Zombie Assignments Handout for Teachers (and students)

Handout for the TYCA-SE 2015 conference in Jackson, MS on my Pandemic and Paranoia class theme:

Pandemic and Paranoia

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Anti-Vaxxers and Zombies

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is often cited as one of the earliest examples of zombie literature. Frankenstein’s monster isn’t a zombie by our modern definitions, but it is sort of related due to being an animated creature made from non-living parts. Frankenstein is also an example of a particular type of horror fiction that Shelley played a pivotal role in developing–the story of science gone wrong. Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde, The Island of Dr. Moreau, Jurassic Park, and 28 Days Later all fall in this camp, and no doubt we could name many more with just a little time spent brainstorming (class activity, anyone?).

In fact, most zombies stories involve at least some distrust of science. Vampires, werewolves, and even JK Rowling’s dementors all have supernatural origins. The voodoo zombies of Haiti began with supernatural explanations that became scientific explanations as people started investigating medical reasons for the seemingly dead coming back to life. Our fictional zombies of movie and TV lore, however, almost always have a scientific explanation. In Night of the Living Dead, it is radiation. In The Walking Dead, zombies are created as the result of an infection, but we don’t know how the infection started (at least not yet in the TV series). In 28 Days Later, we are told that the outbreak begins with scientific experimentation gone horribly wrong.

We can thank Mary Shelley for nudging the world of imaginative writing toward science fiction horror, and we can also thank the time she lived in and its hitherto unprecedented era of scientific experimentation and advance. The 20th century, with even more rapid scientific developments, produced science fiction monsters as rapidly as it produced technological change. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, Isaac Newton taught the world about a century before Mary Shelley’s monster gave us one possible reaction to science.

Now, nearly two centuries after Frankenstein’s creation, we still see suspicious approaches to science at the forefront of our storytelling. We also see it in action in real life. In storytelling, scientific cautionary tales and conspiracy theories give us zombies, and The Matrix, and a rise in the popularity of young adult dystopian literature such as The Hunger Games. In real life, we get conspiracy theorists like the anti-vaxxers.

This is where we get into some truly interesting and ironic comparisons between zombie stories and real life anti-science movements. Zombie movies often depict a zombie plague outbreak happening as a result of science gone wrong, and thus, they represent a kind of questioning of science. In real life, we’ve recently seen disease outbreaks happen as a result of people choosing not to vaccinate their children due to a distrust of science. These are two sides of the same paranoia, and in either case, people needlessly and senselessly die.

For a research project, see what you can find out about the anti-vaccination movement.

  • How did it start?
  • Is there any truth at all behind the claims that vaccinations are harmful?
  • How big is the problem? How many people have gotten sick due to parents choosing not to vaccinate their children?
  • What are the future projections of disease outbreaks from previously eradicated illnesses if the trend of skipping vaccinations continues?
  • What’s the history of vaccinations?
  • Why do vaccinations work?
  • What’s the psychology behind parents being susceptible to believing rumors over science?

For class discussion, think about these questions:

  • Would you ever choose not to vaccinate your children? If so, what would convince you not to vaccinate?
  • Do you get a flu shot every year? If not, why not? What’s the real story on whether flu shots work or not?
  • How do adults choosing not to get flu shots compare to the problem of parents not vaccinating children for measles and other illnesses?
  • Can you think of other situations in which people distrust scientific evidence and choose to believe something that has no scientific basis instead?
  • Why do you believe more scientific advance has correlated with darker literary tales? What’s the relationship between advancing technologies and a dystopian imagination?


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The Daily Show on the Measles Outbreak

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This video has been making the rounds of social media lately. This guy really has impressive skills!

He also reminds us that in order to survive a zombie apocalypse, we’ll need some defensive skills that don’t rely on modern technology. In truly apocalyptic conditions, we’d run out of guns and ammunition long before we’d run out of reasons to defend ourselves.

Perhaps more important for the purposes of the writing classroom, this video demonstrates the importance of research and observation skills to learning most anything we need to know. This guy figured out how skilled archery was done in ancient times by studying ancient art work. He did his research, and he applied both observation and critical thinking to the process. This is exactly what we want to see happen for class research assignments.

How might you go about researching survival skills? If there a particular type of combat or weaponry that most interests you? If so, get busy researching. The more you know about weapons you can make and use without the aid of modern technology, the more likely you are to survive the apocalypse (or your zombie research assignment, whichever).

