Death at the movies: Zombies and Ghosts

Rudolf Otto suggested that people naturally associate dead people with the numinous realm, and that this sense of a holy aura surrounding the dead explains both ancestor worship and ghost stories.  The latter may seem like an odd claim, since holiness is good, but no one wants to encounter a ghost.  One must remember that, as Otto explains so well, a true encounter with the holy is awe-inspiring, disorienting, and terrifying.  The presence of the dead does bring a distinct discomfort, whether it be a body without a soul (a corpse) or a soul without a body (a ghost).  No doubt there are more obvious reasons for us to find corpses unpleasant, both distressing and disgusting.  They remind us of death; they are unsanitary.  Still, the more obvious points don’t capture the uncanniness of looking at a thing that a moment ago was a person.

Once, when I was in grade school, my family and I went shopping in a nearby city, and our dog died while we were gone.  The vet said that her stomach twisted, or something like that, that sometimes this happens to big dogs, and there’s nothing one can do about it.  Anyway, when we came home the dog was dead.  Now, I really loved that dog; she was sort of my dog.  My parents asked me if I wanted to see the body before it was disposed of.  I remember being frightened to look.  There would be this thing that looked just like my dog sleeping, but it wouldn’t be my dog, and that really disturbed me.  And there is the eeriness of it:  the appearance of the lost person (or even, in this case, animal), but not the soul.  As the corpse decomposes, it becomes more disgusting but less disturbing, because it is no longer masquerading as someone.

So we have an apprehension, but one whose cause doesn’t fit into any of our day-to-day categories.  We are possessed by an emotion like fear, but there’s no sense that the dead are an actual, physical threat.  When we have an emotion we can’t process, we represent it in fiction in a form that makes more sense to us.  In our time, movies are the preeminent form of fiction.  Thus, our modern, materialistic age presents us with the zombie movie.  These movies serve a sort of therapeutic function; they help us to eliminate our sense of the numinous in the dead.  Do we find corpses disturbing?  Well, let us take that unease and make it a simpler emotion–actual fear.  Let the corpse be an actual, physical threat, the crudest threat imaginable:  something that wants to eat us.  We bring to light what we take to be the underlying emotion (fear).  In directly facing it, we see that it is ridiculous, and we are cured.  That is, discomfort with corpses is rendered absurd, and we cease to feel it.  Although moviemakers are perhaps not conscious of this goal, what they have done is to cut off one of mankind’s avenues for experiencing the sacred.

If I am right, then the purpose of a zombie movie is to be absurd.  First, we imagine what everyone knows is not true–that dead bodies want to eat us.  Then, just to make the fear of corpses seem even sillier, we don’t even imagine them as a credible threat.  Zombies are just stupid staggering automata, who can only be at all menacing in large groups.  This creates a dramatic problem, though.  The genre does such a good job of making fear of the dead seem silly that it risks making itself uninteresting.  Thus, the real drama in a zombie movie has to come from the living characters.  Usually, they’re trapped in some restricted area under siege from the outside zombies, and they start to fight among themselves, which livens the movie up in a way that the moaning bodies outside can’t.  Even in spite of this, these movies almost never work.  They have too little respect for the emotion that feeds them.  The only one I kind of liked, Shawn of the Dead, was a comedy.

On the other hand, most cultures have ghost stories.  Now, its worth noting that while ghost stories are supposed to be frightening, the ghost itself isn’t really much of a physical threat.  That the ghost itself will actually directly kill one of the characters is seldom presented as a possibility.  In order for ghosts to be frightening and not mere nuisances, the story must evoke the eeriness we associate with death, so it must respect the numinous sense, at least much more than zombie movies do.

Now, if you don’t mind, I’m going to ramble about ghost stories for a while.

It is odd, and yet it seems to be true, that while one would expect that adding fantastic elements to a story would enlarge the range dramatic possibilities, actually they seem to shrink it.  There seem to be fewer distinct storylines with preternatural, science fiction, or fantasy elements than there are without them.

Most of the ghost movies I’ve seen fall into two categories.  First, there is story, told from the ghost’s point of view, of the ghost who doesn’t know he’s a ghost and only finds out at the end.  Examples are easy to give, but I will refrain, lest I spoil a movie for someone.  It’s funny that this plot has become so popular, especially given that its popularity compromises its effectiveness–audiences are getting harder to surprise.  It does follow a nice trajectory where the uncanny elements start out small, in the background as it were, and then grow to engulf the protagonist’s whole world, including his self-conception–the classic Twilight Zone formula.  Still, I think the main reason moviemakers keep coming back to this story is that it’s so well suited to their medium.  We who have been watching movies our whole lives have been trained to ignore certain things.  For example, we don’t expect movies to show characters performing mundane tasks like eating, sleeping, or buying groceries; we assume they do these things in between scenes.  This class of ghost stories has gotten very good at using audience expectations against us, so that clues can be placed in plain sight.  In my example above, it might be obvious in retrospect that a character never slept but was doing things at all hours, or that the main characters never interacted with anyone but themselves.  I could also give examples where this same trick is used in movies told from the perspective of a living but mentally ill and hallucinating character, but again I will restrain myself.

