In which I lecture about zombies at the Indian Trails Library

I have a lecture today at 1.30pm in Wheeling, IL, at the Indian Trails Public Library District. Come join us!

Zombies 101

Zombies 101

Grade 6 and up. Zombie Research Society Expert and Columbia College Chicago Professor, Brendan Riley explains everything you need to know about zombies. He explores the history of zombies and the philosophy behind the desire for human brains! Limit 100. Tickets distributed 30 minutes prior to program

In Which I tell Real Simple Magazine about zombies

Real Simple magazine ran a piece on Zombies in this year’s October magazine, and guess who’s quoted in the article?  Thanks to Kate Booth for sending me the pictures.

Real Simple Oct 2015
Real Simple Oct 2015

Real Simple history of zombies
Real Simple history of zombies (click for full size)
Real Simple story closeup
Real Simple story close up

In which my course “doesn’t sound right no matter how seriously you phrase it”

The Times of India has joined the “look at all these stupid courses” game with their own collection of summaries, including a bizarre summary of my course (and PERHAPS a course about embalming as well?  It’s weird).  Here’s the relevant text:

Class on zombies
Official course title: Zombies In Popular Media What it means: Slacker heaven Possible career paths: Mortician? Nothing like the undead to liven up a boring year of college. The object of this course is to “foster thoughtful connections between student disciplines and the figure of the zombie” (that just doesn’t sound right no matter how seriously you phrase it). The syllabus includes movies, books and comics that focus on the undead along with lectures on individuality, xenophobia and capitalism (because, as we all know, zombies are the paradigm of capitalism). And the cynics out there can scoff now, but when the zombie apocalypse hits, you’ll wish you’d taken this course instead of algebra. (link)

This text is posted as it appears on the site.  I suspect the bit about the mortician is supposed to be in parenthesis or between dashes, or there should be a period after “heaven.”

Dispatches from the Age of Electracy: Profile Pictures and the Digital Age

In a professional development panel at Midwest PCA 2014, I spoke with two colleagues about the job search and job interview process.  In particular, the subject of our panel was “how to give a good interview.”  We discussed Skype interviews and the many pitfalls that emerge from them.  In particular, I mentioned that it was worthwhile to attend to the image behind the person doing the skyping, and to show a professional demeanor in all things.  As a corollary, one of my colleagues mentioned how a member of an interview committee was so turned off by the interviewee’s “unprofessional” profile picture (which featured him holding a puppy) that it soured his analysis of the interview.

I couldn’t help but think of that when someone I Skyped with recently, in a professional context, had this profile pic:


I noticed, just before we connected, that I hadn’t adjusted my profile picture either, which isn’t terrible, but isn’t terribly professional either.  Here it is, just for fairness’ sake:


*Need context on the Age of Electracy?*

Dispatches from the Age of Electracy: I Zombify Myself to Teach About Zombies

A couple weeks ago, I was invited to Skype in to the Crane River Theater company’s zombie run training session to provide a little information for the zombie participants there.  I wasn’t able to do it live, so I sent them a 15 minute video to show instead.  They recently sent me a thank you note and a couple photos of my ‘talk.’  This line of events struck me as amazing and weird:

  • Unable to work out a time for me to attend the event…
  • I was invited to attend digitally but couldn’t make the time they had in mind…
  • So I sent a video of me talking about zombies…
  • Which their participants watched (and, I’m told, enjoyed)…
  • During which their photographer took photos…
  • Printed those photos…
  • And mailed them to me.

It’s awesome.

Crane River Theater Zombie Run Training Session crane-river-theater02-web

Also, it occurs to me that I’ve enabled some digital zombification of myself.  The organizers can take my video and use it in future runs, or distribute it, or do whatever.  I suppose nominally they’re limited by copyright law, but I didn’t do much to secure any rights to the video.  In my essay “The E-Dead,” I argued that part of the confluence of the zombie genre and the Internet comes in our fear of being out of control of ourselves.  As we make and distribute digital artifacts, we all experience the artist’s dilemma more and more (the artist’s dilemma being that you cannot control your work once you release it into the world).  And that experience of being controlled by other people feels an awful lot like being a voodoo zombie.

