ALMOST TWO CENTURIES have elapsed since the word “zombie” was introduced into the English language. Back in 1819, Romantic poet Robert Southey first used the word in a history of Brazil. This usage is considered by the Oxford English Dictionary to be the original, but the term’s conceptual roots go back much further. Most sources cite rural Haitian folklore as the point of introduction into English, but enslaved Africans likely brought these stories to the region.
The archetype of the ravenous dead dates back at least as far as the ancient Mesopotamian poem The Epic of Gilgamesh. During the centuries that followed, the image of the vengeful, sentient dead was much more popular in literature. It wasn’t until the 1900s that the two different types of undead were merged to create the familiar modern zombie of popular culture as a result of the 1932 horror film White Zombie revived with George Romero’s cult classic The Night of the Living Dead and its endless sequels, reboots, rip-offs, spoofs, and homages.
I rehearse these well-known facts because a new chapter has recently been added to the cultural history of the zombie. Far astray from their West African roots, zombies have now attacked the unlikeliest stronghold of culture: Young Adult (YA) literature. Moreover, oddly enough, I would like to argue that YA zombie literature has become an incredible teaching tool for kids. After all, zombies provide a powerful antagonistic force for any story set in their world.. Unlike other types of the undead that may retain their consciousness — i.e., ghosts, vampires, the damned, and so on ad nauseam — zombies, locked in their unrelenting shamble for self-perpetuation, exist only to consume. These undead non-persons short-circuit any sort of identification or redemption, have zero sex appeal or charisma, and frighten only because there is always the possibility that you or someone you love might be ravened by one (and subsequently euthanized) or, worse, become one yourself. In a time when the world’s financial, governmental, and political future is precarious, the zombie apocalypse provides for its young readers a psychologically safe context for contemplating a collapsed world.
Though nothing and no one in this fictional world is totally protected, it’s a scenario removed enough from day-to-day life to be an acceptable way to raise questions regarding survival skills, resource allocation, and human action (or inaction). The dystopian elements, conflict resolution and disaster preparedness on every scale are an inherent part of this genre, making it a rich and accessible vessel for learning. Like their adult counterparts, more than a few YA zombie novels are set during the initial outbreak. As the dead rise in Susan Dennard’s Something Strange and Deadly and Mercedes Lackey and Rosemary Edghill’s Dead Reckoning the young protagonist must fight to survive – and to find the source of the infection. Nevertheless, much of the YA zombie lit available is set in the post-apocalyptic world in which the zombies themselves are mostly sidelined. The undead are part of this world, but the small remaining groups of survivors have holed up behind high walls and barricaded behind ramshackle fortresses. Such is the case in Lia Habel’s Gone With the Respiration series, Carrie Ryan’s The Forest of Hands and Teeth and Jonathan Maberry’s Rot and Ruin series. Ryan’s and Maberry’s works each showcase a community of survivors lives within an area protected and enclosed by miles of fencing. Townspeople live in fear of the zombie-infested wasteland that lies outside.
In Rot & Ruin, life is relatively pleasant, but electricity is banned because many people believe it made God angry enough to start the zombie plague. The town’s official government does nothing to dispel the rumor because this misinformation keeps citizens safe within the gates. No efforts have been made to study the zombie virus because it would carry risks that officials are unwilling to take. This institutionalized fear of both the undead and the unknown is one of the tenets of a dystopian society. Though the inhabitants may be perfectly happy where they are, they have traded the freedom to travel for the security of the enclosure. Within the town, the most powerful individuals are not the government officials but the hunters. Since many of them are physically imposing men, others in the community are unwilling to challenge their authority. As a result, the stories that the townspeople hear make the bounty hunters look like heroes. The protagonist – and the town – learn that these men’s bravado thinly masks a deep cruelty. So despite the continual presence of unmitigated nastiness just beyond the barricades, in many cases, Rot & Ruin included, the humans in the situation become the true monsters. Their ability to choose cruelty and murder is cast in sharp relief by the undead horde’s unblameable lack of consciousness or empathy. These individuals are worshipped by the town’s kids, but their stories from outside the community also enforce the community’s fear of the outside world.
However, one of the most powerful parts of dystopian literature is the protagonist. He or she may be deeply flawed and extremely conflicted, but maintaining a code of honor becomes the quest of the novel. Even though different forms of local authority try to restrain him or her from doing so, the protagnonist is able to break through those and cling to a deeply personal sense of integrity. The uncomplicated antagonist of zombie literature lets the hero not only break out of his or her insular community but to bring back information that set other members of the community free.
The main character’s hope and continued survival are, in most cases, what sets the post-apocalyptic YA zombie literature apart from other dystopias. In these instances, the hero isn’t incorporated into society (1984) or dead (Brave New World) by the novel’s end. Instead, the hero offers a model of imperfect resilience and strength not quite within or without the enveloping fold of the community. For many teenagers, high school social pursuits are extremely similar to the Mountainside community in Rot & Ruin, with fitting in with your chosen peer group ranking high on the list of priorities. The dilemma is familiar: conforming to social standards may be challenging, but not doing so puts one outside of the comfort of the group. By this standard, the hero of the zombie novel is a heroic outsider that young adults may only wish to emulate, providing a model of a non-conformist who survives and is able to retain hope for the future while not fully assimilating to the dictates of any cliques or stereotypes. Further, the skewed power dynamic in dystopian literature may reflect that of the everyday life in high school or the home. In both, conflict resolution is not always based on fairness, but a brave soul can sometimes even the scales by standing up to the bullies around them. Hence, without being didactic, zombie literature naturally lends itself to starting difficult conversations. By their very natures, zombies are, of course, mindless flesh-eaters. In this function, their inclusion has already broken one of the deepest and most widely held taboos of culture: cannibalism. Once this boundary is broken, it is possible to discuss almost anything in this context. One of the most interesting parts of the popular dystopian or horror stories of any time is their relation to current events. With current events of government shut-downs, superstorms, the financial crisis, and the recession looming in the popular imagination, it’s not difficult to trace the roots of this particular apocalyptic scenario. As with most other dystopian novels, this genre also presents the opportunity to encourage kids to examine how current events shape the literature of the time. For some, it can even spark an interest in paying attention to the world at large.
A few years ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recognized the subject’s popularity and published a blog entry on preparedness for the zombie apocalypse. The public response was literally overwhelming, and the blog crashed the organization’s servers. It received tens of thousands more views than any other post in the site’s history. Regardless of the zombified empire of distraction that this server crash terrifyingly suggests, the guidelines were mostly general precautions that are largely applicable to natural disasters and other phenomena. The heavy traffic may have revealed a bit of a weakness, i.e., that their servers may crash in the event of an actual disaster, and it was an excellent way to start a conversation about disaster readiness as well. The subject can also be an excellent way to pique kids’ interest in science and reporting. From the plague’s origins to its spread, every step provides an opening for serious analysis and engagement on a wide range of issues and areas of study.. For there are as many zombie apocalypses as there are zombies: popular contagion vectors have included prions, viruses, radioactive fallout and botched experiments.. If students are unaware of this pandemics and public health, for instance, this part of the story can be the perfect introduction.
Although zombies are still exclusively a part of the fictional world, their popularity can be used in creative ways to teach lessons about literature, dystopian societies, power dynamics, disaster readiness and even science. However, the genre only provides the gateway for kids. If we can do so, the zombie trend can be leveraged into an educationally valuable resource for conversation that moves beyond the obligatory grunt, shamble, and dead-eyed stare that often accompany such attempts to enlighten.