Another in my series of email interviews with high schoolers working on papers. These are my responses to questions from a sophomore in Washington state (questions in italics).
1. What is it about zombies that makes them important or relevant enough to teach a college course on them?
In general, I believe that the study of popular culture helps us think about who we are, how we want to be, and where we came from. As one of three or four cornerstone monsters in American horror films, zombies inhabit many of the stories we tell one another. They’re used as a metaphor for being mindless, being dead, being directionless, and so on. They’re also very popular. Each of these aspects makes them interesting to study.
In very broad strokes, the humanities helps cultivate deep thinking and ethics–essential skills in the volatile marketplace of the 21st century. It’s diversity of thought and a wide range of ideas that inoculate against narrow thinking. I firmly believe the study of popular culture, texts people care about, makes it easier to connect people with these grand ideas and traditions.
2. What does your class consist of?
The class explores the history and depiction of zombies in popular media over the last century. We take a three-track approach, studying the Haitian voodoo mythology and its presence in Hollywood films from the 30s through the 60s, the “Romero” zombies most people think of when they hear the term, and the ‘philosophical’ zombie, an idea from Philosophy that helps us think about the mind/body problem. In a broad sense, students in the course learn about why popular culture is important, and how studying it helps us learn more about ourselves.
3. Zombies are often said to carry a message with them when featured in a story. Do zombies carry a message or deeper meaning for you?
Zombies makes a particularly interesting subject because they represent many things we fear: death, disease, mob mentality, chaos. I tend to see zombies as a way for us to explore the question of what it means to be human. But at the same time, zombies have been used as vectors for stories about environmentalism, about racism, even about consumer society. In many of these cases, the films warn about how our own perspectives or actions will separate us from our humanity.
4. Where do you think today’s zombies are going? Will their opportunities in popular culture be exhausted?
Like all genres and sub-genres, zombies will wax and wane in popularity. The recent rise of fast zombies and the emergence of mainstream zombie stories like THE WALKING DEAD has allowed for the monster to step up to the main stage alongside vampires and werewolves. I’m sure we will see zombies fall out of favor again, but I don’t see them ever going away.
5. There are people today who are prepared for a zombie apocalypse. Are you one of them? Do you think that such an obsession with zombies is healthy?
In my experience, most people who are prepared for the “zombie apocalypse” are actually preparing for any generic widespread catastrophe. As the CDC itself said in a recent pamphlet, to be prepared for the zombie apocalypse is to be prepared for anything. Along those lines, making preparations for disaster and learning survival skills cannot be a bad thing. At the same time, worrying very much about how to fight the walking dead seems like misplaced priorities to me. I think energy used preparing for defending one’s house against a horde of corpses would be better spend on altruistic community building.
6. What would you do in a zombie apocalypse?
Probably die trying to save my children.