Kim Paffenroth Interview: Zombies, Religion and Popular Culture

Kim Paffenroth is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Iona College, New York. He has written on the development of religious ideas in the major world religions, as well as on the Bible and theology, but another interest of his is of particular relevance to this blog, that is the intersection of religion and popular culture. Here Kim has made great contributions as well, including the book The Truth is Out There: Christian Faith and the Classics of TV Science Fiction (Brazos Press, 2006) which he co-autored with Thomas Bertonneau, and his most recent published book Gospel of the Living Dead: George Romero's Visions of Hell on Earth (Baylor University Press, 2006). Kim has made time in his busy academic schedule to discuss religion, popular culture, science fiction, horror, and zombies!

TheoFantastique: Kim, thank you so much for carving out some time in your busy schedule to participate in this interview. Let's start with a little of your background. What influenced you growing up, and what was your educational background that might have contributed to your current interests in religion and popular culture, particularly in the areas of science fiction and horror?

Paffenroth: Well, growing up, I did get very interested in splatter movies, like many adolescent males. Not all splatter, and this was the early 80s, so nothing was as intense or graphic as it is now, but some splatter fascinated me, especially Romero’s zombies. There just was a hook there, the hook that, besides watching the movies, you could sit for hours and strategize what to do if these things ever struck. And there was also the nagging element that, unlike most other monsters, you might feel a little bit guilty or sad when you killed these things. That gave the movies a really special feel, a fascination, a poignancy, that I never got from most other horror. As for education, I guess what I see in my upbringing and in my subsequent education is a fascination with books and ideas, an instinct that they should be taken seriously and analyzed, and they’re not just escapism or entertainment. It was only a matter of time before I applied that focus or that lens to popular culture, as well as to high culture, and I think it’s a very valuable exercise for all of us. I’m really kind of a throwback when it comes to education and literature: I don’t think people should study Romero instead of Dante, but if I can show them how Romero is addressing some of the same issues and using some of the same images, then they might be tempted to pick Dante up, and at least they’ve started thinking seriously and asking deeper questions.

TheoFantastique: On your blog you have shared your frustrations with Christians who don't understand your interests, and non-Christians who share your interests but are concerned about your Christian faith. Can you tell us a little more about this curious situation?

Kim Paffenroth: When many people think “horror movie fan” it’s probably half a step above “porn movie aficionado.” They think of an immature, violent, sexually deviant young man dressed all in black and chains, who could hurt or attack them at any moment. And when many people think “Christian” they think Ned Flanders – a well-meaning, naïve, sheltered boob. And that’s probably the best association they have with that word. They probably also think of religious fanaticism, intolerance, a callous disregard for the poor, hatred of homosexuals, hatred of all people who belong to any other religion. How ironic – the religion founded by Jesus, who talked constantly of concern for the poor and love for all human beings, is now equated with the opposite attitudes. On a personal and sad note – this was what my father left this world believing. He cursed me and my religion, because he believed I was somehow judging or condemning or hating him, when nothing of the kind was true. It was all his sad, bitter imagination of what Christianity means.

But besides being very sad sometimes, these attitudes are like any prejudice. It cuts off conversation, it makes us assume the worst of other people, and it keeps us talking only to people who are exactly like us and agree with us on everything. What a disaster for dialogue or understanding or expanding our knowledge. People have to get over it. We’ve gotten sensitized to our racial and gender prejudices. It’s time to be as sensitive and work harder at our ideological or lifestyle prejudices. The next time you see a girl who’s covered in tattoos and piercings, why don’t you try to talk to her like she’s an interesting person who has opinions and ideas you might want to share, rather than assume that she’s a slut who takes drugs? Or how about the next time you see a family hold hands and say grace in a restaurant, why don’t you try to think something positive about them and their faith, rather than assume they’re a bunch of religious fanatics who blow up abortion clinics?

TheoFantastique: Why don't you think Christians are comfortable with horror, and to a lesser extent, perhaps science fiction and fantasy? And why might some go even further as to label them "unChristian?"

