Copyright ©2010 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

GUY RAZ, host:

Keeping with the theme here, it is, of course, Halloween. So we sent our producer Brent Baughman back to school for an unusual anthropology class.

BRENT BAUGHMAN: At George Mason University, Anthropology 396 is called simply Zombies. And last week's lecture was titled...

Professor JEFFREY MANTZ (Anthropology, George Mason University): I've titled today's lecture: What do we want? Brains. When do we want it? Brains.

BAUGHMAN: The guy behind the class is Professor Jeffrey Mantz. And he says zombies are pretty hot right now.

Prof. MANTZ: Zombies are on fire.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BAUGHMAN: In a huge auditorium, Professor Mantz is miked, lecturing to an audience of a couple hundred students.

Prof. MANTZ: And on the other hand - this class was didn't result merely because I had an interest in it. It resulted from the students constantly pestering me about it for the last two years.

BAUGHMAN: So when Professor Mantz created his zombie class this fall, he thought he'd get about 50 students.

Prof. MANTZ: I got 50 within a few days, and pretty soon, we had 235. So they just came in hordes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BAUGHMAN: Like zombies?

Prof. MANTZ: Like zombies.

BAUGHMAN: So Professor Mantz built his curriculum. And it may sound like an easy-A elective, but the syllabus is actually pretty rigorous. Students have to read texts like "The Political Lives of Dead Bodies," "Reburial and "Postsocialist Change."

Sometimes, the course is more like a history class.

Prof. MANTZ: And the zombies has an interesting history in the Caribbean. A zombie is historically a slave. It's somebody who's possessed. It has myriad meanings in the Haitian context, but...

BAUGHMAN: So that's where you can trace zombies back to: Haiti and the idea of Haitian voodoo, where subjects were put into a mindless trance and controlled.

And that's pretty much what zombies were in American culture, until...

Prof. MANTZ: Beginning in 1968, you see a shift that takes place with Romero's "Night of the Living Dead."

(Soundbite of film, "Night of the Living Dead")

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As character) Persons who have recently died have been returning to life.

Prof. MANTZ: And now zombies are essentially walking ghouls, the kinds of figures that you would see in like Michael Jackson's "Thriller" video or something.

(Soundbite of film, "Night of the Living Dead")

Unidentified Man #1: (As character) ...has concluded that the unburied dead are seeking human victims.

BAUGHMAN: Professor Mantz says zombies changed from mindless ghouls into something more sinister during the Cold War when everyone had nuclear annihilation on the mind.

(Soundbite of explosion)

Prof. MANTZ: Concerns about radiation and radiological objects falling back to Earth. So you have "Night of the Living Dead," which is a reflection of those anxieties and fears put on the screen. At the time, that film was regarded as the most terrifying film ever made.

There's a particular scene where, you know, you see a daughter devouring, you know, her father, you know, then attacking her mother, stabbing her viciously.

BAUGHMAN: So in his class, Professor Mantz played that scene from "Night of the Living Dead." And you'll notice right here, everyone laughs. They think the old zombies from 1968 are mostly funny. But this?

(Soundbite of film, "28 Days Later")

BAUGHMAN: The same 230 students watching a modern zombie movie, "28 Days Later": total silence. Then when the modern zombies attack, they're fast, vicious and terrifying, and Professor Mantz says there's a reason for that.

Prof. MANTZ: That more or less reflects another kind of social phenomena associated with the digital age, with globalization, with things speeding up, the hyperspeed of the Internet.

BAUGHMAN: In other words, if everything else is fast, why shouldn't zombies be, too? And students seem to prefer those zombies. It's a fast world they live in, after all.

Can we sit down?

Ms. SAVANNAH HUGHES(ph): Yeah, we can sit down. I think the faster ones, I guess are more terrifying.

BAUGHMAN: Savannah Hughes, she's the only master's student in the class.

Ms. HUGHES: Especially people nowadays are so attached to, like, texting on their phones, and they walk around, like, run into, like, street signs, like, they're like a type of zombie. So it's kind of terrifying too.

BAUGHMAN: I was not graded for my day in class, but Professor Mantz did send me off with a list of eight things you need to know about zombies. I'll just read on here.

This is item seven: Most Will Eat You If You Get Too Close. In fact, a large proportion of those who study zombies argue that they are basically a metaphor for consumption.

So if zombies represent how we are when we are at our worst, say shopping for DVD players on Black Friday, we should be very afraid.

RAZ: That's producer Brent Baughman. You can read Professor Mantz' full list of the eight things everyone needs to know about zombies. It's at npr.org.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: