Zombies and the supernatural world are an undeniable influence on popular culture. From literature to movies to music, zombies reign – and their pull on our imagination is powerful. Meredith faculty members have used the most recent zombie craze as a unique lens through which to explore their academic disciplines with students. Here, just in time for Halloween, faculty share a snapshot of their disciplinary findings about zombies and the world of horror.
In the past few years the horror genre has been gaining momentum on American television. Popular shows like American Horror Story, Sleepy Hollow, Lucifer, The Returned, Supernatural, and Grimm now bring creepy themes that were once saved for movie nights or Halloween into our homes on a weekly basis. At the very least this explosion of horror programs shows us that Americans enjoy a good fright. But if we look closer we may notice that the shows are about more than just monsters; hiding in the shadows is longtime television taboo: religion.
Pairing horror and religion allows television writers to weave together beliefs with a twist of the macabre that fascinates audiences, but is not always done deliberately. In the long running series Supernatural, the religious theme developed incrementally. While pitching the series, show creator Eric Kripke wrote that Supernatural was, “a show ABOUT our country – the bloody, beating heart of America.” Kripke intended this statement as a reference to his vision of a “Monster of the Week” horror show, but along the way it transformed. The show, like others in its genre, began to explore increasingly religious questions and themes.
Religion and horror may seem incompatible, but the two have come together more often than we’d think. Throughout human history religious stories have featured supernatural beings, monsters and apocalyptic themes, all hallmarks of today’s horror television. Such shows often play on our deep-seated cultural fears by featuring characters straight from religious texts. By examining the intersection of horror and religion, we can uncover our current cultural anxieties, frustrations, and taboos. Because both deal with the topic of good vs. evil, we can investigate the often-monstrous consequences of straying from moral codes and good behaviors and use this as a way to start conversations about belief in our diverse religious society.
While horror shows are becoming more religious, according to recent data from the Pew Research Center, Americans are becoming less so. The religiously unaffiliated or “nones” are America’s fastest growing belief group. So why at a time when we have the least religious population in our country’s history are we finding so many shows that incorporate religious themes? Perhaps it is because in a country like the United States that has a rapidly changing religious environment, these viewpoints reflect the questions and concerns that really dwell in “the bloody beating heart of America.”
Rebekah Velazquez holds a B.A. in Art History and Religious Studies from McDaniel College in Westminster, Maryland, and an M.A. in Religious Studies from The University of Colorado at Boulder. Her areas of interest include material culture, popular culture, and Native American religions.
Some people might have trouble seeing the relevance of stories about shiftless hordes of evil brain-dead cannibals threatening civilization as we know it to the study of politics. Others see the resemblance all too clearly.
In fact, although it seems at first farcical, the latter group are right in their assessment of the complementarity between the zombie genre and the study of political science in general and international relations in particular. Like other disaster paradigms (e.g. nuclear holocaust, alien invasion, and environmental calamity), zombie tales force us to contemplate the limits of our political systems to cohere and adapt in the face of the most extreme adversity.
Harold Lasswell’s classic definition of politics as “who gets what, when, and how” is pushed to the ultimate test with imagined scenarios of humankind on the brink. Fundamental concepts like order, justice, security, liberty, community, and individual are all challenged in novel ways by thoughts of undead infestations. In the international context one further questions notions of war, peace, borders, interdependence and isolationism, and the very existence of the nation state. What’s more, the current popularity of zombie movies, TV shows, and literature among millennials means that these are also fun ways for students to engage in the discipline.
But there’s serious work to be done, too. Students and scholars of politics have seized upon the possibilities zombie stories offer to engage students in political science. Daniel Drezner, professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, is perhaps the don of the political science/zombie world, with his Theories of International Politics and Zombies (now in its second, “revived” edition) forming the core of many courses on the subject – including mine. Max Brooks, who in addition to being a comedy writer is also a serious student of diplomatic and military history, wrote the wonderfully encyclopedic World War Z, which – unlike the movie version – recounts in explicit detail an imagined outbreak in all its political, economic, military, and environmental dimensions. And the United Nations Association has created an app-based Model United Nations “zombie pandemic” simulation, in which student-delegates represent countries while negotiating with their classmates in the World Health Organization, General Assembly, and Security Council, all to save the world from ravaging brain-eaters.
