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A Catholic Field Guide to the Undead

Halloween costumes offer an imaginary, temporary, denial of one’s condition in life. Some try on the uniform of another profession or sport. Some try on the skirts or mustaches of the other gender. Other costumes pull at the threads in the fabric of what it is to be human.

What, then, is it to be human?

C.S. Lewis says this:

"Humans are amphibians - half spirit and half animal. As spirits they belong to the eternal world, but as animals they inhabit time." The Screwtape Letters.

The Catechism says this about the nature of man:

"God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them." Man occupies a unique place in creation: (I) he is "in the image of God"; (II) in his own nature he unites the spiritual and material worlds; (III) he is created "male and female"; (IV) God established him in his friendship. CCC 355.

Pope Leo XIII says in an encyclical:

"...the natural law, which is written and engraved in the mind of every man; and this is nothing but our reason, commanding us to do right and forbidding sin. Nevertheless, all prescriptions of human reason can have force of law only inasmuch as they are the voice and the interpreters of some higher power on which our reason and liberty necessarily depend." On the Nature of Human Liberty.

The Catechism, again, on free will:

God created man a rational being, conferring on him the dignity of a person who can initiate and control his own actions. "God willed that man should be 'left in the hand of his own counsel,' so that he might of his own accord seek his Creator and freely attain his full and blessed perfection by cleaving to him." CCC 1730.

St. Irenaeus in Against Heresies:

"Man is rational and therefore like God; he is created with free will and is master over his acts."

This quickie review of Church teaching on the nature of man gets me to these key attributes of the human:

  • possessing a spirit,
  • having a material body,
  • under the natural law,
  • endowed with free will,
  • made in God’s image.

It seems to me that culture, perhaps unwittingly, agrees with the Church in this matter because so many of it’s horror stories begin with a deviation from the recipe. Which allows us to compile:

A Catholic Field Guide to the Undead

The undead are products of death gone wrong, disorders which damage the soul but not the body, or the unnatural processes of man making man in his own image. Human in appearance but inhuman in body and or soul the undead lack both the hope of Heaven and fear of hell. Zombies are re-animated corpses with no sense of right and wrong. Easily identifiable by their decomposing flesh and stiff legged gait. Lacking free will and conscience, they eat human brains. Zombies do not naturally reproduce, but can be created from cadavers or possibly by a contagion spread among the living. Notable examples are seen in the “Living Dead” movies and Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”. Vulnerable to: Beheading.

Vampires are undead humans, like their zombie cousins. These former-humans retain their rational capabilities. These charming villains might have some access to a damaged sense of right and wrong.  Vampires are notoriously difficult to kill in a manner such that they will stay dead. Native to Transylvania and Washington State, these shape-shifters subsist on human blood, and are identifiable by their elongated canine teeth and sparkly skin. Notable examples are Nosferatu a.k.a. Count Dracula, and someone named Edward. Vampirism is spread to bitten humans as if by a virus. Vampires do not naturally reproduce. Vulnerable to: Crucifixes, holy water, garlic, wooden stakes through the heart in combination with beheading.

Werewolves are mortal men transformed into shape-shifting wolf-men by sorcery involving wolf skins, the full moon, and sometimes beer.* In wolf-form werewolves are super-human in strength and speed but lack remorse, free will, and higher thinking. Notable werewolves are J.K Rowling’s  Professor Lupin and someone named Jacob. Werewolves do not naturally reproduce. Vulnerable to: Weapons of silver. (J.K. Rowling’s werewolves are created by infection via werewolf bites. This is atypical to legend.)

Like Werewolves, Dr. Jekyll’s counterpart Mr. Hyde is a complete human, but one damaged by chemicals so as to be intermittently separated from his conscience and his free will. Mr. Hyde is incapable of moral judgment, and all remorse and contrition for Hyde’s actions are left to Dr. Jekyll. Ghosts are spirit-being remnants of humans. Their chief identifying characteristic besides being departed from their flesh and blood is a profound sense of remorse. In death they have failed to attain either heaven or hell. Notable ghosts are Dickens’ A Christmas Carol ghosts. Ghosts do not naturally reproduce. Vulnerable to: Exorcism.