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Public Panic and the Media

In 1938, the famous radio broadcast of Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds aired to what? Widespread panic from a duped public? That’s the popular version of the story, but this article from Slate says it isn’t true. Newspapers of the day reported panic, and people have continued to use those articles to perpetuate the story, but Jeffrey Pooley and Michael J Socolow claim in their article that the evidence just doesn’t back up the story of public panic to any significant degree.

Still, we continue to to be told just that. History.com says that the broadcast did cause a nationwide panic, and National Geographic acknowledges the scholarly skepticism on this topic, but still assumes that there was a measurable degree of panic.

An interesting research project might be to follow the leads and try to find out for yourself what really happened in terms of public reaction to the Welles broadcast.

What happened, and what does it mean? What does it tell us about the influence of the media on public perception? What does it tell us about how we distinguish fact from opinion from legend in what we pass down as history?

If the skeptic’s version of the War of the Worlds radio broadcast story is true, the newspapers of the day created a sensationalized account where none existed, and not only passed it off as legitimate news, but also passed it down as true history.

We don’t have to go far to look for more recent examples of the media inventing sensations and reporting them as legitimate news.

For example, let’s take a look at Jon Stewart’s criticism of news media outlets for their Ebola coverage (PG-13 alert for inappropriate but totally to-be-expected jokes. If you are listening in the school library, or an office, or someone’s classroom, use headphones):

In the Slate account of a sensationalized level of panic being falsely reported at the time of the Welles broadcast, it’s explained that the newspapers themselves had an agenda, that they had something to be gained in making trouble for the competitors in radio broadcasting.

The news outlets of today obviously have something to be gained by sensationalizing the news: ratings. In the case of the Ebola coverage, however, they basically did create public panic by reporting the story in a manner that exaggerated the need for panic.

Watch for ways in which the news media basically cries wolf for the sake of rating rather than reporting the facts in proper perspective. What are the ethics of this? What is the psychology of this? Why do people not only tolerate sensationalism in the news but foster it by continuing to jump from one panic-stricken bandwagon to the next? What is the impact of this kind of sensationalism on our society? How has media propaganda historically shaped our society?

If nothing else, these are good places for student researchers to start sorting through our collective love affair with being frightened by threats real and imagined.

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When is one life more valuable than another?

**Spoiler Alert**

This post discusses Season 2 of The Walking Dead. If you are still crawling at zombie-pace through Season 1 on Netflix, you might want to back off at this point and come back later.


In Season 2, Episode 11 of The Walking Dead, “Judge, Jury, Executioner,” Dale argues to save the life of a prisoner. He reminds Rick of Rick’s own earlier mandate: “We don’t kill the living,” which is of course something Rick said before he found out how big of a threat the living could be in a post-apocalyptic world. Dale also poses the question of “What makes us human?” If we start sacrificing the living to protect ourselves, how much humanity do we have left?

At this point, Dale has suspected for some time that Shane killed Otis, and we, as the audience, know that Shane sacrificed Otis in order to save Carl.

Both situations address the same moral question that is a continuing theme throughout the show. It is a question we probably all ask ourselves while watch. Who would we sacrifice to save someone we love? What makes one life more valuable than another? Within the context of the world of The Walking Dead, what makes killing okay? How do we rationalize our support for a character who kills other people?

Do what degree do we think Shane was right or wrong in sacrificing Otis? Do we have an ethical scale for judging this? Can we think he was wrong but still understand why he did it and still find something redeemable in him as a character? Do we only think he was wrong because we found Otis likeable as a character? What if Shane had sacrificed someone like Ed (the wife beater from Season 1)? Would we have felt differently about the ethics of Shane’s choice?

And where do we side in the debate over whether to kill the prisoner or trust him or do something else somewhere in between? Is it more justifiable to sacrifice one life when the exchange is not just one other life but the safety of the group as a whole?

What about if we take these questions outside the world of a fictional TV show, and apply them to real life situations?

Read these articles about ethics:

To delve deeper into questions of ethics, read from some of the philosophers themselves:

Now ask yourself what happens if we apply the questions raised by The Walking Dead to situations of real-life disaster. What about some of the lawlessness that erupted after Hurricane Katrina?

When is it okay to kill to protect those you love? When is one life more valuable than another? These are questions for moral philosophy, and they are questions for analytical essays in English classes. They lie at the heart of apocalyptic fiction, but they are there as a reflection of our fundamental human need to work out our real morality for the real world and its real potential for violence.

