Cool Courses: Ghosts, Zombies & the Unquiet Dead Reveals the Roots of Spooky Stories

Posted Oct 19, 2022

Ghosts and zombies are all around us — in movies, comic books, song lyrics, and on our TV screens. But do you know how they became so prevalent in pop culture?

Assistant Professor Alex Rocklin, Department of Philosophy and Religion, teaches a course that explores the complex roots of these phenomena.

If it’s too late to sign up for the course, Rocklin is teaming up with Assistant Professor Amy Sheeran, Modern Languages and Cultures, to host two spooky events to get you in the Halloween spirit. Both events are sponsored by the Humanities Advisory Committee, Philosophy and Religion, and History, Political Science, and Modern Languages and Cultures. There will be seasonally appropriate snacks!

  • Oct. 21, 2022 – Zombies are Real talk by Alex Rocklin, Philosophy and Religion, and screening of I Walked with a Zombie, 5-7 p.m., Roush Hall room 114.
  • Oct. 28, 2022 – Grave Expectations: The Victorian Séance talk and séance presentation by Katherine Boyce-Jacino, Arizona State University, 5-7 p.m., Philomathean Room, Towers third floor.

Let’s learn more about the course!

FYS 1082: Ghosts, Zombies & the Unquiet Dead

Why do we tell ghost stories? What might be the relationship between stories of ghosts and the walking dead and colonialism, war, and capitalism? This course tracks the complex interrelations between stories of unquiet spirits, ghoulish transformations, and living-dead bodies and histories of slavery, colonization, and economic exploitation. We will examine such stories through examples like films, histories, and ethnographies. This will allow us to raise questions about the haunting effects of past violence in the present and to examine ghost narratives as grassroots history writing, historically oppressed peoples’ critical analyses of global political and economic trends in the form of story, song, and ritual. We will take up examples of deceased and not-quite-deceased superhuman beings from Europe, the Middle East, the U.S., the Caribbean, and Southeast Asia, situating them in their particular socio-political, cultural, and economic contexts, including instances of ritual conjurations and conjunctions, stories of enslaved spirits and dead bodies, and popular cinema representations of the dead rising from their graves and the end of the world. We will ultimately learn that the real monsters were the friends we made along the way.

What inspired you to develop this course?

This course was inspired by my own research into the history of religion in the Caribbean, specifically the role of jumbies, or unquiet spirits of the dead, in the social lives of poor and unfree laborers in the British colony of Trinidad. The word jumbie is related to the Trinidadian French Creole word zonbi, a term and concept that can similarly be found in Haitian Creole/Kreyòl. The figure of the zombie as we know it today develops out of the racism and violence of the U.S. government’s brutal occupation and control of Haiti in the early 20th century.

Why do you love teaching this course?

Teaching about ghosts and zombies is a way to get students to think about America’s at-times unconscious reproduction of racist ideas about the religions of Black people and people of color. It’s also a way to get students to think critically about elements of popular culture. When we contextualize films, comic books, or music and drill down into their histories, they can reveal a great deal about how societies create and maintain social orders and systems of power.

What is the most unexpected thing students learn in this course?

The most interesting thing that students learn in this course is that, to paraphrase the anthropologist J. Lorand Matory, zombies are real, at least in so far as they are social beings brought to life through human speech and interaction, the stories we tell and the ritual practices we do.

What are some interesting projects or activities you do to engage your students in your course?

Students in the course create a zine (a short, handmade magazine) related to our course themes on a topic that they are passionate about or based on their personal interest that they want to explore more fully.

What is some of your favorite student feedback you have received about this course?

One student described the course as “the opposite of monotone. Kept the subject fluid and interesting along with integrating student input into the lesson.”