Zombies may not have always been the brain-loving, dehumanized remnants of corpses that we now associate with “The Walking Dead” and other similar television shows. In fact, according to Elizabeth Rosen ’13 and Bri Evans ’13, leaders of the student-initiated course Zombies: Anthropology of the American Undead, the modern zombie is just the latest iteration of a complex and compelling subject.
Rosen and Evans framed the creation of the course, which they co-teach, as inspired by a mutual obsession with the living undead.
“We wanted to do something you couldn’t usually take and something that you’d have fun and we’d have fun with,” Rosen said. “I don’t know the context that we first thought of it in, but we were into zombies last year, and we liked to talk about it and wanted to learn more about it.”
Evans cited the dynamism and diversity of the zombie’s history as an impetus for exploring the topic through a student-led class.
“The zombie is such an interesting figure because you can map its history out,” Evans emphasized.
In addition to tracing the zombie’s historical trajectory, the spring quarter class focuses on the ethnography and culture surrounding the creature.
“Some people are very obsessed and have done other research with other perspectives even before taking this class at all,” she said. “And then some people, they think it’s like a survival class, putting it in a classroom setting.”
History of a monster
Rosen observed that zombies first originated as a Haitian myth, in which dead bodies were later dug up by a witch doctor, revived and forced to do labor. It wasn’t until the early 1920s, however, that zombies appeared in American fictional works, and until 1932 that the first feature-length zombie movie, “White Zombie,” premiered to American audiences.
In recent years, zombies have made increasingly frequent appearances in American culture, from contemporary movies like “I Am Legend” to books meant for children and mobile applications.
According to Evans, zombies historically represented a figure akin to slaves, sharing a lack of control over their movements, insufficient nutrition, and even ragged clothing. She posited, however, that zombies now allude more frequently to different trends in American culture, such as capitalist greed.
“Capitalism is itself a zombie, a mindless desire to have,” she said. “And the reason why zombies are so popular is in part because of the gore and the heroism, but the idea survives because it’s so mutable for whatever we’re feeling at the time.”
Evans suggested that zombies might also represent one side of an ongoing policy debate.
“Early on, it provided a good way to talk about xenophobia, especially with all the Eastern European immigrants coming in during the ’60s and ’70s,” she said. “During the Cold War, zombies represented social conformism—the lather, rinse, repeat lifestyle. It was more a fear of the zombie rather than of the zombie. Now, zombies represent nature taking revenge because science is going too far—terrorism and biological warfare.”
Rosen and Evans also argued that zombie films provide a broader lens through which one might view societal upheaval and apocalypse.
“What happens when we run out of resources or food?” Evans said. “What happens when we run out of oil? When there’s an apocalypse, what would we do? Zombie shows and films are not about zombies [as much as] about an examination of human relations.”
Preparing for apocalypse
While class discussions often focus on film screenings or assigned readings, a prevalent theme in the course is how best to prepare for a zombie apocalypse.
In fact, students are graded on, among other items, weekly “zombie tips”—words of advice to future generations about what to do in the case of such an event.
Evans and Rosen voiced hope that their class will encourage students to take more classes within the anthropology department.
“Anthropology is not what most people think it is,” Evans said. “Most anthropology is not doing archaeology and most is doing present-day work—going into communities and surveying, interviewing. In studying zombies, we’re studying anthropology. Anthropology is about seeing [your culture] in a way that makes it seem strange, breaking down your own culture.”
Rosen suggested that the pair’s course will open the door for future anthropology courses that aim to address a more diverse and eccentric spread of topics, including additional classes on zombies.
“Anthropology is excited—there hasn’t been a student-initiated class that is from them in a while,” Rosen said. “This may become a real class. Our two advisors—[Professors of Anthropology] Tanya Luhrmann and James Jones—are both interested in zombies, so this class is sort of like a pilot.”