What Do Vampires and Zombies Have to Teach Us About Enlightenment?

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In a previous article on Beams I analyzed how fairy tales held remnants of shamanic religion and suggested that this shamanic undertone might be a partial explanation for the renewed popularity of the genre (especially on TV). In a similar way, in this article we’ll look at the popularity of horror culture, and the theme of undead creatures in particular, as a window into the nature of Enlightenment. We’ll specifically examine the mass fasciation with vampires and zombies in our culture--both of which fall under the category “Undead.” 


To introduce the argument... One of the classic names for the awakened state is the Unborn. That which is Unborn could also be called The Undead (or The Undying); for if something is never born neither will it die. My hypothesis is that cross-cultural stories of undead creatures point to the universality of the great matter of Enlightenment. We’re both deeply attracted to and repulsed by undead creatures. I believe we’re both attracted to and terrified of The Undead (i.e. Enlightenment). In part, I think what we see in the zombie and vampire mania what Alfred North Whitehead called a ‘misplaced concreteness.’ The true spiritual intuition behind these phenomena is that we have to die into a state of being Undead. This intuition is, however, misplaced concretely onto the image of certain creatures who are then infused with a certain spiritual reality. More on that in a bit. 


In order to ground ourselves in this argument, we need to delve into a teaching courtesy of Ken Wilber: The Atman Project. This may at first seem far away from vampires and zombies but we will come back to them I promise.


Project Atman 


lightWilber developed the notion of the Atman Project in two companion books: one entitled The Atman Project: A Transpersonal View of Human Development and the other called Up From Eden: A Transpersonal View of Human History. By transpersonal, Wilber means an ultimately spiritual reading of development and history. The books take the reader on an imaginative journey, contemplating how we’d understand individual and collective human development if we did so from a perspective that took seriously the reality, truth, and power of an Ultimate Reality (Spirit, God, Emptiness, Oneness, Light, Truth, whatever term one prefers). The books are profound reads and I encourage folks to study them. 


The Atman Project is an argument based on the belief that all human beings, even in the womb (if only in a proto-sense), intuit the reality of The Divine. All beings intuit that we are one with Spirit. Wilber begins The Atman Project with this quotation by Fritz Kunkel: 


“Being one with the universe, one with God--that is what we wish for most whether we know it or not.” 


In one form of another this teaching is found in all the great spiritual traditions. 


Wilber quotes from the Nirvana Sutra which states, “All sentient beings possess the Buddha Nature.” 


Wilber adds: “This is what the Jewish midrash means when it ascribes knowledge to the unborn babe in the womb, saying that over its head there burns a light in which it sees all the ends of the world.” (p.182) 


In birth all humans are born with this divine connection. In the Christian tradition we have an ancient teaching known as the “image and likeness.” In the creation account in Genesis, the text states, “And God made humans in God’s image and likeness.” Theologians wondered about what exactly was the image and the likeness. While there was not total agreement, one school stated that the image was who we are in God, it was always true but its power mostly lay as a potential. The likeness was whether we grew into the full maturity and lived out of our Divine Image (Imago Dei), in day to day life. 


So everyone is born in the image of God but must develop into the likeness. The likeness can be left un-actualized. The image, while it can never be fully erased, could be obscured through actions of hate, violence, prejudice, and cruelty. Such negative actions (sin, karma) can hide or defile the divine image within us. This notion of an obscuration or perversion of the divine image is an important theme--we’ll see it applied to vampires and zombies in a bit. 


