Zombies: Getting to the Core

New course provides a historical perspective on the undead

Story by: Annie Beckmann
Published: 2013-10-23

At Halloween time, zombie stories have a way of inserting themselves into the consciousness of even rational human beings. A local newspaper columnist labels the recent government shutdown "a zombie apocalypse." Zombie movies such as Night of the Living Dead resurface to haunt us. And one of the highest rated TV shows, week after week, is the resurrected The Walking Dead.

In reality, zombies have become part of popular culture that goes beyond Halloween. Just ask SU instructor Henry Kamerling, who teaches a course aimed at freshmen called Zombies: A History of the Undead. It's an inquiry seminar in the humanities that's part of the new Core. 

"It's really a straightforward history class, although the topic is boutique," he says, adding, "It definitely shakes up preconceived notions of history."

Maybe you've never paused to consider what it means to be undead. Folk zombies, atomic zombies, apocalyptic zombies-there's a migration and transformation of zombies from one era to the next, from one popular horror flick to another.

Imagine what it would be like to be a student who's searching for insights for a paper that explores modern zombie lore and compares a zombie with the western-style hero, which plays out in The Walking Dead.

 HenryKamerling_FeatureHenry Kamerling

It was the historical nature of crime and punishment that brought Kamerling to thinking how zombies might contribute to a dialogue about national identity. Say what? Think us versus them, he suggests.

"Crime serves an important social function. We aren't 'us' unless we serve a useful function. We need criminals and monsters," he explains.

In keeping with the zombie vs. western hero theme, Kamerling contends "a western hero tames the wilderness to pave the way for the arrival of civilization." He says a zombie, on the other hand, "returns the modern world to a state of wilderness and in doing so expresses a yearning not only for the past but for a return of the western-style hero."

Where's the academic rigor in all of this zombie talk, you may wonder. It's a seminar that aims to tune students to how historians think and pursue knowledge, says Kamerling. Students explore historical questions and examine how several texts-including readings from anthropology, sociology and cultural theory-relate to one another across time.

Zombies offer an inventive way to understand deviance and its expressions in pop culture. As students look for academic insights, they also have opportunities to develop analytic thinking and reasoning skills when they write research papers and prepare for a capstone oral presentation. 

In case you're clueless about the undead, you become a zombie by being bitten by one. Nonetheless, Kamerling says, "the zombie plague expresses a fear about globalization, technology and our exposure to other people, places and ideas."

Anxieties about a plague aside, if you feel like a zombie in the early morning, you're in the right frame of mind for this class. It meets at 7:45 a.m.

(The main photo was taken by Kamerling at a Zombie walk in Seattle in 2012.)



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I'll wake up for class rather zombie-like but then I see the clock and I'm brought to life as I rush to Pigott of Seattle U. Take it from someone who's least favorite subject has always been history. Readings can be a riveting topic of discussion with Prof. Kamerling and I think the class next door agrees. Somewhere in the mix of his teachings he has improved my thought process as a whole, regarding, of course the connection between zombies, cowboys, and much more.
(10/25/2013 3:32:35 PM, Brandon Schneider )

I wake up feeling like a zombie because of how early this class is. But once our discussions begin, my mind turns on and I am amazed at how even zombies can be such a thought provoking and historical topic. Before this class zombies were monsters for me, and that was it. I never truly thought anything about them. But even after just a month of class, I have learned so much about how they relate to many different aspects of our lives.
(10/25/2013 10:03:26 AM, Will Green )

I can honestly say it is definitely a battle to wake up for a 7:45 a.m. class, but in all aspects this class is one of the most interesting. Not only has my point of view of zombies become much broader, but I have a deeper understanding and appreciation for how zombie and western movies reflect our society in different periods of our history.
(10/24/2013 10:36:37 PM, Victoria Camacho )

I wasn't sure what to expect from this class, but from the very first day, it drew me in, and is always interesting. I never thought there could be an entire class on zombies, but each day we look at different perspectives and ideas. Overall a great class!
(10/24/2013 8:53:19 PM, Blaise Wittenauer-Lee )

This class is nothing like what you would expect. It is a true history class with more fascinating subject matter. You learn so much more about zombies and their creation than you ever thought you could know. I love this class, even though it happens to be at 7:45 am.
(10/24/2013 2:29:09 PM, Kerry Lane )

As a freshman in my first quarter at Seattle U, I can say that this class is by far one of the most interesting and engaging courses I've taken in my life. It definitely puts the zombie in a new perspective for me!
(10/24/2013 1:16:35 PM, Zach Harris )

What I find so interesting about the class is the fact that the different types of zombies can be attributed to a certain time period, and the general feelings of the society of that time. To analyze history through the monsters of the time is a really fascinating way to approach the subject.
(10/24/2013 11:48:53 AM, Helena Laubach )

I hope to see many zombies out this Halloween. I think it would be interesting to see if the people dressed up as zombies even know the history of the monster! The zombie is more complex than it seems!
(10/23/2013 5:44:22 PM, Sara Wedekind )

Great article with fascinating information. Thanks, Annie (and Mike). While I feel like a zombie in the morning, you will not see me at 7:45 a.m.
(10/23/2013 5:26:16 PM, Sue Hogan )

What I find interesting is that the zombie is extremely relatable. The zombie is the other. The zombie in a zombie movie is the outlaw in a western, an alien in a sci-fi movie and the dark ominous character from a Disney movie. All of these characters are looked at as "other" or perhaps "bad". If we are put into an environment where we are the other, we, in a sense, become the zombie. We become the person little is known about and like a zombie, become alienated sometimes misunderstood.
(10/23/2013 4:13:37 PM, Jacqueline )

I'm in this class, and it's by far the most unique topic I have ever had to study in school. At first, I definitely thought that we were going to be horrified every single day, watching endless episode of The Walking Dead, but I was totally wrong. Zombies have so much to do with all aspects of history, from Haiti to World War II. The belief of the living dead and the zombie apocalypse is so fascinating!
(10/23/2013 3:39:21 PM, Sandy Dasalla )

As a brand new freshman at SU, I was somewhat anxious about starting this class. "Zombies...Really?". And not to mention that 7:45 time. However, I can say now that it's my most interesting class. Mr. Kamerling integrates zombie culture, history, and philosophy into an amazing blend of topics for discussion and thought. Zombies have never been such a cool part of my academic life as they are now!
(10/23/2013 2:06:06 PM, Madeleine Orton )