By Charlie W. Starr
Movies and television have increasingly been exploring the question of life after death through various fantastical methods. I talked about this a couple of years ago in regard to the movies Twilight and Cloud Atlas and now want to take it up again in relation to a pair of television shows. The way we’re exploring the afterlife tells us something about our current culture.
Resurrection has run for two seasons now (Sunday nights on ABC). In a small Missouri town, people who were dead are coming back to life. They may be recently dead or gone for decades. Most of these people, called “the returned,” show up where they came from. A few wake up in other places in the world. They’re always wearing the clothing from the period they died in. They are not zombies or otherwise grotesque and don’t come up out of their graves. Some of the returned have died and come back several times.
While there are serious questions about where these people came from, for the most part such questions are sidestepped and the story is about the people in this small town learning to deal with their extraordinary circumstances: an older couple gets their drowned 8-year-old son back; a daughter gets her father back; a married man gets his first girlfriend back, and she’s pregnant. The show is about how average people might respond to death being a not-so-permanent thing.
Forever was new to television this year (also on ABC). In this show a single character, Henry Morgan (played by Ioan Gruffudd), can’t die. Anytime he is killed, his body disappears and he comes back to life in a river or ocean. To cope with this problem, Morgan is a doctor and spent two centuries studying death. In our time, he is a medical examiner in Manhattan and collaborates with the police to solve murders.
Strangely this show is much more like a Sherlock Holmes style detective show than any typical supernatural tale. But for the fact that the hero keeps resurrecting, the show is a pretty straightforward murder mystery.
What It Means
It’s one thing to tell stories of vampires or zombies—those kind of supernatural shows tend to take us out of reality and into extreme circumstances. But Resurrection and Forever appear to us in a style of storytelling first developed in South America by Nobel Prize winning author Gabriel García Márquez. (See, for example, his short story, “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings.”)
This style is called magical realism. It has been pursued by other authors (such as Isabelle Allende and Toni Morrison), and has appeared in film from time to time (The Milagro Beanfield War and Field of Dreams). This kind of storytelling is realistic—it shows us the average, everyday world we live in—but with one twist: there is an intrusion of some supernatural element which is treated in a very realistic way, which people accept for what it is and deal with without skepticism in the best way they can.
I think this says something about us. What kind of cop show includes a character who just happens to be immortal? What kind of drama includes zombies who aren’t really zombies at all—just people who happen to be no longer dead? Approaching death and resurrection through magical realism shows that it’s not just fringe sci-fi, fantasy, and horror lovers who want to see supernatural entertainment. And the entertainment isn’t just for fun but also for exploration. We’re taking the issues mainstream, and that’s a good thing. It means the Ages of Reason, Realism, and Modernism, which were supposed to put an end to so-called “primitive” religious thoughts, failed—they could not conquer the deepest desire of humankind’s soul, one which Solomon knew was in all of us: “He has also set eternity in the human heart” (Ecclesiastes 3:11).
We can definitely look at this negatively: contemporary America is substituting storytelling for revelation, human-made myth for true religion. On the other hand is the positive: God works even in human myths to teach us truth and begin the process of drawing us toward the truest of all stories: the gospel. He is working on the American heart in the most mysterious of ways, even in the television stories we tell. We want to live forever. Naturalism can’t kill this desire. We want to find Heaven, even if we’re looking for it on earth. That’s something God (and his church in the culture we live in) can work with.
Dr. Charlie W. Starr teaches English, humanities, and film at Kentucky Christian University in Grayson, Kentucky (www.charliewstarr.com).