So, according to the teaching of The Atman Project, we desire God. We are deeply drawn to God. We will seek God. But, according to Wilber, we seek out this Unity through means that are less than perfect:


That is the other side of the the Atman Project: each individual only wants Atman [Awakening], but wants it under conditions which prevent it...each stage then tends to become, in effect, a compromise and a substitute for Atman--and this occurs consciously or unconsciously. It occurs at every level, from the lowest to the highest, a simple reflex of manifestation. (p. 183) 




For Wilber the truth is that we are one with The All, with God. But we fall into the illusion of believing we’re separate beings, individual egos, disconnected from the whole. So we both want God on the one hand but on the other hand, we don’t want to die to our separate, false self. Dying to the false self is the only way to re-unite with the truth of our Being in The One. This push/pull--wanting God and at the same time not wanting to do the one thing that would reunite us with God, i.e. sacrifice our false self--causes a deep tension. This tension seeks release, as Wilber says, through the creation of symbolic substitutes. 


The isolated individual ego is faced with two basic drives: Eros (the drive to preserve itself) and Thanatos (the drive to prevent its death).* The Buddha called them desire and fear, the great motivators. As Wilber says, there are very primitive as well as very subtle forms of Eros and Thanatos. In a moment we will discuss the Erotic (Eros) nature of vampires and the Thanatos of the zombies. 


A classic Atman Project form of substitution is believing in the everlasting nature of the separate self. The ultimate truth is that, we are one with The One. That One is Eternal. When our separate selves die, we realize our participation in the Ultimate. We are therefore--to the degree that we are identified with The Ultimate--Eternal. We are Unborn and Undead in that place. 


But that realization only occurs on the far side of the death of the false self. Enlightenment is the realization of our Eternal Oneness. But the mistake comes in when we apply that Eternal Nature to our separate selves. We then confuse Eternity for everlasting. Everlasting is the extension of linear time into an unending future. The Eternal is beyond past, present, and future; The Eternal is beyond time.

Vampires and zombies are undead creatures. They are also, unless killed, immortal beings--that is--everlasting. They continue indefinitely in finite time. They’ve already died so they do not undergo the normal process of death. Though they can of course, with difficulty, be killed. 


vampires and zombies


Vampires and zombies a perfect representation, therefore, of a substitute for Atman: they point to Enlightenment but don’t force us to go all the way.  I believe this is why we’re so fascinated by them--fascinated in the traditional sense of the term, meaning both attracted to and terrified by. They are pointers to the need for the death of the separate self to awaken into (true Eternal) Immortality. At the same time, they therefore remind us of the need to die to the false self--which brings up incredible fear for the separate self--and therefore vampires and zombies are rightly placed within the horror genre. They horrify us. Vampires and zombies are a perverted form of Enlightenment into the Absolute. They are inverted symbols of awakening. 


They haunt us. The great French postmodern philosopher Jacques Derrida conducted studies in what he called hauntology--the study of things that haunt us (at Beams we call this fearology). For Derrida, that which haunts is always something that has been repressed or denied. The haunting comes when that idea, person, thought, or feeling comes back in a spectral form to try to get our attention. 


I think the vampire and zombie craze is a kind of spiritual haunting--since the zombies and vampires are stand-ins or substitutes for awakening, they haunt us. In order to move, however, from vampires and zombies being Atman substitutes to real awakening ourselves, a (spiritual) death needs to occur. Perhaps then, an investigation in the ways to slay a vampire or zombie will give us some insight into how slay the ego. 


How Do You Kill That Which is Always Already Dead?: The Koan of Horror Movies


In Zen Buddhism there’s a tradition of koans--puzzles that seek to undo the dualistic mind and spring into Awakening. Questions like: “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” “What was your original face before your parents were born?” 


