From the Zombie Psalm to Twilight:
3 Millennia of Popular Milestones
A look at some of the many pop-culture references related to Clay Morgan’s UNDEAD.
3,000 YEARS AGO: THE ZOMBIE PSALM
Search the precise phrase “The Zombie Psalm” (in quotes) in Google today and you’ll see an amazing sight—less than 1 page of results. That’s because Clay Morgan is just now trying to coin that phrase to describe a very popular and downright haunting passage in Psalm 91. It’s the passage that declares:
You will not fear the terror of the night,
or the arrow that flies by day,
or the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
or the destruction that wastes at noonday.
A thousand may fall at your side,
ten thousand at your right hand,
but it will not come near you.
According to Clay, the Psalmist probably was envisioning the ghastly death and pestilence associated with ancient battlefields. Thousands were dead or dying; disease was running rampant and into this zombie landscape, the faithful warrior was stepping once again. In fact, this isn’t as crazy as it sounds. Psalm 91 has long been known as The Soldier’s Psalm. Wallet-sized copies have been carried into battle by countless men and women. How popular is it today? Pro football defensive standout Tommie Harris writes Psalm 91 on the adhesive breathing strip he sticks to his nose before each game. Tommie has said in interviews that the particular Psalm 91 passage Clay highlights is his own prayer on the football field.
2,600 Years Ago: EZEKIEL AND DEM DANCING BONES
Do you doubt that our current fascination with the undead stretches back to ancient roots? Just start singing along with “Dem Bones,” which retells a famous story from the prophet Ezekiel. That vision inspiring African-American slaves to trust in God’s power to overturn the cruel system that bound them. We have the poet James Weldon Johnson to thank for writing the melody and preserving that spiritual for us today.
2,000 Years Ago: UNDOING DEATH BECOMES A CHRISTIAN HALLMARK
For more on this, see Part 1 of our coverage of UNDEAD: Revivied, Resuscitated, Reborn.
Around 400 AD: CHRISTIANS CLING TO SKELETONS OF SAINTS
Reverently preserving the bones of the dead began long before Christianity. Then, after Jesus, some of the earliest Christian worship services during the era of Roman persecution were held near the graves of martyrs. Later, when Rome officially recognized Christianity, many of the faithful focused their faith on the spiritual power of relics associated with Jesus and the first Christian saints. By around the year 400, the competition for relics was growing, partly because relics drew pilgrims to major shrines and pilgrims brought money. St. Jerome felt that this was becoming enough of a problem that he had to clarify the practice: “We do not worship, we do not adore, for fear that we should bow down to the creature rather than to the creator, but we venerate the relics of the martyrs in order the better to adore Him whose martyrs they are.” There’s not a wilder tale of the competition for relics than the holy hopscotch involving John the Baptist’s head. THIS WEEK brings one of the oldest commemorations in the worldwide Christian church, involving that dramatic beheading.
IN THE YEAR 1300: DANTE TAKES A FAMOUS TOUR OF HELL
The brilliant Italian poet Dante Alighieri lived until his mid 50s before dying in 1321, but he cast himself as 35 in the year 1300 as he set off on his famous tour of hell, purgatory and heaven. He produced one of the world’s greatest literary masterpieces (and undead-fest supreme), The Divine Comedy. This lengthy epic is packed with sophisticated word play and symbolic twists and turns. The souls being tortured in hell for the sin of lust, for example, are forever pushed this way and that way by a powerful wind. Those being punished for the sin of anger find themselves endlessly fighting other lost souls—or sinking into a deep swampy pool of anger. Dante supposedly was warning readers of the dangers of temptation, and the pathway to heaven, but he also gave us all a deviously imaginative vision of foul play. Mystery writers in particular have found themselves drawn to Dante. In fact, one of Dante’s many famous translators was the British mysery writer and outspoken Christian activist Dorothy L. Sayers.
1690: NEW ENGLAND SCARES MILLIONS OF KIDS … TO SLEEP
It’s tough to pinpoint the origin of the terrifying bedtime prayer, but by 1690, it was distributed to American families in the form of The New England Primer. Remember the prayer?
Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
If I shall die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.
In his book, Clay Morgan says this is just a glimpse at “how terrifying” it was to live with the prospect of earlier understandings about the fate of our souls upon death. Today, he writes, he doesn’t know a parent who would make young children recite this prayer.
1818: FRANKENSTEIN’S MONSTER IS BROUGHT TO LIFE
Mary Shelley lived in a maelstrom of creative energies—surrounded by her husband, a great Romantic poet, and their friend Lord Byron—not to mention other like-minded writers, artists and activists. She created the first of the great monstrous figures of 20th-century pop culture in Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus. But she also turned out other books as well. That includes a pioneering work in what we would call today science fiction: the apocalyptic The Last Man. One can only imagine what Mary Shelley and her crowd would make of our fascination with the undead, today.
