SoSe 13: S-Introduction to Cultural Studies II: Life after death - Cultural representations of the undead
Anya Heise-von der Lippe
"It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains" begins Seth Grahame-Smith's Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2009), a parody of Jane ... read more
"It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains" begins Seth Grahame-Smith's Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2009), a parody of Jane Austen's literary classic which somewhat unsubtly infests Austen's ironic treatment of regency manners and morals with "ultraviolent zombie mayhem." In contemporary culture, the undead are everywhere. Straddling the boundary between life and death, they have been read as embodiments of various forms of cultural transgression from runaway consumerism and xenophobia to decadence and the decline of civilization.
The walking dead are a pervasive theme in contemporary media with countless films, TV-series, books, graphic novels and games focusing on vampires, ghosts and zombies. Moreover, they have long ceased to be the villains of the piece: vampires feature prominently in romantic (teenage) fantasies, and the emerging genre of the 'Zom-Rom-Com' might suggest a similar fate for the zombie. What's more, the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction are becoming somewhat blurry with the discussion of the undead in political and sociological contexts, for example in Daniel W. Drezner's Theories of International Politics and Zombies (2011) and the American Center for Disease Control's 'Zombie Preparedness' website, which take a tongue-in-cheek approach to serious issues like international relations and disaster-preparedness. Of course the use of the vampire as a political metaphor goes back centuries - at least to the French Revolution.
Contemporary culture is obsessed with the undead - possibly even more so than was British culture around the turn of the nineteenth century, which took a keen interest in the ghosts and other supernatural elements of the Gothic novel, or the Victorians, whose obsession with death culture spawned the most influential vampire text in the English language, Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897). The British television and film industries are at the forefront of undead culture with influential TV productions like Being Human (2008-) and The Fades (2011), zombie films like 28 Days Later (2002), 28 Weeks Later (2007) and their parodies like Shaun of the Dead (2004) reaching a large international audience. If these are in any way representative of our cultural beliefs, life after death in our secularized age might mean haunting a bed-and-breakfast in Barry, Wales or becoming a flesh-eating lost soul in Hertfordshire.
But what can this fascination with the undead tell us about contemporary culture(s)? Why is it that the blood lust of the vampire and the brutal, single-minded hunger of the zombie seem to resonate with humanity's pressing ontological questions of what it means to be human in an age of social insecurity, digitally enhanced consumerism and dwindling resources?
In this seminar we will discuss key texts, including films and other media featuring the undead. We will trace vampires, zombies and ghosts back to their origins in the Gothic and horror genres and focus on the cultural contexts and possible readings of the undead as cultural metaphors. We will discuss a number of critical and theoretical approaches to help us make sense of undead culture and to provide a theoretical basis for students' individual analyses. Participants should be prepared to engage with a wide range of fictional and non-fictional material. A reader with relevant texts will be made available via Blackboard. Regular attendance, active participation and a short presentation or participation in an expert group are obligatory for all participants.
This seminar will be held in English. To participate, your command of the English language should at least be equivalent to Level B2 or higher of the CEF (Common European Framework of Reference for Languages).