Why Dawn Of The Dead Makes Me Want To Do Philosophy.
"Review" by LiveReal Agent Thomas
It's a classic horror flick, reheated and re-served by Hollywood.... - and one that is, of course, overflowing with psychological and spiritual significance, which inspires me all the more to be a philosopher.
First of all, I'm just going to ask . . . why?
Why do we go to movies to watch what would seem to be fairly unpleasant things . . . like roaming corpses eating housewives, suburbs erupting into chaos, zombie-babies leaping to bite into a nice old lady's shoulder . . . why? What is the thrill of watching a bunch of actors run from extras in zombie costumes?
The answer, of course, is that movies - even zombie movies - are fun, entertaining, and sometimes even deeply moving.
But why are they fun, entertaining, and sometimes moving? Because they allow us opportunities to experience events and people that otherwise we never would experience in our ordinary - and sometimes dull - lives.
Or more specifically, in horror movies, the "out of the ordinary experience" that makes them so "enjoyable" (if you're into that twisted kind of thing, which I am) is this: they allow us to confront very real and deeply terrifying fears in a safe and protected environment. They allow us to confront real issues in a way that's not real.
So, when it comes to Dawn of the Dead - what is that "real issue"?
Ask almost anyone - especially a young person - this (seemingly harmless, yet ultimately terrifying) question: "What does the future hold for you?"
If they bother tearing themselves away from the television long enough to muster an answer, they will most likely mutter something like this: "Well, this week I've got this project at work, next week I'm traveling, the week after that I'm going on vacation, and after that it's time to start getting ready for the holidays, blah, blah, etc. . ."
- and if they keep going, eventually the answer will go something like . . . "Well, I'm going to graduate, get a job . . . eventually get married, have some kids, raise some wonderful kids, have some wonderful grandkids and great-grandkids . . . and retire to enjoy my golden years."
But if you ask this particular LiveReal Agent, who marches proudly to the beat of a different drummer - "What does the future hold for you?" - the answer is simple and straight: "Eventually, it's old age, sickness, disease, and death."
(Okay, call me warped. So in high school I wasn't voted "Most Cheerful." But am I wrong?)
In 1972, a man named Ernest Becker wrote a book about psychology.
Real psychology, meaning, the deepest and most thorough aspects of human nature (not the white-rat pill-pushing that passes for psychology nowadays).Some important folks liked and agreed with what he had to say, and eventually, his book was one of the very few books about psychology to win a Pulitzer Prize.In his book, Becker dug deep to examine the true, ultimate, final motivation of human beings: why, why do we do what we do?
His answer was not because we want sex, or self-esteem, or identity, the will to power, or our evolved animal instincts, genes, or even brain chemistry, although all of these pieces have parts to play. It is something much more difficult, disturbing . . . and yet ultimately, empowering.
And his answer, frankly, is something most folks can't handle.
The book was called The Denial of Death. The reason why we do what we do, Becker says, is ultimately because we are utterly terrified of death. And everything we do essentially consists of avoiding it.
Which brings us even closer to the thrill of running from zombies.
Again, Becker's message struck such a deep chord with the small number of prominent individuals who read it that they gave him the Pulitzer.
Yet nowadays - decades later - the book is rarely discussed, rarely even mentioned, even in university psychology classes. It's almost like a dirty little secret of the modern psychology world (a world that is scrambling to make itself look scientific, thus confining themselves to things that are easier to measure, like pills).
Why? What made Becker's admittedly brilliant book fade into obscurity?
Well, in my humble opinion, it's because Becker was right. We are terrified of death, and not only that, but we're in denial about it.
And when we're in denial, and someone comes along and exposes us, reveals our cowardice, displays our frailty and weaknesses out in the open for all to see - well, that's kinda uncomfortable, so we don't like it, so we avoid it. So, the way I see it, Becker isn't popular nowadays because he is so accurate.
So, we avoid books like Becker's as if they're flesh eating creatures. Yet . . . yet . . .
A movie comes out, a movie where oozing, flesh-chewing zombies wander the suburbs, looking for nice folks like you and me to bite. And a small group of folks, still alive and running from the zombies, seem to be the last group of zombies left on earth. We naturally, instinctively root for them to survive. We want all the live (non-dead) people to survive (except maybe for a few token jerks) - because we identify with them. (This whole process of "identifying" is a whole other seriously interesting issue that psychology ignores . . . but we digress.)
