Saturday, February 25, 2017


In my hypothesizing about zombies, I have speculated that academia would have first been interested in zombies in the 1960s or '70s. I developed that hypothesis based on these suppositions: 1) During the 1960s and '70s, zombies crossed over from the realm of the magical and supernatural into that of the scientific and materialistic. In other words, they were scientified. In the process, zombies also became politicized, or they were shambling towards politicization. 2) During that same period, zombies went from being individual slaves, subservient to their masters, to becoming uncontrollable and very threatening masses. That development also made zombies subject to scientification and politicization. The masses (also called "the people") have been of interest to leftist theorists since the French Revolution and especially since the time of Karl Marx, a materialist who claimed sympathy with the masses and considered history to be a science. I assume that to be the link between zombies as masses and the scientific/materialistic/political leftist interest in zombies. 3) In the 1960s and '70s, academia became more interested in popular culture, especially in the genres of science fiction, fantasy, horror, etc., and in the various pop-culture forms of pulp magazines, comic books, mass market paperbacks, etc. That interest could have remained neutral and appreciative. Instead, it became ideological and critical. 4) During that same period, academics became more leftist in orientation, and academia as a whole began applying leftist interpretations to history, popular culture, and just about everything else you can imagine. Academics were (and are) especially interested in critical theory, which I think of as an odd marriage between Marxism and Freudianism. (One result of that marriage is politicized sex.) In fact, the "critical" part of critical theory appears to be directed almost exclusively at: a) capitalism; and b) traditional marriage, the traditional family, traditional sex roles, traditional sexual morality, and, lately, the immutable fact of biological sex. Very little else seems to exist in the imagination of the critical theorist, such as it is.

So here is my hypothesis: Academia became interested in zombies either in the 1960s or '70s. How do I test that hypothesis? Well, one way is to look at a scholarly bibliography of zombies, or what I'll call a zombibliography. Luckily, I found one. It's called "Zombie Studies Bibliography: Scholarly Research on Zombies in Popular Culture," and it has been compiled by Tyll Zybura, British and American Studies, Bielefeld University, Germany. You can find it by clicking here. The version I have is from September 14, 2016, and everything I write here is based on that version. I think Tyll Zybura should be commended for a very fine piece of work. I would like to point out that the tally and chart (below), as well as all opinions and interpretations here are my own. Any errors I have made are also my own.

There are, by my count, 528 papers and books listed in "Zombie Studies Bibliography." The earliest is from 1987. Assuming the bibliography is comprehensive or nearly so, I'm off on my prediction: 1987 is not the 1960s or '70s. But I dug a little deeper, and I found evidence to support my hypothesis, for the earliest paper listed, from 1987, is by Richard H.W. Dillard, an American poet, author, editor, and university professor. Since 1964, Dr. Dillard has taught at Hollins University near Roanoke, Virginia. From 1973 to 1980, he edited The Film Journal, and he has a special interest in film, especially genre films. In 1976, Monarch Press published Dr. Dillard's book Horror Films. I don't have this book, but I have read the back cover blurb. The text of the blurb confirms that in his book, Dr. Dillard discussed Night of the Living Dead, George Romero's seminal zombie movie from 1968. So, assuming Horror Films, written by a university professor and a well-respected member of academia, is a scholarly work, then the earliest known scholarly (vs. popular) discussion of zombies is from 1976. I'm surprised that there is nothing before that, as Night of the Living Dead has obvious political or racial connotations, but we're still early in this game of zombie historiography, or zombography.

So I tallied by year the scholarly papers and books listed in Tyll Zybura's bibliography of zombies in popular culture and then graphed them. Here are my results. They are formatted as an 8-1/2 x 11-inch sheet, hence all the white space:

The last thing a reader of weird tales wants to see is a graph or chart, but there are some interesting points or interpretations to make about this zombograph. First, academia didn't seem to care very much about zombies between 1987 and 2005. That seems to fit with another of my hypotheses that vampires were the favorite pop culture monster until they were displaced by zombies in the late 1990s to early 2000s. (My sister thinks it happened about 2005 or so.) Second, the number of scholarly papers followed a trend, rising steadily from 2006 to 2015, with three exceptions: 1) Either the number for 2008 is high, or the number for 2009 is low relative to the trend. 2) The number for 2011 is exceptionally high. 3) The number for 2014 also doesn't fit the trend, being higher than the year after it. I think I can explain the number for 2011: The Walking Dead premiered on October 31, 2010; academia then took notice of the vast popularity of the show, and the papers they wrote in response were published in the year following the premiere. (An expert on The Walking Dead might be able to explain the large number of zombie papers published in 2014. I would look for developments from 2013 or early 2014 as possible factors in the increase in the number of papers.)

In political terms, the number of zombie papers is a pretty neutral measure. If you want to know about the content of those papers, you have to read them or their abstracts. Lacking that, you can read their titles, which are in the bibliography at hand. Richard H.W. Dillard's paper, "Night of the Living Dead: It's Not Like Just a Wind That's Passing Through," from 1987, is not obviously political by its title. The title of the next paper in chronological order, however, is another story: "Night of the Living Dead: A Horror Film About the Horrors of the Vietnam Era" (by Sumiko Higashi) suggests a political interpretation. The next, from 1992, is entitled "I Shopped with a Zombie" (by Philip Horne), a paper that would seem to be about Dawn of the Dead (1978), a film that has been interpreted in political ways for its satire of consumerism.