What do you think?

  • Is Rick’s group more important on moral grounds than groups he knows nothing about? Is he justified in killing to protect his own group?
  • Is Shane’s sacrifice of Otis any different morally than Rick’s decision after much consideration to sacrifice his prisoner?
  • If the two situations are the same morally, do we still feel differently about them? If so, why? What does this say about human nature? What does it say about how we adjust our sense of ethics to protect things we care about or things we are more familiar with?
  • What happened to change Rick’s view from “we don’t kill the living” to “we must protect the group even if it means killing living people outside the group”? Does an increase in our perceived level of threat change the morality of our actions?
  • In Season 2, both Rick and Shane could be described as flawed heroes, but Shane becomes an antihero and even a villain. What’s the distinguishing characteristic between the two?


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Zora Neale Hurston on the history of the zombie

Zora Neale Hurston is perhaps best known for her book Their Eyes Were Watching God, a classic of Southern Literature. Students who read about Janie’s love for Tea Cake might not guess that Hurston also believed that zombies were real and that she is one of the most frequently credited sources for stories about “real zombies” coming from Haitian folklore and from voodoo.

Hurston was an anthropologist in addition to being an author. She wrote several books in which she collected ethnographies, or stories about local cultures, from the Southeastern US and from the Caribbean.

Her zombie stories tie the history of the concept of “the walking dead” to voodoo practices in Haiti, and that in turn implies a history of these zombie legends tracing farther back into Africa.

She says in the interview posted above that “zombies are real” but that she did not believe that these so-called walking corpses were ever really dead. She gives both a cultural and a scientific reason for the legends in claiming that people were being raised by voodoo priests from “states of suspended animation.”

This gives us plenty of material to research, but before we get too excited about how to study this particular zombie artifact, let’s not lose sight of our most exciting find here: Zombies are real!!


Hurston’s discussion of zombies is in Chapter 13 of her book Tell My Horse. That chapter is currently available in pdf form online here.

You can also find a scholarly article about Hurston’s  zombie accounts through EBSCOhost. Do a search in the Academic Search Complete database. This database is available for students in Mississippi two-year colleges through your school’s library. Go to the library page on your school website to locate it. Here’s the MLA citation information you can use to find (and to reference) this particular article:  Emery, Amy Fass. “The Zombie In/As The Text: Zora Neale  Hurston’s “Tell My Horse..”  African American Review 39.3 (2005): 327-336. Academic Search Complete. Web. 25 Nov. 2014.

If you are doing a paper on the topic of Zora Neale Hurston and zombie stories, Hurston’s book chapter and her audio interview would be considered primary sources. The journal article would be considered a secondary source, but because it is a scholarly source, it might be seen as having more value than non-scholarly sources.

That said, take a look at a news article from NPR about the history of zombies (secondary source and not-quite-so-scholarly, but possibly still useful and still from a respected source): Zoinks! Tracing The History Of ‘Zombie’ From Haiti To The CDC. Like Hurston, Lakshmi Gandhi, the author of this article, links zombies to Haitian folklore and voodoo as well as to the history of slavery in the West Indies.

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It was bound to happen

This YouTube video spreads a rumor that Ebola is a “Zombie Virus” and that Ebola patients have been known to rise from the dead. The rumor has been debunked. It was nothing more than a hoax. But it was bound to happen, wasn’t it? The level of paranoia surrounding the spread of Ebola alongside the current trend toward zombie-mania in popular culture was certain to produce this kind of hoax.

Even hoaxes give us lots of things to research, though. Let’s start with this article from The Washington Times: “Why People Fall for Dumb Internet Hoaxes”

  1. Do you agree/disagree with the reasons given in this article? Why?
  2. How would you go about researching the psychology of hoaxes?
  3. What strategies can you use to avoid falling for hoaxes?
  4. If you were going to plan a hoax, how smart would you have to be to get away with it? What strategies would you use then? What would you have to understand about human psychology to make it work?

We’re not advocating actually pulling off any hoaxes, online or otherwise, but the mental exercise in coming up with one does require some critical thinking skills and some research skills. These are the same skills you will need when you work on your research projects for school, and they are the same skills you will need when you find solutions to problems on the job and in your life.

That said, did you hear about the death of Jeff Goldblum? So sad.

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