So, I teach a college course about the zombie in popular culture. Well, actually it’s about academic writing, cleverly masked as a course about the zombie in popular culture. Using writing as a process for thinking (rather than a product of thinking), my class attempted to articulate what about the zombie makes it a particularly suitable monster to represent the social anxieties of our contemporary cultural moment.
In my piece on body horror, I claim that “Horror films can disturb our notions of safety, cause ripples in our faith in the human race, and reveal our monstrous natures. At their best, horror films can speak truth to power by providing new metaphors or alternative worlds that allow us to explore hegemony in our own culture”. Never has this been more more true for me than when talking about zombies in the classroom. Part introduction to zombie-research-methodology, part homage to my brilliant students, this post features some of the most important discussions we had this semester.
- Monsters can do critical work: The first article we read in my class contends that the monster is “born only at this metaphoric crossroads as an embodiment of a certain cultural moment—of a time, a feeling, and a place. The monster’s body quite literally incorporates fear, desire, anxiety, and fantasy”*.. The importance of recognizing that even fantastical, imaginary bodies can speak to the real world highlights the fact that no instance of discourse is value-free. But I don’t need to tell you that…
- Loss of agency is scary. While reading and discussing Zora Neale Hurston’s account of zombies in Haiti (Tell My Horse), my students became fascinated with the intersection of zombies and human agency. We decided that one of the scariest things about the zombies of Haitian lore is the loss of control experienced by the zombified person (It’s widely recognized that Haitian zombies are deeply interconnected with the island’s history of slavery). Our society is filled with institutions and people that will try to deny that my students are individuals, or that they have agency over their own bodies. Thus we are always at risk of being treated as zombies.
- Love at first sight does not exist. Also, google “Eat Me zombies” at your own risk.
In the short story “Eat Me” by Robert McCammon, we get to see the world from the perspective of a dead zombie who only wants to find love in the post-apocalyptic world. When he meets a shy, but romantic-at-heart female zombie, they return to her apartment and engage in zombie intercourse: literally eating one another. Their carnivorous carnal act results in their bones floating away from the world, leaving nothing behind but a necklace found by a small boy on the other side of the mountain. My students: “This is not love. This is lust. They barely know each other.” Okay then. Also, the group that presented on this text warned us that google searching “eat me zombies” leads to a weird corner of the internet.
- Institutions both perpetuate the fantasy of the American Dream, while keeping people from actually being able to achieve it. Many of my students are in college because they are chasing “the American Dream”: to graduate, get a job, and pursue some form of professional and/or personal success. However, as they acknowledged, there is a well travelled road that leads from pre-school through the bachelor’s degree (and increasingly to other advanced degrees as well). But my students are—when pushed—disillusioned with this reality. School is expensive and there are increasingly fewer job opportunities after graduation. They are told to explore coursework and follow their interests, but are bound by general education requirements–like my course–and they are forced to pay for coursework that they see as irrelevant to their careers. As we increasingly saw throughout the semester both in our course readings and in the real world, the institutions we thought were in place to protect us and allow us to flourish–higher education, the government, legal institutions–are actually cutting off our potential, so much the more if you are not a straight white male.
Thus, the zombie apocalypse provides a mental playground where we can imagine a world without the institutional structures that keep us in the thralls of particular hegemonies. But the freedom of the zombie-apocalypse is a ruse. In almost every text we read or watched this semester, we saw the way that people were reorganized, either top down (often imposed by military force) or bottom up through collectively enforced social behaviors. We asked the questions, “despite our desire to be free from the strictures of abusive institutions, do we know how to live without them? Does the toppling of one regime always lead to another, more violent or more authoritarian than before?” Thus zombies apocalypses provided an important space for students to discuss the abuses of current authoritarian institutions as they tried to imagine whether or not society ever has a way out from underneath certain structures.
- We are not special…but we want to be. Part of the fantasy in watching zombie media is imagining that we would be the survivors; we would be Michonne with the katana, or Daryl with his sassy poncho and crossbow. But, as my students were quick to point out, it’s a bit silly to imagine that we would survive, especially as middle-class Americans who generally lack survival skills. However, the zombie apocalypse can be a powerful fantasy that someday there will be a situation where the societal values of the current world, like wealth and social standing, will not necessarily translate to the new world order. Those of us with skills or characteristics that society has devalued will have a chance to reign in the apocalypse–or so the story goes.
- Does the zombie apocalypse merit changes in our ideas about morality? Through watching and discussing human behavior in TV shows such as “The Walking Dead,” my students took up the question of morality in the zombie apocalypse: do human morals change in reaction to an apocalyptic scenarios? And if so, what are the stakes of this changing morality? Obviously, we did not definitively answer these questions. However this conversation made me realize that zombies could be a way of discussing otherwise highly contentious issues of religious or philosophical import by masking them in hypotheticals. Though focalized through the zombie apocalypse, my students were really asking “Do our ideas about morality come from an objective source or is morality also a social construct?” Giving students a way into these kind of discussions without the heavily loaded context of religion allowed for various viewpoints to be heard without anyone feeling personally attacked (or at least, that’s how the conversation went in my class).
- People often treat bodies that look or act differently than themselves with suspicion disdain, or violence, trying to cite the differences as indicative that the other body is less than human. One of my students wrote a forum post on the movie Warm Bodies where a zombie man falls in love with a human woman, and after proving to her they are really the same on the inside, they ride off into the sunset. (Okay, so it’s more complicated than that…but I don’t want to spoil it!) My student said that on the surface, you could read Warm Bodies as a hopeful text that shows that if we try to get to know people who seem different from us, that their differences will disappear. However, he acknowledges that bonies (super devolved zombies) trouble his happy conclusion: (with his permission) “through this metaphor the “bonies” could tell us that you should not care for people who are too different from us, because some people are just completely bad and don’t have a good/human side”. This posting, when shared in class, lead to a discussion about how zombies are essentially humans who we have “permission” to kill because they threaten to overtake our society. Our conscious need not be troubled by their deaths because these undead aren’t seen as human.
On the last day of class we discussed how this attitude towards zombies is shockingly similar to attitudes about various groups of disenfranchised people across our globe. We treat some bodies like zombies already. If they are threatening us, it is okay for us to kill them. But perhaps zombies have the last laugh—in our destruction of their bodies, we prove we are no better or different than they are. They are our future.
Each of these takeaways could be its own blog post (or really, its own book) and it feels a bit like an injustice to my students to characterize their intellectual work in such broad strokes. But the larger purpose of my post is to serve as a primer of sorts for how people think about zombies. the kinds of critical work that zombies can do as metaphors for consumer culture, representations of disenfranchised bodies, catalysts for investigations of human morality, and grisly reminders of our own certain demise. By viewing the zombie as inextricably bound to the society that produces and consumes him, we can be better attuned to the way that our own fears, desires and anxieties are reflected in the zombie body. In this way, we can read zombies not as an Other, but as a reflection of ourselves.