by Mickey Hunt
The speaker paused to survey his audience one final time. A professor or two leaned against the wall, and scattered throughout the cavernous lecture hall were probably three dozen bored students—no doubt both undergraduate and graduate.
Dr. Gimbel’s audiences were growing smaller, and they didn’t laugh at the jokes anymore. People had lost interest in his subject of zombie theology. Thankfully, it was his last appearance on this particular university tour.
His pause would, he hoped, add significance to his next words. And it was working. Everyone was staring at him now, even the students who had been smiling at their laptop computers and phones.
“In conclusion,” the speaker said at last, “the concept of zombies affirms for us that humans don’t just have a dark side, but rather a depraved fundamental nature. When an infected person’s spirit departs from his or her body, and the zombie pathogen reignites the animal life within, what does the zombie do? It doesn’t contemplate the metaphysical wonders of existence, or of resurrection, rather it assaults living people and devours them, if it possibly can.
“With rare historical exceptions, the worst of our depraved nature is kept in check while we are alive, though it finds expression in the ordinary deviations, such as, for example, the flourish of zombie phenomena in literature, film, and games. Why this macabre fascination? It’s because the horror and gore appealed to our prurient natures. And a zombie is not only hungry, it’s angry and hateful, which tell us that we all possess a vicious force embedded, buried deep within our beings.
“My theory then is, within the zombie universe, or ontological lexicon, or milieu, it’s not the triggering pathogen that’s evil, but humans. We are the zombies. So, if we can never defeat the plague, what, if anything, can be done to alter human nature? And if we are able to change human nature, should we? What might the cost be to our humanity? These are inquiries we all must consider.”
Gimbel collected up his notes to signify that the lecture had ended.
No one applauded, at all.
No one had any questions.
The Chairman of the Department of Religion jumped up from his onstage seat and dashed to the podium. “Umm. Dr. Gimbel will be autographing his book A Speculative Theology of Zombies in the foyer. This book, as I mentioned, once topped the New York Times bestseller list for nine weeks. The Department is providing free copies. Umm, let’s thank Dr. Gimbel for his sacrifice in visiting our campus.”
The Department Chairman clapped his hands together several times and a few audience members politely imitated him. The rest began gathering up their coats, backpacks, and other gear.
“Just a reminder for my students,” the Chairman said into the microphone. “I’m giving extra credit for a no-more-than thousand word essay based on Dr. Gimbel’s treatise. It must be turned in by next Wednesday, midnight.”
At that moment a low breathy growl echoed through the hall. From behind a screen at the side of the stage emerged a slouching figure dragging its mangled stump of a foot. Pale, vacant eyes, a filthy football-jersey wrapping its body, followed by an overpowering putrid smell. It growled again between its black, broken teeth and lunged at Dr. Gimbel, who seemed to have frozen in place.
The Chairman grabbed Gimbel by the jacket and jerked him clear as two students with baseball bats hopped onto the stage. The zombie lunged again. One of the students smacked the zombie in the head, and when it dropped, they completed the job with a downward swing each.
“How in the blazes did it get into the building?” the Chairman said with irritation. “Second lapse this week. I’m filing a complaint with Campus Police. Anyway, whew, thanks guys. Let’s call Housekeeping in here to clean up, okay?”
He turned to the guest speaker, and nodding toward the two students, said, “My excellent Teacher Assistants. Dr. Gimbel, I most sincerely, most sincerely apologize.”
Dr. Gimbel, who had nearly caught his breath, said, “No problem. My cane?”
The Chairman passed him his cane and Gimbel limped down the steps and through the lecture hall into the foyer. There the students were reclaiming their field hockey sticks, tennis rackets, shovels, bats, and other assorted weapons. Outside, a handful of zombies pounded on the thick barred windows with their fists. A small group of students inside the glass exit doors was discussing meeting later for coffee.
“And did you recognize the zombie on the stage?” one female student said.
“Jesse Cavanaugh,” a male student said. “Number 29. Heisman Trophy contender.”
“Yeah. A great person,” she said with sadness. “All right, gang, let’s run for it. I’ve got a physics exam next period.”
“You all be careful out there!” Dr. Gimbel said.
“Thanks.” She clapped him on the shoulder.
“Ready, set, go!” she said and shoved against a door and held it open as her friends swarmed out. Gimbel watched them form up, speed across the quad, and dispatch a zombie or two that approached too close.
The Chairman by then was standing beside Dr. Gimbel and said, “Sorry, that no one stayed for your book signing.”
“It’s okay,” Gimbel said cheerily. “They’re busy.”