Note: I love zombie apocalypse stories because they are a great metaphor for life crises. This blog series on the topic has four parts: 1) waking up in the crisis; 2) defining “alive”; 3) abandoning self-sufficiency; and 4) spiritual weapons and sustenance. All scriptures are NIV unless otherwise noted.
In the 2010 pilot episode of AMC TV’s “The Walking Dead,” Rick (the protagonist) awakens from a coma to find his city deserted except for a horrific new reality: flesh-eating zombies. He dodges them for awhile, trying unsuccessfully to find his wife and son, but the need for safety finally drives him to seek refuge in an abandoned military tank.
In the episode’s final shot, the camera points directly down from above to show several zombies climbing around on the tank, looking for a way in. Then the camera slowly pulls back, widening the scene to reveal hundreds more zombies shuffling toward the tank from all directions.
And then the scene fades to black.
It is one of rare shots in film that conveys total terror and hopelessness.
That closing shot, that whole episode, resonated with me on a deeply emotional level. It all served as the perfect metaphor for how I had been feeling for over two years—alive but trapped, temporarily surviving but with absolutely no way forward.
In 2008, my world collapsed in utter failure. When I got off the plane after a day’s travel from London, still numb from having my doctoral dissertation rejected just days before, I realized I was facing a whole new reality—one where nothing made sense, every moment was uncertain, and every dream I had tried to form was gone, with a finality for which there was no cure.
I had stepped into my own personal zombie apocalypse.
For months after I returned home, I barely shuffled through the days. I don’t know if I was a zombie or a survivor, but in a zombie apocalypse, both could be called “the walking dead” (the zombies actually are dead, and the survivors’ future is so bleak that they might as well be). So every day I had to choose whether to be a zombie, feeding on baser animal instincts like rage and self-centeredness, or a survivor, determined to cling to higher spiritual values like faith and love.
I had been living in this strange existence for over two years before that “Walking Dead” premiere. And that hopeless, terrifying final scene captured every single feeling I experienced at the time.
Zombie stories are my guilty pleasure. I can relate to the desperate plight of the survivors, and the fascinating “what if” questions—questions such as…
– If I were trapped in a zombie apocalypse, what would I do?
– Could I survive? Do I have what it takes?
– Would I choose to “opt out,” as some characters do, by committing suicide?
– What would I look like with a zombie face—would it hurt or help?
It’s not the inevitable gore that draws me to the zombie genre—that would just be weird. Instead, it’s the scenario itself that intrigues me.
Zombie stories almost always start with the protagonist (typically a male, though it could be a female) inexplicably waking up in a zombie apocalypse and slowly realizing that something is not right. Numb and disoriented, he staggers through the landscape, passing through new stages of awareness and struggling to interpret what he sees and hears in this dangerous new world. Suspense builds due to fear of discovery—discovery of new horrors. As the mental fog begins to clear, panic rises at these new realities, then desperation as he remembers his family and determines to look for them. Finally, sorrow sets in as he realizes the finality of it all: his old familiar world is gone, and only this horrific new one remains.
The zombie genre rarely, if ever, explains what caused the apocalypse, or what might happen next. There is no big picture, no answer to “how?” or “why?” Instead, there is only an individual or a small group of survivors just trying to get by. The only question is, “What now?” The protagonist must simply accept the new reality, and learn to survive and remain human within it.
Kind of like life.
The truth is, you will probably never, ever have to answer the questions that confront the protagonist in a zombie story. But we each have to face our own apocalypse. The catalyst could be anything, from a divorce to a serious illness to an unexpected death. Whatever the cause, we awaken in a new reality. We are numb, foggy, angry, desperate, and saddened as we try to put the pieces together. We are forced to get past the “why” question and start to answer “what now?” as we trudge through the new chaos.
However, the zombie apocalypse—whether real or metaphorical—is never completely without hope.
The next episode of “The Walking Dead” opens with Rick still in the tank—but something unexpected happens: a voice suddenly crackles over the radio. Someone is watching the whole scenario from a higher, safer vantage point, offering to guide Rick out of his desperate situation. Immediately, he decides to trust that voice.
Like Rick, we too have a voice that speaks into our situation. It’s the voice of the Holy Spirit—unexpected, higher than we are, and able to see the whole picture. If we are to survive our own apocalypse, we must learn to know and trust that voice without hesitation.
Somehow, I have survived my apocalypse for nearly seven years. My survival skills are far from perfect. But that voice—the wise, loving voice of the Holy Spirit—has helped me limp along.
So get up, clear the cobwebs from your brain, and allow the voice to guide you too.
Welcome to the zombie apocalypse!
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