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The living dead

By Peter Sellick - posted Friday, 10 July 2015

Who would have thought that the vampire franchise would succour so many movies, television series and novels? I have been furtively watching "American Horror Story" a TV series about a haunted house in which the dead mingle with the living and are undistinguishable from them. The success of the "living dead" genre exposes a fascination with death and is hinged on blurring the difference between the living and the dead.

Certainly it all makes interesting watching. The genre allows much more to happen than is possible in normal story making. In American Horror Story the relations between characters continue after death. Mourning and regret never come to an end because the dead are still with us. Lives become subject to horror.

In my last article I described how ancient Israel rejected the mythological consciousness of its neighbours. One aspect of this rejection was to understand the dead as dead. Belief in a life after death and elaborate burial rites and customs, was a cultural universal for ancient peoples including those surrounding Israel in Mesopotamia.


Israel stood out among the nations by not subscribing to these beliefs and practices. The burial place of Moses was unknown and Jesus left only an empty tomb. Abraham and Sarah were buried in a cave in land that he purchased from the Canaanites; no mention is made of any memorial. Indeed, Abraham requested land so that he may bury his dead (Sarah) "out of my sight." Of all of the great and celebrated men and women we find in the OT none are memorialised by even the most modest monument. Often, the only comment on the death of a person was that they were "gathered to their people". For Israel, the dead had no existence; to die was to "go down into the pit." Indeed, the dead were understood to be a source of contamination.

It is remarkable that Israel stood out against such a cultural universal as belief in an afterlife, the practice of elaborate burial rites and sacrifices for the dead. In the holiness code in Deuteronomy 12-31 that contains prescriptions that cover most aspects of community life, there is no mention of offerings for the dead. It is not even proscribed, as if the idea had not occurred to the writers. This is a major example of Israel's rejection of the mythical consciousness. The New Testament, by and large, retained this view.

This went seriously wrong in Medieval Europe when it seems that the whole of Christianity was mortgaged over to attaining a life beyond death. This is spectacularly portrayed in the many judgement scenes carved in stone, painted on plaster, all over Europe. Jesus sits with the saved on his right having a lovely time and on the left the doomed are subjected to unmentionable acts. The paintings of hell by Hieronymus Bosch and others contributed images of the plight of the damned. Dante's Divine Comedy added to the picture of hell.

One of the triggers for the Reformation was the sale of indulgences by the Church to raise money to complete the building of St Peter's. The understanding was that purchase of indulgences could release a soul from purgatory. The jingle "So soon as coin in coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs" was used by the sellers. Subsequently the reformers gave some pause to the recognition of the living dead by refusing masses and prayers said for them while continuing to understanding heaven as an afterlife reward for the righteous. The argument was made that purgatory was an unscriptural invention of the Roman Church and that if the soul was in heaven there was no need for prayer for them and if they were in hell then it was no use.

The pursuit of heaven reached right down to unlikely figures. John Locke, the English empiricist philosopher, maintained, in an unembarrassed utilitarian mode, that the use of religion was to get to heaven. In the nineteenth century there was a renewed interest in the spirit world involving séances and mediums but that faded with the exposure of frauds.

I am glad to say that emphasis on the afterlife is waning in most churches and in scholarly circles it is commonly acknowledged that the kingdom of God is an earthly reality of justice and love. Thus the church is coming closer to the Scriptural conception of death as the end of human individual consciousness. This has largely been the product of research into the biblical sciences.


Given the above we may ask about the growth of the 'Living dead" movement in our media. I do not think that this indicates a return to spiritualism or that death is not seen as the end of all human possibilities. Rather, the genre opens up interesting dramatic possibilities that play upon our fascination with death and bodily mutilation. The genre has an obvious message: when the boundary between the dead and the living is believed to be porous, then life becomes a horror story.

We may think that heaven would be a social impossibility, an awkward party for eternity, but what do we think of the more biblical resurrection of the dead at the end of the time? Would this not be a horror story? Relationships long gone would have to be remade giving us a version of "American Horror Story." The murderer would be confronted by the murdered; the calamities between persons in the whole of history would again be present.

A literal reading of the resurrection of the dead is a horror story but a figurative reading gives time a direction and human beings hope that "all will be well, all manner of things will be well." This is not a case for groundless optimism but the recognition that in Christ the living dead are raised to life. In this conception the living dead are not infected by the vampire's bite or by new a virus' as in "I am Legend" nor are they the unsettled souls of the murdered, they are the idolaters who are in thrall to earthly things. In Faustian terms they have sold their souls to what is not God.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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