Greg Garrett is Professor of English at Baylor University in Texas and a highly regarded cultural commentator. His latest book is entitled Living With the Living Dead, which is not a bad description of this time in our culture. Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead are the two most popular TV shows on the planet and there are innumerable other zombie films, books, comics, games, and apps which have become wildly successful. Zombies have even found their way into the academy in the form of zombie studies courses.
Greg’s book is not another collection of zombie trivia, film history or even a manual for would-be zombie hunters. He’s interested in asking deeper questions about zombie mania, as his subtitle, The Wisdom of the Zombie Apocalypse, makes clear: Why are zombies so popular? What do they tap into? What aspects of being human, what moral issues, do stories about zombies throw into sharp relief?
Greg’s is a book about zombies with Friedrich Nietzsche in the index. Nietzsche, who wrote: ‘beware that when fighting monsters you do not become a monster’, which could be a line from a zombie film. When Greg spoke to me from Texas I started by asking, did our current wave of zombie nightmares arise from the aftermath of 9/11? (What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation – you can listen to the complete podcast here on Soundcloud or here on iTunes.)
That cultural critical consensus was already there before I began the book: that this is largely a post-9/11 phenomenon in which we are reacting to the perception of widespread threats, to things coming at us from every direction. And depending on your particular zombie of choice, they are shambling toward us in slow motion or they’re running toward us much faster than is actually fair.
But the interesting thing about researching the book was that it led me to discover that this is not purely a post-9/11 phenomenon. It’s at flashpoints in history where people feel like the world is full of menace. What actually led me here was I was reading a book about the Middle Ages by the popular historian Barbara Tuchman in which she talked about all the threats revolving around the time of the Black Death. I was reading a paragraph in which she enumerated all the things that were going on and I thought to myself: if we change Black Death for Zika or Ebola or your plague of the moment, everything else on this list is what we are [currently] addressing.
So to see that at that time death and corpses were omnipresent in art and literature and so on sparked the idea that in some strange sense zombies and these representations of the dead are actually a species defense mechanism against the very real threat of death that we have perceived at various times in our history.
HEDGEHOG & FOX
You mentioned the Black Death, and in the book you talk about the aftermath of World War I. You also talk about the shocking images and stories from the extermination camps after World War II. But what is different with this latest zombie phenomenon is that it’s primarily an entertainment, isn’t it? So we’re not putting it into high art, but cable TV series and comic books…
Yes, in comics and popular novels – and apps on your phone where if you’re not running fast enough on your evening jog, you hear the noise of zombies in your headphones! There is, I think, that sort of accelerated phenomenon that comes to us because not only are we perceiving these threats as people have perceived them throughout history, but we now perceive them pretty much around the clock.
I don’t know if you have news alerts on your phone, but sadly I do. And so multiple times during the day my phone goes off in my pocket and I look at it reluctantly because almost every time I pick it up it’s bad news. So there’s a mass shooting, as there was here in Texas a couple of days ago, or our president has ratcheted up international tensions in some startling way, or something has happened in Paris or in Istanbul…
And I think one of the things that accounts for the omnipresence of zombies in the current culture is simply that we are more aware of the threats than we have ever been before.
You know, people have always killed each other in religious spats and there has always been economic and political unrest, but it has never before been delivered to us around the clock into our own pockets.
Hedgehog & fox
Nonetheless, do you think there is something archetypal that the zombie taps into? You describe in the book a dream that you had. I think you may even have said it was a recurring nightmare in the early days of researching this book. It wasn’t just of being caught by the zombies, it wasn’t just of being devoured. The word you used, and I thought that was a really interesting, was assimilation. And that to me suggests a loss of self and a turning into something alien and other.
Yes, I think there is a very powerful archetype in that respect. Putting aside all of the other things about extinction and individual death, what happens when we are attacked by zombies is that we are no longer ourselves. And I think that there is something frightening about that and it’s taken up in lots of other story ideas.
