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The Big Question: Why are zombies the hot metaphor?
November 30, 2011  |  by Bret McCabe

“The standard line is that with Dawn of the Dead—where we get director George Romero at his best as a social critic, and he’s so clearly playing with consumerist and capitalist consumption—this is the moment, as scholar Kyle William Bishop calls it, of the triumph of the zombie social metaphor.

“My particular research interests lie in the domain of Atlantic slavery and antislavery. So my angle at the zombie came from thinking about the cultures of Atlantic slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries and thinking about slave rebellion. Indisputably, that’s where the zombie figure comes from. The word zombie comes from West Africa via various Creoles in the Caribbean.

“All those tense power dynamics are present in the figure of the zombie. I do think that, historically speaking, the zombie narrative can perform a sort of critique in an especially hard-hitting way. It represents this loss of autonomy that we as human beings understandably fear.

“I think it is interesting in the post-Romero zombie invasion narrative that the threat is not so pressing that certain conditions of social life can’t be re-created. There’s the possibility of boarding up the house and, at least for a while, holding it off. You don’t need special knowledge or silver bullets. You just need to be able to whack them on the head. So particular to the genre is this possibility that human beings may return to social life after the attack—and all the fascinating questions that go with that. Can we go back to what we had before? Should we go back to what we had before?”

Jared Hickman, assistant professor of English, debuted his undergraduate seminar Zombies this fall. He is currently at work on his first book, Black Prometheus: Political Theologies of Atlantic Antislavery (forthcoming), which examines the theological justifications for and against slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries.


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