Zombies aren’t so bad.
If you look beyond the rotting flesh, the conversation-carrying shortfalls and the annoyingly slow movement, zombies actually are just poor, misunderstood souls.
Sit one on a psychologist’s couch and he probably would go through an entire box of tissues.
They feel “confusion. They sense that loss of humanity. They probably want to make some kind of human connection, and to be flesh,” said Shannon Bauerle, a UNC Charlotte English professor who has spent years researching the idea of zombies.
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For the fall semester, Bauerle introduced “The Zombification of America,” a course so popular with students that it quickly filled its 23 spots and created a waiting list for 22 more.
Zombies, those creatures that lurk the earth scaring the living daylights out of humans in horror films and literature, have caught our attention for decades.
But if we took a closer look, we’d notice that our interest in them waxes and wanes: When times are tough or confusing, they seem to re-emerge.
“You can trace it,” said Bauerle. “Every time something occurs in society, we try to find a way outwardly to deal with it. If we can see it on screen, it sometimes helps us better understand it so we don’t fear it.”
Director George Romero’s zombie films, probably the most well-known, are great examples. In his 1968 “Night of the Living Dead,” the topic was civil rights. In 1978’s “Dawn of the Dead,” it was mass consumerism. In 1985’s “Day of the Dead,” it was the AIDS epidemic.
“In ‘Day of the Dead,’ you see them taking zombies, tying them up and doing experiments on them to try and figure out what’s going on,” said Bauerle. “There was uncertainty at the time. They weren’t really sure what was causing the AIDS epidemic, and there was a lot of fear.”
Bauerle began her own research of zombies by following their trail back to Haiti, where a cultural religion known as hoodoo is widely practiced. In hoodoo, it’s believed that people can be given a substance to make them catatonic and under the will of others; they’re more like victims than threats.
“The traditional Haitian zombies were slaves. You could tell them what to do,” said Bauerle.
In the United States, the zombie has evolved into an almost unrecognizable version of its Haitian cousin. In the 1960s, the American zombie was more of a human looking, easy-to-kill, dimwitted dud.
Today’s zombie is a far more cunning, decaying and flesh-eating monster.
“As a society, I think we want a more intellectual monster, and frankly we’re more desensitized to violence,” said Bauerle.
But if we take a good honest look in the mirror, we might find it’s the humans who are truly the frightful ones, and that zombies could teach us a thing or two about getting along.
“They’re, in some cases, more of a community than humans are,” said Bauerle. “They don’t argue. They don’t fight. They don’t go after each other, and a lot of times they’ll work together.”
Bauerle is quick to remind her students that in “The Walking Dead,” the popular television series about a zombie-populated post-apocalyptic America, roughly 80percent of the humans killed die at the hands of other humans – not zombies.
And in “Night of the Living Dead,” Ben, the African-American protagonist who tried to save everyone from the approaching zombies, didn’t suffer death by zombie.
“He made it through everything, then in the end he died by humans,” said Bauerle.