In recent years, zombies have seen a revival as the subject of young adult romances and award-winning television shows. In an English class taught last semester by assistant professor Mary Grace Albanese, they took on a unique historical and political significance.
Albanese, who started teaching at Binghamton University in fall 2017, taught the class for the first time in spring 2018. Titled ENG 450: All American Zombies, the class examined the origins of zombie fiction in the context of Haitian history and plantation slavery. Albanese said she chose the topic as an outgrowth of her research, which focuses on the relationship between Haiti and the United States.
“I was really interested in tracing the history of the zombie trope, which began as a metaphor for slavery on Haitian plantations but now has been seemingly de-politicized in any number of Hollywood films, comics, TV shows, et cetera,” she wrote in an email. “The intention of the class was to restore that Haitian history.”
The class examined Haitian revolutionary accounts, pseudoscientific naturalist treatises from 18th-century colonists and early zombie novels by Haitian writers. Students also viewed modern depictions of the zombie in films like “White Zombie,” “I Walked With a Zombie,” “Night of the Living Dead” and “Get Out,” as well as music videos like Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and Rihanna’s “Disturbia.”
Albanese said she is leery of drawing sharp distinctions between pop culture and the literary canon, as the line between the two has frequently blurred throughout history.
“A film like ‘Night of the Living Dead’ is just as aesthetically interesting and conceptually sophisticated as a great novel,” she said. “It’s also important to remember that much, if not most, of what constitutes the so-called ‘canon’ was originally pop culture.”
She said she is also hesitant to differentiate horror fiction, or genre fiction at large, from more traditional areas of literary study.
“I’m not really sure that these generic distinctions are useful — doesn’t Shakespeare write ghost stories?” she wrote. “Isn’t the Gothic novel spooky? Isn’t the slave narrative horrific?”
Thaddeus Okon, ‘18, said he enjoyed his experience in the class and appreciated the analysis of modern horror through a critical lens.
“You can take a film like ‘Get Out’ and appreciate it at a surface level — it’s suspenseful, political and entertaining,” Okon said. “And then, thanks to this class, you can go in-depth and appreciate the film in context with the horror film canon.”
Ryan Sweeney, a senior majoring in economics, said that while he expected the class to be more focused on modern pop culture zombies, it gave him a new perspective on zombie fiction.
“Even though it wasn’t what I expected it to be, I found discussing how this thing of Haitian folklore became something mass-produced in Hollywood to be more interesting,” Sweeney said.
Albanese will not be teaching the class again next semester, but she will be teaching a class on the Gothic, which will explore similar themes and content. The syllabus will again include films and television shows in addition to written works. Mass media, according to Albanese, is unique and important in its ability to collapse the artificial divide between the highbrow and the lowbrow.
“Pop culture registers the kinds of values and discourses that structure a society,” she said. “At its best, it is radically inclusive, permitting more voices than cultural gate-keeping has historically allowed for.”