Monsters in Modernity

Halloween is coming!

If you're new here you are likely unaware of my annual odes to Halloween. As will become clear, I really like the holiday. For theological reasons.

Next Tuesday, All Saints Day, the day after Halloween this year, I'm speaking in the "Monsters Chapel" being hosted by my friend and colleague Dr. Kyle Dickson.

I am really excited to speak in the Monsters Chapel, a themed chapel using "monsters" as a way to talk about spirituality and morality, because I've written some about the theology of monsters and I have a chapter on monsters in Unclean.

I was planning on using my chapel time to talk about scapegoating and monsters (sharing the analysis from Unclean). I was going to build the talk around Nietzsche's famous quote:

Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.
I was going to show these two clips--one from Beauty and the Beast and the other from the classic 1931 Frankenstein movie (which is great fun to watch)--where angry crowds head out with torches and pitchforks looking to lynch and kill the monster. As Nietzsche warned, in these scenes of hunted and hunter who is the greater monster?

But when I found out that I'd be speaking about monsters the day after Halloween my thoughts turned toward the existential. As I've written about before, I think Halloween functions as a collective memento mori. And in this age of death avoidance, I find this aspect of Halloween to be very healthy.

So with this in mind I wanted to show a clip connecting monsters with death. Zombies are good for this illustration. And the first zombie clip I could think of, being a child of the 80s, was Michael Jackson's Thriller video.

Now the part I want you to pay attention to starts at the 6:30 mark when Vincent Price starts his creepy voiceover (which, I've discovered, is called a sprechgesang).

Now what did you notice about those zombies?

I'll tell you. They come out of graves.

Now why is that of interest?

Well, because you just don't see zombies come out of graves much anymore. In modern zombie movies zombies are more likely produced by toxic waste, radiation, or a virus. In modern movies zombie etiology is biological, not occult. So it's a bit of a surprise to see zombies coming out of a cemetery.

This observation brought to mind another Halloween-inspired essay I wrote about modern vampire films. In that essay I make an observation similar to the one I've made here about zombies. Specifically, in older vampire movies the vampire was the product of the occult. The vampire was undead. But in modern vampire movies, like modern zombie movies, vampirism is caused by genetic mutations and viruses. Again, the etiology is biological.

My argument in that essay, one that struck me again while watching the Thriller video, is how modernity--this Age of Reason--has been hollowing out the monster story. That is, even monster stories have become scientific. Full of talk about genetics and viruses and illnesses and toxicity.

We see a similar hollowing out regarding spiritual categories. Sin is no longer a spiritual condition. The etiology of sin, as with zombies and vampires, is more likely to be biological. Sin is an illness, a disease, an addiction, a product of genetics.

I'm not saying this is necessarily bad. I'd rather not go back to an age were schizophrenics were considered to be demon possessed. I'm just noticing the hollowing out that is occurring during this age of disenchantment where even traditional occult stories are now about science.

More, the rise of science, as I recently argued, is creating increased death denial. Modern medicine and technology creates an illusion of immortality. That through our technological power we can defeat death. And this death denial and avoidance is even creeping into zombie movies. How bad has it become that even zombies can't be associated with death?

But the reality, despite our illusions, is that we can't defeat death with science. And we should remember that from time to time. (Like, say, on Halloween!) To remind ourselves that zombies and death do, actually, go together.

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23 thoughts on “Monsters in Modernity”

  1. Matthew 27:52, 53
    52And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose,
     53And came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many.

     I have yet to hear an exposition of this.  I wonder what this would have looked like.
    Gary Y.

  2. I've always seen zombies and vampires as at least as much a critique of the desire for immortality as they are a memento mori. In this sense, could we also see the increasingly scientific nature of the undead etiology a mimicry of the evolution of our immortality mythos? I.e., as the road to immortality becomes identified with science rather than occultism/spirituality/religion, wouldn't the monsters of immortality-gone-wrong naturally progress along that same trajectory?

  3. Looking forward to this. As you know, I'm up for zombie discussions any day of the week. This week Nil Santana extended an invite to help judge the 24fps short film festival at the Paramount this year (screening the first weekend in November). One of my favorite comedies is a sweet Spanish film by Inaki San Roman about an old woman who has just lost her husband and hears about a zombie outbreak. Her immediate response is to pack a thermos, get dressed in her nicest clothes, and head on a courageous trip to the grave yard where she eagerly awaits his rising. Great film that takes the genre in a completely unexpected direction. 

    I agree with Gary that this passage deserves more play in late October.

  4. Hi Gary

    You might do worse than the chapter entitled "The Raising of the Dead" from 'Miracles of our Lord': George MacDonald writing at his powerfully fervent, insightful best.  I couldn't do his arguments justice in any fewer words than Macdonald himself, but he ends:

    'The future lies dark before us, with an infinite hope in the darkness.  To be at peace concerning it on any other ground than the love of God, would be an absolute loss.  Better fear and hope and prayer, than knowledge and peace without the prayer.'


