Not Dead Yet! 'Resurrection' in Science and Fiction
Eight-year-old Jacob returns to his home and family -- 32 years after he died. Courtesy of ABC TV
TV's latest hit drama "Resurrection" chronicles events in the small town of Arcadia, Mo., when long-lost friends and family start returning from the dead. These aren't zombies, though. The returned are simply back -- physically intact, apparently un-aged and deeply confused.
Returning from the dead seems to be on our collective mind these days. "Resurrection" is just one of several recent and disturbingly similar stories -- in books, film and television -- about the dead returning to life. This may have to do with our enduring cultural anxieties about cataclysm and death. Or it may just be that spring is finally here after a historically brutal winter. Here we take a look at iterations of the resurrection motif in history and culture, plus some possible scientific modes of future resurrection.
A scene from the French television series "The Returned." Jean Claude Lother / Sundance Channel
If you stop to think about it, it's a little worrying how many back-from-the-dead stories are recently surfacing (heh). "Resurrection" is based on the book "The Returned" by Jason Mott, in which the dead come back not just to one small town, but all around the world. That book is unrelated to the French television series "The Returned," recently broadcast in the United States by the Sundance Channel and reissued on DVD. That series also deals with the dead returning to a small town, and was in turn inspired by a French film, "Les Revenants" (released in English as "They Came Back.")
That's a lot of dead people, but this kind of coincidence isn't new in show business. Many are the summers when there are two competing asteroid movies, or volcano movies, or what-have-you. In fact, "Resurrection" is just the latest variation on a loooong line of back-from-the-dead stories in film, TV and literature -- and all the way back to our earliest myths and legends.
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First off, it's helpful to define some terms, fuzzy as the distinctions may be. Resurrection comes from the Latin resurrectio, meaning "to rise again." It's an ancient concept, usually religious, concerning an individual being coming back to life after death. This concept of resurrection connotes returning in physical form, not as a ghost or spirit. And as opposed to reincarnation, resurrection suggests the original personality returning in the original body, or sometimes a specifically designated new one.
In short, resurrection stories aren't about past lives, undead monsters or vengeful spirits. They're about individual people coming back from the Other Side, with all the attendant complications and implications.
A sculpture depicts Christ, in the San Severo Chapel in Italy. Sylvain Grandadam/Getty Images
Many of the oldest gods in religion and mythology are described as resurrected entities. In comparative religion, these are sometimes referred to as dying-and-rising gods. In these stories, the deity dies and is reborn again, either in a literal or symbolic sense. Many of the oldest sun gods are associated with resurrection motifs -- the sun dies in the evening and is reborn in the morning.
Some of these early deities include the Egyptian god Ra, the Norse god Baldur, the Aztec god Quetzacoatl and the Babylonian goddess Ishtar. Many heroes and gods in ancient Greek mythology were resurrected from the dead to become immortal -- familiar names like Heracles, Achilles and Dionysus.
In Christianity, the death and resurrection of Jesus is a central doctrine of the faith. The idea of resurrection of the dead on a global scale is also part of the eschatology, or "end-time" theology, of Christianity and many religions.
Rather fittingly, the resurrection motif tends to rise again, over and over, in literature and culture. In fantasy literature, heroes like Aslan the Lion in "The Chronicles of Narnia" or Tolkein's Gandalf appear to experience resurrection. And of course, villains like Sauron or even Harry Potter's Voldemort seem to find it impossible to stay dead for long.
Fans of another recent TV reboot will remember that Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's famous detective, apparently returned from the dead after the short story "The Final Problem." Holmes' dramatic return wasn't supernatural, but Doyle was clearly having fun with the ancient resurrection motif.
Pets and people both get resurrected in Stephen King's horror classic "Pet Sematary." Paramount Pictures
Instances of apparent resurrection can be found in more recent films, TV shows and books -- especially in speculative fiction genres of horror and sci-fi. Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" pioneered an entire genre in which science attempts to get into the resurrection business, inspiring later stories like H.P. Lovecraft's "Herbert West: Reanimator." Stephen King's book "Pet Sematary" -- which won the World Fantasy Award for best novel in 1984 -- is arguably more resurrection story than zombie story. Elliot's alien friend in "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial" dies and rises again, as does Spock in "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan." In comic books, Superman died and was resurrected in the 1990s "Death of Superman" storyline.
More recently, the television series "The 4400" chronicled the unexpected return of, yes, 4,400 people that were presumed dead. The 2002 Japanese film "Yomigaeri" tells of dead family members returning to life, and is remarkably similar to the "Resurrected" story. Yet another TV series called "Babylon Fields" is reportedly in development, concerning the dead returning to a small town in New York.
Should we be worried? Or more to the point, is there any scientific basis to the idea of resurrection -- of overcoming death to return to life once again?
The field of resuscitation medicine suggests that death is more of a process than an event, and that patients can be brought back to life hours after vital organs stop functioning. But that's short-term resuscitation and not really in the realm of resurrection.
Potential applications in the field of cryonics, or cryopreservation, suggest the possibility of future resurrection. The idea is to freeze human tissue -- either the entire body or just the head and brain -- with the hope that future technology will be able to bring the person back to life. Baseball superstar Ted Williams is probably the most famous person to be cryonically preserved. Hard numbers are difficult to come by, but recent reports suggest that hundreds of people are currently on ice -- in whole or in part -- at various cryopreservation facilities in the United States.
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For some hardcore futurists, advanced computer technology may offer another path to resurrection. Whole brain emulation (WBE) refers to the still-hypothetical concept of essentially digitizing a person's brain, then uploading it to an artificial neural network or "personality construct." The individual would be resurrected, and potentially immortalized, as a machine.
It's an idea that has been around in science fiction since the 1950s; Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke both explored the idea. William Gibson popularized the concept in his 1984 cyberpunk novel "Neuromancer," in which personality constructs live virtually online, or decant themselves into physical bodies cloned from the original person. Richard K. Morgan's 2002 novel "Altered Carbon" imagines a future in which all humans have a cortical stack (a kind of brain backup drive) implanted at the base of skull, and resurrection is considered a basic human right.
Resurrection by way of science isn't here quite yet. But assuming the sci-fi writers are employing their usual prescience to the subject, then technology will eventually let us come back from the dead. So we've got that going for us. Which is nice.