Jane Austen and zombies

When I first saw the reading list for Arts One: Remake/Remodel, I was immediately struck by Shaun of the Dead. Having seen this film about a year ago and very much enjoying it, I was thrilled to think we were going to study this zombie comedy… but I was also pretty confused. Why was it on the list, and what on earth could be gleaned from it in connection to whatever book we were going to read alongside it? This book turned out to be Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey.

Prior to this, I had never read a novel by Austen. Her books were among the many classics I had written down on a reading list, stuck up on my wall as a constant reminder that I procrastinate even on the things I want to do. (I also have lists of movies, TV series, anime/manga, documentaries, video games… yeah.) In fact, I will bluntly admit that as I type this blog entry, as the only person in this seminar who volunteered to write about Austen and zombies, I have only read about half of Northanger Abbey. (Bad Apsara!) Despite this, something Aja said during seminar yesterday struck me, and after shyly recoiling from expressing my thoughts, I decided to recollect them into this blog entry.

Near the end of yesterday’s seminar, Aja pointed out the scene in Shaun of the Dead where Shaun and co. decide to imitate the behaviour of the zombies in order to pass by them unnoticed. She found it completely ridiculous that the zombies were unable to distinguish the humans from themselves, and that in other zombie films, they may have the ability to make this distinction through smell or other senses. I think she may have mentioned that this was a result of the film’s genre as a parody, and I would like to develop this thought.

Parody films are primarily intended to make fun of a particular genre and its tropes/conventions. Through the use of often clever humor (because let’s admit it, some parodies are downright crude – I’m looking at you, Friedberg and Seltzer…), they point out how ridiculous some of these tropes are, and while this may or may not be their intention, they can also contain a larger message about society.

“Ever felt like you were surrounded by zombies?” – this is the tagline shown in the promotional posters for Shaun of the Dead. It speaks to a phenomenon that can largely be observed inside a public bus. Sit in a bus and observe the people around you. They are most likely staring into space, sleeping, listening to music.. Whatever it is, they are idle, not really aware of anything around them, and may look almost dead if not for a small twitch of the arm or a blink. If you were to suddenly blast some music from a boom box, if you tried to spark conversation with somebody, if you did pretty much anything that defied this zombie-like state, people would probably stare at you and think you very strange. A well known Japanese proverb states that “the nail that sticks up gets hammered down.” This means that if you stand out, you will be criticized, and in more extreme cases, be hurt or even killed. This is the situation that Shaun and co. find themselves in when trying to walk through a neighborhood filled with zombies that can and will lash out at them for still being human.

This idea of fitting in to avoid conflict can be found in Northanger Abbey.

Where people wish to attach, they should always be ignorant. To come with a well-informed mind, is to come with an inability of administering to the vanity of others, which a sensible person would always wish to avoid. A woman especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing any thing, should conceal it as well as she can.

(Northanger Abbeypage 81.)

Here, Austen is satirizing the concept that ignorance leads to being liked, especially in the case of women, who God forbid should know anything about the world. Indeed, in the first half of the novel, our protagonist Catherine seems to be a pretty weak character, constantly being pulled back and forth by others, and doesn’t seem to have any agency of her own. She doesn’t even seem to realize when her love interest Henry Tilney is insulting her.

“Miss Morland, no one can think more highly of the understanding of women than I do. In my opinion, nature has given them so much, that they never find it necessary to use more than half.”


It was no effort to Catherine to believe that Henry Tilney could never be wrong. His manner might sometimes surprize, but his meaning must always be just: – and what she did not understand, she was almost as ready to admire, as what she did.

(Northanger Abbey, page 83.)

This reminds me of the scene in Shaun of the Dead, where Shaun goes about his daily routine without noticing the obvious zombie apocalypse that is taking place. While Catherine is probably more a case of naiveté, and  Shaun’s a case of being hungover, they both speak of a larger problem: when you’re conditioned to certain way of life, you cease to notice it. Shaun is used to seeing people walk or sit around looking like they’re dead inside, so why should he notice when a bunch of actual zombies come into the picture? Catherine was likely raised to believe that women hold a very different role in society than men do, and that women exist to please men. It is therefore unsurprising that she latches on to Tilney’s backhanded compliment (which I found both horrid and hilarious), seeing only the compliment and not its problematic second half.

The above may have been a far-fetched link… I dunno.. This entry is kind of a prep for my eventual essay, that will focus on the use of humor in both Northanger Abbey and Shaun of the Dead.