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What Zombies Can Tell Us about Ourselves: Baylor Professor and Author Talks about ‘Living with the Living Dead’

Quick, before it’s too late: May is Zombie Awareness Month — so it’s high time for people to prepare for a zombie pandemic.

But that’s more than a heads-up for those who are passionate about zombies. Those who yawn at the notion of zombies also have reason to take notice, suggests pop culture critic Greg Garrett, Ph.D., of Baylor University.

To answer the question of “Why should we care?” when it comes to zombies, he advises

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Greg Garrett, professor of English in Baylor’s College of Arts & Science.

looking deep inside ourselves. Garrett is author of the new book “Living with the Living Dead: The Wisdom of the Zombie Apocalypse” — one of three trade books featured in the United States for 2017 by Oxford University Press, one of the world’s largest academic publishers.

Garrett, professor of English in Baylor’s College of Arts & Science, shared some of his thoughts about zombies past, present and future in this Q&A:

Q: Briefly — if possible — how did alleged zombies originate and how has their image evolved over time?

A: The original zombie comes from Caribbean legends, and refers to a sort of enslaved human being doing the bidding of its master. They might be drugged or supernaturally controlled, and they are victims and objects of our sympathy. A prime example from pop culture is the 1932 film “White Zombie,” starring Bela Lugosi. From 1968 on, when George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” appeared, when we talk about zombies, we’re dealing with a very different sort of creature — a reanimated corpse who is mobile but unknowing and who has the potential to infect others by biting or attacking them. They are the threat, not the object of sympathy. The Middle Ages, the trenches of World War I and the Holocaust are a few of the times of great stress and imminent danger when images or stories of living death have showed up, and 1968 was actually a pretty terrible year as well, with assassinations, the Vietnam War and all kinds of cultural conflict. So maybe it’s not surprising that an absurd number of zombie films have appeared since 9/11, starting with “28 Days Later” a month after the towers fell, or that “The Walking Dead” has been one of the most popular TV shows in the world in our own age of 24/7 bad news.

Q: How do our 21st-Century zombies differ from those of the past?

A: The depiction of the walking dead now is actually pretty similar to ways the dead, or Death, have showed up in art and literature for centuries. One of the foundational moments in my research was standing in the Louvre in front of a 15th-century statue of Death. It used to stand in the Cemetery of the Innocents in Paris, and frankly, it didn’t look all that different from the zombies on TV or in the movies. In all these representations, we look corpses or Death in the face, and we have to deal with our own mortality—as well as maybe thinking about what life is supposed to be. Our 21st-Century zombie habit may be — okay, is — gory and fantastic, but it’s not that different from these earlier images of Death on the march.

Q: Why are people so obsessed with zombies?

A: My argument in “Living with the Living Dead” — and other critics and thinkers have made it for a decade or more — is that zombies represent the perfect menace for us in the post-9/11 West. They can stand in for terrorism, or pandemics, or political unrest, or economic chaos or whatever it is that keeps us up at night. In some of our stories, we take that menace seriously; in others, we play it for laughs, so maybe we don’t have to be quite so frightened by it. At the end of a movie — or a zombie pub crawl — we can go home, turn out the lights and put away that fear for a bit, even if, like terrorism, or pandemics, or political unrest, we’ll have to wrestle with it all again tomorrow. In my work as cultural critic, I’m always asking why certain stories or artists are particularly popular at a given time, and it tends to be because the stories, music or art that appeals to people both entertains them and serves as a way of understanding or reconciling some things about the world and about our lives in the stories and cultural artifacts we consume.

Q: Besides zombies in history and pop culture, you say they have a tie-in to the sacred. Are zombies biblical?

A: Yes and no. As my book’s opening epigraph from the Old Testament book of Zechariah shows, there are images of rotting flesh or animated skeletons or walking corpses in Scripture, although for the most part you won’t find George Romero zombies in the Bible. There is an Internet meme, “Zombie Jesus,” which some people might find amusing and others would find blasphemous. But like all powerful stories, the Zombie Apocalypse does have a spiritual component. It asks and offers some responses to some questions that we’re trying to answer: What does it mean to be human? Why are we drawn to be in community? How can I live an ethical life in a dangerous world? And is the end of the world a good thing or a bad thing? Those are all existential questions dealt with in my Christian faith and in virtually every wisdom tradition with which I’m familiar. In addition to the powerful utility of the zombie as a symbol, I think this story about the end of the world offers us genuine wisdom on how we’re supposed to live.

When I talked to “The Walking Dead” writer/producer Angela Kang, she affirmed that while zombies are the perceived monsters in her show, the true monsters are the human beings. In times of great stress and danger, she said, what are people willing to do to survive? How will those ethical choices endanger them physically? What kinds of soul damage gets done to characters willing to do anything to survive? We look at show characters Rick or Daryl or Carol, and we see them making their choices, and the zombies are a smoke screen of unreality that can make us think the show and other versions of the Zombie Apocalypse don’t have much to do with our own lives. But if we sub out the zombies and sub in terrorists, or refugees, or those politicians we loathe, or whatever it is that we’re scared of, we discover that we start asking the same questions. What, for example, are we willing to do to protect ourselves from terrorists? Build a wall? Torture suspects for information? Start a war? Are we willing to risk death to do what our moral codes or faith traditions tell us what is right? Those are hard questions—but authentic, real-life questions. Once you look at it that way, it becomes clear: the Zombie Apocalypse is really our story.

Q: The Zombie Research Society designated May as Zombie Awareness Month several years ago, aiming to educate people about the causes of a supposed future zombie pandemic and how to prepare for it or prevent it. How realistic is that?

A: Unless life, death, and other core forces in the cosmos work very differently than I understand them to, I think the actual chances of a Zombie Apocalypse are nil. But this kind of preparation, even for fictional disaster, can be useful. The Centers for Disease Control and other national and state governmental agencies have used the story of the zombie pandemic as a way of getting out their messages about how we respond to real-life disasters, including, ironically, many of the threats (terrorism, epidemics, unrest) that I think the Zombie Apocalypse helps us mediate. The governor of Kansas said that if you’re prepared for a zombie pandemic, you’re prepared for anything, and I think he’s probably right.

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