Praying to the Zombie Jesus: The Spirituality of Horror

God has made a guest appearance on the second season of The Walking Dead.

If you haven’t been watching AMC’s mega-hit based on the award-winning comic series, here’s the elevator pitch: survivors of a zombie apocalypse have escaped from an undead-infested Atlanta and are making their way across a ruined Southern landscape.

For the season premiere they’re in the Georgia countryside where they’ve found, not surprisingly, a Southern Baptist church. I’m thinking most RD readers, if they saw this most recent episode, threw some popcorn at the screen. Why? Well, apparently The Walking Dead needs to hire some historical/religious advisors because they put a gigantic bloody Jesus, hanging on a cross, in a church that’s named, simply, “Southern Baptist Church.”

This blooper aside, the scene in the church offers us something exceedingly creepy and provocative, with zombie parishioners sitting almost meditatively in the pews. A zombie woman wears a pre-Vatican II (and now, traditionalist) prayer veil. This represents, of course, another religious imagery epic fail in the Southern Baptist context but still makes for a wonderfully unsettling tableau.

Religious faith in the world of the zombie apocalypse plays a role throughout this episode. Two of the characters, one deeply religious and one self-consciously not, take a moment to pray to the tormented Jesus hanging in the church. One confesses a faith seemingly impossible in the world of horror that surrounds her; the other confesses a lack of faith that pre-dates the zombie pandemic. Both ask for miracles in a world ruled by monsters.

This Is My Body

Some horror newbies, drawn in by the excellent storytelling and character development that AMC is justly famous for, might be surprised to see religious symbolism and themes making an appearance in a gruesome tale of rotting, flesh-eating zombies. They shouldn’t be.

In fact, the undying and undead popularity of the zombie genre has created a religious symbolism all its own. Google “zombie Jesus” and you will be astonished at how the meme of Jesus as zombie has borrowed, satirized, and even contemplated Christ as risen from the dead; Christians as eaters of body and blood.

The idea has become so popular that YouTube videos, t-shirts, and even sometimes extravagant tattoos tell the zombie Jesus story. A website connects popular conceptions of the zombie to the Christian resurrection narrative and encourages a celebration of Easter as “zombie Jesus day.” In Philadelphia, the hugely popular annual zombie walk (in which participants become decaying version of themselves and shamble the streets as zombies on parade) takes place on Easter weekend with specific references to the Christian holiday of the undead.

You might assume that all of this zombie Jesus talk exists on the level of simplistic parody, barbs hurled at Christianity by its less-than-cultured despisers. You would be wrong. Zombie Jesus has provoked some serious spiritual and existential reflection. John Morehead’s blog Theofantastique has looked at Zombie Jesus as an image of spiritual reflection and even suggested that evangelical Christianity might learn a thing or two from the imagery. Matt Cardin has connected the zombie to Thomas Ligotti’s reflections on the ironic horrors of the human condition.

Monster scholars have been forced to look at the theme of religion, both in relation to zombies and to the larger world of the weird. Timothy Beal has pointed out, in his wonderfully realized Religion and Its Monsters, that religious narrative has always needed monstrous beings to represent the enemies of divine order. Indeed, Beal shows that ancient near-Eastern texts, including the Hebrew Bible itself, frequently make use of the monster to represent the divine order.

Stephen Asma’s brilliant book On Monsters also explores the role of horrific creatures in religious narrative. Asma sees most modern horror and “the contemporary monster” as “often the reminder of theological abandonment.” In the modern horror tradition, Amsa finds reminders of the existential loneliness of human beings, symbols of human angst about a cosmos swept clean of God and gods but full of the monstrous irrational.

Does the horror tradition and its monsters evacuate the world of meaning? Or can these creatures, maybe even zombie Jesus, become an iconography of spiritual contemplation?

Contemplating Horror

I once had a professor in an “Introduction to Buddhism” class who told an off-handed story that has stayed with me for fifteen years now. The prof had spent his youth going from teacher to teacher in his efforts to figure out Zen. One of his erstwhile gurus had suggested to him that since he was “a young man and full of juices” he needed to find creative ways to help with the extinction of desire.

I’m going to paraphrase this next bit, but in essence this purported spiritual master urged my old prof to picture a beautiful woman that he desired. Now, meditate on her death. Then, contemplate how her corpse begins to decay, allowing yourself the full horror of the sensory experience. Finally, watch her flesh rot and her bones molder, as she becomes nothing, the object of your desire becoming an object of horror and then becoming nothingness.

When I first heard this story, it struck me as an especially pungent example (literally) of how spiritual traditions fuse with patriarchal ideals about sexuality and notions of purity. A spiritual parable about contemplating the death of a young woman to control ones “juices” assumes the male spiritual seeker as the universal subject while borrowing from thousands of years of pathological conceptions of sexuality.

And yet, after many years of being mostly disturbed by this story, I’ve come to see other kinds of possibilities in it. Behind the deeply misogynistic assumptions, we find an encouragement to contemplate horror, to face the nothingness of the self by reflecting on the final destruction of the body.

Zombie Jesus might seem silly to you and horror may not be your thing. But spiritual seekers might want to ponder the imagery of horror precisely because it runs against some of their instincts. Freud famously argued in his essay “The Uncanny” that horrific fairy tales terrified us as children because they reminded us of the vulnerability of our bodies. The horror tradition, maybe especially the zombie narrative, does the same for adults.

The characters of The Walking Dead are praying to zombie Jesus whether they know it or not. They meditate in front of the image of a gored god in a world of blood and entrails, a world where the body has been outraged. The spirituality on display is not the megachurch “have a latte and sing some praise songs” silliness that has more or less taken over American Christianity. It’s a cri de coeur from the post-apocalyptic landscape, all supports gone, monsters walking the world threatening to rend and tear the physical self to bits.

And isn’t that us and the pre-apocalyptic world we live in? Aren’t we, really, the walking dead?