The koan that vampires and zombies leave us is: how do you kill that which is already dead? 


how to kill zombie

There is an intriguing connection between the method by which one kills a vampire or zombie and the question of how one kills one’s ego. Traditionally we know that you kill vampires by driving a stake through their hearts and typically you kill zombies by decapitation. There is, however, also a tradition of killing vampires by driving stakes through their stomachs. The head, the heart, and the hara (the power center in the gut) are, in many traditions, the three great energetic-spiritual centers of the body. Those three zones are said to correspond to the intellect, the emotions, and the will. The contemporary spiritual teacher Adyashanti in his book The End of Your World: Uncensored Straight Talk on the Nature of Enlightenment talks about awakening as a process that begins in the head (the mind), flows down into the heart (the feelings), and then eventually into the gut (the will). As Spirit descends into each new region that part of our being has to open up--it has to go through a death. Adyashanti details how the ego, the created intellect, emotions, and will are ultimately not real and yet they have these effects. By looking into the nature of all three regions we realize they are ultimately empty. We realize the death has already taken place in an absolute sense (like vampires and zombies) but it still requires a process of letting go or dying (as we still need to kill vampires and zombies). 


kaliSo to kill vampires and zombies we need to aim for cutting off the heads, staking the heart, or piercing the gut. Cutting off the head is a metaphor for enlightenment in the traditions associated with the Dark Goddess Kali. Kali decapitates the gods Vishnu, Shiva, and Brahma. This represents killing even the image of God one holds. Kali then cuts off her own head so that no image, even her, maybe remain as one falls completely into the abyss of awakening. 


Putting a stake through the heart. Often a vampire is found during the daylight, while sleeping, and then is staked in its coffin. The image of the sleeping vampire is a metaphor for the deep dreamless sleep of entering into the Ground of Being. I actually practice what is called the corpse pose during meditation--the physical posture is a metaphor for the state of dying. 


The analogy is a very apt one. The ego is, in a very real sense, in an undead state. It’s both animated and walking around and yet not really or fully alive. The ego has effects and consequences but is not ultimately real. Ultimately we are one with The All. The separate ego self is not ultimately real. But neither is it totally illusory either. It has a kind of in between status much like zombies and vampires who are undead (or said another way unliving) yet real. 


vampire kitThe ego as such is always already dead. Yet it lives this zombie existence--mindlessly following its automated routines. Its vampiric, sucking life and creativity in a bid to stay alive but having to feed on other beings essence for its existence. 


So the ego is undead yet it still has to die in order for the resurrection of enlightenment. Technically what has to die is our exclusive identification with the ego not the ego itself, though to the ego that’s a distinction without a difference and it will fight to the death to prove it so.  


On the one hand, Enlightenment is about the death of the false self and entrance into the Undead state of Pure Awareness. Enlightenment is equally (if not more so) the realization of oneness with all reality--that one is the Universe, the Universe is the Divine Body. The realization of this truth, in embodiment, is a sacrament. As we have followed this parallel between zombies and vampires as substitutes for Awakening, we will continue to this thread by looking at the sacramental nature of zombic and vampiric existence. 


Eating the Flesh and Drinking The Blood: The Sacrament of Being Undead

Zombies eat flesh while vampires drink blood. Eating flesh and drinking blood--does this remind us of anything?

"Take and eat, this is my body. This is my blood of the new covenant. Drink this in remembrance of me."

"Just as a vampire takes a sinner's very spirit into itself by drinking his blood, so also can a righteous Christian by drinking Christ's blood take the divine spirit into himself." (wiki reference)

eucharistAs I mentioned in this sermon, in the Christian sacrament of The Eucharist, the bread is (or if you prefer symbolizes) the wisdom of awakening. The wine is drinking existence with all its sorrows and joys. The wine is the ecstasy of grapes which beautifully grow through their connections with the sunshine, the rain, the soil, the air, only to be crushed, only to bleed so that there might be wine. The wine is what the Christian tradition calls kenosis: self-emptying love.

Through eating the bread and drinking the wine, one comes to be incorporated into the Body of Christ. Just so, if one is bitten by either zombie or vampire one is incorporated into the vampiric or zombic social body. The Mystical Body of Christ, The Mystical Body of Zombies and Vampires.


zombie awlk


Eating is incorporation--literally "in or into the body (corpus)."

