The James Clayton column – Zombie Zen: do the undead have souls?

Channel 4's Dead Set has set James thinking...

I’ve never really been a regular viewer of E4 – the digital/cable sister station for Channel 4. I’ve always viewed it as a slightly scary wasteland of Hollyoaks omnibuses, never-ending Friends repeats and Big Brother regurgitation. Nevertheless, I had no hesitation in heading to the channel to check out the zombiefied version of the last show on the above list – the Charlie Brooker-scribed Dead Set.

Being a fan of Brooker and not being a fan of reality TV, I eagerly anticipated a great big gory blast of cathartic carnage in the Big Brother house and was not in the least bit disappointed. It would take something outstandingly sinister and subversive to make me switch on empty airtime filler like Big Brother, and there’d have to be the promise that the unbearable, attention-seeking participants would do more than just bitch and moan about each other and act like inane egomaniacs. Adding a few zombies to the action and unleashing a global pandemic is the perfect way to make the show actually stimulating and perhaps – in the absence of race row – boost up viewer ratings again. Such is the vacuous nature of this kind of reality TV; it wouldn’t surprise me if the programme makers totally missed the underlying satire and considered constructing the next edition of the atrocious show as a life-or-death survival scenario.

Coming at Dead Set then as a critique of mindless TV, I ended up viewing the victims in the same way I see the shuffling, solipsistic consumer corpses in Dawn of the Dead. “It doesn’t matter that these people have become zombies,” you think, “they weren’t living anyway”. Just as Romero’s revenants trade one form of death for another – total submission to capitalist conformity for a slightly-stiffer status as an animated cadaver – I watched gleefully as the metaphorical feeding frenzy of Big Brother became a literal one. These people weren’t alive before the rabid infected ones arrived on the scene; they were cut off from humanity and warped into a cynical, parasitical, debased existence. They were soulless anyway, so it doesn’t matter that they’ve been bitten and come over all creepy.

Hold that thought. Thinking about not just Dead Set, but all other zombie texts across TV and film, whatever becomes of the souls of the undead?  They’re undoubtedly there in body, definitely a bit challenged in terms of mind, but what about spirit? As far as I’m aware, no zombie flick, book, comic or TV series has ever addressed spiritual issues of soul. It’s a completely secular scenario every time it comes to re-animated corpses, but yet it’s a different matter for other horror monsters.

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Ghosts spring forth from the ether or some great beyond and are usually grappling with occult or afterlife issues. The same is true for mummies and malevolent demons moved to terrorise the world of the living; probably because some bungling human unfurled an ancient curse cast down for the ages in line with archaic religion and mythology. Films like The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby and The Omen invoke the Devil, and werewolves and vampires are always warded off with crucifixes, holy water and other iconographic Christian paraphernalia. Despite this, when it comes to zombies – the straight-up reanimated corpses without fanged-dentures – there’s a total absence of spiritual concern. The cause of outbreak is never supernatural but always a rationalist reason such as sinister scientific experimentation or radiation from outer space. There isn’t even any outstanding religious imagery or heavy-handed allegorising to hammer home a moral message.

Off the top of my head, the only religiously-tinged revenant I can instantly recall is the infamous robe-wearing Hare Krishna zombie who can be seen ambling around aimlessly in Dawn of the Dead. Will the gut-munching monk ever reach nirvana? Perhaps being braindead is more conducive to the attainment of enlightenment. Moving to Christian theology, Roman Catholic tradition holds that come the end of days the souls of the dead will be resurrected in the bodies left on earth. Does that mean that at the coming of the apocalypse (and many zombie texts are set in circumstances suggestive of an ‘end of the world’ epoch) the souls will possess rotting remains? Philosophically, you can view the soul as being a separate entity to the corporeal body, so does that firmly refute the idea that zombies could have a soul? In view of the entrail-guzzling you would suggest that to be so, but looking to Bub, the lovable lug of Day of the Dead, who starts to develop cognition and perhaps compassion, a revival of humanity and the possibility of a post-mortem soul is present. These are just a couple of the contentious conceptual debates that are conspicuously absent when it comes to living dead texts.

Maybe there’s a whole realm of pop culture that’s devoted to the issue of zombie spirituality that I’m blissfully unaware of or ignoring. If so, let me know. It disturbs me that no one cares about afterlife fate of the living dead and that, as a result, they will never find any sense of righteous fulfilment or harmony. If Boris Karloff’s monster is allowed that liberty in Bride of Frankenstein through the blind old hermit who offers good Christian instruction and companionship, I’d say that it’s only fair that re-animated cadavers receive the same opportunity. I worry that no one is praying for the souls of the shuffling corpses. Is anyone out there concerned about their salvation?

Richard Dawkins and hardcore atheists may disagree, but in the interests of accurate representation, right of consciousness and creative diversity, I feel there needs to be some supernatural, spiritual focus in zombie texts. You never know: if just once an ordained minister was available and on-hand at the moment someone gets savaged by a flesh-eating terror, the last rites may just stave off that sickening descent into living dead status. A bash on the head kills them you say? Nay! Gather the grotesques around for some transcendental meditation or make them take communion. Hallelujah! Global endemic averted…

James’ previous column can be found here.

Check out our Dead Set reviews, starting here.Interview with Charlie Brooker. creator of Dead Set

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