Resources for teaching… Zombies (A Beginner’s Guide)

In my course on Fables and Tales, a large lecture class that most students take to meet a general education requirement in the humanities at San Francisco State University, I include a unit on horror tropes in folklore (and their interpretation in literature, film, and other cultural production). It’s an introductory survey course, so I try to give students a smorgasbord of materials – a little taste of a lot of different things – and we only have time to scratch the surface of these tales of terror. But I have the chance to give students a brief introduction to the folkloric roots of vampires and zombies, and some examples of how we have adapted those ancient figures to reflect our own cultural concerns.

Included here are the materials I use to start a conversation about zombies. I should note that, in terms of contemporary representations, my students tend to me more expert than I, so I always build in a lot of time for students to share their own knowledge – the different zombie encounters they’ve experienced in games, comics, TV shows, movies, etc.  I incorporate polls and group activities designed to elicit the students to produce and share their own examples, encouraging them to make connections to the course materials I have provided, adding to our communal zombie knowledge.

1. Night of the Living Dead

I generally start our unit on zombies by having students watch Romero’s 1968 Night of the Living Dead. From a historical and cultural standpoint, this makes a great deal of sense – it’s pretty much ground zero for the modern American cultural iconography of the zombie. It’s had a tremendous influence on the contemporary zombie representations that students are likely to be familiar with, so it’s easy for them to connect to it (but only the hardcore zombie fans will have seen it already).

There are also some practical benefits. The film is in the public domain, so it’s easy to gain access and give students access. There are multiple versions of the full film freely available on YouTube (I like this one due to the film quality, and because it retains the original black and white). This means I can have students watch it outside of class, and they’ll be able to go back to it easily when writing about the film or studying for exams. In addition, though the film was considered quite gory in its time, the special effects appear pretty fake to modern viewers, so only the most squeamish students are likely to be bothered by the imagery. (I always encourage students who feel they might be upset by the horror films to come talk to me ahead of time – if it really seems to bother them, I give them an alternative assignment. It rarely happens.)

Another interesting aspect is the fact that the film doesn’t use the terminology “zombie.” I generally bring this up at the start of our class discussion, using it as a way to introduce the history of the trope of the “living dead,” looking at figures that resemble zombies, but predate the concept of the zombie. For example, we look at a brief passage from the Epic of Gilgamesh:

I will knock down the Gates of the Netherworld,
I will smash the door posts, and leave the doors flat,
and will let the dead go up to eat the living!
And the dead will outnumber the living!

In this episode, the goddess Ishtar is angry at Gilgamesh for spurning her, and threatens the gods that they must let her have her revenge on Gilgamesh, or she will take revenge on all of humanity. 4000 years ago, and the ancient Mesopotamians were already imagining the zombie apocalypse.

We also look at a few examples from the Bible:

So I prophesized as I had been told. Breath entered the bodies, and they came to life and stood up. There were enough of them to form an army. (Ezekiel 37:10)

After three and a half days a life-giving breath came from God and entered them and they stood up; and all who saw them were terrified. (Revelations 11:11)

In fact, the Bible is full of people being raised from the dead, though this is not always (as it is in these examples) a source of terror. In fact, examining these passages allows us to start a conversation about how context and tone influence our identification of the zombie figure. Why don’t we consider Lazarus, or even Jesus a zombie? How about Snow White?

From there we look at some scenes of the film together, examining the details of how the zombies are represented and starting to pin down the specific nature of the zombie threat, and the various fears and anxieties it symbolizes.

To guide students’ engagement with the film, and to prep them for this discussion, I provide them with the following focus questions consider when they watch the film for homework:

  • What mood is set in the opening of the film? How is this achieved? (Consider sights, sounds, and events.) Which characters do we meet? What do we think of them and why? What expectations does the film create about what will happen? How does it generate these expectations?
  • What characterizes the zombie figures in the film? What traits do they have? What abilities? Are they powerful? Why or why not?
  • What information does the film give about where the zombies come from? How is this information communicated? Why do you think the film made this choice?
  • Whose side are we on? How does the film get us to root for some characters and dislike others? Does our opinion change as the film goes on, or is the hero/heroine of the story clear from the beginning?
  • Was the ending expected (based on the expectations generated within the film)? Why or why not? Does the film have to  end this way (i.e., does the ending match up with and complete or resolve the logic of the film as a whole)?
  • Think about the status of the zombie as a symbol. The zombie is something that threatens us, something we fear, a terrible fate that we try to escape; how can we translate that into the things we fear in the real world? If the zombie is a fantastical embodiment of real-world anxieties and fears, what might these be? Based on the specific characteristics given to the zombie, where it comes from, and the way s/he threatens the human characters, what do you think is the symbolic significance of this figure?
  • Night of the Living Dead was one of the first wildly successful zombie films. Why do you think it was so successful? What’s so fascinating about the story being told here? Can you think of any other films, or other zombie stories, that may have been influenced by or are responding to this film? 