In the West we live in an extremely isolated individualized world. The desire for communal solidarity runs deep. (I'd even go so far to say it's an intrinsic element of the makeup of the Universe). I think the mass popularity of zombie walks speaks to this desire for deep collective connection.

Conclusion: Eros and Thanatos

"Well Shirley, since you have clearly failed to grasp the central insipid metaphor of those Twilight books you devour, let me explain it to you! Men are monsters who crave young flesh!"
--Jeff Winger, Community

vampireBesides eating, the other great sacramental act, is of course sex. Again we see the intuition of Awakening in all this. The desire to unite in flesh with another is a spiritual impulse, perhaps the spiritual impulse. Sex is Erotic and this brings up back to a point mentioned earlier concerning Eros and Thanatos--the impulse towards the preservation of life and the avoidance of death. Desire and Fear. Vampires are, in many ways, the embodiment of Eros. That is why they are so sexy. Unless a necrophiliac, people are not aroused by zombies. Quite the opposite--we're repulsed by them, at least sexually. People don't write fantasy books about being a high school teenager falling in love with an unattainable brooding zombie.

Vampires represent the Eros side of the Atman Project. We project the desirable traits of immortality onto them. If I was a vampire, I'd be aristocratic (i.e. not have to work for a living), and have whatever young flesh I'd crave.

zombiesZombies are the death-drive (Thanatos). They are the projection of all of fears of decay, aging, and death. They also represent the drive towards regression--a desire to manically lose all civilization and return to a state of total barbarity. When individuals don the zombie identity in social play they may be learning to accept the inevitable headed-towards-death nature of life. Or they may be, however subtly or unconsciously, seeking to immunize themselves against its activity by a worshipful act of vesting oneself in the nature of that which one fears. In the language of The Atman Project this is a substitute sacrifice meant to appease and ward off Thanatos. Again, the mystical insight is that the human sacrifice required for Enlightenment is the sacrifice of the egoic false identity--not the literal sacrifice of human blood as in earlier civilizations. Thanatos is the drive ultimately towards transcendence--the death of the false self leading to higher, deeper, and wider realities not regression or total dissolution as in the zombie lore.


So it's time to embrace our inner vampire and zombie--in a mystical sense. Time to drink the blood of life, to eat the flesh of all reality, to give our own blood and flesh to be devoured. To cease with the projection outward of immortality onto other beings and to face into the very heart of The Abyss and hope that Eternal Life is to be found on the other side.




* Wilber's use of Thanatos differs from the more common understanding of the term derived originally from Freud. For Freud Thanatos is the death-drive--a part of us that desires our own death and return to an inorganic state. I do believe this drive does exist but I prefer Wilber's understanding of the term.


** Thanks to my friend Bryon Hanson for permission to use the zombie walk picture. Bryon's the Maple Leaf Zombie in the center of the shot. 




Editors- TJ Dawe, Trevor Malkinson




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  • Comment Link Victor Shiryaev Wednesday, 27 June 2012 02:45 posted by Victor Shiryaev

    Hi Chris, this is an absolutely wonderful piece, and I want to simply acknowledge its awesomeness. I think that this is a way to go - serve serious and profound insights, trans-cultural explorations, and comparative religious studies in a way that's fresh and entertaining. One of the best representatives of such an approach out there in academia is Jeffrey Kripal with his "Mutants and Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics, and the Paranormal" book, among other stuff he wrote.

  • Comment Link Chris Dierkes Monday, 02 July 2012 05:35 posted by Chris Dierkes

    Thanks Victor. Kripal is awesome. I love his work. I think he's the best religious scholar currently working (in English at the very least if not more globally).

  • Comment Link Trevor Malkinson Monday, 02 July 2012 22:48 posted by Trevor Malkinson

    With the couple mentions of Kripal there, thought I'd throw a link to a podcast interview he did with Homebrewed Christianity about his book 'Mutants and Mystic- Science Fiction, Superhero Comics, and the Paranormal'. Really interesting conversation, lots in there.


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