I can think of several recurring villains from Dr Who, for example, who are assimilators and I think of the Star Trek villains, the Borg. There is something incredibly frightening about the idea that we’re no longer going to be who we are. I have a loved one who is in the middle stages of Alzheimer’s and that is a terrifying thing for me, as I know it is for him: that everything we have been and everything we have known and all that we remember is is going to vanish. And in some ways that is more terrifying than any other part of the story for me, because it’s a real life story. It’s something that actually does happen to us.
hedgehog & fox
Would it be fair, Greg, to say that you’re not so much interested in trying to identify particular stimuli [for zombies], such as international terrorism or viruses or whatever, as actually interrogating the human response to the zombie, because in a way you could say zombies don’t change much. They are an oncoming threat that comes in waves. But what is actually interesting is what happens between the zombie attacks, isn’t it?
It is. Early on I was looking at some of the cultural readings of zombies themselves. And that’s fascinating enough because there are things that can be explored there about our humanity and the sort of connections that people make between us and these inhuman monsters.
But I had a chance to interview Angela Kang, the executive producer and one of the writers for The Walking Dead TV series. And she set me straight very early on, she said, ‘you know, our series is not about zombies. It’s about the human beings, it’s about the choices they make, it’s about what they’re willing to do to survive.’ And in that way, of course, it’s much more interesting because that actually places us right in our post-9/11, post-7/7 context of being surrounded by all of these threats, and then what are we willing to do in the face of that?
And so in the States just now we are having ongoing discussions about things that frighten us: refugees, immigration, international terrorism, and the responses that we make to those. Do we build a ‘big, beautiful wall’? Do we welcome people who are fleeing from oppression in their own nations? Do we take the small chance that one of those people may be a dangerous person? In each of these zombie stories, part of the thing that they’re wrestling with is: what does human life look like when you’re faced with threat? And what are the compromises that you’re willing to make morally and ethically and what do those compromises do to you if you make them?
hedgehog & fox
I thought one of the most interesting sentences in the book was about The Walking Dead. You say, ‘if we do not grapple with our fears as well as with those who might actually attack us, we are faced with a future dedicated to new gods of safety and security, with fealty owed to whoever can deliver them’ and that seemed to me to capture the essence of it, because that seems to be a moment we are in, or that we were contemplating, in which political rhetoric is so much about fear and external threat and meeting that threat with violence.
Right. So let’s build a wall or let’s withdraw from communion or union. And my thinking there owes much to the American ethicist Scott Bader-Saye, who is a friend of mine and one of the faculty here at the Episcopal Seminary of the Southwest in Austin where I’m also a writer in residence. He wrote a marvellous book about the ethical choices that we made post-9/11 and highlighted those – because he is a Christian ethicist – in the context of the Christian tradition.
And the remarkable and startling thing that he noticed in that and in many of these zombie stories is that the decisions that people make are often counter to the highest values that they hold. And so one of the examples I talk about at some length is Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road and also the film, because there is an ongoing conversation between the father and the son – the two main characters in that novel – about whether they are behaving ethically, whether they are ‘carrying the light’ is the phrase that they use.
hedgehog & fox
‘Are we the good guys?’ is what the boy asks – it’s another recurring theme.
‘Are we still the good guys?’ That is something we aspire to. We want to do the right thing. And in the face of fear, we often close down and do the wrong thing. And what the boy says toward the end of the novel is: how can we be the good guys if we never help anybody but ourselves?
In every wisdom tradition that I know about, compassion is front and centre. And so that idea that you can help nobody but yourself and still be an ethical being, still be a good guy, is counteractive to those understandings. And that is a riveting moment in that book, because many of us who are parents or grandparents can imagine ourselves making the same kinds of decisions that the father makes where everything is about protecting the son. He says at one point, ‘that’s basically my mission from God’, to use language from the Blues Brothers film. This is my mission from God. I’ve been tasked by God to keep you safe. It’s the only reason I’m here on the planet. And safety becomes a God for us in that way and we begin to orient our decisions around that instead of the things that actually make us ‘good guys’.
