Many people might shrug off the horde of zombie books, movies, television series, video games and much more over the last decade or so as the latest wave of pop culture horrors, replacing the heyday of vampires in the 1990s, then of 2008’s “Twilight” phenomenon and its aftermath.
But Baylor University English professor and author Greg Garrett finds something useful in the current onslaught of zombie tales — a lesson on how our society might cope with unrelenting real-world bad news and horrors.
“You can’t fight the zombie apocalypse by yourself. At some point, you’re going to fall asleep,” Garrett said. “(Forming) community is one of the most important things in fighting zombies.”
It’s in community that survivors find the numbers, resources and strength need to fend off creatures that, technically, are dead. And it’s in facing a threat that was once human, the living find themselves contemplating what it means to be human, something beyond mere survival.
Garrett explores the horror-story threat of the times in his new book “Living With The Living Dead: The Wisdom Of The Zombie Apocalypse,” published last month by Oxford University Press.
Garrett, an award-winning professor of English and creative writing as well as a lay preacher in St. David’s Episcopal Church in Austin, is no stranger to finding meaning in pop culture. Many of his past books explored elements of the Christian message echoed in the likes of J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” books, the rock band U2, comic book superheroes and Hollywood films.
Zombies — dead humans who come back to life with a consciousness limited to movement and cannibalism of the living — seemed something different, however.
Garrett doesn’t consider himself much a fan of the genre, but often fielded questions about popular culture’s fascination with them when he talked to audiences in Paris and London about his 2015 book “Entertaining Judgment: The Afterlife In Popular Imagination.”
The question of the undead, like the afterlife, seemed to fit archetypal spiritual stories found around the world.
“All people have spiritual needs: a community that they feel part of, something or someone bigger than yourself to believe in and work for, and hospitality,” he said. “Is the zombie apocalypse functioning as a spiritual story? Of course it is.”
Garrett initially thought the current fascination with zombies stemmed from the fear of terrorism and uncertainty that followed the 9/11 terrorist attacks on America. His research found the dead, or Death personified, surfacing in art and popular attention at certain times in history: waves of deadly plague during the Middle Ages, the slaughter of World War I battles, the Holocaust and the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The zombies wandering our current pop culture age date in large part from George A. Romero’s landmark 1967 film “Night Of The Living Dead,” whose living dead were carnivorous, infectious and stoppable only by a gunshot to the head.
While past film representations of zombies were in the context of Caribbean voodoo, Romero, who died Sunday at the age of 77, set his in a time of 1960s social unrest. He found room for social criticism and commentary in his subsequent zombie films “Dawn of the Dead” and “Day of the Dead.”
The national trauma of 9/11 plowed fresh earth for zombie stories, but terrorist attacks weren’t the only thing making Americans unsettled, Garrett said.
“It wasn’t just terrorists. Ebola, refugees — zombies stand in for what’s keeping us awake at night,” he said.
Zombie stories resonate most in the West, Garrett found, finding less traction in countries and cultures where belief in reincarnation is strong.
For more than a decade, zombies have populated film and fiction, in such films, books and video games as “28 Days Later,” “28 Weeks Later,” “Shaun of the Dead,” “World War Z,” “Resident Evil,” “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” “Evil Dead,” “The Game Of Thrones” and, perhaps the best known, the long-running AMC television series “The Walking Dead.”
Garrett immersed himself in as many zombie movies, books, television series and video games as he could, but such background left him sleepless and troubled at night.
Still, he found encouraging threads running through many of the tales of zombie apocalypse: the desire and ability to form community; the realization of human values beyond survival; heroic self-sacrifice to save others; and an unquenchable hope that humankind would find a way to persevere.
Garrett said he sees the current interest in zombies lasting for years, thanks to a fear-driven culture and a 24-7 news cycle reinforcing it. But as long as zombies last, so will their human solutions.
“No matter where they inhabit, this metaphor works,” he said.