The University of Baltimore Zombie Con

The Con

This Tony Deconinck came over the AOL news wire on September 9, 2010.

The walking dead have shambled after the living for decades now, and in every previous instance humanity has been able to overcome them — by outsmarting them, outrunning them or outfighting them. But now administrators at the University of Baltimore are dealing with a bizarre zombie infestation of their own — in the classroom itself.

Course No. CMAT 333 is simply called “Media Genres.” It isn’t until you look at the topics part of the schedule that it identifies the media genre to be studied. It’s summed up in one word: “zombies.”

The class is dedicated to the study of zombies in popular culture. Coursework consists of watching 16 classic zombie films over the course of the semester, supplemented by reading. The course culminates in a final analysis research paper, although storyboarding a zombie story or writing a zombie script are viable alternatives.

Instructor Arnold Blumberg told AOL News the idea hit him when university administrators mentioned that they were starting a pop culture minor.

“I pitched them the idea of doing a course in zombies as one of the most perfect single reflections in our media of what we’re thinking of at any given point as a culture, as individuals and as a nation,” Blumberg said. “It wasn’t too difficult to explain why this would have some potency.

“Certainly in this era more than any other, we’re inundated 24/7 with media from every direction, and it certainly behooves us to give students the tools they need to actually sift through all those messages and see what the meaning is.”

As a fan, Blumberg can appreciate the fun of a good zombie story, and he’s quick to point out the cultural touchstone of how zombies change according to our cultural norms — and our underlying fears.

Jonathan Maberry, best-selling author of “Rot and Ruin,” sees zombies as a kind of faceless menace, making them a nearly perfect storytelling vehicle.

“Vampire novels offer fewer storytelling options because the vampires have become so romanticized. Zombies have no personality, so they don’t interfere with the story, which is people in crisis.”

Maberry should know: His previous zombie thriller, “Patient Zero,” is one of the books listed for Blumberg’s course. “I think it’s marvelous. ‘Patient Zero’ taps into mainstream fears, like fears of terrorism.”

Others revel in the evolving popularity of zombie culture.

“How do I get in on this?” asked Rob Sacchetto, artist and author of “The Zombie Handbook,” which details how to identify and kill the inevitable deathless hordes.

Sacchetto approved of the well-rounded curriculum, which steeps the students in a variety of different zombie genres to give them a more complex understanding of the brain-hungry ghouls. “Zombies are like snowflakes,” he explained poetically. “Every one is different.”

While he wasn’t clear on the educational goals of the class, Sacchetto did like the growing re-emergence of the undead. “It’s good to see the zombie culture spreading into the mainstream in that way. I think it’s kind of neat.”

The zombie culture is indeed spreading into the mainstream. While zombie books have traditionally been a niche genre, their popularity has been exploding recently. Seth Grahame-Smith’s novel “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” last year’s send-up of Jane Austen’s famous work, made it to No. 3 on The New York Times best-seller list.

Culture aside, though, some would be more comfortable if the coursework included something more … practical.

“One thing I hope they address is self-preservation and self-defense,” said Roger Ma, author of “The Zombie Combat Manual.” “I think understanding it culturally is great. An element I’d love to see as a part of it is defensive situations against a zombie because that’s the most underestimated portion of the study of zombiism.”

Blumberg understands that the class is getting attention because it’s a fun topic, but he doesn’t want his students to overlook the more serious educational goal. “The point of the course is to enable students to take a critical look at our mass media and analyze exactly what it is that it’s saying about us as a culture.”

Noting that the zombie was introduced to popular culture nearly 80 years ago, Blumberg attributes the enduring popularity of zombies to a deep resonance to our culture. “They have always been a reflection of where we are as a country. What we’re fearing, what we’re hoping for, and by taking a look at that, you can learn a lot about who we are as a people.”

I may be a little old fashioned but perhaps the rise is Zombie culture has to do with the lack of studying Herodotous. It seems to me The Histories, where the great democratic city-state Athens rallies the other Greek city-states to fight the coming Persian invasion of the Hellenic Peninsula, might be a bit more of a timely read than say World War Z – An Oral History of the Zombie War. But like I said, I’m a bit old fashioned and old school.

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