hedgehog & fox
In the stories you discuss you see some characters like the father in The Road trying really hard to hang on to some kind of value and moral worth and being tested. In other stories you see characters who are corrupted by power, by the breakdown of institutions and law and order. And then you see other characters who fulfill themselves in this new landscape – they’re able to slough off their previous lives, which were unsatisfactory and actually become – maybe ‘true selves’ is pushing it too far – but they really actualize themselves within this new landscape…
Yes, I think that’s a really good way of putting it. What happens in these stories, and I think also in war stories and survival stories, say, apocalyptic, end-of-the-world kind of stories, is that the moral guardrails that we have on our highway of life are knocked down. So we see people weaving off the road and into the culvert. And we see people trying desperately to continue steering down the straight and narrow. And, as you pointed out, there is the occasional person who has been lounging about in the culvert who suddenly realizes that he or she can actually get up on the highway and begin to traverse a different kind of life than he or she has had before.
What Angela Kang said to me about The Walking Dead I think really applies to all of these stories, which is it’s important to realize that the zombies are not the villains in these stories. The human beings who choose to drive off the highway, the governor in The Walking Dead stories, the military in 28 Days Later, these people who decide that they’re going to take advantage of the situation to exploit other human beings are the true villains. But what I love about these stories is that as you point out there is this self-actualization. I think ‘becoming the selves that they were called to be’ is not too strong a way to think about it.
I was talking with someone the other day about the character of Darryl, who appears from the very first episodes of The Walking Dead. He is a violent survivalist sort of a caricature of a character in the American South who is proficient with weapons and who responds to every threat with violence. But over the course of the now seven seasons of The Walking Dead he becomes a person who turns all of that on its head.
And so in that story, in Shaun of the Dead, in the movie Zombieland, which is another of my favorites from the Hollywood versions of the zombie apocalypse, we get a lot of characters who are actually able to respond to the end of the world by becoming better human beings rather than worse human beings. And I know that’s what we all hope for ourselves, but to have these characters hold out that hope for us is a really powerful narrative.
Hedgehog & fox
Your book Greg introduced me to new word. I had never come across ‘eucatastrophe’ before. Is that one of Tolkien’s coinages, did you say? Can you say what it is and how it comes into the big picture?
Right. Catastrophe your listeners will of course know. Eu- is the Greek prefix [meaning ‘good’]. And fin his essay on fairy stories, Tolkien talked about how paradoxically the end of the world can actually be a powerful and great impetus toward both characters and the cosmos.
So the idea of the ‘eucatastrophe’ is that terrible things happen and yet good emerges from that, which of course is a deeply Christian idea. The idea of the end of the world, of eschatology in Christian belief, is that however disastrous and catastrophic that event will be, it is part of God’s good plans for the cosmos.
And what we see in these zombie stories is that, yes, on an individual basis the zombie apocalypse is a terrible thing because you’re going to be very likely eaten or rendered into a monster. But for those people who survive and for the culture and community that grows up around that, these things are necessary, and toward the end of the book I actually quote a really wonderful literary short story by the writer Manuel Gonzales that is set in a shopping mall, like George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, in which the narrator says, I think we need these things. If we didn’t have them how would we become the people that we are called to be?
So that is the really sort of wonderful paradox about this; the zombie apocalypse is obviously a negative thing for the many people who are killed or eaten. But for survivors, for people who are living into the what one of the critics called the ‘cosmic reboot’ that is engendered by the zombie apocalypse, there is that very real possibility that we can shed some of the things that have held us down. And part of what is involved here is the comparison that from the George Romero movies on has been that at our worst as human beings we are mindless consumers. We are no better than zombies.
And what would it mean to live in a reality where we are conscious and living for something larger than ourselves? And the idea that I come back to is, how can we differentiate ourselves from these monsters? What is it that makes us human? What is it that elevates us from this sort of base level of conspicuous consumption and mindlessness? And that is something that seems to emerge with many of these heroic characters in the zombie narratives.
Hedgehog & fox
So would you say that the zombie genre is neither intrinsically pessimistic nor optimistic, but to use another word that you use in the book it’s multivalent? It’s ambiguous?
