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Professor ‘fleshes out’ zombie, end of world themes in media

Posted on October 15, 2012.

Zombies, doomsday and viruses that wipe out the planet. Mainstream media, through film, TV, books and numerous genres, is channeling apocalyptic themes and characters now more than ever. Dr. Stefan Hall, who teaches games and interactive media design courses at High Point University, says the presence of these images is no longer limited to Halloween and horror movies. Instead, they are part of a growing trend in media that appeared at the start of the millennium and are unlikely to vanish any time soon. Hall’s students analyze and learn to think critically about these images, and he’s working on a piece about video games that have been created in relation to AMC’s The Walking Dead, a popular series about a zombie apocalypse. Below, Hall discusses the broader meaning of these images and how he teaches students to approach them.

Q. What do apocalyptic stories offer an audience?

A. For as many creation stories as humanity has crafted, there are an equally abundant number of apocalyptic tales. People wonder, how did we get here and how will it all end?  Part of this is related to the normative mode of storytelling itself with a beginning, middle and an end.  As stories moved from oral traditions of fireside legends to expression in painting, poetry, prose, theater, film, television, radio, comic books and video games, the natural proclivity is to repackage tales in new media. Sometimes this becomes transformative and other times the same story is merely retold in a different format. Whatever the case, the idea of an “end of days” has stayed with humanity over its history and its repeated warnings of an imminent apocalypse. Stories of an apocalypse can serve as cautionary tales, for example, explaining what warning signs to look for,  what to do to potentially avert a cataclysm, or even how to act if one wakes up a survivor and has to carry on in the face of catastrophe.

Q. On a scholarly level, what is the relevance of images such as zombies and apocalyptic characters in your classes and in your work?

A. Often we look at the way that a text in one medium influences another. We examine stories like The Walking Dead which began as a comic book, turned into a very popular television show on AMC and is also being adapted into a series of video games. We discuss issues of transmedia adaptation, the economic functions of franchise development, and the ways in which zombies function as repositories of meaning. It is fascinating to consider how some of the basic principles in a mathematical simulation like John Conway’s Game of Life (1970) can be repackaged with zombies and used as an educational tool.

In fact, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention launched a Zombie Preparedness campaign as a way to educate the public on preparedness during times of inclement weather, pandemics and more.

Q. What message has a character like the zombie been theorized to convey?

A. One of the reasons why creatures like zombies have an enduring legacy is that their social meaning is very malleable over time. Metaphorically, they symbolize the age or moment of their creation. For example, in Night of the Living Dead (1968), the zombies might be seen as the mainstream culture attempt to assimilate those in the counter-culture. Other scholars have read it in light of Cold War politics, racial tensions – especially since the protagonist, Ben, is an African-American man – and even a metaphor for the Vietnam War. In Romero’s second film of the series, Dawn of the Dead (1978), the survivors are living in a mall plagued by zombies, and many saw the zombies as metaphors for the mindless consumerism of capitalistic society.

In some ways, the film 28 Days Later (2002) helped to rekindle the interest in zombies post 9/11. Since then, there has been a steadily increasing appearance of them across all forms of media. It might be interesting to consider them as a particular reaction to the chaos of a world waging a war on terror where the enemy is not easily identified and where many aspects of life are uncertain; but I would not explicitly tie them to 9/11.

Q. Will the presence of these ghoulish figures decay any time soon?

A. The presence of images like zombies in media has been increasing since the start of the millennium, and we are nowhere near the end of this particular trend. If anything, I foresee an increased zombie presence continuing upwards over the next several years, probably to the consternation of vampire and werewolf fans! Considering upcoming zombie projects such as the highly-anticipated World War Z film, based on the 2006 post-apocalyptic horror novel by Max Brooks, the zombie appears to be as unrelenting in its consumption of popular culture as it is with its victims.

Ultimately, the premise of these stories – the ending to our own tale – is difficult to process. By channeling our fears and concerns through storytelling, we create the opportunity to discuss and consider the human condition. It is often through fear, through intense drama, that we appreciate the beauty of life.

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