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The Passion of the Dead

Michael Nenonen

The Passion of the Christ is as much a horror movie as Dawn of the Dead writes Nenonen. Both films deal with damnation, death, and resurrection. Neither offers any hope for salvation through human virtue.


James Caviezel as Jesus in The Passion of the Christ - 2004

Zombie heads on the set of Dawn of the Dead - 2004

On 22 March 2004 The Passion of the Christ fell from the top of the North American box office charts. After reigning for three weeks, its position was finally usurped by Dawn of the Dead. With Easter in our rear view mirror, let's take a moment to consider these two films, and what their popularity suggests about the times we live in.

The Passion of the Christ is director Mel Gibson's interpretation of the final hours of Christ's life, from his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane to his resurrection. The film includes scenes of torture and humiliation that aren't found in the New Testament; for example in one scene, Jesus is dropped from a bridge and suspended by a chain; in another, a soldier dislocates Jesus' shoulder until his wrists align with the holes already drilled into the cross. Neither incident is mentioned in the Bible. The film also lingers over the moral ugliness of Christ's persecutors. In contrast, Jesus' resurrection takes up only a few moments of screen time. The emphasis isn't placed on the salvation brought about not by Christ's "Passion", but rather on human sinfulness, and how much we deserve to be damned.

Director Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead, on the other hand, is the story of a pandemic that returns the dead to life in a state of cannibalistic psychosis. Their infection spreads quickly: those who initially survive their bites inevitably sicken and die within hours, only to resurrect within seconds. Barely a day passes between the first cases of the infection and civilisation's collapse. Though the cause of the outbreak is never explained, the movie clearly has a religious subtext. The film's soundtrack features Johnny Cash's "The Man Comes Around", a song inspired by The Revelation of John. The song accompanies a horrific montage of newsclips about the plague. A televangelist proclaims that this is God's judgement upon us, and that "When there's no more room in Hell, the dead will walk the Earth." Andre, an ex-criminal played by Mekhi Phifer, asks a devout policeman if this is "the end of times". During the closing credits, as the ghouls swarm the heroes, we realise that yes, "the times" have indeed, ended. Despite their many acts of courage and compassion, the last survivors are judged as harshly as the plague's first victims. No one survives this apocalypse.

Both films deal with damnation, death, and resurrection. Neither offers any hope for salvation through human virtue. In this sense, The Passion of the Christ is as much a horror movie as Dawn of the Dead. Why are films about gory resurrection so popular right now? The answer may lie in both the age-old relationship between resurrection mythology and birth trauma, and in the more modern, but no more new apocalyptic anxiety that's been growing since 9-11.

Christ wasn't the first god to undergo a bloody death followed by a world-redeeming resurrection, and Hollywood's ghouls aren't the first to rise from the dead in search of human blood. Before Christ there was Attis, Dionysus, and Osiris. Before Dawn of the Dead there were the grotesque vampires of Eastern European legend and the hungry ghosts of Asian lore. Resurrection mythology is universal, and it has two faces: one divine, one diabolical. In the first, bloody death results in a resurrection that brings life and joy back to a dying world; in the second, it brings about a vampiric resurrection, a resurrection that cannibalises life and spreads panic. These two strains of resurrection mythology reflect the divided nature of our own primordial memories.

Foetal brain activity begins around the fifth month of life; by the sixth month the brains neurons begin to interlink, rudimentary brain waves can be detected, and the foetus becomes aware of its surroundings. From this point until birth, each of us consciously inhabited a radically different world, a world of sensation and sound, a world without language and light. Since our brains are active during this period, we're forming memories-memories encoded so long before we acquired language that they remain well below our conscious awareness in later life. Initially, our world inside the womb is relatively spacious, but over time it becomes increasingly cramped. Our placentas-the first objects we know that exist outside of ourselves-become a burden as we grow and vie for more room. We're eventually squeezed into an excruciatingly narrow birth canal. The pain of this passage must make us feel as though we're dying. Finally, exhausted and covered in blood, we entered a world of unimaginable spaciousness. One life ends, and another begins as the undifferentiated consciousness of the womb gives way to a consciousness of fantastically greater complexity.

