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What Zombies Say About U.S. Culture, Society

What Zombies Say About U.S. Culture, Society
GUEST: Natalie Wilson, professor of women's studies and literature, Cal State San Marcos

This escape yes Midday Edition, I am Maureen Cavanaugh. This Saturday, lots of bad hair, torrent close, shuffling gait, and fake blood well signaled the arrival of the Halloween zombies at your door. There is no denying that zombies are the pop-culture monsters of our time. Every time you think the fascination with The Walking Dead has peaked, there is another TV show, another movie, another zombie walk. Could it be that zombies are actually trying to tell us something important about ourselves? Ginnie Mae is Dr. Natalie Wilson. She teaches literature and women's studies at Cal State University San Marcos. This week, she is presented a lecture called scary stories: What do horror stories tell us about ourselves, our society, and social injustice? Natalie, welcome to the program. Thank you so much. Thank you for having me. In what different kinds of ways do you think or stories reflect our society? I would say that horror text and monsters that populate them, including the very popular zombie, register our national traumas, as well as her cultural activity -- societies and fears. Some of the recent films that reflect fears of social unrest and disease in particular, as well as fears of war and displacement. And, monster figures are often used to help perpetuate and produce systems of oppression with the monster embodying that dangerous other that needs to be destroyed, or is a threat to us. Nancy, give us a brief history of zombies. Where to the idea of zombies come from? Well, zombies are figure mainly born in Haiti, and emerged in the conduct of slavery and imperialism. The earliest 20th century film zombie at a typical zombie figure. In the film, patient zombies are represented as mindless slaves. And, the film warns that if such a summer vacation is not contained, it will threaten white ruled and white Americans in particular. Nancy, George Romero's night of the living dead is largely created with flesh eating zombies, we know, and possibly love today. That movie broke a lot of taboos in the late 60s. Is that an example of a horror movie being ahead of its time? Yes, I would agree in ways that it was more graphic and more Corey been some earlier horror. But, I don't know that it was so much ahead of its time. Rather, I would probably say that it spoke profoundly to its time through the metaphor of the zombie. It, of course, came out during the Vietnam and civil rights. In the film, I would say the zombies represent both the fear of what war does to us and does to a society as well as the representation of certain people as threatening the American way of life. Now, zombies as you are telling us, pretty much because they are empty vessels, same to be the perfect vehicle to reflect the fears of a particular generation. Have you seen them used through the decades in that way? Guess. I would agree that the zombie is an extremely permeable metaphor, and currently we are seeing [ Indiscernible ] zombies, where the zombies become more sympathetic and human in ways of the humans and the text in flash and bodies would be examples of that. To go back to Romero, his second zombie film was set in a shopping mall, and it spoke to the dangers posed by consumer capitalism. South Park recently marked this representing Walmart shoppers of zombies. Then, currently in other zombie text, the zombie is helping us deal with the world plagued by war and violence. And, particularly with fears of our own monstrosities. For example, in The Walking Dead, I would say that the humans in ways are depicted as far more monstrous than the zombies. By placing these monstrous humans in a post-apocalyptic world, and future, as so many of the zombie text do, our fears are being able to be displaced and contained. As if they are not happy now, they are happening in the future. What do you think that zombies seem to have outshone the vampires and werewolves of the past. We had the twilight series where vampires were big it seems like more people relate to zombies. Yes. I think vampires still have there popularity. There's the show vampire diaries and true blood which attests to this, but I would agree that zombies have rose to prominence to be that it monster of the day. I think part of the reason is because they really speak profoundly to civil unrest and societal breakdown. Unlike other monstrous figures, the zombie usually brings sort of the end of humanity, the end of society. Because we are experiencing so much about civil unrest in our world, the zombie seems a figure that is popular right now. I think it speaks to things like refugee crises, and mask displacement. Something that we are witnessing in Syria. The zombie figure is also able to speak to our fears of contagion, as with the recent scares of the Ebola virus. Definitely, as I mentioned before, to the fear of mass war and acts of aggression. We see this in things like World War III, the zombie being a metaphor. Nancy, what led you to the study of the horror Sergeant. that -- genre? As a [ Indiscernible ] in popular culture as well as women's studies, I have always been interested in the text and how they represent the other, the person not considered at an equal, or considered dangerous. Especially, I've looked at this in reference of gender, race, and sexuality. I have found that horror is a key site where ideas of the other are explored. Sometimes to perpetuate IDs of others as less than, and sometimes to subvert those dichotomies where certain people are seen as good, and others are seen as bad. You are co-authoring a book which draws on a lot of our expertise. It is called feminist perspectives on zombies, vampires, and which is. I am wondering, how do you see the horror John read interjecting with feminism? Well, in a lot of ways. I would say that women in general have a very long relationship with monstrosity. Women have often been constructed as the monstrous fax. Here, we can the configure such as Medusa, the which, the demon, and the monstrous mother. Feminism as a field of thought, aims to bring about a socially just society where everyone is treated with dignity and respect. And, the horror genre encourages the opposite. It often encourages us to see certain people as less than monstrous and dangerously other. [ Indiscernible - multiple speakers ] I was just going to say that I think you also find in some research that horror seems to really embrace some of the most conservative ideologies that we have as a human race. Yes, certainly. In terms of some of them more conservative representation, we often have the mother pictured as the monstrous figure, especially if she wants to control her own reproduction, or if she is resistant to being a wife and mother. There is an old horror movie called it alive that came out in the era of things happening around Roe versus Wade. The monstrous baby is framed as a result of the fact that the woman had been taking birth control for a long time, and then considered abortion. The metaphor the film offers in a way is that, when women choose to have reproductive agency, monstrous babies are the result. It is interesting that this kind of imagery was really echoed in news media earlier in the century when suffrages and feminists were represented as demonic monsters. Like Harpers magazine and the national Gazette. There is a famous image of the female abortionist, where a woman that's a woman's one is basically a baby, and then a demon taking out her baby is a representation of the woman who won a to use birth control, or have access to abortion, was the demonic person. Issues of race also come up in horror films. They are sort of disguised as well, aren't they? Yes. Sometimes they are disguised, and sometimes are more obvious. In early example that I would give would be the 1933 film, King Kong, which there is been remakes of sense. It certainly is built upon cultural narratives of blackmails is animalistic and hypersexual. Even night of the living dead, we mentioned Romero earlier, that first film gave us a black male character, then, and he is the only surviving human at the end of the film to emerge from the safety of the farmhouse. He has been shot down by white law enforcement and burned in the fire with the zombies. Even though that's in 1968 film, that ending has echoes of current concerns in the US with police violence. I am wondering, Nancy, does anybody tell you that you are taking this too seriously? Yes. All of the time. And how do you answer that? I would say that the idea of taking things too seriously, or the charge that in analyzing popular culture rule and the enjoyment, this represents analysis. One can be critical and analytical. In fact, I find as a scholar of the genre, it has made me love it more. I would also note that feminists are also told that they are taking things too seriously as a silencing mechanism. As our women in general. Which to me, in and of itself, is something that all of us should be taking seriously. Why is it that people in opinions are given so much cultural weight, and others are framed as angry, irrational, and no fun? Do you think that people who are watching horror films pick up on the messages that you have been talking about in these poor movies? I think, sometimes yes, and sometimes no. I would say, I think our culture and society, not always, but doesn't often do a great job of teaching literacy. Often focus on media literacy wouldn't come in until college. In some ways, our culture has not done the greatest job of teaching critical skills generally. The area of gender-based -- standardized text with students filling it bubbles what's not that conducive and posing critical thought. And other were -- in another way, people can become very savvy critics of media, and there is a lot of evidence -- particularly on the Internet -- that serious could award this critical work is being done around media generally, but for films and particular. Nancy, I will ask you, what you think some of the most interesting, or one of the most interesting iterations that you have seen recently? I don't know if I could pick just one. I loved a girl walks home alone at night, which features an Iranian female vampire. That the Duke, which uses vampirism was a great film. It features a mother fighting for herself and her son against isolation inquiry -- and grief. Finally, it follows was a phenomenal film that represented rape and sexual assault as a sort of monstrous infection was demon. Most recently -- most recently, I loved Crimson peak. It did interesting things with the Gothic genre and the idea of ghosts. I can't really pick just one. That was five. I appreciated. Natalie, I've been calling you Nancy. I apologize for that. I have been speaking with Natalie Johnson, tomorrow she is going to be producing scary stories: What do horror stories tell us about ourselves, our society and social injustice. Natalie Wilson, thank you for your time.