Yes, I think it can slant really in either direction. It often depends on the author. Some of the Romero films clearly edged toward entropy and disaster. But when you look at some of the more recent films, like Shaun of the Dead and with Zombieland, and I am holding out great hope for the final conclusion of Game of Thrones, which at its heart is strangely enough a zombie apocalypse story, that some kind of cosmic order is going to be restored and that not only will individuals become heroic in the context of this disaster but that there will be a eucatastrophe.
And so I think really it is about two ways of viewing the future in this world full of threat. We come back again to some of the political commentary you were talking about earlier. My president Donald Trump casts everything in terms of catastrophe. I myself, both as a person of faith and just as a person, am leaning in the direction of hope and what I want to see is not that we are doomed but that because human beings at their hearts are essentially good ,which is my ongoing belief against all the evidence, that there is the very real possibility that whatever disasters encompass us at this moment that we will find a way to become the people that were called to be.
Hedgehog & fox
One of the things which readers might find most surprising and also most refreshing about the book, Greg, is the way you bring in faith traditions, wisdom traditions, philosophy, all sorts of writers… The epigraph with which you begin the book comes from the Old Testament. And I was astonished by how much like a zombie apocalypse that quote sounded! So it’s fascinating the way you try to think through some of the moral dilemmas that zombies actualize by reference to more than 2,000 years of philosophical and religious thinking.
Well, I approach each of these books from three different perspectives, which is the three different ways that I see the world. I’m a storyteller and a person who studies stories. I’m really interested in culture and the stories that people are drawn to, and ten years ago, I graduated from seminary and became for better or worse a sort of professional Christian. So those are the three windows that I seem to employ over and over again when I wrestle with this intersection between narrative and the ways that we understand narratives to make meaning in our lives.
The passion that I have for the wisdom tradition approach is that it opens up a mythic way of understanding these stories, so that we are able to look at them not as something ridiculous or part of geek culture but as stories that address the serious questions that we try and focus on in theology and philosophy: Why are we here? What is a good life? What does a community, a healthy community look like? What should we feel about the future?
And one of the central things that I come back to over and over again is a statement from the early Christian thinker Irenaeus, who said that the glory of God is the human being fully alive, and that became a kind of touchpoint for me in this whole question about where we differ from these monsters.
And when we’re sunk in the consumerism, and the mindlessness, and the violence, we don’t differ from them; but when we seek out community and we try to behave ethically, to be the ‘good guys’, [then we do].
Hedgehog & fox
Do you think that the zombies are here to stay? That they serve so many dramatic purposes that they’re going to stick around and not be supplanted by… werewolves or space aliens?
The comparison that I make here is to superhero films. Year after year, critics used to say, I can’t believe that we’re still reviewing superhero films. And what became clear about them is that there is something about those narratives that continues to help people make meaning about the lives they are living. In the book I cited a scientific study, it’s a study by a mathematician looking at models for epidemic in which she she speculated that the zombie films, TV, what have you, epidemic will continue for literally decades.
And I think from my own standpoint as a cultural critic that what would have to change for the zombie epidemic to abate is that people would have to come to some more closure or optimism about the state of the world. Cultural criticism tells us that genres are popular at different times based on how people perceive the world.
In America for example westerns are popular at times when people feel that the American experiment is going well. So, during the Reagan era when it was ‘morning in America’, there was a resurgence of traditional westerns. And what we observe in contrast to that is that at times when people feel tension, when polls tell us that the majority of Americans do not feel good about the direction that America is going, then less optimistic genres like gangster films and zombie narratives become incredibly popular because they are ways for people to grapple with the fact that they don’t feel like things are going particularly well in their lives or in the culture around them.
What I think would have to change for us to see a significant movement away from the zombie story is for there to be some kind of resolution, which does not seem currently possible at least in our culture, because we are so sharply divided and because there seems to be contention about the simplest matters of government.
So I’m guessing that zombie story will continue to mutate in order to keep it interesting and to reflect current conditions, like in 28 Days Later, the running’s zombie changes the way that we think about that menace. But I don’t think any time in the foreseeable future we’re going to see a diminution of this narrative, because it really does serve so many purposes and stand in for so many fears.