Kim Paffenroth: There are all the associations with the horror fan culture I mentioned. But the actual literature or art itself? The flippant answer would be that sometimes Christians live up (or down) to the stereotype of Flanders – they think that anything dirty or messy or ugly will taint them and make them be or think “bad” thoughts, and the next thing you know, they’ll be taking drugs and going to prostitutes. Well, let’s slow down on the slippery slope there. And the more theoretical background to this, I think, is a deep suspicion of the human imagination. It’s a very dangerous faculty, to be sure: that’s why the Tenth Commandment is perhaps the most important, for it doesn’t forbid any outward, violent, bad behavior – rather it forbids the use of the human imagination, which is the seat of covetousness, imagining what it would be like to have your neighbor’s property, or his spouse. But imagination is what makes all art and literature, and there will always be a dark side both to the imagination and to its products, and that dark side may even have a very positive role to play in appreciating the light, and in understanding how to escape the darkness.

TheoFantastique: Let's talk about some of your books. Can you summarize the essence of your book on television science fiction, The Truth is Out There?

Kim Paffenroth: Tom, my co-author, and I look at some of the beloved TV series from yesteryear and see what they have to say about some broadly Christian themes - the war between good and evil, original sin, virtue, grace, freedom, revelation, and communicating the Word of God. And it turns out, they’ve addressed these in ways Christians can understand and appreciate.

TheoFantastique: In this book you look at various programs such as Dr.Who, the original Star Trek, The Prisoner, The Twilight Zone, The X-Files, and Babylon 5. What was it about these programs that caused you to explore them as it relates to religion?

Kim Paffenroth: I think we are both pretty disgusted with most of what’s on television, and in theaters, for that matter. And it’s not out of any intrinsic aversion to the media of pop culture: Tom and I hit it off because we both enjoy so many old movies and TV series. Moving pictures on a screen are a perfectly legitimate way to convey messages and explore ideas, and these series do just that, over and over, and completely unapologetically. You’d be hard pressed to think of any art or literature that is more blatantly and self-consciously “preachy” or didactic than these series. And even if the creators are not preaching a specifically Christian gospel, they were telling the truth about human beings, their hopes and fears, and truth is always compatible with the Christian gospel, I believe.

TheoFantastique: In the conclusion of this book you talk about science fiction, contemporary popular culture, and gospel theology. Can you summarize some of this and help people connect the dots between these things for those who might not normally see any connection at all?

Kim Paffenroth: I think it has to do with the distinction between low and high culture, and between religious and secular. It turns out these categories often blur, and they can communicate and blend to good effect. As I tried to answer the previous question, if a work of imagination speaks the truth, then the particular genre is not really relevant. If Harry Potter, or Capt. Kirk, or Number Six, or Mulder and Scully teach truths about human nature and morality, it really would just be prudishness or irrational fear or snobbery to exclude them from our canon of meaningful, ennobling “texts.”

TheoFantastique: Now let's talk about your latest book to be published, Gospel of the Living Dead. I must admit that I have a long history of watching zombie films, and I remember plenty of sleepless nights as an adolescent watching George Romero's original Night of the Living Dead and each of the sequels. As I grew older and became a Christian this was an interest that I kept hidden, only to find you making a connection between zombies as portrayed in Romero's films, Dante's Inferno and the Christian faith. For those who might be inclined to think this is a stretch, can you sketch this out for us?

Kim Paffenroth: I guess the easiest description would be this. Dante made hell scary to a 14th century audience, but many of the details of his hell are simply incomprehensible to a modern audience. Take a look at any modern edition of The Inferno: for every page of poetry, there’s a page of notes explaining who all these people and places were that he encounters. So along comes a modern storyteller like Romero, and he gives his own little journey through hell, which is now quite eerily familiar to us – it’s our comfy little home, or it’s the mall, or the military bunker, or the gated community where only the rich and beautiful need apply for membership, and the damned who claw at us aren’t Medieval Italian nobles, or characters from the Bible or Homer – they’re cheerleaders and gas-station attendants and little league coaches. That’s a remake for the ages, as far as I’m concerned. But let’s be clear: it’s not all about the outward trappings of damnation, either. Dante has a core set of ideas about sin – most notably, that sin is endless, sterile repetition of one’s bad habits – which come over into Romero’s films, and I believe these are the real cause for these movies resonating with us. They terrify us, not just because the landscape of hell is familiar to us, but because what they say about sin is true.