Then there’s the ghost story about the wrong that must be avenged, told from the point of view of the living characters.  For example, a man commits murder and is not caught, and the ghost of the victim haunts a third party until he solves the mystery and exposes or avenges the crime.  This story appeals not only to our interest in death, but even more to our interest in justice.  We have a sense that a crime hidden and unpunished still happened, that it leaves some kind of mark on the cosmos that cries out for recognition and redress.  It isn’t even clear to me if the ghost is really the disembodied soul of the victim, or if it’s supposed to be some spiritual marker of guilt or the crime itself.  Ghosts are very vindictive; a sincere apology never seems to be enough to make them “at peace”.  Anyway, even though ghost stories start from a more humane appreciation of death, they generally veer off into exploring other issues.

Yes, I know, you and I have all read some stories or seen some movies with ghosts that didn’t fall into either of these categories, but I still think it’s notable how many of them do.  Tinkering with the formula is difficult.  For example, the movie Ghost is a justice/vengeance story told from the point of view of the ghost, and that didn’t work at all.  Yeah, I know the movie was popular, but it succeeded as an adventure story, not as a ghost story.  It really makes you admire someone like Charles Dickens, who took the ghost idea and did something very different with it that dramatically succeeded.

21 Responses

  1. If I am right, then the purpose of a zombie movie is to be absurd.

    I don’t think I agree, B. For one thing, while I haven’t seen many zombie movies, the ones I’ve seen were not absurd. They aimed to be genuinely frightening. For another, *I* don’t want my zombies to be absurd.

    I had a brief discussion on this topic at Laura Wood’s around Halloween-time. I said that I love Halloween, and that I think there is something within many of us that is fascinated – thrilled, in a black way – by death and horror. I haven’t been able to figure out why, although I’ve been trying. I think it may have to do with the terror of contemplating an existence without God.

  2. It is odd, and yet it seems to be true, that while one would expect that adding fantastic elements to a story would enlarge the range dramatic possibilities, actually they seem to shrink it. There seem to be fewer distinct storylines with preternatural, science fiction, or fantasy elements than there are without them.

    In a sense, yes, but this is partly incidental to our culture. It’s very hard these days to squeeze ghosts or the supernatural into something that resembles modern reality. The “background” is so materialistic that shoving a ghost in there is like having a single character in a color movie walking around in black and white.

    Some movies succeed at it (like the main one you’re talking about) but the majority are either forced to rely on jump-scares to distract us from the incongruousness, or else have to leave modern Western life behind to find a better setting for their ghosts (Victorian haunted mansions, deep forests, Eastern Europe, etc). There are some exceptions that work, but they are very few.

  3. I think zombie movies, vampire movies, Goth culture and the like are filling the void left by the modern world’s fear and denial of contemplation of the four last things. Bone chapels, saint’s relics, naturalistic crucifixes are banished. Somehow, though, we know that earthly life is short, that the supernatural is real, and that something comes after. So, it is natural to think about death, but our thoughts about death are strange and directionless once we have cast aside all the guideposts left to us by the saints.

  4. Yes, that is very close to my own thought on the matter. I still wonder why I, as a Christian, find the death stuff so hypnotizing, but maybe it’s just because I’m not cured of sin yet.

  5. Yet the Victorians managed to write excellent ghost stories in what was, for them, contemporary settings

    My personal favourite is M R James and, of course, Henry James’s “Turn of the Screw,” which is a story of two children, possessed by ghosts.

    Unfortunately the literary techniques of neither could really be transposed into film

  6. I think that is very true. I also think that, because our culture has lost any sense of the redemptive value of suffering, it becomes rather obsessively and anxiously fixated on suffering–leading to the rise of the so-called torture porn genre of Saw and Hostel.

  7. What do you think of the Japanese “haunted technology” genre? It seems to be a very significant exception that does work, but I can’t explain why.

  8. I haven’t seen that many zombie movies either, but the ones I did had too much grossness to be genuinely spooky. I think at most zombies could be as frightening as sharks or wolves. They can’t be eerie the way a corpse is, though.

    Maybe if there are some horror experts reading, they can tell me what the classics of the genre are.