2. World War Z

I wanted to find some resources that would get the students thinking more deeply about the symbolic significance of the zombies. I discovered an interesting article published in The Atlantic“The Civilizational Significance of Zombies”. (In general, I’ve been finding the cultural articles in The Atlantic an excellent resource in my teaching; the language is much more accessible than scholarly articles, but the conceptual framework tends more be more sophisticated that many other sources written for a general audience. All in all, I find it to be at an excellent level for undergraduates.)

The article focuses on discussing the symbolic content of zombie narratives through the lens of the novel World War Z. I considered having students read an excerpt, but the article does a good job of presenting examples and excerpting key passages, so instead I have students watch a clip (on YouTube) from the film version of World War Z. While the article talks quite a bit about emplotment, the clip provides a nice counterpoint in focusing on the representation of the zombie. It has real visceral impact, and it’s an interesting variation on the representation of zombies in Romero’s film.

3. Zombie Roots

I find that most of my students are actually completely unaware of the roots of the zombie figure in Haitian folklore, so I like to save this for the end of the zombie unit, as a bit of a plot twist. This schedule also works well in terms of the relationships between materials.

For our final discussion, I assign the students another Atlantic article: “The Tragic, Forgotten History of Zombies.” The article provides a succinct, yet sufficiently detailed narrative of the origins and development of the zombie figure in Haitian culture. In addition, it helps me to build on previous lessons. It references Romero’s film, and also discusses some of the same issues raised in the previous Atlantic article, but takes a different perspective. I draw my students attention to this in the focus questions I give them for this reading:

  • Before reading, take a look at the painting reproduced at the top of the article: The Zombies by Haitian artist Hector Hippolyte. What do you think is being represented in the painting? How is it interpreting the idea of the “zombie” and how does that compare to the images of zombies we discussed last week? 
  • What, according to Mariani, was the zombie’s symbolic significance for the people of 17th-18th century Haiti, where the folklore surrounding them originated? How does this compare to your understanding of the zombie’s symbolic significance in Western culture today? What claims does Mariani make about the significance of zombies for our culture?
  • Mariani argues that the popularity of the zombie in Western culture is actually a negative example of cultural appropriation, claiming:

“[T]he zombie myth has been widely appropriated by American pop culture in a way that whitewashes its origins—and turns the undead into a platform for escapist fantasy.”

    • Do you agree with Mariani’s concern about whitewashing? Is there a danger in borrowing from other cultures, when the original significance or context is lost in the process? Is it cultural appropriation, or a natural process of cultural syncretism (mixing)?
    • When Mariani discusses the “escapism” of contemporary depictions of zombies, he seems to directly indict an argument like the one Vlahos’ makes in his article on World War Z (which we read last week). Vlahos suggests that in zombie apocalypse literature, the zombies are not important, but rather the way humans (and Americans) ‘step up’ to the challenge they represent; Mariani argues that this is exactly why zombie stories, which used to be a potent vehicle for social critique, now encourage us to turn a blind eye to social problems and instead pat ourselves on the back for how great we are at surviving. Do you agree with one of these positions over the other? Why? (Or is there a third position you would advocate?)

I like to have the students weigh in on these final questions in class.

We also discuss how zombie lore was imported to the US. I provide some background on William Seabrook, and his 1929 book The Magic Island, and together we look at the passage describing zombie lore and its place within Haitian mythology:

I reflected that these tales ran closely parallel not only with those of the negroes in Georgia and the Carolinas, but with the mediaeval folklore of white Europe. Werewolves, vampires, and demons were certainly no novelty. But I recalled one creature I had been hearing about in Haiti, which sounded exclusively local — the zombie.

It seemed (or so I had been assured by negroes more credulous than [my native guide] Polynice) that while the zombie came from the grave, it was neither a ghost, nor yet a person who had been raised like Lazarus from the dead. The zombie, they say, is a soulless human corpse, still dead, but taken from the grave and endowed by sorcery with a mechanical semblance of life — it is a dead body which is made to walk and act and move as if it were alive. People who have the power to do this go to a fresh grave, dig up the body before it has had time to rot, galvanize it into movement, and then make of it a servant or slave, occasionally for the commission of some crime, more often simply as a drudge around the habitation or the farm, setting it dull heavy tasks, and beating it like a dumb beast if it slackens.

Building on this image of the zombie, I show my class a few clips from the film White Zombie (1932), which is also referenced in the Atlantic article. The film tells the story of a white plantation owner – cum – bokor in Haiti (played by Bela Lugosi), who uses his powers to create a workforce of native zombie slaves to run his plantation; eventually, he uses his powers to enslave the white leading lady as well, causing the white, male central cast to unite to save her.

To facilitate classroom viewing, I cut together a mashup of the scenes from the film that depict zombies, with a few intertitles to clarify the plot. I also added subtitles, for the benefit of hearing impaired and/or non-native speaker students, and to compensate for sound quality issues:

Both the film and Seabrook’s text remain faithful to the Haitian image of the zombie, and even suggest some criticisms of the zombies’ enslaved condition (and, by association, the condition of enslaved Haitians more generally), but both also demonstrate a clearly Eurocentric attitude, which exoticizes and sensationalizes Haiti and Haitian culture, while also expressing a paternalistic attitude toward the “superstition” and “credulity” associated with the native populace.

