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SDSU Zombie Lit 101

March 28, 2014 11:31 a.m.

KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando audits the SDSU Zombies class and speaks with professor Emily Hicks about how zombies are reanimating students.

Related Story: SDSU Offers Its First Zombies Class To Reanimate Students


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

HOST INTRO: Zombies are everywhere in pop culture. The Walking Dead is a hit on TV, Brad Pitt just saved the world from them in World War Z, and killing zombies is almost a rite of passage in video games. So with zombies not looking to shamble off into the sunset maybe it’s time to put them to better use. That’s what San Diego State is doing this semester. KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando speaks with the professor of the university’s first zombie class.

TAG: The Zombies class is currently in session and Professor Hicks hopes to offer it again next year.

Zombies always reflect the times that spawn them. In 1968, George A. Romero used them to comment on racism in “Night of the Living Dead.” Then in the 70s he resurrected them to address consumerism; and in the 80s to condemn vivisection. In 2004, zombies became a metaphor for apathy in Edgar Wright’s “Shaun of the Dead.”

EDGAR WRIGHT: It's kind of like the great plague is laziness, so it was like the zombies represent sloth.”

CLIP They still out there?... Yeah, what should we do?... Have a sitdown?

This year, San Diego State wanted to combat student apathy by offering a class with irresistible pop culture appeal.

EMILY HICKS: The name of the class is one word: Zombies.

That’s Professor Emily Hicks. This is the first time she’s teaching a class on the undead and like Romero before her, she understands that zombies are just a jumping off point. Romero saw them as a blank slate for social commentary; Hicks sees them as a teaching tool to bring topics back to life. For instance, students that had grown bored with issues of racism and classism, or who felt singled out as examples because they were economically challenged are now engaging in vigorous discussions on the topics.

EMILY HICKS: We’re talking about blood and guts and all kinds of things that are sort of leveling so I’ve found that some students are tired talking of about multicultural issues in general in my other classes but not in the zombies class.

Zombies are also a great tool for addressing societal collapse. People want popular entertainment to explore their apocalyptic fears but they don’t want it to be too real says author Max Brooks.

MAX BROOKS: But when you do a zombie movie or a zombie book, you can have those same apocalyptic fantasies, society breaking down, government disintegrating, people turning on each other, but if the catalyst is fictional, if it’s a zombie then you can still sleep at night.

Brooks’ Zombie Survival Guide is assigned reading for San Diego State students, and they’re ravenous for such content. You won’t find any brain dead kids in this class, everyone’s synapses are firing away and that’s exactly what Hicks had hoped for.

EMILY HICKS: I’ve fallen in love with this class because everything we want as teachers for our students to do which is to get engaged, to take notes, to prepare for classes in between classes – all those things happen in this class without me saying anything.

San Diego State isn’t the first institution to let zombies shamble into the classroom. The University of Baltimore was one of the first to offer zombie classes back in 2010. There’s also been a surge in scholarly books with zombie in the title. Two of them– American Gothic Zombie and Race, Oppression and the Zombie – are required reading for Hicks’ class.

CLIP Some words are infected…

Students also watch films.

CLIP ...and it spreads out when the contaminated word is spoken...

Like the Canadian film Pontypool, which is unique in suggesting that zombieism spreads through language.

CLIP Simple, simple sample

The film inspires students to use their brains to consider how words gain their meaning and how that meaning can breakdown.

Professor Hicks likes the way zombies are reanimating her students.

EMILY HICKS: I have taught here 30 years and I have never had students so excited about writing a mid-term.

One student wants to look at zombies through the lens of capitalism, another wants to use a video game to explore the notion of trans-human. Christina Chovan wants to explore how we define ourselves as human.

CHRISTINA CHOVAN: To question what makes a person a person? Is everything really such a binary opposition, is there some kind of a gray area to where we all are zombies in some way or another.

CLIP (Day of the Dead) They are us, they are an extension of us.

That’s what’s scary. Zombies are the "other" but they also used to be us. Couple that with an end of days scenario, and you have a perfect metaphor for all our fears from AIDS to the economic crisis. That strikes a cord with student Jeremiah Wessling.

JEREMIAH WESSLING: I think it kind of speaks for the times that we all feel kind of helpless right now. A lot of people are scared so they kind of want to prepare themselves for end times and it’s kind of fascinating to see how the world will change and how we will change.

The mantra of most zombie films is aim for the head. San Diego State took that to heart, aiming for the minds of their students through the blood and gore of the zombie apocalypse.

Beth Accomando, KPBS News.