*Need context on the Age of Electracy?*

In which I pontificate for the Southern Hemisphere

Zombie on a bench shrugs at bemused bystander
Photo: Lee Besford, Sydney Morning Herald

I did an interview with Kenji Sato of Sydney, Australia’s 2ser 107.3, on the nature of zombie stories.  Take a listen.

In which I say zombies represent the “downfall of civilization”

All About zombies (Delaware Online)

I was interviewed by Delaware Online for an article about zombies.  Check it out:

It’s a scary, uncertain world: Ebola, ISIS, road rage and home invasions. No wonder we find comfort in zombies, ghosts and creatures of the night.

Zombies represent “the downfall of civilization,” said Brendan Riley, an associate professor of English at Columbia College of Chicago, who teaches an intensive, three-week winter session course that covers the evolution of zombies in film. “We see society falling apart … I find that pretty chilling.”

Yet zombie fear is fleeting. We know – or are pretty sure – the nondead aren’t real. The same isn’t true for ghosts. (link)

I notice the reporter (who was very nice) had to paraphrase me a lot.  I need to remember to speak in short, pithy phrases.

In which I am cited as yet another bad example

The Journal Courier is a central Illinois newspaper that thinks college classes about popular culture are all about attracting students.  A prime example of this “trendy” move? You guessed it:

A few years ago, universities realized they had to show they were more than just stuffy places with ivory towers and doctors with bow-ties. College-age society was changing and institutions of higher learning had to adapt.

Without that epiphany, we would never have classes like “The Textual Appeal of Tupac Shakur” (Washington University), “Zombies in Popular Media” (Columbia of Chicago) or “Street Fighting Mathematics” (MIT). (don’t bother reading the article)

They could at least get our college’s name right.

In which I explain why horror fans are visible

Sometimes, when you do an interview with a reporter, you discover afterward that they mangled what you said or pushed and pulled the conversation to get the one quote they wanted.  Fine, I understand how it’s done.  But in this article by Spencer Hall at the award-winning Columbia Chronicle, my comments reflect quite accurately the conversation we had.  How refreshing to see a reporter work the research into the piece rather than twisting it to fit the hole that needed filling.

Here’s what he wrote about our conversation within his larger article about a horror film poster exhibit:

…Though horror films and television shows like “The Walking Dead” and “American Horror Story” are becoming part of mainstream popular culture, the horror genre tends to stray from the usual devices seen in popular media, according to Brendan Riley, an associate professor in the English Department who teaches the Zombies in Popular Media J-term course.

Riley said horror films differ from other films in that they try to evoke a stronger reaction out of the audience than more mainstream films.

“When you encounter other kinds of storytelling media, often you’re being engaged intellectually or emotionally, but very rarely are you being engaged on a visceral or instinctual level,” Riley said. “Most horror movies have at least some sort of engagement with the uncanny, or the fear of the unknown.”

Horror film enthusiasts, unlike casual television or movie fans, are more visible in terms of fanaticism because horror movie fans have to go out of their way to connect with each other over the genre, according to Riley.

“They don’t have conventions for people who like Monday night sitcoms,” Riley said. “It’s easy to find other people who like [sitcoms]. For people who enjoy strange Japanese horror movies, it’s harder to find those people. Part of the reason that those fan groups are more visible is that they need to be more visible in order to find other people who like the same things they like.”…

(Read the rest at the Columbia Chronicle)

Thoughts on the first week of class

We got new directory portraits taken last week.

photo by Jacob Boll courtesy of Columbia College Chicago

I have two classes this semester: The Rhetoric of Digital Media and Literary Genres: Detective Fiction.  Here are a few thoughts on the first week:

