Why we’re fascinated by zombies

Murali Balaji smirks at the thought of a real-life zombie apocalypse.

But the assistant professor of Media Studies and Production at Temple University’s School of Media and Communication is fascinated by how zombies have lurched into the pop culture spotlight and the people for whom “World War Z” is not out of the realm of possibility.

“There are more and more scholars who are interested to find out why so many of us buy into the idea of a zombie apocalypse,” says the expert on media studies and pop culture and a huge zombie fan. “It goes back to our fears… could something happen where we’re all turned into zombies, like bioterrorism or a nuclear accident?”

For many, zombies are the most realistic characters in the horror genre.

“It’s easier to convince someone that you can’t turn into a vampire, because that’s fantasy. It’s harder to convince someone, at least on a layman’s level, that a zombie outbreak could never happen,” he says.

The messages behind zombie lore
Even for fans who realize the zombie scenario is pure fiction, it’s one that really hits home and speaks to our own mortality.

“What really happens to us after we go? Is there a way to maintain ourselves physically? In the goriest way, being undead is an interpretation of immortality. It’s clearly not a desirable immortality, but for a lot of people, they view a zombie outbreak sadly in very realistic terms. That scenario resonates with their own conceptions of reality and some of their deepest fears,” Balaji says.

That is coupled with the raw emotional engagement that the zombies were once our family and friends, which creates a certain sympathy for the zombies.

“It’s not that easy to say that an alien is a sympathetic creature,” he says. “It’s definitely more to the fact that these people were once human.”

Scholars also have examined the messages behind the new generation of zombie stories compared to George Romero’s themes in the 1960s and 1970s.

Movies like Dawn of the Dead, set in a shopping mall, tried to show that “in many ways, we’ve become zombies by our daily consumption. That was Romero’s subtle critique of American society.”

However, in more current iterations of the zombie apocalypse, such as The Walking Dead, cable’s top-rated show, viewers will see materialism surviving.

“What the difference is with this generation of zombie movies is that they actually have no problem with consumerism and capitalism. In fact, one of the things they try to do is bring materialism in as a way for these folks to cope,” Balaji says. “Despite the apocalypse that has fallen on them, they still attach a certain value to material goods.”

Expert panel filled with juicy brains
These topics and many others will be explored in depth on Halloween Night, Wednesday, Oct. 31, at “Thinking Dead: What the Zombie Apocalypse Means.” The panel discussion, moderated by Balaji, will be held in Gladfelter Hall,  Room L24, at 6:30 p.m. The panel will include PhD student Angela Cirucci, MMC; Gordon Coonfield, director of graduate studies and associate professor, communication, Villanova University; Patrick Hamilton, associate professor, English, Misericordia University; and Barry Vacker, associate professor, media studies and production.