Of course, the richest, most pervasive vein of zombie material is in movies and on TV. Students can see the differences and similarities in these creations, reflecting on the varying political and cultural contexts, as well as the consistent patterns of human behavior. In all of these readings and viewings, we also consider the parallels between fiction and reality – comparing, for example, imagined zombie threats to real ones like terrorism, climate change, nuclear proliferation, and war.
In the end, I’ve found embedding a political science and international relations course in the zombie context is a thoroughly rewarding undertaking. Doing so allows me to “meet the students” where they are in terms of their interests and – ironically, perhaps – comfort zone of fantasy and fiction, before bringing them to consideration of the all-too-harsh realities of our actual world. We have a lot of fun doing it, but we also learn some important lessons about ourselves and our world.
Jeffrey Martinson, associate professor of political science, holds a Ph.D. in political science from Ohio State. His research interests are international relations, foreign policy analysis, political psychology, international organization, and Mideast politics. He combined them all into his dissertation on German Post-Cold War Foreign Military Intervention Decision Making.
Haruki Murakami’s short story “Super-Frog Saves Tokyo” opens with a six-foot talking frog, muscular and well read, welcoming home a downtrodden debt collector.
“I must apologize, Mr. Katagiri, for having barged in while you were out,” Frog said. “I knew it would be a shock for you to find me here. But I had no choice. How about a cup of tea?”
Frog’s mission is to enlist Katagiri’s help in subduing Worm, an entity underneath Tokyo about to cause a cataclysmic earthquake. Overcoming disbelief, Katagiri agrees to try.
Murakami’s story – written after the terrible 1995 Kobe earthquake, reprinted after the even worse 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami leveled Fukushima – embodies in fantastical form the crucial importance of emotional and spiritual support, as much as physical courage, in braving traumas wrought by forces greater than humankind.
Such embodiments have a long lineage in literature. Orpheus harrows Hades yet loses his beloved Eurydice, on the verge of her resurrection, through his failure of conviction. In Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Schalken the Painter,” an eighteenth-century Dutch apprentice’s fears of inadequacy as a suitor summon the ultimate rival: the Devil, incarnated as a corpse dredged from the deep, morbid flesh hidden beneath rich clothing. To escape death’s clutches, the innocent bride, Rose, begs her lover Schalken and her guardian uncle not to part from her side for an instant, but the men’s lapse in vigilance lets the demon bridegroom drag her down into the canal. In like vein, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Puritan hero in “Young Goodman Brown” reluctantly accompanies the Devil, disguised as Brown’s late grandfather, to a witches’ Sabbath gleefully outing the secret sins in the hearts of everyone Brown admires; a last-second appeal to heaven saves his soul, at the cost of his trust in humanity.
So how did fiction get from the Devil to Super-Frog?
The difference illustrates a general shift in literary interest over the past two hundred years away from the moral allegories of religion and toward the more ambiguous, often ineffable agency of the fantastical. Edgar Allan Poe was among the first great writers of the nineteenth century to implicitly present the supernatural elements of his meticulous stories as extensions of his characters’ tortured psyches. Subsequent authors, such as Bierce, Gilman, James, and Wharton, mastered the art of terrifying with purely psychological ghosts. In early twentieth-century South America, Jorge Luis Borges and friends pioneered a movement of fantastic fictions fusing magic with everyday reality, a critical development inspiring generations of writers worldwide. At the same time, rapid technological advances gave impetus to wildly speculative science fiction, opening weird new vistas from the horrifying aliens and dark eugenics of Lovecraft to the cautionary cultural explorations of Bradbury’s Martians and rocket men. As literal belief in the angels and devils, alchemists and witches of the Old World receded, from the new popular imagination emerged a panoply of extraterrestrials and hobbits, eleven-year-old wizards, and lovelorn teenage vampires, zombies, and superheroes galore.
