Why the Undead Walk Among Us: An Exploration of Zombies in Literature and Popular Culture (Student Directed Seminar)

Here is an abridged version of Kate Reilly’s description of this Student Directed Seminar, which I am sponsoring at UBC in Term 2 of the 2015-16 academic year. If you have any questions, please email Kate directly at kate_reilly@live.ca

ASTU 400P 001 Why the Undead Walk Among Us: An Exploration of Zombies in Literature and Popular Culture

  • UBC 2015-16 Term 2; Monday 6-9 p.m. Buch D221
  • Coordinator: Kate Reilly
  • Faculty Sponsor: Dr. Gisèle M. Baxter

Zombies have invaded movies, television, the internet, and, for the purposes of this course, literary texts. The odds of finding someone who cannot describe a zombie are slim, yet few people know how old and complex their role in Western culture is. By examining the literary representation of zombies and their role as a mirror of Western anxieties throughout the 20th and into 21st century, students in this course will gain a greater sense of the fears that have plagued North America’s self-image. The class will meet once a week for a three-hour seminar.

The seminar will function based on the critical notion that representations of horror “always seem to play upon and express fears across a wide spectrum of people” (Stephen King, Danse Macabre). Enthusiastic students with a high level of interest and experience in literary and cultural analysis are encouraged to join. We will move though material in a chronological order, starting with the Haitian zombie represented before WWII. When examining the slow-moving, subservient zombies portrayed in early zombie literature, we see fears of control and colonization, and the repercussions of America’s history of slavery represented. Once we’ve acquired a good sense of zombie world history, we will examine the rapid evolution of approaches to the genre of zombie literature over the last century, with specific attention paid to the change in representation post-WWII. Instead of being controlled by someone else, zombies became (and remain) in control of themselves, taking on the emblematic role of a new kind of fear: of societal upheaval, totalitarianism, and nuclear war, as exemplified in Richard Matheson’s iconic I Am Legend. Although some critics do not consider I Am Legend a zombie novel, it has undeniable zombie attributes and connections to one of the most influential contributors to zombie representation, filmmaker George A. Romero.

After analyzing the specific cultural fears portrayed historically, we will move on to how similar fears have manifested themselves post-9/11 by reading Max Brook’s World War Z and analyzing the way in which the novel presents various countries globally in relation to a plague of zombies. The internet-age zombies in Madeline Sheehan and Claire C. Riley’s Thicker Than Blood and Isaac Marion’s Warm Bodies share similarities in the sense that, in these texts, humans take on zombie characteristics, and we will explore how each novel narrates contemporary fears of dehumanization.

Each week’s readings will be supplemented by student presentations and discussion of selected academic studies of the current topic. By the end of the course, we will have a solid understanding of the close connection between zombies in literary and popular culture and the societal fears they reflect, and of how their enduring popularity suggests the depth of those fears and the questions they provoke.

Required Reading List:

  • “Herbert West- Reanimator” H.P Lovecraft (1922)
  • The Magic Island William Seabrook (1929)
  • I am Legend Richard Matheson (1954)
  • World War Z Max Brooks (2006)
  • Warm Bodies Isaac Marion (2010)
  • Thicker Than Blood Madeline Sheehan (2015)
  • Selected essays from Better off Dead – The Evolution of the Zombie as Post-Human Deborah Christie and Sarah Juliet Lauro (2011)
  • “Greek Zombies.” Jan Sleutels, Philosophical Psychology2 (2006)
  • “The Role of Place in the Post-Apocalypse: Contrasting The Road and World War Z.” Petter Skult, Studia Neophilologica 87 (2015)

Supplemental and Recommended Reading/Viewing List:

  • “Insecure Lives: Zombies, Global Health, and the Totalitarianism of Generalization.” Steven Pokornowski, Literature and Medicine2 (2013)
  • “Zombies.” Daniel Zelterman, Significance5 (2014)
  • “Vacationing in Zombieland: The Classical Functions of the Modern Zombie Comedy.” Kyle William Bishop, Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts1 (2011)
  • American Zombie Gothic- The Rise and Fall (And Rise) of the Walking Dead in Popular Culture. Kyle William Bishop (2010)
  • Generation Zombie: Essays on the Living Dead in Modern Culture. Stephanie Boluk and Wylie Lenz (2011)
  • Zombies are Us: Essays on the Humanity of the Walking Dead. Christopher Morman (2011)
  • Films including White Zombie (1932); Zombies of Mora Tau (1957); Night of the Living Dead (1968); 28 Weeks Later (2002); Shaun of the Dead (2004); Fido (2006); Planet Terror (2007); Quarantine (2008); Investigating the Haitian Zombie Vice Documentary (2012); Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead (2014)
  • Episodes of The Walking Dead (TV): “What Happened and What’s Going On” (S.5.Ep.9); “The Grove” (S.4 Ep.9); “TS-19” (S.1.Ep.6); “Clear” (S.3.Ep.12)

Assignments and Evaluation:

  • Paper 1: 20% (1000-1500 words) This will be a shorter paper focused on some aspects of the historical origins of the zombies we recognize in popular culture today, and will be graded by the faculty sponsor.
  • Paper 2: 25% (2000-3000 words) This will be a major paper requiring secondary academic research and will be graded by the faculty sponsor.
  • Online Creative Project: 20% Students will be asked to generate a creative response to zombie literature. Projects could include fan-fiction, visual art, a zombie apocalypse diary, or an audio-visual project. The aim will be to explore the various common tropes of zombie literature. This project will be posted online on a Connect site for the course and it will be peer graded.
  • Online Reader Response: 5% Many of the required readings have been made into movies with drastic changes to plot. Students will be asked to consider and respond to the differences between the literary and cinematic versions of a specific text. This assignment will be peer graded.
  • Presentation: 20% Students will be asked to give a researched presentation on the readings for the applicable week aimed at strengthening the class’s overall understanding of the text. The length of the presentation will be determined by class size. The presentation will be peer graded.
  • Participation: 10% Contribution to discussion both in class and on Connect will be mandatory. Participants are meant to work as group as we explore the complexities of this genre, so that the majority of class time will be spent in discussion and analysis of the texts, and the Connect site will allow expansion and development of the in-class conversation. Students will also be required to participate in two writing workshops via Connect. Participation will be peer graded.

Note: Clear and specific criteria for the grading of each assignment will be included in its formal description, along with length, scope, and format requirements. Criteria for peer evaluation of participation will be set out in the outline and syllabus distributed at the start of term.

UBC’s Student Directed Seminar site (this links to general information about the Student Directed Seminar concept): http://students.ubc.ca/success/student-directed-seminars/courses

UBC’s Student Services Centre site: https://courses.students.ubc.ca/cs/main?pname=subjarea&tname=subjareas&req=5&dept=ASTU&course=400P§ion=001

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