Why do we identify and care about those poor characters onscreen, when we know they're just actors, pretending to be real?
The way I see it, we identify and care because, in a way, on some unconscious level (at least, it was unconscious until I started talking about it) we are those folks running from the zombies.
Our heroes in the movie have the sole task of staying alive - which means avoiding the zombies. (An interesting side note: Becker, in fact, actually says that what defines a hero is precisely that they successfully confront and overcome death . . . which could be yet another interesting digression. (Becker's stuff is just ripe and rich with interesting stuff to talk about, if you can stomach it. It's no wonder psychology ignores it - what he says is far too interesting. But again, I digress)).
Surviving this epidemic of zombies means the heroes tearing a lot of zombie-heads off with a various assortment of pistols, shotguns, fire-alarm axes and croquet mallets . . and, most importantly, barricading themselves into Crossroads Mall, where for the moment, they . . . we . . . are safe.
Of course, our zombies in real life aren't literal, physical, rotting flesh-and-blood. They don't actually break through windows at inconvenient times and gush ooze all over the floor while they stagger around the neighborhood. Our zombies are somehow . . . invisible . . .
If Becker is right, the idea/awareness/reality of death is always lurking around the corner, no matter how much we run and hide. Living the dilemma of wanting to survive, yet knowing that we ultimately won't . . . we actually do run and hide, all our lives. If we're lucky enough, we find a fairly safe - temporarily safe, but safe nonetheless - place, with walls and defenses strong enough to keep the zombies out. For now. This "temporarily safe place" - this tiny patch of the world that keeps zombies and our awareness of death away for now - we can call our egos, our own inner Crossroads Mall that we describe as our personality or character.
In a way, it could be said that all of us who go to school, go to work, eat, sleep, laugh and itch, day after day, year after year, are . . . deep down, lurking in the darkest corners of our conscious minds . . . are holed up in the Crossroads Mall, guns and croquet mallets in hand, waiting for the zombies to crash through the doors.
And one day, eventually, it happens. No matter how much we try to avoid it, it will happen. One day, we'll come to find that our denial eventually weakens, our defenses crumble, the doors of the mall give way, and we just can't run and hide any more . . .
Those of us who aren't in denial about this sort of thing (the way most of you are) - or at least, have a little bit less denial than the average bear - are often seen as gloomy, pessimistic, nihilistic, negative, and get all sorts of unpleasant accusations. (You'd think that we're the ones in denial, when actually it's the exact opposite: we're the ones who are seeing things accurately; it's everyone else who is deluded). But we - and Becker - are not all gloom and doom, fear and trembling, darkness and despair. While we creep into some shady areas, admittedly, it is only because we are looking for the light.
"One does not become enlightened
by imagining figures of light,
but by making the darkness
- C. G. Jung
Hunching in the Crossroads Mall of our being, safe and comfortable yet anxious and afraid - we succeed not only in keeping out death . . . but we also succeed at keeping out life.
After all, why do folks sky-dive? Extreme ski? Rock-climb? Why do folks go watch zombie movies? Because riding the edge of death is, somehow, strangely enough, what makes them feel most alive. It's as if life and death are intimately, strongly connected. And somehow, in the comfort-zone of our own inner Crossroads Mall, we know that hunched in our little cocoon of ego, while it's safe and comfy . . . isn't enough. That isn't the way to live.
So, in the movie, they decide to leave the mall and make a run for it.
They are now honorary members of LiveReal.
Becker wasn't trying to spoils everybody's fun and become the most unpopular guy at the cocktail party. He was working and struggling desperately, confronting his own human fears and doubts, to describe the core, most basic problem . . . as well as the basic solution of life: Stop living in fear. Stop hunching in the Crossroads mall. Join LiveReal (Okay, he didn't say that one). Stop being in denial, face the fear, and become free of it.
Easier said than done.
Death, of course, is something natural and inevitable, an unavoidable aspect of life, the twin, in fact, of life, because as the cliche goes, everything that is born, dies.
