A: The objective of using zombies as a vehicle for discussing serious academic topics, and issues of societal importance – such as disaster preparedness – is to make it easier for students to learn. While fictional, zombies raise provocative questions about medicine, psychology, the environment, public policy, sentience, and a host of other topics, they also allow students to exercise those faculties that help them solve problems in everyday life.
A: We believe part of the reason zombies have become so popular is that they are seen by many people as “camp.” While some zombie films can be utterly terrifying, some are also thoroughly hilarious – either because they were deliberately produced as comedies (Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland) or because of poor production value. While there is no question that some films in the zombie genre are too dark to be viewed by young people, we believe the target age group for this program is already quite familiar with the genre. Moreover, our focus on zombies as a subject for academic study places them in a more appropriate context for discussion. The linkage to disaster preparedness is highly appropriate. Advisory Board member, Dr. Steve Schlozman of Harvard, has observed:
I can maybe bring a unique perspective to [this question] as a child and adolescent psychiatrist, as well as someone who writes and thinks about functional neurobiology. These are by definition scary times. It’s not that times weren’t scary when I was a kid – I was pretty sure we’d nuke the Soviets and/or they’d nuke us by the time I was 30. The difference, though, is the combination of rapid media communication and more palpably felt, direct threats. Buildings blowing up, over 10 years of war, near constant news about all sorts of awful things, and an increasingly polarized national dialogue have taken their toll on our national psyche. Kids see and hear really scary stuff every day. This has led to an increased rate of low level near constant anxiety in our kids, and this anxiety permeates every aspect of their culture (look at the explosion of dystopian young adult fiction). So, what to do? Well, on both individual and public health measures, you meet kids where they’re at developmentally. That means you give them agency. As they enter late school-age and early adolescence, their brains are just starting to appreciate how uncertain things can be. So, kids thrive on mastery and abstract thinking at exactly the time that they realize that they’ll need to in order to both stay and feel safe. Knowing how to prepare and what to do in case of a disaster actually doesn’t scare kids more. Think of tornado drills. If done well and correctly (and there’s research to show this) kids get more relaxed when they understand the risks in developmentally appropriate ways. This makes them less jumpy and better able to focus on the tasks of growing up.
A: If recent natural and human-made disasters have taught us anything, it is that we are insufficiently prepared for them. While we would like to believe these issues are topics that adults should worry about and children should be protected from, the reality is that young people have been asked to consider preparing for disasters for generations – from the “duck and cover” drills of the Cold War, to the tornado preparedness of schools in the Midwest and South. Dr. Schlozman further argues:
There’s the concrete stuff – the stuff the CDC was getting at in their now famous blog. Preparing for fictional zombies is a whole lot like preparing for real disasters. Do you have enough water? What’s your food supply like? If this is a contagion-based disaster, what mechanisms are in place so that you can understand how to assess reasonable risks? If you’re a physician or a health care worker (paramedic, etc.) you’ll also be given formulas to follow in triage settings in order to tease out with reasonable certainty who has the zombie bug and who has a cold. All of this follows naturally from zombie tropes, but the point of zombie movies is almost exactly the opposite of this:
Zombie movies show us what NOT to do. Don’t go shooting everything that moves. Don’t horde your supplies – your strength is in the number of humans, not stuff. In short, DON’T LOSE YOUR HEAD. Without that fundamental issue, no zombie movies would work. They’d just be movies about people rounding up giant snails or something. But in zombie flicks the people screw up and the zombies get the better of them much of the time. That’s because it is easy enough to remind us to keep our cool when times are cool, but in heated emotional times, thinking carefully is by definition harder. There’s literally thousands of years of hard wiring to make that kind of careful thinking – the stuff that the CDC wrote about – hard to near-impossible under stress. There’s also very well worked out neurobiological circuitry that can explain this kind of behavior.
Senior Advisor, Max Brooks, notes:
If we learn nothing else from Hurricane Katrina, it’s that our government may not always respond swiftly and efficiently to a crisis. Just like private citizens have to pitch in to help out their government, children have to pitch in to help their parents. In a crisis, everyone can do their part.
A: The most important benefits young people will leave the Academy with are improved problem solving and leadership skills. Thinking about a hypothetical disaster scenario provokes students to think about how they would work in teams, how they would navigate a world with limited resources, how they would go about seeking solutions to the broader crisis. Students will also benefit from subject-specific learning in their particular areas of interest – whether they are biology, creative writing, psychology, leadership, writing, or survival skills.