TheoFantastique: So your basic thesis then is that perhaps Romero's Roman Catholic background might have contributed, even subconsciously, to his storytelling in these films where zombies can be understood to not only provide cultural critique as in the cases of racism, sexism, and consumerism, but also religious lessons about human depravity?

Kim Paffenroth: Absolutely. Again, I think it has to do with his work being true: he has said something that I believe is true about human nature and sin. That truth is also stated in Christian teaching and in Christian literature like Dante. So, Romero’s depiction of hell on earth is equivalent to and compatible with the Christian idea of hell. But, to be clear: I am not trying to imply anything about Romero’s own faith commitment. His comments seem to be that he is quite disdainful of modern, organized religion. Good for him. Anyone who thinks organized religion is just perfect the way it is, and it can do no wrong – well, I don’t think they’re thinking too clearly. What I’m trying to say to believers is that having a stinging critique of one’s culture and of one’s own life is not a threat to our beliefs – it’s the essence of Christian faith. It’s pretty much the job description of Jesus and of all the Old Testament prophets – angry men who didn’t think much of the rulers and clergy and wealthy people of their day. And how close is that description to Romero, or to most any great artist?

TheoFantastique: After this study, reflection, and writing, what is your opinion of Romero as a storyteller and filmmaker? Is he perhaps underrated due to the genre he works in?

Kim Paffenroth: I’ll be honest. There are different kinds of genius, I think. Shakespeare wrote 39 plays. Almost all of them are at least okay, most of them are good, and maybe ten or so are among the most beautiful things ever written. That’s one kind of genius – broad, wide, all encompassing, eclectic. Dante and Milton, on the other hand, each wrote exactly one thing that has stood the test of time. Just one each. But that one thing each one wrote is as good as anything Shakespeare every penned. That’s the other kind of genius – narrow, deep, laser-like in its focus. And that’s Romero, I think. One kind of film, one kind of lesson, told with a depth and power that few can achieve.

TheoFantastique: How has this book been received by Christians and the general public, and what kind of formal recognition has it received as well?

Kim Paffenroth: Most of the praise has been from horror fans and writers. They appreciate the seriousness with which I approached Romero, when I really regard that as his due: if you produce a serious work, then you deserve to be taken seriously. A very few Christians have said that they can finally admit to watching these movies, but most have admitted that they have never seen one, and may still not brave the ordeal, which I respect - watching disembowelments and decapitations is not for everyone. The book got great reviews in Publishers Weekly, The Midwest Book Review, and The Chronicle of Higher Education. The really thrilling formal recognition that it has received is that it is now being considered for the Bram Stoker Award, a recognition bestowed by the Horror Writers Association.

TheoFantastique: What current projects do you have in the works?

Kim Paffenroth: My first zombie novel will be out in April, from the good folks at Permuted Press, publishers of fine zombie literature in general. I got inspired last summer to pursue fiction writing again, and the words have really flowed. I used to write fiction of a more-or-less horrific nature when I was in high school, but I haven’t done it for twenty years. I guess the ideas had been building up and fermenting, and it was just time. So my zombies and I will be getting out the good word in a new medium for some time to come.

TheoFantastique: Kim, thanks again for your work, your theological reflection, and taking the time to share your thoughts with us. We look forward to your continuing efforts.

Kim Paffenroth: The pleasure is all mine. I think you’ve done so much to open up a dialogue on religion and popular culture that I think many people will find very interesting and enlightening.

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