  • My opening spiel for the Digital Media class had to be tuned somewhat, since I used to start the class (formerly called “Writing for New Media”) by saying “This course would be better called “The Rhetoric of New Media.”  Instead, I just apologized in advance for any time I forget to use its new name.
  • Of the fifteen or sixteen people in the Digital Media class, only five had Twitter accounts (or would admit that they did).  So we probably won’t use Twitter much.
  • The Detective Fiction class had a great variety of students interested in Detective stories from many angles.  We spent a long time in the introductions phase of the first day, but I managed to organically introduce elements of the course orientation that would otherwise have been delivered as a lecture later.  Hoo-rah.
  • We also already got into a discussion of the genre vs literary fiction divide, as one of the students commented that the mass-market paperback I ordered looked like something he’d see in a grocery store at the checkout.  “It probably is, was my reply.”
  • In each class, I have at least one student whom I’ve had in previous classes.  This is always fun, as it suggests my classes are good enough to try taking another one. YAY.

Off to a good start.  The ride begins again!

July 2014

My blog was on hiatus from Feb 2 – August 27, 2014.  This post was written post-facto to highlight key events.

July was a fun month.  We took a family trip in the pop up camper to Mackinac Island and the UP before joining friends at a campground in eastern Wisconsin.  Highlights:

  • Playing cards in the camper in the rain (no tents for us!)
  • Watching the kids enjoy a swingset in a downpour.
  • Over-reacting to a swollen bugbite and thus getting to visit the ER in a distant place.
  • The Pictured Rocks.  Pretty sweet.

At the end of the month, Jenny and I went to ComicCon so I could participate in the Zombie Research Society panel there.  UBER fun.  Highlights

  • I acquitted myself admirably on the panel, representing my school well and providing solid answers.  Most satisfying moment — when Max Brooks, author of World War Z, said “YES!” at my suggestion that members of the audience would be well-treated by reading Day of the Triffid.  Also, met some ZRS advisory board members and found they are awesome people.
  • Met Colin Anderson and J. August Richards in person.  Very cool.
  • Saw panels with Adam Baldwin, Felicia Day, Wil Wheaton, Chris Hardwick, Joel McHale (and the Community crowd), and John Barrowman.
  • Hung out with friends Scott Kenemore and Matt Mogk.
  • Met many comic book writers, including Eric Powell, Mike Mignola, and Rick Geary.

Books this month:

  • A Treasury of Victorian Murder by Rick Geary
  • The Lindbergh Child by Rick Geary
  • Lexicon by Max Berry
  • Southern Gods by John Horner Jacobs

Last, my class appeared as a clue on Jeopardy!

Zombies on Jeopardy!
Zombies on Jeopardy!

In which I explain America’s Obsession with Zombies

A very nice piece on Chicago Talks by Shanice Harris explores zombies a bit, using everyone’s favorite zombie expert, yours truly.  Check it out!

…Dr. Brendan Riley is an English professor at Columbia College Chicago and teaches a class entitled Zombies in Popular Media, which has been in existence since 2007. According to the course description on Columbia’s website, it is “a course exploring the history, cultural significance and horrifying circumstances of zombies as they appear in film, television, books, etc”.

The idea of no self control seems to be what drives fans of the epidemic.

“Zombies, as a horror figure, are particularly interesting and exciting because at our core one of the things that is very scary is the idea of not being in control of ourselves anymore,” said Riley. “And I think Zombies represent that menace: the fear that we would lose control of ourselves to either animal instinct or being without sense and without knowing what’s going on.”

Riley asserts that there is a difference between the fascinations of zombies versus the fascination with the zombie apocalypse.

“The zombie apocalypse is frightening, not only because of the fear of the zombies, but also the fear of the breakdown of the social order…the need to survive and the need to protect yourself is a particularly frightening ordeal.” … (Read the rest)

In which I am on TV.

When Times Are Tough, We Crave Scares
When Times Are Tough, We Crave Scares

Follow this link to watch the clip.

(CBS) –  At the “Statesville Haunted Prison,” crowds are dying to spend 35 bucks just to get in.

