Living in the Zombie Age

The Sutherland Springs shooter, who took the lives of 26 men, women, and children in a small Texas church, was, like scores of others before him, one of the living dead.

Dylan Klebold, James Holmes, Adam Lanza, Stephen Paddock, and Devin Patrick Kelley represent what the apostle Paul warned would characterize the latter days: people who, in the New Revised Standard Version rendering, are “inhuman.” Not inhuman as to “sub-human,” but “counter-human”—individuals who are set against humanity and their own humanness, often to the point of taking their own life after taking the lives of others, beings who are physically alive, but emotionally, socially, and morally dead—zombies.

In 1946 the proto-man of this strain was introduced by Albert Camus in his novel, The Stranger.

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The Stranger
The title character of The Stranger is Meursault, a man out of harmony with the society in which he lives, a person for whom there is no rational order to the universe, no transcendent pegs for ultimate significance, and no fixed standards for human conduct; life is merely the sum-total of his autonomous actions, the moment-to-moment procession of sensory inputs.

As the story unfolds, Meursault drifts through life from one experience to the next in zombie-esque detachment until he fatally shoots a man, then fires four more rounds into the lifeless body. He later muses, “it was like knocking four quick times on the door of unhappiness.”

The extent of his “inhumanity” is revealed at his execution when he wishes only for “a large crowd of spectators … [to] greet me with howls of hate.”

Importantly, Meursault’s crime was not the result of mental illness or “going postal,” but of a faulty worldview. Once he accepted the cosmos as uncaring and unsupervised, he was destined to conclude that fellow-creature sentiments were absurd, and that any action, even the choice to kill or not kill, was bereft of moral value—beliefs that would transmogrify him.

Twenty years later, Meursault was enfleshed, with a vengeance.

On July 14, 1966, eight student nurses were brutally murdered in a Chicago townhouse by a zombie. His name was Richard Speck.

In 1988 when asked in a prison interview why he killed the nurses, the middle-aged murderer quipped, “It just wasn’t their night.” When asked how he felt about his crime some 22 years later, Speck paused, then, with a Meursault-like insouciance, shrugged, “Like I always felt … had no feeling. If you’re asking me if I felt sorry, no.” In soulless detachment, he went on to describe the process of strangulation: “It’s not like TV takes over three minutes and you have to have a lot of strength.”

While Speck was not a zombie of popular Hollywood depictions, he was, in a very real sense, like The Stranger, a counter-human, one of the living dead.

The Chicago townhouse murders marked the rise of what NY Times columnist David Brooks calls, the “spectacular rampage murder.” According to Brooks, from 1913 to around 1970, there were no more than two of these types of murders per decade. After that, the number of incidences shot up to nine in the 1980s, eleven in the 1990s and, as tallied by the FBI, 160 between 2000 and 2013.

The rise in such killings could not happen without the rise of a certain type of individual: a socially isolated person whom, psychotherapist Dr. Paul Hannig describes, “can’t feel the normal range of human emotions” and has lost “all sense of normal morality and impulse control”—a zombie.

The Counter-Human
The rampage murderer kills, says Dr. Hannig, in the belief that mass murder is “the solution to his problems.” He imagines that the spectacle of his crime will bring wide attention to the injustices he has had to bear. Through mass murder, he will assert his grievances and accomplish what he has failed to accomplish thus far: “to be heard, understood, and accepted.”

Similarly, mass murderers aren’t necessarily “crazed killers” or persons suffering some mental disorder—in fact, most are neither. A study published in The Southwest Journal of Criminal Justice reported that less than one-third of mass killers had any mental health concern.

Dr. Michael Stone, a professor of clinical psychiatry, concurs. After personally examining over 200 mass murderers, Dr. Stone found that “only 25 were ruled clinically insane.” The rest were “social misfits or angry loners” whose rage was triggered by “some event.”

Looking to Technocracy
Nevertheless, in the aftermath of the Texas church shooting there is, yet again, the vocal chorus calling for stricter gun controls and better mental health care. It reflects what Christian commentator, John Stonestreet, calls the technocratic worldview—the belief that:

All human problems and challenges, such as climate change, gun violence, and even terrorism, are problems that can be solved if only we apply the right techniques, which these days are almost always political steps: i.e., passing the right laws or public policies.

In this worldview, the world and all of its complexities can be reduced to mathematical models, and can thus be controlled by our best ideas and efforts. All of our problems, the logic continues, can be, if not eliminated, at least ameliorated.

But it’s a worldview that consistently fails. In the run-up to the financial crisis of 2008, Wall Street honestly believed it had mathematically solved the problem of risk. But it hadn’t. And there’s no reason to believe that the ‘something’ the critics of prayer are advocating will reduce, much less stop, the kind of carnage we continue to see across our nation.

As reported by the New York Times, the correlation between gun ownership and mass shootings suggests that fewer guns would lead to fewer rampage murders. The sad reality is that even if progressive technocrats succeeded in confiscating all firearms and ammunition in the country, it wouldn’t deter the counter-human from unleashing his inhumanity on society with explosives, chemicals, biotoxins, knives, and vehicles (all, of which, he has used).

And that points to a root cause that is neither material nor psychological, but cardiological: “out of the hearts of men come evil thoughts … murder,… malice,… arrogance and folly.”

Message of Meaninglessness
It should strike us, more than coincidental, that the rise in rampage killings began when the vapors of nihilism wafted out of coffee houses and college lecture halls to cover the cultural landscape from sea to shining sea.

Indeed, from the classroom to the art gallery to Friends and Seinfeld, the nihilistic message is clear: We are alone in an indifferent universe with nothing to give meaning to our existence but the sum-total of our personal experiences. And, for the restless soul chasing after the “meaningful” experience, a pop psychology is ready to light the way.

With a lump of Freudian theory, a dash of Kinseyian research, and liberal amounts of Maslow’s hierarchy, modern psychology promises meaning and self-discovery through the satisfaction of felt needs.

However, as psychology professor Dr. Paul Hannig notes in his book, Psychology as Religion, popular selfist theories have “led to large-scale disappointment.” Instead of the sought-after significance and fulfillment, the search-for-self often leads to frustration and failure—the dead-end job, the missed promotion, the layoff, the cancer diagnosis, bankruptcy, divorce, and broken relationships.

Is it any wonder that when these pile up on individuals conditioned to believe that personal happiness is the summum bonum of life, some become “social misfits” and others “angry loners”? And a few, a very few, take out their frustrations in an inhuman way; perhaps, like one of the walking dead?

The Sutherland Springs massacre is the latest reminder that the zombie is here, and he will continue to express his anger in ever more creative and destructive ways until we look beyond his choice of weapon and state of mind to the ideas that shaped him and to the Cardiologist who, alone, can transform his heart of stone to one of flesh.


  • Regis Nicoll

    Regis Nicoll is a retired nuclear engineer and a fellow of the Colson Center who writes commentary on faith and culture. He is the author of Why There Is a God: And Why It Matters.

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