1827: A MUMMY UNWRAPPED FOR THE WORLD TO SEE
Something amazing was stirring the women in Britain in this era of Romantic arts and letters. The second of the great undead figures of 20th-century pop culture, The Mummy, debuted as an 1827 novel by the English botanist Jane C. Loudon. (That’s right, she and her husband were most famous for serious studies of plant life.) Before penning her own classic, Jane Loudon almost certainly had read Mary Shelley’s influential novels. Plus, historians say that Loudon, as a little girl, is likely to have attended a public unwrapping of a mummy in a London theater in 1821. In that era, European exploration of Egypt was yielding widespread fascination with all things having to do with the wonders of the ancient pharoahs.
1842: PULLING THE MASK OFF THE RED DEATH
The Brits didn’t have an exclusive corner on fantasies of the undead. The Romantic movement had crossed the Atlantic and one of the chief proponents of a very dark romanticism was Edgar Allen Poe. Before he died at a youthful 40, Poe had written some of the most haunting tales of death and the undead that the world has ever seen. His Mask of the Red Death debuted in Graham’s Lady’s and Gentleman’s Magazine in 1842. The genteel publication, aimed pointedly at women as well as at male readers, is another sign of the huge popularity of undead tales with female readers.
1843: GHOSTS PERFORM A CHRISTMAS CAROL
Even Clay Morgan admits that his favorite version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is one of the comic versions: Bill Murray in the 1988 movie Scrooged. What with musical versions and a very popular Muppet rendition, it’s easy to forget that Dickens wrote a flat-out ghost story that featured bone-chiling warnings from the undead. That’s why Dickens opens his classic Christmas story with these lines: “Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge’s name was good for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a doornail. Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a doornail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a doornail. Scrooge knew he was dead? Of course he did.” Get it!?! Despite all the songs and laughs that we associate with Scrooge today—this is truly a tale of the undead.
1863: LINCOLN EMBRACES THE DEAD
In our recent coverage of the noted historian of American religion, Stephen Prothero, he describes Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address as “the greatest American speech ever.” A lot of historians of religion—including Clay Morgan—refer to the speech at the Civil War battlefield as a turning point in our collective religious culture. Some scholars have argued that the leaders of the George Washington era invoked a Moses-like image of the nation’s religious destiny. At Gettysburg, Lincoln invoked the dead, sacrificial blood and summoned a Jesus-like image of our American spirit. This is such a rich chapter in our history that Clay Morgan also focuses on the spiritual lessons of Lincoln’s life.
1897: COUNT DRACULA TAKES A BOW
Before the 19th century ended, a man who was well known in London for his work as a theatrical manager gave the world the last of the great 20th-century undead monsters: Dracula. Bram Stoker spent a long time researching European folklore on vampires before writing his horrific novel. The book was not a runaway bestseller, but it receive high praise from British literary lights. The Daily Mail lauded Stoker as surpassing both Mary Shelley and Edgar Allen Poe.
1921: WWI AND THE COTTINGLEY FAIRIES
Earlier this summer, ReadTheSpirit published a two-part story about Sherlock Holmes’ creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and his embarassing declaration later in life that he had scientifically proven the reality of fairies in the English countryside. At that point in his life, Doyle was crushed by a series of deaths in his family that clustered around World War I. That horrific war also scarred other writers, including C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. In Doyle’s case, the loss of a series of relatives around WWI led to a period of deep depression. It also led Doyle to embrace spiritualism and a fond hope that either science or the Christian faith would find a way to pierce the wall between life and death.
1922: TREASURES OF KING TUT (AND A MUMMY’S CURSE?)
Almost exactly a century after little Jane Loudon is likely to have watched a public unwrapping of a mummy in London, explorer Howard Carter rocketed Egyptian mummies to front-page news around the world. (That’s Carter in the photo at right.) In late 1922, Carter and his sponsor Lord Carnarvon caused a sensation by entering the tomb of King Tutankhamun. Not only did mummies leap back into pop culture with a vengeance—but also with distinctly evil intent after rumors of an eternal curse of the pharoahs. That myth arose after Lord Carnarvon died in 1923 while still in his 50s. He died of a mosquito bite that became infected and resulted in blood poisoning—enough to fuel nightmares of mummies reaching from beyond the grave. Today, serious historians call the “mummy’s curse” nothing but hysteric claptrap, but that didn’t stop a steady flow of shocking headlines. The King Tut tomb also shaped a century of fanciful media. For example, the oldest surviving Dr. Who science-fiction series from 1960s television is The Tomb of the Cybermen. The robot-like creatures later became regular foes of The Doctor on British television, but the original multi-part series was designed by BBC producers to mirror the opening of King Tut’s tomb in the 1920s.
1931 AND 1932: BIRTH OF THE ANCIENT/MODERN MONSTERS
Most of the 20th Century’s great undead monsters stepped onto the silver screen in the era of silent film. The most chilling of the silent horrors was the 1922 version of Dracula, called Nosferatu. The eerie imagery of Max Schreck as the vampire—sometimes just Schreck’s shadow cast on a wall—hasn’t been surpassed since the creepy film was first shown in theaters. When sound began bursting from Hollywood, Bella Lugosi brought Dracula back to life in a sleek new style and Boris Karloff gave us Frankenstein’s monster complete with the bolts in his neck and an over-sized physique. One year later, in 1932, Karloff gave us his classic Imhotep, aka The Mummy.
