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Considering zombies, horror and "The Walking Dead"


Last night, AMC’s zombie-graphic-novel-adapted-to-the-small-screen version of The Walking Dead premiered. The series was preceded by a ton of press regarding its graphic nature but also its attention to and exploration of deeper themes and thought-provoking human drama—and, at least in its first installment, it lived up to the hype. The series is definitely not for everyone (and most definitely not for children) and I’m not sure I’ll be able to make it through the entire series myself (it really is very graphic in its gore and violence), but I’d be willing to bet this series will be scoring a few Emmys next year.

The series follows police officer Rick Grimes, who’s wounded in shoot out with some bad guys and wakes from the resulting coma to find the world as he knew it is gone. Dead bodies litter the streets and those bodies with their brains still intact stagger through those streets looking for fresh flesh. Grimes manages to get home only to find that his wife and son have fled to who-knows-where; so, with a little help from Morgan Jones (Jericho’s Lennie James) and his son (whose mom is now one of the walking dead), Grimes gets his bearings, regains his strength and sets off in search of his family.

So, why even consider a zombie flick on a God-talk blog? I must admit, I am not a fan of the genre. I flirted with a few films in my teens but it didn’t take long for my tastes to trend away from the more gory (Halloween, Dawn of the Dead, Friday the 13th) and towards the more psychological (Psycho, The Shining, Poltergist). Even of the latter, however, I can take only in small doses.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t understand the value critics and others find in the genre. Scott Derrickson, a director who is also a professing Christian, puts it this way in an interview with film critic Peter Chattaway at Christianity Today:
In my opinion, the horror genre is a perfect genre for Christians to be involved with. I think the more compelling question is, Why do so many Christians find it odd that a Christian would be working in this genre? To me, this genre deals more overtly with the supernatural than any other genre, it tackles issues of good and evil more than any other genre, it distinguishes and articulates the essence of good and evil better than any other genre, and my feeling is that a lot of Christians are wary of this genre simply because it's unpleasant. The genre is not about making you feel good, it is about making you face your fears. And in my experience, that's something that a lot of Christians don't want to do.
To me, the horror genre is the genre of non-denial. It's about admitting that there is evil in the world, and recognizing that there is evil within us, and that we're not in control, and that the things that we are afraid of must be confronted in order for us to relinquish that fear. And I think that the horror genre serves a great purpose in bolstering our understanding of what is evil and therefore better defining what is good. And of course I'm talking about, really, the potential of the horror genre, because there are a lot of horror films that don't do these things. It is a genre that's full of exploitation, but the better films in the genre certainly accomplish, I think, very noble things.

I also resonate with what some critics and those involved with The Walking Dead are saying of the series in particular. TV critic Rob Owen notes that writer/director Frank Darabont “brings his humanistic touch to this zombie story that elevates it from a typical us vs. them tale” and how the “search for human connection becomes an overriding theme of 'The Walking Dead' and might even mirror the lack of connections in our zombie-free but disconnected-by-social-media modern world.” Actress Sarah Wayne Callies (who plays Grimes' wife, Lori) remarks, "Leave it to Frank to find a way to find a redemptive, compassionate human spirit in the midst of a story about an undead apocalypse.” And while Entertainment Weekly’s Doc Jensen and Dan Snierson start their recap dialogue with stats that include the number of “brain-splattering, blood-spurting zombie headshots” (which came in at 12 for the premiere, if you’re interested), they also detail the more moving and thought-provoking moments in the episode that push us to consider the deeper themes the story is dealing with, including fractured relationships, compassion, how we face and deal with darkness and horror, and what makes us human—all the things good stories are made of.

 Personally, Grimes’ encounter with Morgan Jones and his young son Duane ushered in some of the more heartbreaking moments I’ve encountered in this genre. When Duane sees the walking corpse of his mother through a window, he breaks into wrenching sobs as his father holds and comforts him. I couldn’t help but wonder if this scene doesn’t reflect the pain children feel when a parent leaves a family fractured (be it through divorce, abuse, abandonment or simply spending too much time investing in a career rather than a family)—and if stories like this aren’t meant to shock us into compassion and even personal conviction for something that we can become numb to if simply by the sheer amount of it we are exposed to.

Stories like this invite us to pay attention to those around us, to examine ourselves and consider the paths we walk, the choices we make and why. They invite us to consider our strengths, gifts and flaws. They provoke us to examine what we believe and why. They help us think through the issues facing us in our own lives and, if we are intentional, they can even change the way we approach life, people and the world—and that brings God-talk into open spaces.

Yet even with its merits, I’m not sure I’ll be able to handle the graphic gore and violence in The Walking Dead each week. Like I said, it isn’t for everyone. But even if it isn’t for me, I respect stories like this for what they can tell us about who we are and the world around us—and that’s already bringing God-talk into these open spaces.