Our fetal and birth experiences correlate well with Christian myth. The period from Christ's birth until the Garden could be considered to parallel the foetus's first few months of brain activity. The difficult years of his ministry, in which he comes under mounting "pressure" from the authorities, recreate the constriction experienced by the foetus during the final months of pregnancy. His Passion, in which he's forcibly abducted, dragged from one place to another, imprisoned, and tortured, mirrors the pain a child endures during labour. The cross, which he's forced to drag through the streets of Jerusalem, resembles the placenta we drag through the birth canal. The blood streaming from his wounds reminds us of the blood of the delivery room. The cavernous grave that he emerges from is not unlike a mother's womb. His ascension seems to echo the spaciousness of the world into which babies are born, as well as the rapid evolution of post-natal consciousness. After birth, babies are introduced to a world of colour and light, and for the first time gaze upon their caregiver's face; these experiences stimulate the development of neural pathways, and lay the foundation for future cognitive development. Similarly, after his resurrection, Christ enters "heaven", a dimension of unearthly glory, where he lives in the immediate presence of his divine Father.

Of course, rather than releasing us from suffering, birth may well throw us into a realm of horror and hunger. This is exactly what happens to most members of our species, for whom the promise of liberation is strangled by negligence, cruelty, and fear. Since these children tend to believe that they're being punished for their own "badness", they live in fear of judgement-first their parents' judgement, and then, as they grow up, divine judgement, handed down by whichever deities their societies revere. Suffering and fear stifle their psychological maturation, while rage spreads like an infection from their emotional wounds. Legends of living death seem perfectly suited to these spiritual miscarriages.

Resurrection myths appeal to us because we've all been "resurrected" from the hell of the birth canal. Myths of divine resurrection resonate best with those born with sound bodies and minds, who enjoyed caring and competent families, and whose early lives were unmarred by trauma or hunger, violence or neglect. Myths of vampiric resurrection speak louder to those whose early lives were darkened by the previously mentioned evils.

These myths dominate our fantasies during times of intense fear, when old traumas are triggered and primordial memories assert themselves. During these periods, the divine and vampiric faces of resurrection mythology begin to merge. This may be why The Passion of the Christ resembles a horror movie, while Dawn of the Dead evokes feelings of religious dread, and why both are attracting such large audiences. For all their violence, it's not the films themselves that should concern us, but rather the significance of their box office returns. Movies such as these usually have a very limited appeal. The original Dawn of the Dead was, at best, a cult classic; it never enjoyed mainstream popularity. Previous movies about Christ's life never enjoyed the returns Gibson's piece is pulling in, and none showed as much slaughter as The Passion of the Christ. I doubt that either movie would have done nearly so well before 9-11. Their success suggests that our anxiety levels -- or, to use the language of the times, our terror levels -- are rising fast.

The more frightened we become, the more we express our fear through political paranoia, scapegoating, and collective violence. For a time, this serves the interests of the powerful, as they use our anxiety to justify militarism abroad and the elimination of civil liberties at home. In doing so, they feed the beast within, encouraging our feelings of hatred and vanity, until that beast grows so large and vicious that it begins to exert its influence over its former masters. At that point, when personal passions transform into public psychosis, our suicidal descent into fascism becomes irreversible.

This has happened before. To mention only the most obvious example, after World War One, capitalists throughout the West supported the Nazi party, whose scapegoating and hate mongering, fuelled by a racist ideology and the myths of Ragnarok (the great battle at the end of time in which the world will be destroyed and made anew), helped subdue the threat of socialism and the labour movement. Eventually, the Nazis became too powerful to control, and they embarked upon a nightmarish program of imperialism and genocide. Similarly, the US federal government, which has long supported Neo-Nazi regimes in such places as Latin America, is now using the fear of terrorism and the demonization of Arabs to justify perpetual warfare abroad and the elimination of civil liberties, labour rights, and the social safety net at home. Christian evangelists, who've long enjoyed a privileged relationship with the upper echelons of American political and military power, are using dispensational theology to convince their followers that Muslims march in Satan's army, and that the prophecies of the Revelation of John are at last in motion. Militaristic jingoism, apocalyptic fervour, and racist scapegoating are aligning with corporate and political power in frighteningly familiar ways. As American sabres rattle, governments throughout the world scramble to bolster their military forces, acquire weapons of mass destruction, and prepare potentially disastrous rapid-response protocols for their defence systems. Meanwhile, as physical and psychological traumas accumulate among America's victims, more and more people turn to terrorism to address their grievances.

As the dawn rises upon a world enflamed by terror and hatred, where the means of destruction proliferate as the global temperature rises, and where salvation appears more remote than ever before, I can't help wondering: has the No Vacancy sign finally gone up in Hell?

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