The Zombie Apocalypse—Useful For Understanding History

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I have wondered for a while now why zombies are so appealing. They began as horror movies, then moved to comedy(i.e. Shaun of the Dean, etc) , literature (Pride & Prejudice & Zombies – ok, it is not real literature…), and even live action running races where some people dress up as zombies and try to steal the “life” flags of the runners. Now there is a show on AMC called The Walking Dead that is drama set during a zombie apocalypse. A friend had told me about the show, but I was reluctant because it was just zombies. Dead people wandering around trying to kill and eat you—so what? This past weekend, I don’t know what motivated me, but I popped it on Netflix. Coming from a pay channel, it is as expected solidly rated-R for gratuitous violence and some language, but it struck a chord with me—it applied to what I have been  learning and wondering about history.

Roving Wars Meant Death for the Common People

Last month I finished the book Peter the Great by Robert Massie. I really knew nothing about his monarch and thoroughly enjoyed the book. I was especially interested in Peter’s Great Northern War with Charles XII of Sweden, which was fought between 1700-1721.  While the Swedes had the best trained military and was feared across Europe, Russia’s army was weak and backward. One of Peter’s greatest achievements was his modernization of the military (including the creation of a navy), and he was able to defeat Charles XII at Poltava. Prior to Poltava, a tactic Peter used to slow Charles’s advance on Moscow was to slash and burn ~100 miles of land to deprive the Swedish army of supplies. Charles then had to extort food and provisions from the peasants. One method was to bring out the family’s youngest child and put a noose around their neck, and then demand the family’s food stocks. The choice for the family became death by successive hangings as the soldiers went child to child, or death by slow starvation. The brutality of this particular example has stuck in my mind.

Wars throughout history have usually meant terror, destruction, death and desolation for the common homestead. Another book I put on my list is on the Thirty Years War, which left Germany desolate. Think of France, Germany and Russia during World War II. On and on, back through history, the violence of man on man has yielded widespread misery for the common man.

Watching the drama and violence of The Walking Dead, I unexpectedly realized the parallels. I think  it is difficult for people living in first world countries to understand what it would have been like to live back then during war. War raged through their villages and neighborhoods. Watching and identifying with these characters allows people to feel that extreme terror and vulnerability that people must have felt back then. Also, I think one can draw a solid moral correlation between these soldiers and the undead. The person who can put a noose around an innocent child’s head to hang them may as well have the same moral code of a zombie.

Stone The Rebel

The pilot episode creates some quick background, mystery and action that serve as a great “hook” for the series. [**spoilers ahead**] My wife and I wanted to keep watching. In the next episode, Rick (a sheriff’s deputy) meets a band of survivors in Atlanta. Right away we are shown a character named Merle, a stereotypical amoral racist redneck. He is shooting zombies for fun off the rooftop (wasting their limited ammo and drawing more zombies to the group). When challenged, he calls a black guy a nig***, and then starts beating him. He puts a gun to the man’s head and proclaims himself leader of the group. In a moment, however, the butt end of Rick’s rifle ends his short reign. “Things are different now,” Rick says, “we survive by pulling together, not apart.” Merle is handcuffed to some piping, raging and cursing, and is eventually left behind to die.

Here is the first of many moral dilemmas shown in the show. Was it right to leave Merle to die? He was a total liability to the group, and I found it easy to justify leaving him. The situation fully reminded me of the early Israelites, when God’s law said to take the rebel outside of the camp and stone them to death. It made it very clear to me how dangerous rebels like this are to the group. Encased in our modern culture, it sounds really harsh to do that to someone. But in the context of real immediate danger (i.e. Zombies!!) it is easier to see that the rebellious nature of Merle will get good people killed.

Whose Morals Do You Follow?

Here is the bottom-line: if the zombie apocalypse hits, and you have a bunch of people thrown together, who is in charge and who decides what is right and what is wrong? This is where The Walking Dead does the drama right. From just what I have seen in the first season, this seems to be a central recurring theme and an important one to consider.

We are shown a lazy redneck just bosses his wife around, makes her do all the work and beats her. Some women want to intervene, but one comments that it is their marriage, “let them work it out”. One woman won’t let it go, though, and confronts the man and he starts to slap her. Shane (Rick’s partner, another deputy) intervenes and beats him terribly. I was left thinking that this guy deserved it, but the brutality of it made me wonder how far Shane would go. Even the women looked at him tentatively.

When there are twenty or so survivors, threatened with death at any moment, do we still let an abusive marriage continue? Does the leader get to step in and exercise justice? How much justice? What type of punishment? Continually there was conflict in the group over what to do-yelling, cursing, men holding each other back. Again I thought of the tribes of Israel and how needed the law that God gave them was. With the real threat of danger imminent (i.e. Zombies!!), I could not help thinking how absolutely necessary it would be to have a higher moral law to follow.

Unexpected Perspective

Overall, I liked the show and it was, for me, an unexpected place to plug-in some historical perspective. Oh,and there were Zombies!!

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