Zombology 101 explores a deeper meaning of monsters

Zombology 101 offers a unique combination of reading, role-playing and live-action to teach students the deeper meaning behind the pop culture phenomenon of the undead.

The course was offered this fall for the first time by the Honors College as part of the enduring books seminar, one of the sections required to graduate with honors. However, it is not mandatory to be an honors student to take the class.

UAA writing professor Shane Castle teaches HNRS 192: Enduring Books Seminar that focuses on zombology as the
course curriculum. Photo by Jason Herr.

Shane Castle, professor of writing at UAA, as well as Zombology 101, recognizes the fascination with the undead in today’s pop culture and believes it helped draw students to the course.

Eric Vue is studying radiology at UAA and is accustomed to exposure to zombies.

“I grew up just thinking that zombies are a normal part of life. I saw all these movies about them and I see them on TV. There was nothing strange about it because I was so used to seeing them,” Vue said.

However, some aspects with the pop culture acceptance of zombies are troubling to Castle, such as how Hollywood made them mainstream without really addressing the dark history of zombie beliefs in early American history. 

“Beliefs about spirits and zombified bodies were used by European colonizers to subjugate an imported slave population. African slaves imported to work fields in Haiti after the local indigenous population was wiped out,” Castle said. “The movie industry has stripped that troubling history away and glorified the shell that remains. It’s a visceral but oddly a more palatable representation of how colonialism works.”

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The study of zombies is more complex than what Hollywood portrays, Castle said. Zombology 101 discusses not just zombies, but what they represent. 

“Imagine 90% of everyone turned into more carbon-neutral automatons. Irritated by binary thinking? Imagine hordes of zombies blurring the line between them and us, inside and outside, individual and collective. The unique adaptability or mutability of the zombie is fascinating to me,” Castle said.

The class has an unusual structure that was heavy on reading early in the semester, using a book called “Zombie Theory: A Reader,” but now focuses on role-playing as a way to experience the class. This live-action format will remain for the rest of the semester and is essential for the course, he said.

“The idea behind a role-playing game like this is that you pressurize the learning environment. Emotion is an evolutionary survival mechanism that makes us better remember experiences — what works what doesn’t work, what’s dangerous, what’s beneficial — and that’s what I’m trying to tap into with this game,” Castle said.

Annabelle Snyder is a student in Zombology 101. She likes the format of the class but also notes it comes with some challenges. 

“The game takes place in a frantic world where everything’s gone to, so it’s easy for bad things to happen,” Snyder said. “The class is extravagant. You have to have teamwork, communication skills, planning skills and be able to persuade others. It is hard but fun and having a character keeps you engaged in the class.”

Snyder has also gained a deeper understanding of the premise of the class over the course of the semester. 

“I’ve learned a lot from this class, not because of a textbook, but because of the conversations that evoke from the simple question of ‘what is a zombie?’ and all the questions that follow,” Snyder said. 

Castle aims for his students to think more deeply behind the questions of why zombies are so popular.

“[Students are] reading way more really high-minded work than I think even they realize, making associations between far-flung and deeply entrenched societal conundrums and connecting experiential learning with deep intellectual, political and moral questions,” Castle said. 

Castle hopes to teach Zombology 101 again in future semesters, but the class is not yet set to renew in the spring.