I purchase and read a lot of books for my seminary studies and ministry research. As a result, I am on a lot of mailing lists for book publishers. Most of the catalogs don't include titles that interest me, but today I received a promotional postcard for a new book from Baylor press that's right up my alley in a number of ways in terms of my interest in the intersection between religion and popular culture, and my appreciation for the horror genre of literature and film. The book is by Kim Paffenroth and it's titled Gospel of the Living Dead: George Romero's Visions of Hell on Earth (Baylor University Press, 2006). Here's the book's description from the Baylor website:
This volume connects American social and religious views with the classic American movie genre of the zombie horror film. For nearly forty years, the films of George A. Romero have presented viewers with hellish visions of our world overrun by flesh-eating ghouls. This study proves that Romero's films, like apocalyptic literature or Dante's Commedia, go beyond the surface experience of repulsion to probe deeper questions of human nature and purpose, often giving a chilling and darkly humorous critique of modern, secular America.
And the Table of Contents:
Introduction: The Themes of the Current Zombie Movie Genre
1. Night of the Living Dead (1968) Romero's First Look at Hell, Sin, and Human Nature
2. Dawn of the Dead (1978) Consumerism, Materialism, and the Fourth Circle of Hell
3. Day of the Dead (1985) Violence, Perverted Reason, and the Lower Circles of Hell
4. Dawn of the Dead (2004) Limbo and the Partial Victory of Reason and Virtue
5. Land of the Dead (2005) The Deepest Abyss of Hell and the Final Hope
Conclusion: The Meaning and Future of Zombie Movies
Now, if you're one of my critics who takes exception to my interest in horror, before you start writing the next issue of "Apostasy Alert," hold on for a few moments. I'm tempted to respond by simply providing a quote I heard attributed to R. C. Sproul: "If you can't appreciate what's funny about zombies eating human beings then I can't explain it to you." Perhaps this came from Sproul, or at least I'd like to think so. But if that isn't persuasive consider a few things about what horror says about human nature, religion, and popular culture.
My friend and colleague Philip Johnson passed along a paper written by Paul Teusner as part of his Master of Theology studies at Melbourne College of Divinity. The paper was titled "Resident Evil: Horror Film and the Construction of Religious Identity in Contemporary Media Culture." The author discusses myths and rituals that play a part in cultural meaning making, and then interprets horror as a form of ritual activity as the "audiovisual mass media has become...the common ritual of the people." He also discuses how horror films include theological conversations about issues of importance to religion and the human polace in the cosmos. He concludes by noting the implications of horror for contemporary theology and that the church will continue to marginalize itself it it does not recognize such things, and the increasing significance of the media for religious identity and mythic expression.
I know that horror is not everyone's bag, and that's ok. But perhaps we'd better at least take the media's role in Western culture more seriously, as well as the place that myth plays in the re-enchantment process where horror, sci fi and fantasy play a part.