Man-Made Monsters such as Dr. Frankenstein’s monster are the result of human genius gone astray. These are assembled from cadaver parts and sparked to biological life or cloned en masse in the style of  Saruman’s Uruk-hai orc-men from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of The Rings series or the Stormtroopers from George Lucas’ Star Wars series. These soulless bipeds are made by men in man’s image for obedience and service to their human creators. They possess modest cognitive abilities, but no poetry, no sense of right and wrong, no hope of Heaven or fear of hell.

  • What is man with no body? a monster.
  • What is man with no soul? a monster.
  • What is man without free will? a monster.
  • What is man made in man's image? a monster.
  • What is man without natural law written on his heart? a monster.

When the costumed parade by your place this month, ask yourself which fundamental truth of human nature each costume is designed to hide.

* A sorry use of beer, that.

28 comments | Add one of your own.

  1. Stephen

    Very cool! One nitpicky point: Technically, cloned humans are still human, so they still have souls. This would presumably hold true for storm troopers.

    On a less firm basis, I would argue the same for the Uruk-hai. Tolkien is clear (in his Letters) that Orcs have souls and could theoretically choose good over evil. The Uruks are simply a cross between Orcs and men (most likely), and since both Orcs and men have souls the Uruks presumably would too.

    Just to be on the safe side, I’ll ask the next Uruk I see.

    Reply

  2. Nick

    Man is fully spirit and fully animal, not half-and-half.

    As for Halloween, it is necessary to caution against those costumes which glorify evil, like dressing up as an abortion doctor or as a prostitute.

    Reply

  3. Sean

    A fair summary. I didn’t read it carefully, but it seems a few others have, and nitpicked, so I’ll bring this up…

    If a good man becomes a vampire or werewolf by accident, by no desire of his own, can he still attain heaven? And if so, how?

    Reply

    1. Patrick

      Well, as these are fictitious entities, let’s consider.

      Vampirism: If an unwilling human contracts vampirism, one of two things has actually happened. Either the soul of the human has departed and a demon is walking around in the corpse will full access to the memories of the deceased or the human has not fully died so much as has been possessed by demonic power at the moment of death; in this case the victim would likely die and then escape to his eternal destination if subjected to exorcism. The former is more true to legend (ie: no reflection in a mirror as there is no soul), the later is preferred by the hipster culture. Historically, vampirism was the suspected cause of TB outbreaks.

      As for werewolves, for the most part they are considered living humans, warped by preternatural agency. This would be a form of possession, and likely by a willing (practicing satanic) host. For the hipster, where lycanthropy is a preternatural blood borne pathogen, one must simply endure, locked away from harming others whenever the moon is full.

      Reply

  4. Denys

    Talking faux-seriously about fantasy and pop-culture monster movies like this unfortunately suggests to the outsider that we Catholics live in a fantasy world–where angels, saints, orcs, and Jedi exist side by side.

    Or that Catholics, who give so much attention to what the pop-culture trend-setters happen to be interested in at the moment (e.g. vampires and zombies), are definitely both in the world AND of it.

    Reply

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  6. Matt

    Sean,

    Given the variety of traditions as to how fictional werewolves and vampires come into existence, your question about attaining heaven can be answered in a few different ways. Perhaps examples from the Buffyverse will help (since that guy named Edward and that guy named Jacob are such lousy examples of undead lore):

    Vampires, in the Buffyverse, can only become vampires by their own free choice, by drinking the blood of a vampire while the vampire is drinking their blood. When the vampire to be dies, they rise again, without a soul or a conscience, and therefore, incapable of redemption, having made their eternal decision to side with evil. Two notable exceptions of this are Angel and Spike, who through different methods regain their souls, and with them consciences and a desire to make restitution for their murderous pasts.

    Werewolves in the Buffyverse come into being when a human is bitten during a werewolf attack. Since their werewolf identity was imposed upon them rather than sought out, they bear no culpability for their dual nature. Some werewolves in the series, most notably Oz, takes steps to restrain himself during the phases of the moon that trigger his transformation, suggesting that he is going out of his way to avoid the near occasion of werewolfish sin.