Magic proves indefatigable in writing because for writers from Poe to Stephen King to Murakami the imperative is to have a significant, memorable effect on the reader. Preternatural narrative devices such as six-foot talking frogs open metaphorical possibilities for readers to perceive their world afresh. Used poorly, magic is cheap theatrics; used incisively, magic transcends gimmickry because a gimmick isn’t a gimmick at all when it’s a symbol, a representation of meaning newly illustrated to best effect. Breaking the bounds of reality shocks the reader into a space of heightened realization, toward the author’s goal of significant insight.
Literature of the fantastical, supernatural, and paranormal provides out-of-this-world experiences accessible in no other way. Whether it delights, perplexes, or chills, what it must convey, as good writing, is memorable meaning. While such revelatory strangeness may not always be everyone’s cup of tea, when it’s right for a reader, the effect can last a lifetime. Truly, the greatest magic.
Jason Newport teaches in the Meredith English department. Two of his short stories were nominated for 2017 Pushcart Prizes, and he has been awarded a 2017 Fulbright grant to teach and conduct creative-writing research at the University of Pécs in Hungary this spring. He holds an MFA in creative writing (fiction) from the University of North Carolina Wilmington.
You wake up to a world under attack from some kind of apocalyptic force of nature – a viral pandemic that kills people and turns them into monsters, a hurricane that strips away the infrastructure of your society, terrorists who fly planes into buildings or a war that steals away all your security.
We know from the research done by Eric Klinenberg in his 2003 book, Heat Wave, that in major disasters like these, those who are elderly, and/or disabled and who live alone are the most likely to die. The socially isolated, physically impaired, and the poorest of our communities are those most likely to be forgotten and left behind. The government, both at the national and local levels, often fails to have adequate strategies and resources to find and rescue such people when a major disaster occurs.
Demographic shifts in the United States mean that these vulnerable populations are a growing segment of society. The elderly population has been increasing and the physical distance between where the poor and wealthy live in communities has also increased. At the same time, government programs are often under organized and underfunded to provide services for citizens when there is a disaster. We increasingly rely on police and fire fighters to do this basic kind of evacuation or rescue, even though this is not their main role in an emergency.
When we study past disasters, we learn that public warnings are often not passed on to those most vulnerable, and the government is not trained and equipped to provide for the basic needs and health concerns of citizens. In particular, evacuation plans are usually woefully inadequate.
So what would happen if there were a health pandemic that resulted in infected people who could kill us? What impact would this pandemic have on the social structure of our society as government services and the economic infrastructure disappear?
Sociologists argue that all of us operate in everyday life relying on an invisible social structure of things we take for granted. We assume that the rules of the road will be followed, that there will be food at the grocery store, we can find gas at a service station, that the money we have in the bank is available. So the fascinating issue is what happens when all of that breaks down?
Most of us rely heavily on others to fix our food, to make our clothes, to provide transportation, etc. So what would it mean to need to make everything from scratch, to have to be completely self-sufficient in a society that is so technologically dependent? What kind of people would we be? How would social groups interact? What can we predict about the race for food and other goods and the ways that violence might erupt?
Zombies offer an interesting way for sociologists and others to look at how our nation has responded to massive disasters and how this response could be improved in the future.
What is fascinating about the TV show, The Walking Dead, for instance, are the ways gender, race, and social class may or may not be factors in how people live together in a zombie world. Social interaction between group members begins with more traditional ideas about social roles that each should play, but as time goes on and the group faces so many dangerous situations, norms or expected behaviors change. Women and men must become good fighters or die. A particularly interesting transformation is the battered wife who goes on to become one of the most dangerous fighters in the group.