“It was so scary absolutely nuts, ” Angie Zaberniak tells CBS 2’s Vince Gerasole.

Producers have their work cut out for them. When John La Flamboy with Zombie Army Productions first began producing haunted houses, a zombie oozing guts was enough to send crowds running.

“Now, 15 years later, kids walk up and they touch the guts, they poke the guts and they go, ‘Is that silicone or latex?’” he says.

Take the plot at “Statesville,” where more than 100 creepy-looking zombies have taken over the prison.  The actors get in the face of visitors, who are sometimes more amused than frightened, challenging them to escape.

“They’re coming for a show,” La Flamboy says.

Horror right now is quite a show.  This summer theaters were alive with the living dead of “World War Z.”  The twisted plots of “American Horror Story” are now in their third season on television

And with 16.1 million viewers for this year’s premiere, the zombies of “The Walking Dead” logged the highest ratings ever for a basic cable drama.

Columbia College’s Brendan Riley teaches a course on zombies, horror-cinema and history.

“I think there is a desire to be scared right now because it relieves tension,” he says.

And apparently in history, when times get difficult, Americans have flocked to horror for a good scare.

For example, the suspicions of ‘50s-era McCarthyism led to paranoia films like “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” The civil unrest of the late-1960s coincided with the emergence of the horror classic “Night of the Living Dead.” And since the 9/11 attacks and the economic downturn, faster and more threatening zombies are calling to the masses.

Researchers say our reaction to a good scare is similar to how we respond to humor.  It releases endorphins in our brains, which make us feel good.

So don’t cover your eyes.  The solution to tough times might be scaring away your fears. (link)

Gave a talk, still overwhelmed!

A man on a car, beseiged by zombies (from La Horde)
You tasks shall not overwhelm me!

Greetings, dear readers.  In the past ten days I’ve accomplished five of the seven big things I needed to do:

  • Grade New Media projects
  • Give my talk on COLUMBO at MPCA
  • Write and give the MPCA Pub Quiz
  • Attend MPCA/ACA
  • Finish and give my talk at the Palatine Public Library


  • Finish gathering and send PCA Audit documents
  • Compose draft of PCA budget for 2013-14 FY

Those last two will be finished today or tomorrow.  Then I can take a breath and perhaps resume blogging.  In the meantime, I presented a talk at the Palatine Public Library Tuesday called “Zombies! Why You Should Care About the Walking Dead.” It was well received and enjoyable, so that was nice.

Zombies! in Palatine
Zombies! in Palatine


It’s official! PCA/ACA Executive Director of Operations

Many of you know that last October I was tapped by the PCA/ACA to serve as Interim Executive Director during the transition from one Executive Team to another.  Working with the officers and my team-mates (Joe Hancock, Lee Halper, and Alex Lamberti), I helped organize the 2013 PCA/ACA annual conference.  It looks like I will get to continue in that position.

I’m pleased to announce that as of September first, I have been appointed as the Executive Director of Operations for the Popular Culture Association / American Culture Association.  My counterpart, the Executive Director of Events, is Lee Halper.

Executive Team

If things go well, this should be a five-year position, and will be a great opportunity to continue serving in a key leadership role for a group I value immensely.  (NOTE: this is a part-time appointment, to be conducted in concert with my continuing work as an Associate Professor of English at Columbia College; I’m not leaving CCC!)

My thanks to the Officers for their hard work in the hiring process and the opportunity they’ve extended to me.  Also, my thanks to the outgoing Interim ED of Events (Joe Hancock, who will continue in an advisory/assistant role until the end of December), and to Alex Lamberti, our hard-working webmaster during the interim period.  John Bratzel deserves a special call out as well–he’s been, and continues to be, a generous resource about how to do this job. Last, I’d like to thank my college, Columbia College Chicago, for its continuing support of this endeavor.  My chair, Ken Daley, and my dean, Deborah Holdstein, have both been very encouraging during this whole process.