    Of course, dependent upon the various legends as to how vampires and werewolves come into being, the above two answers would have to be tweaked accordingly.

    Denys,

    I wasn’t aware that Tolkien thought that orcs and saints were both equally real. At least it didn’t deter his son from becoming a priest.

    Reply

    1. Denys

      Matt, I don’t have any questions about Tolkien’s understanding of the stories he invented and the faith he recieved and professed. I’m pretty clear on all that.

      But people who are more interested in talking about something called the “Buffyverse”? I’m not sure about them.

      Reply

      1. Matt

        Ah, perhaps a quick distinction then:

        -People read Twilight because they want to be vampires.
        -People watch Buffy because they want to kill vampires.

        Consider me among the latter, if I ever drift into an alternate fictional universe where such things are possible.

        Reply

        1. Sean

          Thanks for the point, guys. I’d like to see some writers step it up and write stories that seriously explore questions like that, and not just make monsters Meyerian sex symbols.

          Reply

  7. Catholic

    @Denys – I loved this article. It shows how, in fact, Catholics can have fun and not be so serious – like some of the Fundamentalist Christians I know that don’t allow their children to dress up for Halloween. If you dont know that an Orc isn’t real, then you have more problems than this article will solve. :)

    Reply

    1. Denys

      False alternative. It’s not “be a sour and dour contemporary American fundamentalist” versus “embrace pop culture and write and talk about it all the time.”

      The great Catholic saints of modern, medieval, and ancient times–hardly a grim lot of fundies–set our example. St Therese didn’t reflect about popular operas; St Edith Stein didn’t write about seedy 1920s Berliner cabaret routines; St Francis sure didn’t preach extensive homilies on the troubadour love lyrics that were the pop-culture of his age.

      So why is it that post-modern American Catholics are so bent on proving to themselves and to their friends that they are down with TV, pop music, and movies?

      We betray our true loves by what we talk and write about.

      Reply

      1. Matt

        Denys,

        We do indeed betray our true loves by what we talk and write about. That’s why I wrote a book on the rosary and a blog comment about vampires.

        Good storytelling, especially good science fiction storytelling, can take moral issues from reality and set them in an alternate reality, stripping us of some of our preconcieved notions and causing us to see timeless truths in a new light. And I will stand by stories that do that, because they make the job of evangelization a heck of a lot easier.

        Reply

        1. Cordelia

          Matt, we all need to read more Flannery O’Connor (myself included). If your definition of good fiction only includes content, you are sorely mistaken in judging good fiction merely by its “tak[ing] moral issues from reality and set[ting] them in an alternate reality”. You would probably want to say that good fiction is about relaying truths. Even if that were your position, you would still be only half right according to Flannery O’Connor:

          “What interests the serious writer is not external habits but what Maritain call, “The habit of art”; and he explains that “habit” in this sense means a certain quality or virtue of the mind. The scientist has the habit of science; the artist, the habit of art….But all I mean by art is writing something that is valuable in itself and that works in itself. The basis of art is truth, both in matter and in mode. The person who aims after art in his work aims after truth, in an imaginative sense, no more or no less. St. Thomas said that the artist is concerned with the good of that which is made; and that will have to be the basis of my few words on the subject of fiction.” -”The Nature and Aim of Fiction”

          Maybe you also think that truths are better seen in an alternate reality, not so according to Flannery O’Connor, the writer as artist can portray his own culture artfully (Think of O’Connor’s short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find”.). Consider what Flannery says about the fiction writer and his country:

          ” My own feeling is that writers who see by the light of their Christian faith will have, in these times, the sharpest eyes for the grotesque, for the perverse, and for the unacceptable…Redemption is meaningless unless there is a cause for it in the actual life we live, and for the last few centuries there has been operating in our culture the secular belief that there is no such cause…The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; and he may well be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience. When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock–to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.” -”The Fiction Writer and His Country”

          Reply

          1. Matt

            Cordelia,

            If you’re assuming that I disagree with you, it is either a result of poor communication on my part, or a lack of understanding on your part. Thank you for bringing Flannery O’Connor in to make the point I think that you and I are both trying to make!