1930’s: HAITI AND OUR FEAR OF ZOMBIES
As Clay Morgan points out in his book, our current love of zombies dates back roughly to the 1930s with the movie White Zombie. Of course, American assumptions about zombies in that era are mingled with cultural bias and racism related to the Haitian roots of what Haitian’s refer to as Vodou. Zombies are not a major part of the faith that blends elements of African and Christian cultures. In fact, from a Haitian perspective, Vodou’s proudest moment was the Bois Caiman, a 1791 Vodou invocation of the spiritual power to throw off the nation’s slave-owning powers. Within the complex spiritual tradition, zombies are regarded as a dark art in which powerful drugs are used to control a person’s will.
1968: NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (AND ZOMBIES WE LOVE)
For all intents and purposes, Clay Morgan points out, our current obsession with zombies was born in 1968 in the gritty, black-and-white, low-budget horror film, Night of the Living Dead. Clay writes: “Tragedies struck in quick succession in 1968—the Vietnam War had already divided the country before January of that year when the Tet Offensive showed anxious citizens that the end of the conflict was not coming soon. Then both Martin Luther King Jr. and Senator Robert Kennedy were assassinated within one moth of each other. Racial divisions and protests drove national conflict as many found ways to escape the madness of it all. By that point, flesh-eating zombies fit in quite well with the absurdity of life that millions of people found so hard to understand.”
1972: A KINDER, GENTLER DRACULA—COUNT VON COUNT
Clay Morgan actually begins his book with his own childhood memories of Count von Count, who first appeared on Sesame Street in 1972. After all the other ghastly associations with zombies, vampires, ghouls and other forms of the undead, a warm and fuzzy version of Dracula ushered in a whole new era of vampire love.
REMEMBERING THE ORIGINAL COUNT: Millions, like Clay Morgan, immediately recognize the Count’s look—but they also know his voice and distinctive laugh. The original voice of the Count, Jerry Nelson, recently died. CNN online has a tribute to Nelson that includes several memorable Count video clips.
2002: VAMPIRES ON VACATION
30 DAYS OF NIGHT
Flash forward 30 years from Count von Count and there is absolutely nothing warm and fuzzy about the sharp-toothed, blood-dripping vampires in the comicbook epic by Steve Niles and Ben Templesmith. 30 Days of Night refers to the odd geographic phenomenon of long-term darkness in Barrow, Alaska—a natural allure for light-sensitive vampires. Clay Morgan is a fan of comics and graphic novels and calls this comic tale “a blood-sucking Mardi Gras.” And, no, he’s not talking about a family-friendly Mardi Gras. Clearly, Americans may want to fall in love with the undead sometimes, but we also want to scare ourselves silly along the way.
2005: GIRLS, MEET SOME VAMPIRES YOU’LL JUST LOVE!
By 2005, the stage was set for chills and thrills—horrors and hugs from the undead realm. Originally published as children’s literature (Breaking Dawn won the British Book Award in 2008 for Children’s Book of the Year), Twilight now has crossed over from girls to adult women. Stephenie Meier has sold more than 100 million copies—and the Twilight odometer keeps spinning.
2005: HAD ENOUGH FOOTBALL? TRY HUMANS VS. ZOMBIES
2010: THE WALKING DEAD STUMBLES INTO NETWORK TV
The AMC network, crowing about its rave reviews for Mad Men and Breaking Bad, jumped into the realm of the zombies in 2010. The third season of The Walking Dead starts in autumn 2012. Clay Morgan says our current zombie fad is strong evidence of widespread anxiety in American culture. He writes: “Tragedy and zombie popularity are inversely proportional. The worse things get, the more we buy into the apocalypse. The 1980s and 1990s weren’t perfect, but they were relatively peaceful and prosperous. Not surprisng then that you won’t find massive mainstream appeal to zombies like we see in a post 9/11 world.”
2011: UNDEAD, YET OH SO CARING—THE ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE
By last year, American culture was overloaded with zombies. The 2006 novel, World War Z, has given way to a big-budget movie version starring Brad Pitt, due to hit theaters in summer 2013. Even the federal government is getting involved through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. Starting in 2011, the CDC began producing some of its most popular guides to public health using tongue-in-cheek zombie themes. Most famous is Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse by the CDC, posted online in 2011. Now, in 2012, the CDC is back with a graphic novel called Preparedness 101: Zombie Pandemic (cover at right). We think the staff at the CDC should be praised for the creativity. In this era of dire budget cutting, the CDC is finding a way to put the undead to work for the public good!
2012: TWILIGHT’S LAST GLEAMING (MAYBE)—BREAKING DAWN, 2
Apparently, the Twilight film series will end with the debut on November 16 of Breaking Dawn Part 2—although some online rumors suggest that more films with the Twilight characters might follow. You may think that we have strayed far from Christian connections, but that’s not true. Enjoy our coverage of Jane Wells’ Glitter in the Sun, a Twilight Bible study book.
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Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.