History class enters the intriguing world of zombies

By Costa Maragos Posted: September 1, 2016 6:00 a.m.

Dr. Mark Anderson presents Zombies, a History. The class explores zombies in history and popular culture.
Dr. Mark Anderson presents Zombies, a History. The class explores zombies in history and popular culture. Photo courtesy of Madelaine Anderson

What is it about zombies that continue to intrigue, fascinate and scare the heck out of us?

Just when you think we’re done with zombies, they rise up, again and again in literature, movies and television.  

Enter Professor Dr. Mark Anderson who stars in the class – Zombies, a History (HIST290). Anderson explores where zombies come from and why they have become so prominent in popular culture. The course also explores the historical, real-world zombies of the Caribbean.

We chatted with Mark about his class and the popularity of zombies.

Tell us more about what you’ll be looking at in this course?

Zombies. Lots and lots of zombies.

Historically speaking, how far back can you go to find references to zombies in literature?  

It depends on how you understand the term. To begin with, it carries a lot of colonial baggage.

When the term surfaced in the United States about a hundred years ago it came burdened with the weight of centuries of slavery and its attendant racism. So, for example, zombies as we know them today in mass culture—the shuffle walking, the brain deadness--is not something just thought up to scare people.

Its origins can be found in how white North Americans tended to see African American culture, in particular, but not exclusively, as it related to Haiti and the Caribbean more generally.

Then there are the brain dead zombies of Hollywood that date to the 1930s. But the popularity of zombie flicks really took off in the 1960s, in part as response to the cold war.

Night of the living dead
Professor Anderson lists the cult classic, Night of the Living Dead, as one of his favourite zombie movies. According to Anderson, some zombie movies from the 1960's 'evinced a fear of communism.'

Your lectures will also examine the real-world zombies of the Caribbean. Tell us more about that.  

Zombies are real. By this, I mean that they are as real as saints, as real as a holy ghost, as real, in fact, to the people of the culture from which they emerged, as any other religious phenomena/creatures/beings are to people with different religious beliefs. As a starting point, the course explores the historical origins of real-life zombies, focusing mostly on the African diaspora as it relates to Haiti.

What makes zombies so prominent in popular culture?

Lots of things.

Zombies have been employed as a shell through which contemporary fears might be expressed. In the beginning, zombies manifested white terror of blackness and all that it was believed to entail.

It is important to remember that a racist society will always conjure monsters out of the victims of racism. This supports the status quo in the same way that the racism directed at Aboriginal people in Canada has in turn been used as evidence of its alleged accuracy or as a way to deny itself. Anyway, in this way, you can almost predict subsequent incarnations of zombies in American popular culture.

Since the 1960s, for example, zombie films have evinced a fear of communism, consumerism, obsession with cleanliness/fear of contagion, as a means to understand psychopathy, and so on.

Joyce Carol Oates
One of Mark's must-read books about zombies.

Then everything changed after 9/11. Suddenly, film and television became a lot more graphic, especially with respect to the portrayal of gory violence. Remember, the United States had been deeply traumatized. 

In the wake of 9/11 zombie narratives allowed Americans to experience and emotionally express their collective rage, their feelings of impotence, their various fears, and their desires for vengeance.

Meanwhile, zombie drama, or what you might consider horror-lite because zombies may be gross but they are not really scary, also has defanged the anxiety slowly but surely, brought the narrative home and made it comfortable as the shock of the terror attacks wore off.

You see this, for example, in “The Walking Dead.” Who’s the hero? A frontiersman, a sort of elemental cowboy. Nothing, no story is more American than this. No story runs deeper in the American collective imagination. In this way, it is no exaggeration to say that zombies are actually playing a role in healing America or, at least, in helping it find its bearings after 9/11.

What do you hope students will get out of this course?

My crazy dream is that as a result of this one course they will give up believing in authority, will reduce their time on-line time by 90 percent, will use their cell phones only for emergencies (“Ma, I love you, zombies got me…”) will shun the taking of all selfies (unless bigfoot is in it), will never ever believe any advertising, and will, most importantly, learn to love zombies.

Can’t get enough of zombies? Here’s Mark’s recommended zombie reading list

  • Joyce Carol Oates, Zombie
  • Henry Giroux, Zombie Politics and Culture in the Age of Casino Capitalism
  • The Walking Dead, Compendium One

Planning a zombie movie night? Here is Mark’s recommendations.

  • White Zombie (1932)
  • Night of the Living Dead (1968)
  • Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2016)

Dr. Mark Anderson, is a professor at Luther College. He’s published six books including most recently Holy War: Cowboys, Indians, and 9/11s. His other books include Pancho Villa’s Revolution, and the award-winning studies Cowboy Imperialism and Hollywood Film and Seeing Red, A History of Natives in Canadian Newspapers (co-authored with Dr. Carmen Robertson).