Since very early in our history, humankind has been interested in monsters, and especially in monsters who destroy our worlds.
Think of the epic of Gilgamesh, which contains within it the story of monster gods who get annoyed at humanity and send an apocalyptic flood to destroy the world. Think of Beowulf, in which not one but three monsters do their best to destroy Hrothgar’s people. Think of the book of Revelations.
As we reach modern popular literature, the interest in monsters and in the destruction of our world continues. In this class, we’re going to look at several examples of such literature, and we’re going to think about what this interest might mean. Why are humans so fascinated by monsters, and by these specific monsters, and by stories about their own destruction?
Also, why do we care? Why can’t we just consume culture and enjoy it? Why do we want to analyze these texts?
We analyze because popular culture, more than any other culture, tells us who we are. While we might go see a Shakespeare play, or attend a performance of classical music, because we understand that these are important works of Western Culture (or maybe because we sincerely enjoy them), people read vampire novels and watching The Walking Dead because they can’t get enough of these kinds of stories.
Popular literature, when analyzed, tells us about the culture that created it – what that culture is worried about, what it wants, what it fears (not zombies – what it really fears). Studying the content and the “rules” of these stories (who lives, who dies, who tells the story?) tells us about the culture that created the story. The “purpose” of the story reveals the culture. The focus of the text (on community? On the individual? On weapons?) reveals the culture. And so on.
We’ll be doing a lot of that this semester, as well as looking at how to read literature in general, and probably reading a few critical articles.
We’re starting with Zombies.
Originally scary monsters from Haiti, created by the “demonic” religions there – at least in the imagination of western writers; they are probably, therefore, a creature of racial anxiety – Zombies entered American popular culture in the 1950s, via comic books and George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead.
Both in the 1950s-1960s, and then again starting with the millennium (1998 and going forward), zombie popular fiction (as well as vampire and apocalyptical fiction) became more and more popular.
In the 1950s/1960s as a culture we were worrying about the Cold War, the Civil Rights movement, and the Counterculture movement, all of which touched off a lot of social anxiety, some of which is with us yet (I still hear people talking about hippies, not to mention Commies, and of course while we’ve turned Martin Luther King Junior into a big plush teddy bear, the Black Panthers are still scaring white folks regularly, not to mention those Black Lives Matter bogeymen.) This anxiety almost certainly caused the spike in zombie, vampire, and apocalyptic fiction of the era.
Starting in 1998, we had millennium fever, which was intensified after 9/11 by our new obsession with terrorism and our other post-millennial anxieties. As we move through these first texts, start looking for what they reveal about the cultures that produced them.