Horror films have a way of making their mark on a kid. Personally, I can’t stand them. I’m not sure that I totally understand the need to watch some dude in a mask chase a bunch of teenagers with a [fill in weapon not meant to be a weapon of choice], have the scene replay in your mind for the duration of the night, then have it act as a petri dish for your inevitable nightmares to follow. Oh, and for all of that, you’re out $15. To demonstrate what a wuss I am in this regard, I remember renting The Blair Witch Project from Blockbuster (yes, Blockbuster) to see what the fuss was about. I brought it home, watched it by myself in the dark and to this day wish I could un-watch certain scenes. The BWP didn’t even show gratuitous violence or gore. Almost none, in fact.
Yep, I’m a wuss.
I do admit, however, that I catch an occasional zombie film. A couple criteria must be in place, however, before I’ll even entertain watching them.
- Rule #1: If Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are in the film, the zombie flick just got better by a factor of 10. Of course, this applies to movies, in general, not just the zombie genre. See Shaun of the Dead for some excellent work in this regard.
- Rule #2: If the zombies are more like zombie-robots and not zombie-zombies, then it’s easier to watch. Try The World’s End, which, by the way, follows rule #1 as a bonus.
- Rule #3: Double tap. Here lies the strength and cleverness of Zombieland. It’s gruesome, yes…but there are rules.
Can you identify why the zombie phenomenon continues to capture the public’s imagination? I’m sure that some of it has to do with what makes for any good suspense movie. You start by applying tension between the protagonist(s) and the creature—it doesn’t matter if the creature is an animal (Jaws), a chimera of sorts (Maze Runner), a robot (Terminator), or a zombie. The monster is just the medium by which a movie-goer receives the necessary amount of emotional terror. Then, the director does his/her best to remove or solve the tension in a satisfying way.
But zombies, specifically?
Let me propose a theory. There’s this thing called the ‘uncanny valley.’ The uncanny valley was a term coined by robotics engineer, Masahiro Mori, in 1970 to describe the levels of comfort people have with robotic devices that increasingly look like humans. I’ll try to lay it out simply.
As a robotic device begins to look more ‘human-like,’ levels of empathy and comfort increase. A person could look at a robotic pet, for example, and have a positive emotion attached to that experience. However, as a robot looks almost identical to a human model, the attitudes of the people who interact with it (even just looking at) will change dramatically—rather than being pleased or curious about the robot, they’ll feel strong feelings of revulsion or disgust. Graphically, it looks like this:
Things that look a lot like humans but are just a bit…off…will provoke the strongest negative reactions. Some evolutionary scientists have suggested that these emotions are a throwback from pre-human ancestors as a way to protect the health of the community. If one member of the community gets seriously ill (and thus looks ‘less human’ or even corpse-like), the community corporately exhibits feelings of disgust and expels the outsider, thus protecting the people from further infection.
Zombies are on this list. They are at the bottom of the valley. On the horizontal axis of the graph, notice how close zombies are to being fully human, yet because they look not-quite-right and demonstrate actions or behaviors which don’t fall within the socially accepted range, they are looked at with pure disgust. The stuff of nightmares. This uncanny valley should give you clues why the horror archetypes of clowns, wax museum statues, and mannequins have collectively creeped us out for years.
Being just off, then, is not a descent into neutral. Being just off can generate pure revulsion.
I’m reminded of Jesus on a couple of fronts here. First, the leper stories in Scripture can be seen with new eyes. A leper is a person who doesn’t look like a person, after all…skin deformities and discolorations must have been a source of great shame, far beyond the actual sickness. Regular healthy onlookers would hide their faces as lepers walk by, a natural response when the average person is confronted by the uncanny look of a ‘not-quite’ healthy human. Yet, Jesus touched them. Jesus spoke to them. Jesus maintained empathy in the face of understandable disgust.
Second, in Matthew 15, Jesus quotes a section of Isaiah to some Pharisees and teachers of the law. He scolds them by saying, “You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.’” And later, referring to the same men, Jesus says to the disciples, “Leave them; they are blind guides. If a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit” (Mt 15:7-9, 14). Sounds suspiciously like zombie behavior, and not just the part about the blind wandering around aimlessly toward pits (or baseball bats).
Jesus is doing two separate actions that are remarkable. In the former story, he draws the ‘non-human’ closer to himself. That is, Jesus has the remarkable capacity to bring life to those who are dying, dead, and/or otherwise, zombie-like. He lifts the eyes of the repentance and contrite monster so that he may once again enter into the community as a full-fledged son. Drawing the person out of the valley, if you will.
“Jesus has the remarkable capacity to bring life to those who are dying, dead, and/or otherwise, zombie-like.“
At the same time, Jesus boldly expels those who think they are in the ‘in-community.’ They say the right things—even look like the real deal—but underneath hide the arrogance of unbelief. Jesus pushes them, if you will, away into the uncanny valley. For the proud and unrepentant, you get the pit.
The world of technology is particularly adept at pointing out (exposing? exploiting?) humanity’s deepest needs. Sometimes I feel like I’m just wandering in the halls of technologies, moaning, “BRRAAAINS…” while some overlord manipulates my perception of reality.
On what side of Jesus’ words do we fall? Will we side with the bleeding woman, the leper, Jairus’ dead daughter, Zaccheus, the multitudes of sick not-quite-humans who yearn to touch the hem of the savior’s robe? The whole of the Christian’s life is to be oriented by repentance and humility. This disposition necessarily crushes pride underfoot precisely because repentance generates a clear view of our dire situation. Our need.
The uncanny valley may yet have another application for the Church…perhaps this is your morsel for intellectual consumption this week.
Why does the secular world often look at the church with disgust? Are we reviled because we look like Christ and that threatens people … or, are we reviled because we’ve become poor facsimiles of Christ’s humanity and yet present ourselves as if we got it all together?
How’s that for a double-tap?
© Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.