06/01/2010 11:47 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Interview with a Philosopher: Zombies Are People, Too

Today I'll be talking with Kim Paffenroth, a philosophical professor of religious studies at Iona College who is fascinated with - of all things - zombies. His book Gospel of the Living Dead: George Romero's Visions of Hell on Earth(Baylor, 2006) won the Bram Stoker Award.

Tom: Hi Kim. Let me start with a basic question: What in the world took you from the academic turf of St John's, Harvard, Notre Dame, Villanova, and Iona into the land of Zombies? Please tell us how you got INTO this!

Kim: I'd been writing books on theology for years. Little by little, my interests broadened outward from my training in New Testament. I began to look at Christian themes in literature, then in pop culture. I'd been fascinated by the gore and violence of zombie movies when I was a teen, and that all came flooding back, but now with more mature and complex ways to look at the films, other than just to say "Zombies are so cool!" - my age 13 reaction. That culminated in the book Gospel of the Living Dead. It's made my theological ideas accessible to a much larger and different audience, and that's been very gratifying.

Tom: Even though the basic idea of zombies (the reanimated dead) has been around since perhaps a brief passage in the early Epic of Gilgamesh, you went right to the modern source of these fictional creatures by looking at George Romero's work. So, what are the deeper meanings in his seminal films, and other zombie stories that followed?

Kim: In Gospel of the Living Dead, I had two main points I wanted to get across about Romero's zombies. First, his critique of contemporary American society is in line with the cultural criticisms the Hebrew prophets gave in their day: they're both shocked and disgusted with the violence, materialism, and smug self-righteousness of their supposedly "chosen" nations. And both Romero and prophets like Ezekiel express their critique with violent, grotesque imagery, to shock their audiences into paying attention. Also, in his depiction of zombies as humans devoid of intellect who now only pursue their relentless, unquenchable hunger, I think Romero presents again an image right out of Dante's Inferno - not just for the grotesquery, but for the idea of sin as mindless repetition and desire. Dante describes the damned at the beginning of Inferno as those who've lost the good of intellect and made reason a slave to appetite: that's a Romero zombie!

Tom: Why have zombies been so popular?

Kim: I think they're a perfect package of old, new, and newer fears. They represent our fear of death, and of the dead and how they might come back and not be too friendly when they do. But they also represent more modern fears, like that of being lost in a crowd and losing the meaning and significance of one's identity and individuality - it's not just frightening that zombies kill you: they make you one of them! And in the new millennia, they can take on our most current fears of plague and bio-terror and occupying armies unable to control a deadly situation.

Tom: There's more here than most people think. And maybe that's why, in addition to your philosophical and theological analysis of zombies, you've also written your own zombie fiction.

Kim: Definitely. While I was working on Gospel of the Living Dead, I got the idea that, as much fun as I was having analyzing other people's zombies, it'd be more fun to write my own zombie fiction, and make the undead do and mean whatever I wanted. It's interesting and stimulating to be a critic and analyst, but it's much more exciting to put a story together on your own. I started with a pretty straightforward zombie tale, Dying to Live, but gave it a little more hope than the usual apocalypse. A lot of people have enjoyed that combination of outward, grotesque violence, with just a hint of optimism.

Tom: And your latest novel - how is it different?

Kim: It's called Valley of the Dead, and I tell people it's the novel I was meant to write, because if you drew a Venn diagram, I'd be the only person in the overlap between "Zombie novelists" and "theologians who know Dante pretty well."

Tom: No Doubt.

Kim: So I wrote a story, set in Dante's "lost years" when he was writing the Commedia, and when his exact whereabouts are unknown. It turns out he stumbled onto a zombie infestation, and saw there the horrors he'd later weave into Inferno - decapitations, cannibalism, eviscerations, burnings, etc. It gave me a chance to reflect on Dante's analysis of sin more thoroughly, and offer this "demythologized" version of it that I think non-Christians will find interesting, disgusting, and maybe even thrilling. But the exciting thing to me is that his categories of sin are all still implicitly in there, but presented in a way that contemporary readers will find more accessible without being put off by all the traditional "baggage," if you will.

Tom: Do zombie fans object to the religious subtext? And what about the other side: Will you get any "regular" religious people interested in zombies?

Kim: There are some zombie fans who find it a problem, and I'll admit, my symbolism was heavy-handed in my first attempts at fiction. But I'm learning, and as it gets more refined, I think it's more effective and interesting, regardless of the reader's background. Readers respect ideas when they're expressed subtly and make sense in the context of the story. It makes sense that Dante is devout; it just doesn't make sense to hit the reader over the head with that. In my next installment in the Dying to Live saga, I worked hard to make one zombie a Christ-figure, but that becomes clear only when you look back on the whole story, so I think it's integrated in a way that helps the story and doesn't put people off or make them roll their eyes. And as for my co-religionists: they cut themselves off from a lot of interesting, thought-provoking material, if they rule out pop culture because it's not pious enough, or G-rated enough. I know some have thanked me, because now they can watch their favorite horror movies (which they were doing anyway, furtively) and not feel so guilty about it. For others, I hope they'll give some of these films and books a try, as well as other forms of art that may be unconventional or unfamiliar to them.

Tom: Let's back up a second. You put a zombie Christ figure in your next novel?

Kim: Hey, if he really became human, if he really knew what it was to suffer and die, if he really encountered all the temptations of being hungry and desirous, and if he really was sent to those on the margins of society - then to make a zombie a Christ figure just takes all those dynamics of Christ's being to their extreme. I think part of these stories - part of any art that deals with the grotesque and painful - is to see holiness where it's not expected. My zombie Christ, I hope, satisfies that longing and surprise.

Tom: What do your colleagues say about all this - and your students?

Kim: I'm still a little shy about it, but overall my colleagues have been very encouraging. Increasingly, students Google me at the beginning of the semester and buy one of my books and bring it up to me to be signed. They seem to think it's a charming quirk. It helps me be less stuffy and distant from them, and show them that ideas have connections to the "real," non-academic world.

Tom: Ah, yes, the real world - of zombies. But we can't take any time now to get into current politics. Thanks, Kim. May you long stay undead and flourish.