Undead education?

Here’s something that caught my eye. Since last September, the University of Baltimore in the United States has been offering an undergraduate module on zombies. However, this is not a course intending to explore evidence of zombies in real life (which is a shame, as I would definitely have written for the syllabus), but rather it is being offered as part of a programme on pop culture. Zombies are sometimes seen in the US as being a useful metaphor for various problems and conditions, and so the zombie has become ‘allegorical for an unthinking, unfeeling way of living and relating to others, and a bellwether of complete social collapse.’

I guess this may cause apoplexy in members of the Russell Group (see my recent post), but actually I can see this course as a fascinating exploration of art, culture and society. Come to think of it, maybe I will ask for the syllabus.

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22 Comments on “Undead education?”

  1. Fred Says:

    When some more “formal” degree titles are called Mickey Mouse, I can’t even imagine how a “BSc Zombies” would be called 🙂

  2. jfryar Says:

    Sounds like an interesting course! But I’d add one point. Zombies are not simply part of pop culture … the book of Revelations talks of the dead rising from the graves as one of the signs of the Apocalypse.

    Now, where did I leave my shotgun. Bring on 2012! 🙂

  3. Al Says:

    Maybe it is about the Irish banks…

  4. Anna Notaro Says:

    Funny I should read this post a few minutes before delivering a lecture titled ‘Bodies in Cyberculture’ where, among others, I evoke the myths of Pygmalion and Galatea http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Galatea_(mythology), Frankenstein and the Golem (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golem) in order to explain how at the roots of our contemporary anxieties towards the ever increasing prosthetic enhancement of human bodies, stem cell and cloning technologies, lie such powerful stories of the non-dead or better or the uncannily (to use the still valid Freudian term) not quite alive. Like modern Prometheus (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prometheus) we feel we are powerful enough to defy the Gods and *create life*, still the stories work as equally powerful caveats again the serious consequences, this is a conundrum we cannot escape from because we cannot stop interrogating ourselves about what is it that makes us *human*

  5. Fred Says:


    A BA Gaga degree? From a sociology point of view…
    Anyway despite the probably interesting curiculum I thing that unis are choosing fancy titles on purpose.

  6. no-name Says:

    You don’t need to go to Baltimore — TCD’s MPhil in Popular Literature covers zombies…

    • Al Says:

      Isnt an MPhil a research only masters?

      • Jilly Says:

        Al – usually, the answer to this question is yes. Trinity, however, being Trinity, have taught MPhils. Don’t ask, it’s probably something to do with Elizabeth I!

        • wendymr Says:

          Well, isn’t that because at TCD, like Oxbridge, the MA is not awarded for completion of any postgraduate studies, but instead offered to honours BA graduates (for a ‘nominal’ fee) a few years after graduation?

  7. Dan Says:

    Isn’t this an interesting case for the concept of academic freedom? I presume the course lecturers, departments and university have a process that decides on their teaching Programme and in this case, arguments were made about the cultural significance about zombies, about millennial fears about disease, plague and death, about concepts of the other, the sub-human and despair?

    It sounds like both a topical and a thoughtful course, but most importantly, an academic decided this was an interesting and useful course, despite any potential for ridicule or sarcasm amongst the populace. Fair dues to her or him, more power to their elbow!

  8. cormac Says:

    I suspect at least part of the reason for the American mania for zombie films arises from the fact that it is a very easy way of getting extreme violence onscreen that would not be tolerated otherwise…they’re dead so it’s ok etc

    • anna notaro Says:

      Cormac, that is a bit of an oversimplification, if I may say so, there is much more to this just getting away with ‘extreme violence onscreen’, the undead is a global (not only an Amwerican one) popular culture phenomenon, see the popularity of vampire movies such as Underworld and Twilight, and TV series like True Blood.The undead is the most popular fiction character of all times, through them we experience latent fancies and scenes in which the secrets of creation are unraveled, besides the horror movies of today have a literary pedigree in the gothic genre of the 19th century (Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein)

    • Ah now, Cormac, you need to get acquainted with this literary genre. First, they’re not dead, they’re undead… And as Anna says, this has a very significant cultural and literary pedigree, and furthermore is linked with interesting other areas of scholarship such as psychology.

  9. Dan Says:

    Cormac has a point. In zombie films, we can watch our protagonists execute zombies with no moral qualms whatsoever, extinguishing life (undead as it is) and destroying an individual (admittedly yucky) creature without a second’s thought. I think in a very dark part of the human psyche, there is a curiosity about consequence-free violence. Zombies are useful in the culture then (as are aliens, robots, etc). In fact, whereas some films have explored the fragile humanity of robots (eg Blade Runner, Aliens), zombie movies remain a mercy-free zone (apart from the fairly recent one, where zombies put petrol in cars, develop a sense of minority rights, etc.) Otherwise, in movies like Danny Boyles 24 Hours (or whatever it is), the undead remain resolutely extinguishable..???

    • anna notaro Says:

      Dan, ‘the licence to kill type of argument’ has some psychological merit, I am not ruling that out entirely, the problem I have with it though is that it is really only part of the *story*, concentrating on the violence only makes us miss out on the symbolic significance of this chararcter..

      • Dan Says:

        Oh definitely, but consider the ‘trope’ whereby your travelling companion, friend, lover or kindred becomes a zombie and regretfully(ish), you have to kill them. Surely a key aspect of zombies is the link to awful, yet entirely acceptable, socially condoned violence. Are zombies and blood splattering violence not inextricably linked?

        Has there ever been a zombie movie (I hope there has!) where you agree to disagree, where the zombies refrain from eating your brain and you go easy with the pump action shot-gun?

        Excellent post Ferdinand!

  10. anna notaro Says:

    oh dear hope all this talking about zombies and blood splattering violence won’t give me nightmares tonight! 🙂

  11. cormac Says:

    Eh. The keyword in my comment was ‘part’, and I never use the word ‘just’. I like Ann’s reference to vampires, but I also think this is true of vampire films. It’s amazing how quick those who study these things to great depth are to dismiss what seems an obvious point to outsiders..

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