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…
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 class sounds reasonable to me – provided that the class has sufficient sociological content – though I know classes like these tend to draw attention from people who think colleges (and sociologists?) aren’t teaching much (or not teaching the right stuff) in the first place. Using current themes, such as those found in numerous television shows and movies that students are particularly immersed in, is one way to hook students and encourage them to think more deeply about social life. In this case, it seems to me that pushing students to think more about what they would consider an utopia or dystopia could be revealing in how they individualistically approach the world and encourage them to pull back a bit and consider the bigger social forces at work and other people involved. This is a bit tongue in cheek but we don’t have to blow up major cities or have major diseases or creatures to get to this point. Imagine if college students could not have access to their smartphones and computers – imagine at least the short-term apocalypse! But, of course, the world is bigger than just zombies or a loss of cellphones and studying apocalypses may help students see the basics of society that we all tend to take for granted.