disasters to come should they not right their wrongs.

“Negotiating (Non)Existence: Justifications of Violence in Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead” by J. Ryan Parker

Turning away from The Walking Dead television series, I turn my attention to their source, Robert Kirkman’s comics, which for many fans of the show are still relatively unexplored territory. In this essay, I consider the ways in which Kirkman uses the zombie apocalypse to explore humanity and human conflict. I argue that, in their attempts to negotiate (non)existence (i.e. survival in a zombie apocalypse through warding off zombies and survivors), the human survivors employ a variety of biological and moral and/or ethical defense strategies for their violent behavior. In the process, they become more terrifying than the zombies that haunt Kirkman’s pages and potentially shed light on our own horrific, real-world experiences and actions.

“When You’re Undead the Whole World is Jewish” by Arnold T. Blumberg

Having read Arnold T. Blumberg‘s essay while in Prague was a real treat because the Golem on which he focuses still holds a primary place in the public (or at least tourist) consciousness there. At the beginning of his essay, Blumberg asks, “Why are there no Jewish zombies (apart from a certain carpenter)?” He subsequently casts the question in broader terms, “Where is the comparable Jewish cultural tradition for all the other creatures that roam the dark corridors of our subconscious?” To help address this lack, he turns his attention to the Jewish creature of the Golem and the ways in which it both influenced other fictional monsters and continues to occupy spaces in smaller corners of contemporary pop culture and Jewish life.

“‘Eat of My Body and Drink of My Blood’: Johannine Metaphor, Gothic Subculture, and the Undead” by Beth Stovell

Beth Stovell offers an insightful comparison between metaphors in Revelation and Gothic subculture and the ways in which both communities use language as “1) a reaction against mainstream culture; 2) as a reaction against exploitation; and 3) as a form of paradox and irony that subverts expectation.” Stovell’s essay adds clarity to potentially confusing and troubling uses of Revelation in contemporary religious and political discourse and helps unpack its value for marginalized and oppressed communities. While she concludes that “Revelation itself and Gothic interpretations of Revelation force readers to rethink their place in relation to mainstream culture, in relation to the oppression and exploitation happening every day (whether seen or unseen), and in relation to the Church,” her essay also implicitly forces us to consider the ways in which we might also be sources of that oppression and exploitation.

“Fire, Brimstone and PVC: Clive Barker’s Cenobites as Agents of Hell” by Andrea Subissati

The final contributor, Andrea Subissati, has one of the coolest websites of the bunch, so check it out. Her essay provides important insights into changing perspectives of hell through an analysis of Clive Barker‘s cenobites in his The Hellbound Heart and the Hellraiser series. Subissati offers speculation as to why the hellish continues to appeal to horror fans: “Hell has captured the imagination of artists, poets, and scholars in ways the heavens could not aspire to, possibly because it is more relatable to us earthlings who know far more of suffering than of paradise.” As she begins to unpack the work of the cenobites, she concludes that “changed times have called for altered mythologies of hell and devilry in order to stay relevant to contemporary society and to maintain their role as deterrent for sin and immorality.” For Subissati, Barker’s creation fits our contemporary experience: “The idea of hell being one’s personal tailor-made torment speaks to the merging of individualism with the rise of consumer culture, where people identify strongly with material goods and seek to define themselves with as much specificity as possible. In other words, these characters do not simply experience hell as passive subjects; they are complicit in its reality.”