The zombie apocalypse is the subject of a sociology course I am teaching during winter term at Linfield College in Oregon, and the class is packed. When I tell friends and colleagues, the reaction ranges from "Wow! Nice!" to giving me looks once reserved only for "Underwater Basket Weaving 101" courses taught back in the 1970s.
I used to make fun of the basket weaving class too, until I had a colleague who taught one with his spouse. He explained that the hot tub is actually the best place to teach certain types of basket weaving, given that hot water makes some fibers flexible. (I won't go into his complaints about hot tub rashes, a sacrifice made by underwater basket weavers everywhere.)
But while the "Impact of the Zombie Apocalypse on the Pacific Northwest" course is playing off a cultural phenomenon to get students in the seats, much like the basket weaving course, there is indeed a method to the madness.
Sociologically speaking, one of the most fascinating aspects of zombies has been their persistence as "the Other," something against which we can mirror our fears. Early zombie movies such as White Zombie (1932) or I Walked with a Zombie (1943) are laced with racial overtones. These morphed into George Romero's classic critiques of white middle-class fears of black America, to more recent movies that feed off our love-hate relationship with technology and our fear of eco-disasters. While we express anxieties about 9/11 subpopulations, our movies portray zombies that are actually dormant cells, ready to unleash themselves on an unsuspecting populace. Unlike vampires, werewolves, aliens or orcs, zombies present a relatively blank slate against which we can project our fears.
Most sociological theory focuses on the concept of utopia or dystopia. In dystopic societies, people grapple with things that are undesirable or frightening, and they respond to their fears. For many in 21st century America, those fears include capitalism, racism, rapid technological change, urban shifts or even semi-automatic rifles.
The zombie apocalypse class provides a pedagogical tool to spark conversation. In the face of change, how do we survive as a society? How do we maintain group cohesion? In The Walking Dead, survival requires greater brutality and physical strength. In that scenario, how do women avoid being reduced to "women's work?" And how would nations react to an environmental disaster or apocalypse, as in World War Z? How do zombie-like events influence foreign policy?
The zombie apocalypse is the perfect tool against which to bounce these sociological questions. It decontextualizes the "problem" into something we can talk about. These conversations are initially hypothetical, and yet the actual realities are played out in front of us every day in the form of political or class divisions, sexism or prejudice against gays.
And what seems impossible in the zombie apocalypse movie often hits close to home, and sooner than we might guess. A mere three years ago, we watched Woody Harrelson's desperate search for Hostess Twinkies in Zombieland. The idea that Twinkies would disappear seemed laughable, and yet we now live in just such a crazy, post-apocalyptic world.
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