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?