What can we learn in sociology from studying zombies? We can learn to better prepare for major disasters. We can understand more about why violence happens. We learn more about how all members of a group may change and step up to defend the group. Many humans are able to adapt and adjust to new circumstances, even ones this dire. Some will survive, and some won’t. This kind of focus may help us better protect and save the ones who aren’t as adaptive.
Professor of Sociology Lori Brown earned a Ph.D. in Sociology at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana. Her interests in the field are quite varied as reflected in the courses she teaches regularly: Population Dynamics, Human Sexuality, Race and Ethnic Relations and courses in Criminology including Corrections, The Color of Crime, and Juvenile Delinquency.
Creative writers must be observers of the world around them. They must observe people. That’s advice I give to my creative writing students, and it’s what I strive for in my own writing. I need to know how people act and react, how they move through the world.
But if that’s true, how does something like a zombie novel take into account these human experiences? Not only are zombies not human, but also they are something that most people agree doesn’t exist.
There’s a simple answer, which is that writing doesn’t always have to be factual to say something important about what it means to be human. (See also: “Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.” – Albert Camus.)
Of course, that answer is deceptive because, as most of us know, the truth about life is not so simple. So maybe a more complete answer is that zombies – in fiction, poetry, or even, yes, nonfiction – can be used as tools for the writer or main character to examine herself, her beliefs, and society, as well as the relationship between the three.
That examination always proves to be complicated because life and people are complicated. Rarely does the character, speaker, or narrator discover just one way of understanding.
For example, the novel The Reapers Are the Angels by Alden Bell is set 20 or so years into a zombie apocalypse. The protagonist, a teenage girl named Temple, is skilled at self-preservation but can’t read.
Over the course of the novel, Temple encounters and fights zombies. But that isn’t what drives her. She’s not out to eradicate zombies. What drives her is that she’s lonely and doesn’t want to be. Even a human enemy she makes becomes a comfort to her for the fact that he’s a presence in her life. The truth that Temple only begins to see is that we need each other and that loneliness is not a badge of honor.
Perhaps surprisingly, creative writing about zombies isn’t always made up. Zora Neale Hurston’s nonfiction book Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica was published in 1938 and based on Hurston’s experiences in the two countries, balancing her personal observations and experiences with interviews, anecdotes, and tales from others.
At the beginning of the chapter titled “Zombies,” Hurston poses the question that guides the chapter: “What is the whole truth and nothing else but the truth about Zombies?”
Immediately after, she hints at the difficulty of answering such a question: “I do not know, but I know that I saw the broken remnant, relic, or refuse of Felicia Felix-Mentor in a hospital yard.” What follows is Hurston’s own journey through Haiti – through the folklore she hears, anecdotes she is told, and experiences she has – and the culture’s belief in zombies. Through this journey, Hurston examines her own beliefs, and she invites the reader to do the same.
It’s this examination that’s at the heart of creative writing.
In Kim Addonizio’s poem “Night of the Living, Night of the Dead,” for instance, the speaker examines the fear that the living have of zombies, suggesting that the dead may “only want to lie down inside.”
“Maybe,” the speaker offers, “that’s why / they bang on the windows while the living hammer up boards and count out shotgun shells.”
The examination, of course, is why we turn from that which we don’t know. In the poem, it’s zombies, but it could be any person or group of people we see as different from us.
Why do we turn our backs on the unfamiliar? How important are cultural beliefs? How do we square our own beliefs with unfamiliar ones? Why do we try to run from basic needs? These are just some of the questions that texts about zombies examine.
Seldom is there a straightforward answer to these questions. But there is beauty in the probing, in the discovering. In writing, as in life, the beauty, and the mystery, is in the complexity itself.
Leslie Maxwell, an alumna of Meredith who earned a B.A. in English and a B.S. in biology, teaches first-year composition, critical reading and writing, and creative writing in the Meredith English department. She holds an MFA in creative writing from George Mason University, and her creative writing has appeared in the Rappahannock Review and The Fourth River, among other journals