Zombie Studies Gain Ground on College Campuses

  • March 4, 2014

By Erica E. Phillips
Wall Street Journal Staff Writer

Kyle Bishop figured it was risky when he applied to a University of Arizona Ph.D. program in English eight years ago by proposing a dissertation on zombie movies.

He was dead wrong.

The program approved Mr. Bishop's proposal, and he is now chairman of Southern Utah University's English department. The 40-year-old has been invited to give zombie lectures in Hawaii, Canada and Spain.

"It's clearly now acceptable to study zombies seriously," he says.

Just as zombies—those mythical revived corpses hungry for living human flesh and gray matter—have infiltrated pop culture, they have also gotten their hands on our brainiest reserves: the academy.

Mr. Bishop is among an advancing horde of scholars who, compelled by the cultural history and metaphor of the undead, are teaching and conducting research in disciplines from economics to religion to medicine.

The last five years have seen 20 new scholarly books with "zombie" in the title or topic category, according to Baker & Taylor, a distributor of academic and other books; in the 10 prior years, there were 10. JSTOR, an online archive of about 2,000 academic journals, says the journals have run 39 articles invoking the undead since 2005, versus seven in the preceding 10 years.

For fans of AMC's "The Walking Dead," here's a mashup tribute to Andrew Lincoln's apocalyptic portrayal of zombie-killing sheriff Rick Grimes. Photo: AMC.

Mr. Bishop's timing was impeccable. His dissertation coincided with a zombie onslaught that infected television, literature and other media. AMC's TV series "The Walking Dead" is a top-rated cable show, and the 2013 zombie movie "World War Z" grossed $540 million globally.

Mr. Bishop turned his dissertation into a book, "American Zombie Gothic: The Rise and Fall (and Rise) of the Walking Dead in Popular Culture," which surprised everyone when over 1,000 copies sold. Back when he proposed his dissertation, he says, "nobody would touch the zombie."

Now, zombies thrive on campuses like California State University, East Bay, in Hayward. Christopher Moreman, a philosophy professor there, co-edited a two-volume collection of essays on "the Humanity of the Walking Dead" and "Cross-Cultural Appropriations" of the monsters. The initial plan was for one volume, he says, but over 100 proposals arrived.

When Mr. Moreman worked the theme into a course—"Philosophy 3432: Religion, Monsters and Horror"—he says he drew 55 students vying for 35 spots.

In one class, students read his work examining Buddhist imagery in zombie movies, which echo the religion's meditation on mortality, he says, because "you recognize that everything's temporary and zombies keep going on and on."

Some find the trend ominous. There is a "danger" when scholars probe subjects like zombies, says Mark Bauerlein, an English professor and author of "The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future."

"They end up invariably turning their attention away from the tradition," he says, "the classics, the works that have survived the test of time."

Michael Poliakoff, who directs policy for the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, says the proliferation of undergraduate courses in topics like zombies and vampires is helping ruin American students' brains. Citing various studies, Mr. Poliakoff says many U.S. college graduates still lack proficiency in basic verbal literacy.

"What have we given up in order to dabble in the undead?" he says. "We've given up survival skills."

Last year, some parents objected to an optional reading class at Armand Larive Middle School in Hermiston, Ore., using materials describing a "zombie apocalypse." The district eliminated the material, says Superintendent Dr. Fred Maiocco, and "we extend our regrets to anyone offended."

Zombie scholars say their subject is worthy of study because the living deads' history and ubiquity in modern literature and culture present metaphors ripe for analysis.

Self-described "zombie scholar" Sarah Juliet Lauro, a Clemson University assistant English professor, acknowledges that some think it is silly or inappropriate to study the ghouls.

She counters that "it's a deeply important mythology that is specifically about slavery." She is finishing a book tracing zombie folklore to its 18th-century roots in the Haitian Revolution.Zombis were field laborers raised from the dead who led a slave rebellion.

Her book, "The Transatlantic Zombie: Slavery, Rebellion and Living Death," examines how zombies came to represent the struggles of slavery and colonialism.

A former student of Ms. Lauro's, 34-year-old Christopher Schuster, says studying zombies analytically in her class "struck a chord." An Iraq War veteran, he saw parallels to post-traumatic stress disorder. "A single bite changes you from my best friend to someone who's trying to kill me," he says, adding that war "can take a child and turn him into a tormented man."

Zombies are staggering into many fields. Last year, English professor Sherryl Vint at the University of California, Riverside, and a grad student called for submissions to "an edited volume on zombies in comics and graphic novels through the lens of medical discourse."

The editors "seek to move beyond merely identifying the similarities between the etiology of infectious disease and zombie plagues to question how medical discourse constructs and is constructed by popular iconography of the boundaries of life, illness and health."

Other collections due this year include "Economics of the Undead," which co-editor Glen Whitman, a Cal State Northridge economics professor, says "raises issues of the use of resources" in an apocalyptic event. The work is academic, he says, but might draw readers "with a casual interest in economics."

A media-studies anthology edited by Steve Jones, a senior lecturer at England's Northumbria University, "seeks to investigate zombie sexuality in all its forms and manifestations."

Max Brooks, author of hit pop-culture books like "The Zombie Survival Guide" and "World War Z"—often cited in academic works—is skeptical about exploring the undead theoretically. "It just becomes academics writing papers for other academics," he says.

Instead, he says, "I would want a professor who would dig into the very real questions" that his own books seek to answer—such as, what steps would one take should a zombie apocalypse arrive—and "take that knowledge and apply it to the real world."

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