Over the last two month I’ve been box-setting (yes, I know its not really a verb) The Walking Dead even though I’ve never been the biggest fan of stories about the undead. I’ve seen my fair share of zombie and vampire movies but i have to admit that ghost stories really spook me. And it set me to wondering why we love stories and movies about the restless dead so much?
Throughout history and in many cultures around the world there are tales and religions built on the notion that we don’t really disappear completely when we appear to have breathed our last. Last year I was on a trip to Namibia where I visited a tribe who considered themselves to be Christians but where the eternal flame within the sacred circle was kept alight to worship their ancestors because they felt they still walked amongst them. They saw no conflict in maintaining both beliefs.
I wonder if it is a response to the difficulty in letting go of the person that has died. But then why are they so horrible? In The Walking Dead everyone who becomes a zombie is instantly a killing machine with the sole focus of eating the face off everyone else. I can’t see that this is a consoling image! And ghosts are always mean. If I’m going to hang around and haunt anyone I know it will be because I love them so much that I can’t bear to go rather than that I want to frighten the bejesus out of them.
The image of the vampire in stories like the Twilight series is much more my cup of tea. Enigmatic, moody and sexy. What’s not to like?
We can only wonder at what was going through Bram Stoker’s mind when he wrote Dracula or Mary Shelley’s mind when she wrote Frankenstein. Its not like they had access to Netflix or Sky in the 1800s to stimulate their imaginations.
I think the most interesting aspect of this fascination is focusing on the point at which we move from being alive to being dead and what that means. Is it even a simple dichotomy? If a zombie has the body but not the mind of a human being does it still count as human? Clearly not in The Walking Dead as they consider it unethical to kill someone living but they’re blasting away at the zombies like it’s a video game. And ghosts have the mind of a person but only a wispy, usually white, transparent shadow of a body left. Maybe we need both mind and body to be considered alive but what about the soul? At a Death Cafe recently we had a very lively discussion about what is the essence of self: does anything we do or create or buy or say make a difference to what is at the heart of who we are? Or is all this fixed at birth and nothing we can do changes this? Opinions were diverse and strong on this!
I have talked to others about observing the death of a person and we all agreed that there is something instantly different about a body in the minutes after someone has died. I could only describe it as one minute they were there and the next minute they, well, just weren’t. Maybe this is what we subconsciously feel is the point at which the soul has left the body. And without witnessing it myself I’m not sure I would have believed it. However I would hasten to add for anyone who is worried about this that it wasn’t supernatural or spooky but rather reassuring and comforting. I now just had a body to deal with: the person I loved had gone. Well at least so far they haven’t reappeared as a zombie and I’d be delighted to get a visit from them if they decide to float by as a ghost!