That pattern of neutral or only vaguely political titles continued until 2006, the same year in which the number of zombie papers increased from three to seven, or more than 200 percent, and in which the current trend seems to have begun. The prize for the first overtly political zombie title (by my estimation) goes to Annalee Newitz. Actually she wins a twofer for her paper "The Undead: A Haunted Whiteness," which appeared in her own book Pretend We're Dead: Capitalist Monsters in American Pop Culture (Duke University Press, 2006). Here's a blurb from her publisher:
[In Pretend We're Dead] Newitz shows that as literature and film tell it, the story of American capitalism since the late nineteenth century is a tale of body-mangling, soul-crushing horror.
As the security device in Undercover Brother might say, "Leftness confirmed."

Since then, all hell has broken loose. Just look at these words from the titles listed in the zombibliography: homonormativity, proletariat, imperialist hegemony, multiculturalism, intersections, global capitalism, queered sexuality, capitalist futures, masculinities, fascist masculinity, gendered, queer failure, queering, gendering, advanced capitalism, zombie capitalism, queers, the queer monster, queer zombies, cross-cultural appropriations, capitalist monsters, whiteness, monsters of capital, consumerism, zombified capital, postcolonial capital, corporate zombies. I'm no expert on the topic, but it seems to me that this is the vocabulary of the critical theorist, a person whose interests, like I have said, seem to be limited to two main topics: sex--which came from Freud, I think--and capitalism--which obviously came from Marx. In their constricted vision and imagination, critical theorists (and leftists in general) remind me of the stereotypical Puritan, who sees the devil everywhere he looks. Leftism may very well be a permutation of Puritanism. It's certainly a belief system of religious intensity and with millennialist (i.e., Utopian) goals.

None of this is to say that there aren't scholarly papers of interest or usefulness in the zombibliography. There obviously are, and I would like to read some of them. But the titles of these papers indicate a leftward slant to the research and commentary on and the interpretation of zombies since 2006. That academic interest seems to coincide with a greater interest in zombies among regular people, you know, all of those deplorables who watch TV because reading scholarly journals is out of their intellectual range. That could just be an expression of the academic's natural interest in what's going in the wider world. But how much of it is political theorizing attached to the nearest object of popular interest? And not just interest but extraordinary success, including monetary success. (Those rotten capitalists.) It's as if academics, in writing about zombies, have taken an intellectual selfie to pass around among their friends: "Look at me, everyone, standing next to the phenomenon of The Walking Dead! It's rich and famous, so the fact that I'm in close proximity to it makes me rich and famous, too!" Do they think that by associating themselves with the show some of its renown and success will rub off on them? Who knows. But if that's the case, it would be evidence in favor of my hypostulatin' that people in academia write about zombies more to meet their own psychological and emotional needs than as exercises in genuine and unbiased scholarship. (One bit of evidence that the social "sciences" are not sciences at all is that confirmation bias in these fields is not only permitted but practically required.) I'll close by saying that it's too bad I have to call it hypostulatin'.  I would like to call this a hypothesis--i.e., that academics write about zombies mainly to meet their own psychological and emotional needs--but it just doesn't reach the level of a testable hypothesis. Not until we get them all on the analyst's couch, anyway. Where's Freud when you need him?

There's another zombograph on the way, so be ready for it.

Horror Films by R.H.W. Dillard (Monarch Press, 1976), the earliest presumably scholarly work on zombies that I have found to date, and then only in part. It seems to me that there would have been something before Dr. Dillard's book, but this is what we have for now. By the way, Richard H.W. Dillard married one of his students, who became Annie Dillard and who wrote an extraordinary book called Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974), which won her a Pulitzer Prize in 1975. Annie Dillard was born in Pittsburgh, a city close to where Night of the Living Dead (1968) was filmed. Her birth name was Meta Ann Doak, which fact makes me wonder if she was related to Hugh Doak Rankin, who drew pictures for Weird Tales.

Text, caption, and chart copyright 2017 Terence E. Hanley


  1. Might there be a darker side to zombie fascination: the vicarious and cathartic thrill of tearing society apart and killing your neighbors and friends? In the zombie story such violence is justified.

    The left seems interested in social fragmentation by tearing down old boundaries and denying the legitimacy of old classifications.

    The zombie story splits peoples into survivors and zombies, no rights for zombies or argument with zombies. The zombie world is a Hobbesian world. No rationalization is needed for survivors to kill zombies. They are enemies by their mere existence. (I haven't read many zombie stories so I don't know how many try to remake the post-zombie world along some utopian scheme.)

    Remaking the post-zombie world is propaganda by the deed, eliminating the enemy in a final sense.

    Granted the survivors have their own problems politically and providing the necessities of life. But they can dispatch the zombie enemy (and whatever they represent -- the conventional order, government, the military, capitalism)without guilt.

    Also the zombie is a biological menace, and the left's great characteristic of the last few years is a strident denial of the biological strata underlying human existence. Perhaps the zombie is the one innate, if fictitious, biological category the left can embrace without guilt.

    1. Marzaat,

      I think you're right that by participating in the story of the zombie apocalypse, people can live out their fantasies of murder and destruction. Instead of being powerless, they are suddenly powerful. They get to kill as many people as they want without compunction because those people are not really people but zombies. Every day in our real lives, we encounter people--individuals or masses--whom we consider zombies for whatever reason: for their apparent mindlessness, slavishness, conformity, etc. The fantasy, I suppose, is that instead of tolerating these people, you get to destroy them because they're zombies. Added to the attraction is the fact that any person who sees himself as a human being in a struggle against zombies also gets to decide who are the zombies according to any scheme he has for categorizing people: "If you belong to category X, that makes you a zombie in my book, and that means in my fantasy I can kill you without a second thought."

      You have an interesting idea that zombies fall into a biological category that leftists can embrace. Or, as they might say, the science on zombies is settled; they are that way naturally and to deny them anything that they might want is hateful and discriminatory.

      I'm planning to write a little more on that topic, but I haven't thought about it in the way you have phrased it here.

      Thanks for writing.