A: While we like to believe we know a lot about zombies, we are academics from a broad range of backgrounds. Those who have written successful books, film scripts, or blogs about zombies have given critical thought to questions ranging from how the digestive tract of a zombie would function, to whether a zombie’s jaws could crack a victim’s skull to access the tasty brains therein, or whether a zombie could survive in conditions below freezing. While such questions seem frivolous, they reflect the kinds of logical problems – involving real questions of anatomy, physiology, neurobiology, animal behavior, and so forth – that would feed exploration of the hypothetical scenarios in Academy coursework. In that sense, such discussions aren’t much different than the debates fans of the popular Twilight series might have over the relative strength of werewolves or vampires. The important difference, however, is that the theoretical zombie threat is complex and global, and the incumbent societal breakdown is far more plausible than the dilemmas posed by a Harry Potter novel or a sparkling vampire. Max Brooks explains the practical value in the writing of authors in the genre:
There is nothing “zombie-specific” in a zombie crisis. There are no crosses, garlic, or silver bullets….The contents of a zombie survival kit are the exact contents of a standard disaster “bug out” kit. A large majority of my research for The Zombie Survival Guide comes from living in Southern California and preparing for “The Big One.”
Q: What’s behind the enthusiasm of the public for zombies?
A: Interest in zombies seems enduring. Ever since George Romero introduced us to the modern zombie in Night of the Living Dead, there has been a steady interest in the undead. While there are numerous theories one can offer for the enduring popularity of the genre, we would argue that zombies entertain the intellect as much as they provide shock value. AMC’s Walking Dead was so successful in its first season that the network added a talk show after the program in the second season, Talking Dead, just to extend the conversation fans were having about the story. Max Brooks reflects on the popularity of the genre, saying:
Zombies are a “safe” way of exploring our worst fears. We all have an ego defense mechanism, a mental barrier that keeps our fears and anxieties from driving us insane. Discussing something as horrific as a natural disaster or a terrorist attack triggers many people’s ego defense mechanisms. They shut down. They tune out. They don’t want to talk about [the] worst-case scenario. However, if the catalyst for that “worst case” is fictional, it circumvents our ego defenses and allows us to talk about the gritty details of preparedness. If [you ask] at your next cocktail party, “How would you prepare for a zombie apocalypse?” you stand a very good chance of having a very spirited, practical, and ultimately helpful discussion about preparedness. If, on the other hand you ask, “How would you prepare for a swine flu quarantine?” you stand a very good chance of clearing the room.
Dr. Schlozman further notes:
Lots of folks ask this, and everyone has a theory. 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.
A: All students who apply to Zombie Scholars Academy will be asked to submit an essay discussing their reasons for applying to the Academy and will be required to obtain a letter of recommendation from a teacher or counselor at their school. These two tools are designed to screen for students whose reasons for attending the program are focused on fictional combat to the exclusion of academic concerns and good clean fun. Students will be routinely reminded during the Academy about the objectives of coursework. Where “zombie games” are employed as recreational activity during free time, these games will be conducted using safe tools such as Nerf™ products.
A: Numerous serious scholars have explored zombies. A very real zombie-like phenomenon associated with Haiti has been studied in medical journals (though very different than that covered in zombie fiction). Mathematicians have used zombie movies as a tool for theorizing about the spread of a real contagion – leading to possible conclusions about actual communicable diseases. Philosophers, psychologists, political scientists, and writers have used zombies to explore very serious academic topics through discussion and debate. Max Brooks notes his experience in the application of concepts learned from zombie preparedness fiction:
Critics [of using zombies to teach about disaster preparedness] should speak to a young man I met last year who told me that the contents of his zombie survival kit actually kept himself and his parents alive during a real life natural disaster.
Dr. Schlozman adds:
Zombies are just the back door. You’re going to pay more attention to the literal walking dead than you are to the threat of say global warming or global conflict. That’s in part because zombies aren’t real, so we can contemplate the global crises that ARE real in the displacement that zombie stories afford. It also turns out that we learn what we might do to AVERT global crises by watching where humans appear to screw up in zombie movies. Every good zombie movie emphasizes multi-cultural relationships, overcoming differences, and creative problem solving. When the protagonists just start firing guns, things almost never go well, or have recently not gone well. Similarly, if we ignore or think concretely about things as complicated as global warming, or water crises, or economic disasters, or pandemics, then we give up the one thing we have going for us when things get scary. We have these GREAT BIG BRAINS. Studying a zombie apocalypse helps us to get comfortable using our brains in more real-life scenarios.
Q: Who will handle the instruction at this Academy?
A: All instruction will be conducted by Truman State University faculty and select field-specific experts from outside of the University. We anticipate some participation from members of the Advisory Board, as their schedules permit.
Q: Is this Academy some kind of a joke?
A: No, we are (un)deadly serious.