“As the cool stream gushed over one hand, she spelled into the other the word water, firstly slowly then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motion of her fingers. Suddenly I felt the misty consciousness as of something forgotten—a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that “w-a-t-e-r” meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened by soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free… Everything had a name, and each name gave birth to a new thought. As we returned to the house every object which I touched seemed to quiver with life.” – Helen Keller, The Story of My Life

“Eight-year-old Helen made her breakthrough from the good responding animal which behaviorists study so successfully to the strange, name-giving and sentence-uttering creature who begins by naming shoes and ships and sealing wax, and later tells jokes, curses, reads the paper, writes La sua volontade e nostra pace, or becomes a Hegel and composes an entire system of philosophy.” – Walker Percy, “The Delta Factor” in The Message in the Bottle

Language is something that we all take for granted; one of many things to lose its wonder to the banality of utility. When I first read the collection of essays by Walker Percy that make up The Message in the Bottle, I remember how Percy’s obsession with this specific moment described above by Helen Keller infected me in such a way that ‘language’ became something of which I was aware for the first time. I began to marvel at the power and nature of language and what it meant.

Keller’s transition from hearing a word and responding to words, on their own, starting to swell with life is so easily and quickly passed over. It’s like reading the creation narrative in Genesis and passing over the gift of language which God bestows on Adam when he is tasked with naming “every beast of the field and every bird of the air.” This is the first moment in the creation narrative where God’s linguistic character was given without contingency to man. And man spoke. He named. Another aspect of God’s image by which we are seldom transfixed.

Around the same time I was reading all of the works of Walker Percy, I stumbled upon a horror film that has continued, eight years later, to be unsung in its brilliance and its insanity. Pontypool tells the story of Grant Mazzy, a ribald morning radio personality, and his producer and sound engineer (Sydney and Laurel Ann) as they navigate a strange region-wide outbreak that seems to be infecting the people of the small village of Pontypool, Ontario. All of the action happens within the studio space during Mazzy’s morning talkshow. The strangeness creeps into the studio, first, from traffic and news reports which are part of the show’s normal format. As the morning moves along, the screw is slowly turned as they become trapped and they began to learn the means by which the disease is passed on: through language.

“Oh, you kill the word that’s killing you! That’s good! You repeat it. Yeah, I remember as a kid, I used to, uh, I used to repeat words over and over again till they were incomprehensible. You think that’s what it is? Is that why they’re repeating things? Is it some kind of immune system response?…Ok, kill isn’t kill. Sydney, kill isn’t kill. It isn’t kill. Kill isn’t kill. Kill isn’t kill. Kill isn’t kill. Kill isn’t kill. Kill isn’t kill. Oh, god. I don’t know, I don’t know. I don’t know. Uh, uh, ok. Kill is blue. Kill is wonderful. Kill is loving. Kill is baby. Kill is Manet’s Garden. Kill is a beautiful morning. Kill is everything you ever wanted. Kill is, kill is, uh, kill is kiss.” – Grant Mazzy, Pontypool

People become sick by an infected word. Just as Mazzy relays above, people begin to repeat the infected word until it becomes unintelligible and then they become enraged and confused and violent. With this, Pontypool essentially becomes the most philosophically-fascinating zombie film of all time.

Tony Burgess, author of Pontypool Changes Everything and the screenwriter for the film, has a degree in semiotics—the study of meaning-making, sign process (semiosis) and meaningful communication. He wrote this novel after getting his degree with all of the language theory weighing heavily on his mind. The novel is a frenetic and sometimes enraging read as its narrative intends to be just as disorienting as the disease which fills its main conceit.

Yet when I watched the film—I would read the book a couple of years after seeing the movie—I found myself contemplating what it and Walker Percy’s musings about Helen Keller had to do with each other. Between these two cultural artifacts, we find the birth and death of language and the toll it takes on the human being. There is a process of human disintegration that happens in Pontypool which catalogs the descent from reasoning human to abstracted creature.

The infection spreads until language and meaning are completely severed from each other. “Kill” means “Kiss” as much as “Kiss” means “Kiss” at this point of infection. As meaning slips slowly away from their language, they become detached from their identities because identity-making requires the development of systems of meaning. How are systems of meaning made? Language. It’s what connects humanity and allows us to share meaning with others and to be brought into other people’s lives. One infected word ravages an entire lexicon and, with it, our last bastion of connection to each other, to God and to ourselves. “Sin” itself has been given a name as if it were the etymological foundation of this linguistic tragedy.

The life-giving moment of revelation that Keller spoke about is ripped away, and the rage and violence that ensues becomes the incarnation of the abstracted creature who has memories deep in the reservoirs of their minds when gushing water and fingered words brought us closer to the paradise we were abruptly removed from. Not since God confused our language and destroyed our self-made Tower have we felt so alienated from the world in which we creep, oh, wretched creatures that we have become. Another part of the divine image marred by the systems of destruction that we brought into the world. Helen Keller’s, in the midst of her blindness and hearing impairment, received a revelation akin to what we can only assume Adam received in the beginning. Words and meaning and relationship all came with language. And, yet, Pontypool shows us the natural consequences of our rebellion down to every dotted “i” and crossed “t.” The world doesn’t end with a bang, but with meaningless and violent silence.

While the film is an imaginative vision of apocalyptic denigration of our ability to make meaning and identity, the makeup of the disease has a real-life doppelgänger: Alzheimer’s Disease. When the proteins in the brain build up enough to shut down significant neurological pathways, communication becomes increasingly difficult as the word bank that the person is normally accustomed to ends up dissipating into thin air. They unknowingly mispronounce words, they use words that rhyme with the words they are actually wanting to use, and sometimes they make up words based on sounds that toddlers are more prone to use. In a similar way, words have been stripped of their meaning and the person is left isolated because of their inability to enter into connective communication.

As my family sits down to our weekly meal—something we have done for years, my father often says the prayer before the meal. Where he is at in his current stage of Alzheimer’s finds him in this state of the abstracted creature. His prayers are still formed words, but they are often jumbled. Words with adjacent or completely different meanings fill in the blanks within his mind’s ability to make a cogent thought. The infection has corrupted his language. Words are incomprehensible and even the simplest prayer becomes deprived of meaning. At least, to those surrounding him, those that love him. We recognize his isolation. The glazed look as he sits silently while conversations pass by. When he does interact, it is to interject something that had been moved on from already or something from his past that he speaks about as if it just happened. We don’t always know what it is, because he is unable to express his thoughts and memories to us in a way we can grasp.

Language is something we all take for granted; one of many things to lose its wonder to the banality of utility…until it is lost. At that point, wonder is no longer an option. Only shallow memories of something that once was. The words-words-words-words start to repeat and repeat and we feel the detachment happening. This is the by-product of the Fall. Even language is laced with infection. Just as Helen Keller can be enlivened by the inherent meanings of words, transcending mere call-and-response, so can my father and the townspeople of Pontypool find themselves within the coldness of this linguistic severance. It was given, it can be taken. Neither of our own doing.

There is, then, something vital in the gospel of John which gives new life and new meaning to those abstracted from themselves and others by way of the effects of sin that lie in the very DNA of words:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it” (John 1:1-5 NKJV).

The one word that never would become corrupted and would renew all things down to the…

…letter.