            Reply

      2. Anthony DiStefano

        Yes, but GK Chesterton, who I’d love to be more like in wit & wisdom, did a lot of reflecting on popular detective stories, “penny dreadfuls” & other “romantic trash”, & was none too pleased with the cultured despisers of his day who dismissed them all as unfit for public consumption. Likewise, his essays on fairy tales, those popular stories handed down & reshaped over the generations, suggest there is great wisdom in these types of things. He’s right, I think. “Fiction is a necessity”, he insists, “literature a luxury.” We must have our stories, & we don’t all need Proust or James.

        Reply

  8. Irenaeus

    See, now, this is good stuff.

    We Catholics *do* live in a fantasy world of sorts. And let’s not forget that mythology has been the gateway to Christ for many, both in the ancient world but also the modern world (thinking of CS Lewis here). Probably explains why so many thoughtful Catholics (Mark Shea, Fr. Roderick) are interested in “science fiction”.

    Reply

    1. Cordelia

      Since my son started reading, he has been very enamored with ancient mythology–Greek, Roman, Norse. There is a real difference between ancient mythology and “The Chronicles of Narnia” or “The Lord of the Rings Trilogy”–the ancients really believed their stories were true containing wisdom about the search for the meaning of life and to be passed on religiously from generation to generation. The former works of fiction are novels, stories fashioned in the imagination of the authors, they don’t try to explain what has not yet been revealed in Christianity but try to say it anew if you will (at least, we know for sure that’s what C.S. Lewis was up to.) Science Fiction is more akin to doing what the novel does than being mythology as in the ancient sense of the word. I really don’t think that science fiction is trying to relate religious truths about creation and the meaning of life, do you?

      Reply

      1. Alishia

        Which Lewis works are you talking about? His Narnia series or his Out of the Silent Planet series? Narnia strikes me as fantasy and OOTSP seems more science fiction with religious truths mixed in.

        Reply

      2. Anthony DiStefano

        It’s hard to make generalizations like this, as different science fiction writers have different ideas on what they’re doing. Walter Miller’s classic “A Canticle for Liebowitz” is “sci-fi.” And an interesting meditation on the preservative nature of Catholicism in a post-apocalyptic world. Perhaps we get too enamored of labels like this one.

        Reply

  9. Cordelia

    http://atheism.about.com/od/cslewisnarnia/a/chroniclenarnia.htm
    Alishia, look at this article linked above. It expresses what I was familiar with but maybe the author of the article and I are wrong. Here’s an excerpt:
    “I did not say to myself ‘Let us represent Jesus as He really is in our world by a Lion in Narnia’; I said, ‘Let us suppose that there were a land like Narnia and that the Son of God, as he became a Man in our world, became a Lion there, and then imagine what would happen.’”
    In a letter, Lewis outlined how the Narnia books compare with Christianity:

    The Magician’s Nephew tells the Creation and how evil entered Narnia, The Lion etc. – the Crucifixion and Resurrection, Prince Caspian – restoration of the true religion after a corruption, The Horse and His Boy – the calling and conversion of the heathen, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader – the spiritual life (especially in Reepicheep), The Silver Chair – the continuing war against the powers of darkness, The Last Battle – the coming of Antichrist (the ape). The end of the world and the last judgement.”

    Also, I read “Out of the Silent Planet” and “Perelandra” but not “That Hideous Strength” when I was a teenager and from what I can remember, Perelandra reminded me so much of the garden of Eden and Adam and Eve’s fall from grace.

    Reply

    1. Martin Wissmath

      I highly recommend finishing the trilogy and reading That Hideous Strength. It gets more into fantasy than the first two books (a certain legendary character from the ancient past shows up), but it’s a terrific tale and satisfying conclusion to the whole story arc. It also has many passages of brilliant insight into human nature illustrating Lewis’ arguments in his ‘Abolition of Man.’

      Reply

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