What: "Scary Stories: What do Horror Stories Tell Us About Ourselves, Our Society and Social Injustice"

When: 7 p.m. Thursday

Where: University Student Union, Ballroom at 333 South Twin Oaks Valley Road, San Marcos

Tickets: $5 to $10. Free for students. Buy online

From superheroes to ghosts and zombies — kids in costume will be taking to the streets this Saturday for Halloween.

Zombies have turned into the pop-culture monsters of the 21st century. Just when the fascination with the zombie show "The Walking Dead" peaks, there is another TV show, movie or zombie walk, that is drawing crowds.


Natalie Wilson, a professor of women's studies and literature at Cal State San Marcos and author of the book "Seduced by Twilight," said the stories of zombies reflect our fears.

“Horror texts and the monsters that populate them register our natural traumas,” Wilson told KPBS Midday Edition on Wednesday. “Horror is a key site where the idea of the other is explored — where certain people are seen as good and others are seen as bad.”

Wilson uses the 1968 movie “Night of the Living Dead” as an example that spoke of society’s fears. The movie tells the story of people trapped in a farmhouse that's attacked by zombies.

“It spoke profoundly to its time through the metaphor of the zombie,” Wilson said. “It came out in the era of Vietnam and civil rights.”

In the television show, “The Walking Dead,” another story is told.


“In ‘The Walking Dead,’ the humans, in ways, are depicted as far more monstrous than the zombies,” Wilson said. “They really speak profoundly to civil unrest.”

Wilson will give a lecture on the topic at 7 p.m. Thursday at CSUSM.