(It’s worth pointing out that the film goes to great pains to clarify that the existence of the zombies does not validate the native belief; in contradistinction to the native “superstition” that the zombies are reanimated corpses, the missionary Dr. Bruner provides a natural explanation midway through the film: “Your driver believed he saw dead men, walking. He didn’t. What he saw was man alive… I’ve been trying for years to get to the bottom of these things. To separate what you call fact from fiction…The law of Haiti acknowledges the…’use of drugs or other practices which produce lethargic coma, or lifeless sleep’…The native authorities are afraid to meddle. I am not…Because I am a preacher, they think I am a magician.”)

In addition, the film provides an important commentary on Western attitudes in its title and story arc. While the main characters all evince a certain amount of distaste at the thought of turning native people into zombie slaves, it’s not until there is the possibility of a white zombie that the horror truly begins; while the characters were content to turn a blind eye to the zombification of the natives, the victimization of the white woman motivates the rescue plot.

So not only does the appropriation of the zombie from Haiti have potential ethical ramifications, but the way in which the stories were imported is also steeped in the history of racism and colonialism.

As an epilogue to this discussion, I inform my students that when designing the class, I really wanted to include a representation of zombies from a Haitian creator, but faced major challenges due to the lack of translation and distribution of Haitian art, film, and literature. This is one of the reasons that I explicitly asked them to pay attention to the painting reproduced in the article.

While I’ve found novels by Haitian authors that incorporate some reference to zombies, I was hoping to find a complete story or episode that centered on zombies. Jacques Stephen Alexis’ “Chronique d’un faux amour,” published in Romancero aux étoiles, would have been perfect, but is not available in English translation. So I turned to Caribbean authors from other nations writing about Haiti. The Cuban-Puerto Rican author Mayra Montero’s “Corinne, Muchacha Amable” (“Corinne, Amiable Girl”) is set in Haiti, and an English translation by Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert was published in Callaloo in 1994. However, while this story includes many interesting themes, I concluded that both the language and the historical references would make this an extremely difficult read for students in the context of my introductory class. (I found Paravisini-Gebert’s article “Colonial and post-colonial Gothic: the Caribbean” in The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction an invaluable resource to discovering more of the background to Caribbean zombie literature.)

Instead, I have my students read Junot Diaz’s “Monstro.” The students respond to the vividness of Diaz’s language and imagery, and many of my Latinx students appreciate the Spanglish folded into the narration. I like the story because it allows us to discuss the issues of race, economics, inequality, colonialism, and oppression, which permeate both the Haitian origins of the zombie figure and Diaz’s story. It also allows us to have a conversation about the 2010 earthquake and its aftermath (ground zero for Diaz’s zombie outbreak is the relocation camps outside Port-au-Prince), and the economic situation of Haiti, juxtaposed to the awareness of the billions of dollars in revenue generated by all the American zombie films we have discussed in the past few days. We’ve had discussions earlier in the course about the iterative nature of folklore, and how it causes problems for the concepts of authorship, creative agency, and intellectual property that we apply to other types of storytelling. This becomes a useful moment of reflection – on the one hand, it’s part of the natural life of folklore that it travels and evolves, and is adapted by others, but what is the line between adaptation and appropriation? What are the ethics of commercializing elements of Haitian culture, while Haiti receives neither compensation nor recognition for the value of their cultural production?

Again, I try to get students thinking about these and other questions with the focus questions included in their reading assignment:

  • Diaz doesn’t use the term “zombie” in his story, yet many critics have interpreted this as a zombie story. Why? What aspects of this story overlap with depictions of zombies we have discussed, or with which you are familiar? Does it make sense to think about this as a zombie story? Why or why not?
  • How is the outbreak in the story characterized? What effects does it have on its victims? What do these traits symbolize?
  • Diaz chooses to set the outbreak in Haiti, alluding to the Haitian roots of zombie folklore. Are there other ways in which this story seems to engage with or comment on the original understanding of the zombie figure? Are there other reasons why Diaz may have chosen to center the story in Haiti?
  • How would you characterize the narrator? What traits does he have? How does the story reveal what he is like? How do you think we are supposed to respond to him? Do we relate to him? Is he a hero? Why tell the story through the point-of-view of a character who isn’t actually there to witness the events he is recounting to us?
  • The narrator tells us early on, “I was chasing a girl.” What does the dynamic between the three friends, and the potential romance between the narrator and Mysty, have to do with the outbreak story? Why do you think Diaz chose to intertwine these stories?

Ultimately, though I’m not much of a fan of zombie literature myself, seeing the enthusiasm with which my students respond to this unit has made me glad I decided to include it in my course.

Though I only scratch the surface, hopefully these resources will be helpful to other educators interested in engaging with zombies in their courses. Feel free to leave any comments or questions below, and I’d love for you to share any resources you have found, as well.

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