A night for the living dead

HOUGHTON – Since the movie “Night of the Living Dead” came out in 1968, zombies have played a large role in pop culture. Friday evening, a group of students, faculty, staff and community members explored different aspects of zombies at Michigan Technological University’s Zombie U.

“Some of you might be wondering, why zombies? Why not?” said Dr. Syd Johnson, assistant professor of philosophy at Tech.

Four speakers led discussions during the symposium. Each speaker focused on different aspects of the zombie tradition, covering aspects from why we like zombies to the ethics of zombie killing.

“Zombies provoke in us real fears about the real world we live in,” Johnson said. “We have fears about other people or people who are other, people who are different, we fear our own human nature which appears to be violent, we fear disease and war and, of course, we fear death.”

Adam Feltz from the department of cognitive and learning sciences at Michigan Tech led the symposium with an analysis of why we are so fascinated with zombies. To answer that question, Feltz looked to existing theories first. Those theories include the Stephen King theory, which poses the idea that our fascination with zombies reflects modern consumerism, and the war and atrocity theory, in which we like zombies more during times of hardship. Feltz dismissed those theories by simply tracking zombie movies made during those times and finding either no relationship or an inverse relationship with those trends.

So he went on to survey over 150 people and try to find common indicators that would predict who would like zombies. He found that people who like zombies are more likely to be male, to be young, to be less educated and to be liberal. But, of course, many people outside of those parameters also enjoy zombies.

“Why do we like zombies? It’s complicated because there is no ‘we.’ There are some people who like zombies and some people who don’t like zombies,” Feltz said.

Following Feltz was Dr. Kette Thomas, assistant professor of diverse literature at Tech. Thomas explored the origins of the zombie in American culture which stems from the Haitian zombie tradition, even though the two ideas of a zombie have little in common. There is less emphasis in the Vodou idea of zombies, she said, of the figure being dead and more of a focus on returning to a natural state – for the zombie, that means death.

“It’s an interesting narrative because when you look at how Vodou is a fusion of African religions and Western Christianity, the zombie story is the anti-resurrection story. They are dead because they are supposed to be dead,” she said. “It’s about returning to universal order and universal order requires that when I undergo a death, I do undergo the death.”

Dr. John Dahl from the University of Minnesota Duluth explored diseases that exist today that have a zombie-like effect on victims.

“Because they are not undead, we can only focus on the living characteristics to describe them,” he said. “Some of those are shuffling gate, loss of mobility, loss of memory, decreased ability to speak, they can communicate limited to moans and groans, they seem to have a taste for human brains – or at least the willingness to bite people. There are infectious diseases that will mimic some of these symptoms, if not all of them.”

The diseases he mentioned were sleeping sickness, Dysarthria, Ebola, leprosy, rabies, necrosis and kuru. He focused his talk on kuru, which he compared to Mad Cow disease, as an illustration of how diseases can make people act like zombies and inspire fear in a population.

Johnson wrapped up the symposium by examining the ethics of zombies and zombie killing.

“What if it was your mom who got bit by zombie?” Johnson asked. “You know she’s going to die, then she’s going to turn into a zombie and then things are going to get really unpleasant.”

While some members of the audience claimed they would still kill “zombie mom” without a second thought, others began to think about how that could affect their decision. Johnson then went on to pose a scenario where zombies are simply severely brain damaged humans who still have rights, including the right not to be killed.

“When we look at zombies, we’re really seeing a reflection of ourselves,” Johnson said. “I think it’s important to look at what we see there.”