We all know this. And most of us say we're fine with this. Becker may be right, we guess - we're sure they gave him the Pulitzer Prize for something . . . but as far as death goes, we hear most folks say . . . not me. I'm not afraid of it. I'm afraid of real things, like spiders. Public speaking, after all, is the number one fear, not death. I'm special.
We're not afraid of death, we say, but zombie movies still scare the heck of us.
We shell out our hard-earned ten dollars to go see Dawn of the Dead not because we want a good story, or to learn about zombies, or to run an intellectual "what-if" thought experiment. If it were any of those things, we would be content to read a paragraph: "Flesh-eating zombies take over the landscape. A small handful of regular folks try to survive." Reading that sentence is all we really need to know (except for maybe blowing the ending) - but that isn't what we want.
We want the experience of it. Zombie movies take our deepest fear - something very real, but intangible, invisible, ineffable, something we just can't grasp - and make it concrete, visible, give it a name (slimy zombie), a face (even if it's rotting off), an experience. "Death" we can't see, hear, touch, or relate to, but "zombies" we can.
So we want the experience of confronting - and overcoming - our deepest fear, the fear of death (which, by the way, I don't really think is ultimately our true deepest fear, but I digress) - in way way that is actually safe, sitting in a movie theater, where the only real danger is accidentally kicking the chair of the big thug sitting in front of you.
Or in other words . . . if we're all trapped in our inner Crossroads Malls . . . barricaded against death, and yet barricaded against life . . . we're in what we call a real "dilemma."
What can we do?
Becker suggests a possible solution to the whole problem: getting rid of denial. He mentioned becoming completely and utterly unrepressed in Freud's terminology, and the equivalent using Kierkegaard's. After all, if death is ultimately the thing we're all afraid of, then if we truly confront death, our deepest fear . . . then we'll be free of fear from that point forward.
Death - the ultimate taboo, the inevitable unmentionable - doesn't really have to be such a terrifying experience, or anything as scary as being caught in a bear-hug by a big oozing dead guy.
As many folks before us have demonstrated by example - Socrates, Seneca, Gandhi, Jesus - death can be a beautiful thing.
Well, the way I see it, this is another huge question - but at the very least, the first step is preparing for it. To take some risks. To dare risk a peek out the top window of the Crossroads Mall. To take a step towards getting free of the prison of denial about what we imagine death to be. To examine it all, look at it, think about it, and do whatever it takes to be armed and ready when the Big Time comes. To read heavy books like The Denial of Death while everybody else is reading Tom Clancy, to join crazy sites like LiveReal, dare to turn off the television and argue Becker and other cats like him with other people (which will probably give you into a closer brush with real death than you might guess).
After all, Buddha talked a lot about "old age, sickness, disease, and death," and even rubbed his students' faces in it. A major point he seemed to be making was to go into it, not just avoid it. Socrates, who spent his life doing philosophy, I believe, would have agreed: ". . . is not philosophy the study of death?" Jesus said that whoever loses his life (dies, or leaves the Crossroads Mall) saves it, and he who clings to his life (meaning, his ego-life) loses it. Zen says "If you die, before you die, then when you die, you don't die." A Confucius proverb says "He who finds the truth in the morning is not afraid to die in the evening." And so on.
". . . it dawns on me, yet again,
that all spiritual practice is a rehearsal
- and at its best, an enactment -
- Ken Wilber
So, in my warped, twisted, zombie-ducking way - Dawn of the Dead literally, makes it obvious to me that philosophy - the real kind of philosophy, not the intellectual manure they normally teach in school, but the kind of philosophy with a pulse that involves things like going to see zombie movies - is one of the most valuable ways to spend my short time on this planet.
If Socrates was right, and real philosophy is the study of death, and if Becker is right too, that this affects us much more than we know . . . well, then the way I see it, everything else but philosophy is just a distraction, a sideshow, it's dancing in the ballroom of the Titanic, trying to keep your eyes away from the rising water.
And of course, this leads us to more questions. After all, what is it that really dies?
I mean, my body dies, for sure, but am I just my body? Who am I, anyway?
And if you succeed in getting completely free of your "denial," a state of no longer being in denial about death...is that happiness?
These, to me, seem like questions worth asking . . . at least, until the next zombie movie comes out...