  9. I’ve only watched a couple myself.

  10. Vita: That’s actually a subject I’ve thought about a lot! Here’s the last thing I wrote about it (if you’re interested just click on the link in my name and search for ‘animism’, although I must warn you that the style is pretty rambling):

    “A good example of the effect of animism on Japanese storytelling is “J-horror”. Many in the West are familiar with this because a lot of Japanese horror has been (badly) remade following cult success. Japanese horror differs from Western in that Western horror tropes are mainly recycled from the 18th century and earlier – ie, echoes of fading animism. Japanese horror, on the other hand, marches right along with technology. The Ring was about a “haunted” videotape. Chakushin ari was about a cursed cell-phone. Both were adapted into Western movies, but neither really worked, because Western hauntings/curses are by necessity old-fashioned (or at least, the product of an “outside”, more traditional culture impinging on the modern world, like a Gypsy curse). The modern Western world must borrow its supernatural horror – on its own, it can only give birth to its own nihilistic horror created by murdering humans or mindless technology.”

  11. That was sort of my point, although I didn’t really express it well – the Victorians had something that we have lost, something that other cultures like Japan (who do ghost stories better to this day) still have. That’s why we are forced to keep borrowing our paranormal horror from earlier eras or different countries.

  12. I think at most zombies could be as frightening as sharks or wolves. They can’t be eerie the way a corpse is, though.

    Hrm, really? I’m not picking on you, Bonald; you make a good argument, but I still can’t agree. I’m thinking about a story that I read at Halloween, Cool Air by H.P. Lovecraft, that


    succeeds in evoking eerieness precisely because it centers around a zombie.

    Or another example: some time after my father died (I was in my early 20s), I had a nightmare in which he appeared as an animated corpse – a zombie. It was the worst dream I can remember, partly because of the hellish eerieness.

    These movies serve a sort of therapeutic function; they help us to eliminate our sense of the numinous in the dead. Do we find corpses disturbing? Well, let us take that unease and make it a simpler emotion–actual fear.

    Maybe that’s why most people enjoy these movies, for all I know. But not me. When I seek out “horror”, I’m actively seeking out precisely the kind of eerieness you’re talking about. I don’t know why.

  13. That’s very interesting. I should give some of the more promising-looking zombie stories a try. Most of the movies in the top 25 list “The Man Who Was” provided look like what I had expected–gory and deliberately over-the-top, the zombies being a menace but the fact that they are reanimated corpses remaining sort of a side issue. A couple of them looked more promising, though.

  14. Well, I would suggest that perhaps classic horror fiction and modern “horror” movies are quite different in feel and aim. And speaking of that, I have found this outstanding page that conveys so much of what I have been thinking, only better than I could say it!

    The mysterium tremendum implies three qualities of the numinous:

    a. its absolute unapproachability,
    b. its power,
    c. its urgency or energy, a force which is most easily perceived in the “wrath of God.”

    It has been suggested that Gothic fiction originated primarily as a quest for the mysterium tremendum.

    Of course I can’t quote the entire page, but if you’re interested in this topic, you should read the whole thing. It’s not that long.

  15. The numinous grips or stirs the mind powerfully and produces the following responses:

    Numinous dread.Otto calls the feeling of numinous dread, aka awe or awe-fullness, the mysterium tremendum. C.S. Lewis’s illustration makes clear the nature of numinous dread and its difference from ordinary fear:

    Suppose you were told that there was a tiger in the next room: you would know that you were in danger and would probably feel fear. But if you were told “There is a ghost in the next room,” and believed it, you would feel, indeed, what is often called fear, but of a different kind. It would not be based on the knowledge of danger, for no one is primarily afraid of what a ghost may do to him, but of the mere fact that it is a ghost. It is “uncanny” rather than dangerous, and the special kind of fear it excites may be called Dread. With the Uncanny one has reached the fringes of the Numinous. Now suppose that you were told simply “There is a might spirit in the room” and believed it. Your feelings would then be even less like the mere fear of danger: but the disturbance would be profound. You would feel wonder and a certain shrinking–described as awe, and the object which excites it is the Numinous.

    And who says English is a useless major? 🙂

  16. Have you noticed how ghost stories are no longer considered serious literature and yet the most famous play in the English language, “Hamlet,” is a classic ghost story?

    Modern critics use the most perverse ingenuity to explain away the ghost as mere machinery and then they wonder why every attempt to explain Hamlet’s behaviour is incoherent. Once you accept that this is the story of a a man who has seen a ghost, everything else is easy and natural; but, the critics cannot “suspend their disbelief” in ghosts.

  17. It is a ghost story, but it is a bit of a skeptical one.

  18. Hi MPS,

    I considered giving Hamlet as a classic example of the ghost revenge/vengeance story, but then I decided to restrict myself to movies.

    Once something gets identified with a genre, it can’t get any respect.

  19. […] had an interesting post a couple weeks ago on zombies and ghosts in movies, reflecting on how, whereas many ghost stories usually have an element of a wrong that […]

  20. […] recommend if you like that kind of thing – the tales are great), which has reminded me of a discussion we had at Bonald’s old blog a year ago. In the comments there, I quoted this […]

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