Since we first started talking about an unnamed “Zombie Camp” several years ago, I’ve had a lot of people ask me, “Is this for real?” And who could blame them for that initial reaction? When we think of zombies in television, movies, and literature, we think alternatively of horror or campy images of the unbelievable. I want to take a moment, speaking as an adult to parents, to answer the questions: “Why zombies?” and “Why should I send my child to this program?”
I didn’t take zombies very seriously prior to the Centers for Disease Control’s groundbreaking campaign in 2011. This campaign sought to use the fictional “zombie apocalypse” to get young people (and adults, too) to think seriously about disaster preparedness by thinking through these complex scenarios in a fictional framework. As I explored the CDC’s work, I started to uncover the sheer breadth and depth of serious scholarship that has explored the zombie phenomenon – both from a critical and problem solving viewpoint, and as a vehicle for exploring other concerns. Consider these examples:
- Canadian Mathematicians used the spread of a theoretical “zombie virus” to model the transmission of a highly virulent disease while considering the movement of the population. Their scholarship has made a contribution to our understanding of epidemiology and can help us understand potential problems such as the spread of Bird Flu.
- Daniel Drezner, a highly respected scholar of international relations at the Tufts University Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy recently published a book through the Princeton University Press entitled Theories of International Politics and Zombies. The book helps readers learn about real theories of international relations while grappling with the question of how governments would behave in the face of a world-wide catastrophe.
- Numerous authors have used zombie themes to breathe new life into works of fiction published decades or centuries ago. These works have helped expose the core writing of classic American and British authors to a host of new readers – much as works like the Harry Potter Series, Hunger Games, and Twilight have energized young readers over the last decade. Titles include: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Alice in Deadland, and Valley of the Dead: The Truth Behind Dante’s Inferno, among others.
- Dr. Steve Schlozman, MD, of Harvard Medical School (a member of our Advisory Board) has been using the concept of a zombie in order to help his psychology students grapple with questions of death and dying, as well as how to relate to patients. His work, as well as the work of others, such as Dr. Peter Cummings (also on our Advisory Board), has helped both the scientist and the layperson think about topics in neurobiology.
- Culturally and historically, zombies open a window into religious and cultural traditions, as the origin of zombies can actually be traced to Haitian voodoo, where certain practices actually can put people in a trance-like state that appears almost “dead.” Scholars have studied this phenomenon with interest for years.
- To me, probably the most interesting application of zombies is in the discussion of the nature of humanity. Anyone watching or reading a piece of zombie fiction will see examples of the best of humanity: leadership, courage, creativity, adaptability, and strategic problem solving. On the other end of the spectrum, we see the worst in human conduct: a survival of the fittest mentality, impulsive decision making, poor team work, a dependence on technology that blinds us to basic resources, and a lack of resilience in the face of adversity. What often makes for the best plots in zombie fiction is the foibles of human characters who simply make awful decisions about how to deal with their circumstances. From watching these behaviors, and talking about them critically, we learn.
Dr. Schlozman commented on this point very articulately in a piece for our website. He noted:
“To me, zombies are the perfect metaphor for disconnection, and I think disconnection is emblematic of modernity. I think zombies lend themselves to thinking about super-scary and extremely tricky stuff in the comfort of campy displacement. I can address how we define the human condition, or why via mirror neurons people fight, or how the brain tells you to run, and so forth, using the zombie trope. That’s so cool. Kids and adults learn. I’ve had kids write to me about the novel I wrote and cite major medical journals. These are 12 to 14 year old kids! They’re citing journals that I am sometimes struggling to get the medical students I teach to read.”
Our primary motive for offering this Academy is to get young people thinking about disaster preparedness. We do this through two threads. All students are exposed to a common curriculum about society’s response to crisis, literature’s portrayals of these crises, and some basic concepts in biology and epidemiology. Additionally, with some options in activities, students can pursue interests in survival, leadership, problem solving, and preparedness and they can pursue interests in fiction and the humanities, using their creative impulses and writing to explore some of these same topics. Most of our evening activity blocks include options for different interests. At numerous points through the Academy, these threads reconnect so that experiences are diverse, but no one’s interests are sidelined. Our goals, by the end of the Academy, are:
- To leave students more prepared to deal with complex problems.
- To energize students about learning – particularly critical thinking.
- To help students feel comfortable in their interests and empowered to use their interests as a vehicle to learn and to share with others.
- To expand knowledge of disaster preparedness – both among Academy participants and others with whom they may share their acquired knowledge.
One other point I often get asked about is “age appropriateness.” It’s true that some people don’t like horror as a genre, and some kids are too young for it. This is something parents and children should talk about before coming to this camp. We do watch some of the seminal films of the zombie genre, and there’s little doubt that zombies can get “a bit bitey” (as Shaun’s Mom was heard to say in Shaun of the Dead). While I have found that an astounding number of elementary school and junior high students regularly watch The Walking Dead, we still make it clear to students that they always have the option to opt-out of films if they are uncomfortable, and we always have alternative activities on nights when we do activities such as the anatomy/cadaver lab at the local medical school. Our staff is trained to help kids talk through any issues that make them uncomfortable. In the several years we’ve been running this program, we’ve never encountered a problem. Kids seem to revel in the action.
Were I a parent (I am the doting uncle of two very gifted young boys) I would want to be assured that my investment in a summer program was going to have value, that my children would be safe, and that they would come home enthusiastic about their experience. I feel very strongly that Zombie Scholars Academy will satisfy on all of these points. With over 30-years experience running summer academies for academically-inclined young people, we know how to keep kids safe and make them crave more learning in a college setting. More importantly, however, we take the point of making this program academically rigorous while fun very seriously.
If you have any questions about this program, please don’t hesitate to contact us. We are more than happy to chat with you about this learning opportunity.
Kevin M. Minch, PhD
Associate Provost for Undergraduate Curricula and Outreach
Director, Institute for Academic Outreach