  5. prof beck, your post made me think of Star Wars. In the original trilogy (the "real" Star Wars IMHO) a Jedi was something I could aspire to be. through work and some magic. Rather like a ninja of the old wire-fu movies. But then you get the new Jedis, and it is explained as a genetic defect, or alteration, or whatever. A jedi is a biological accident! You got high midi-chlorian counts you get to be a Jedi. just do a blood test. pah! No mystery, no magic. The whole world is rushing towards one large CSI scene...

  6. Something I've been thinking about a lot (because, well, I think about zombies a lot) is how the rise of the modern zombie fascination in western society comes at a time when the individual is becoming the most important unit of society. And what really is a zombie, except a person who has lost everything that makes them an individual? Which is really, really, rather ridiculously terrifying to us Westerners (see also Alzheimer's).

    I'm sure I'm going to have more thinky thoughts on this in November because I'm participating in National Novel Writing Month in November and my main character is a superhero who loses a little bit of her memories every time she uses her powers, but her powers are the only thing that can stop the horde of alien lizard zombies from space from taking over the world. Another expansive, crazy plot brought to you by the good folks at NaNoWriMo. 

  7. And lo, the many said, "AAAAAH! HOLY MOLY! WHERE DID YOU---  YOU WERE DEAD! AAAAAAH!" and did mightily beat feet for the nearest exit.

    --MSRV (Mary Sue Revised Version)

  8. Nice!

    I remember in an undergraduate class on "Death and Dying" (where I was first introduced to Becker's work!), after a bit of discussion, we decided to define death (for that day) as "modern medicine's inability to keep one alive any longer."  Sobering.

  9. Hello Leo,

    I could talk Star Wars for hours - lol.
    Ironically, the high midi-chlorian blood content idea was introduced in the new trilogy Episode 1, hence the older Jedi,
    but I get what you're saying :).   Observing how a young sweet compassionate boy becomes the  "monster" Darth Vader,
    the Jedi counsel's apprehension to train Anakin, then later on promote him - very intriguing script from Lucas.
    Sorry - got carried away.  BTW while on the subject of Halloween and monsters,  my son/daughter-in-law saw
    a Darth Vader costume online - $1500.  Anyway cool stuff Leo ... take care!!!

    Gary Y.

  10. Thank you Andrew!
    I always enjoy your takes - maybe someday (when I really find the time) I really dig into George MacDonald's
    work.  You, Patrica and others bring up how MacDonald seems to hit the spot concerning the perplexing subjects
    others wouldn't touch.  Thanks again!

  11. Hello Mary Sue,

    "... a superhero who loses a little bit of her memories every time she uses her powers ..."

    Intriguing concept/script for a superhero in general. 
    Gary Y.

  12. Yes, and a similar description applies to the beginning of life too - both ends of life are extended medically these days.

  13. I snuck out of my house to watch the Thriller video at a friend's house as a kid and it scared the crap out of me and I've been properly scared of zombies ever since. Between that and being told at teacher training that you should only be afraid of a silent class "if they're moving towards you" it's really a wonder I can do anything in the classroom. Here in Vancouver we have an annual zombie walk. I stay well well away...

  14. Hi Richard

    Don't know whether you'd be interested in a British Psychological Society article on 'The Lure of Horror' that just came out.  An interesting overview of the literature which can be found at:

  15. Hi Gary, If you'd like bite-size MacDonald, get a copy of C.S. Lewis' An Anthology of George MacDonald. It's 365 digestable readings that pulls some of the best pith of his works. What amazes me about MacDonald is that he was what he was in a time without the communication and community the internet makes possible. He was sort of stranded among heavy-handed Calvinists who, at one point, burned his father in effigy. Yet he didn't lose his graciousness, nor his humor, and kept pointing to Christ (rather than cold doctrines) as how to see God.

  16. Zombies may be that critique, but it seems vampires have been moving away from that. Compare Nosferatu to Edward Cullins of Twilight! Haha, it is absurd. The one is a monster, the other on the cover of teen magazines. Vampires seem to be a conduit for that hidden urge in mankind, how much blood would be spilled to keep one alive. And yet! That is what sin has made us, vampires, sucking blood out of other, using people and things, to get one more high to make the pain and guilt go away.

    Thank Jesus Christ, our God and Lord, that we are brought to Life, and that in Him we have Life and it more abundantly.

  17. Whoops, definitely did not get to the rest of that comment. What I intended to keep saying was: ... since you're saying that the shift toward scientific horrors is not necessarily wrong or bad. In some ways scientific horror seems to both depend on and undermine empiricism and the scientific "worldview" (a bit of a slippery term, but maybe helpful).

    Have you seen Scott Poole's book Monsters in America? It discusses popular belief about monsters and monstrosity and its connection to religion.

  18. Richard, 
    I'm sure you've heard of the website/blog/podcast called "On Being Blog", but if you haven't, there's lots of good stuff there I think you'd find fascinating. Anyhow, this particular post that you wrote reminded me of a recent post over there called "Mosters We Love: The Power of Stories in Every Era, In Every Medium." The link is: 

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