2013 was more eventful than other years. I won the Chancellor’s Award in Teaching Excellence, and then, I quit my job as a lecturer. My family moved to my home state of Florida. We bought a house. The Zombies Are Coming! was published in July (Listen to me talk zombies with Carol Howard Merritt and Derrick Weston of God Complex Radio.)
In August, my big girl started voluntary pre-Kindergarten. In September, I had a healthy baby boy. Just two days ago, I celebrated twelve years of marriage with my husband.
It was a big year.
I also started writing more, including a column for Chronicle Vitae. Here’s the list of my pieces that were published in 2013. I’m proud of all of them because they signal a move to try new things and maybe start a new career. I’ve listed them in chronological order.
“How do we know they are coming?”–Karin Lane (Mireille Enos)
“They’re coming.”–Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt), World War Z
Zombies are everywhere. Brad Pitt battles them in the film adaptation of World War Z. AMC’s The Walking Dead follows human survivors in a post-apocalyptic zombified world. You can download Plants vs. Zombies for your smart phones, or be chased by these monsters for 5K fun runs. Zombies, particularly portrayals of the zombie apocalypse, are also my current area of research as I have mentioned before (how an American religious historian comes to study zombies is another matter entirely).
Recently, I had the opportunity to think and write about zombie apocalypses for beyond my usual audience of fellow scholars. Bondfire Books approached me about writing about zombies for a general audience, and the result of our partnership is my ebook, The Zombies Are Coming! The Realities of the Zombie Apocalypse, which is now available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and iTunes. My goal for this project was to interrogate how the zombie apocalypse shifted from fantasy to possible reality for some Americans. Thus, I examine government and civilian emergency preparedness campaigns, doomsday preppers, guns and ammunition created for the destruction of the undead, zombie shooting targets, and a spate of cannibalistic attacks. All of these case studies lay the groundwork for me to show how zombies emerge as real threats rather than Hollywood monsters. The fictional becomes the actual. This is the only the beginning of my work on zombies, apocalypticism, and American religions, so I welcome any feedback. If the zombies are coming, somebody has to study them. (Though, I will probably be eaten.)
Over at the Bulletin for the Study of Religion blog, there is a “thorough” interview with me on Gospel According to the Klan, methods and pedagogy. There is also a good dose of apocalypticism and zombies minus any discussion of recent spate of news stories about face-eating. Here’s an excerpt:
How did you get started on researching Gospel According to the Klan?
This project grew out of my personal experiences growing up in the South, as well as a natural outgrowth of my academic work. I grew up in a small town in the Florida panhandle. Back in the 1990s, when I was in high school, there was a Klan rally in a nearby town. What I found most interesting about this was the nervousness that everyone seemed to feel, and display, about it. Not just that there might be violence (as it was also said that the Black Panthers planned a rally simultaneously in this same town), but also the attempt to tamp down the tawdriness of the reputation of the Klan, as it might get attached, or re-attached, to these people and places. “It’s in the past… it’s behind us,” was the basic attitude. While many people wanted to nostalgically hold onto some parts of the Southern past, the Klan represented a part of that past from which they wanted as much distance as possible.
As a scholar of religion, I’ve been intrigued by the ways in which groups like this tend to be understood in my field of study. It is often assumed that religious people we do not like are relatively easy to figure out and are thus not worth a lot of study, whereas people we do like are worth knowing more about. More, we tend to assume that ‘bad people’ equate to ‘bad evidence’ that necessarily invokes skepticism, while ‘good people’ equate to ‘good evidence’ that we can take at face value. I’m interested in studying and understanding not only the “unloved groups” themselves, but also how we tend to think about them, how we reify such groups and how so doing obscures much more than it tells us analytically. So, in writing Gospel According to the Klan, I wanted to produce a study that unsettles academic norms as to what counts as acceptable research subjects. What objects are worth study? What are not? Where do we draw those lines? What’s at stake when we do so, when we categorize things as ‘good data’ or ‘bad data’? Quite often these judgments tell us more about the researchers who made them than about their actual subjects.
To get into my newest project, a cultural history of zombies in America, I’ve been reading about monsters, monster theory, horror, zombies in all shapes, sizes, and phenotypes, and fear. This is an entirely new endeavor for me, and I had forgotten the exhilaration and exhaustion that define learning (and then writing) on a new topic of inquiry. All the while I have been crafting promotional materials for Gospel According to the Klan, and my mind has been invaded by monsters and monstrosity. I finished reading Asma’s On Monsters (mentioned in yesterday’s post), which is really a cultural history of monsters and what becomes monstrous from Alexander the Great to the medieval period to the twenty and twenty-first centuries.
Asma is a professor of philosophy, and his book works best when he is parsing out the relationship between Kant’s sublime, Freud’s uncanny, and the dictates of modern horror films, including the much-panned turn to “torture porn” (think Saw and its many, many sequels). He also seeks to place monsters in the realm of biological reaction, cognitive psychology, and Darwinian evolution, which I find less compelling because of his attachments to science-as-reduction at the cost of the contextual. Monsters, he notes, again and again bear a familial resemblance, so that we can put our individual and collective fingers on what a monster is or is not (by virtue of this, what a human is or is not, too). The meanings and uses of monsters change as the times change. Alexander’s monsters are not quite the same as (in)famous serial killers, zombies, androids, or the things that lurk in murky waters but they are similar. Monsters become a reflection of anxiety of the period. To which, I say, sure, but what else can we say? For Asma, one of the significant features of his book was to showcase how societies, social groupings of people, and individuals need monsters. Monsters appear when boundaries are blurred. They also run rampant in our Freudian Ids as well as in our nations, communities, and homes. Monsters, if you will, are still with us.
Even in the post-modern (or is it post-post-modern) era, monsters remain in spite of the turn to relativity and the embrace of the monstrous in each of us. Asma’s meditation of monsters is about monsters, but he also wrestles with humanity, the humane, and the inhuman (read monster). Every discussion of historical and contemporary monsters enlivened a discussion of how the human is defined. Does the monster just work as a foil to humanity? (The better question is does the monster work as a foil to ideal visions of humanity?) Can inhumanity elide into monstrosity? If so, how and when? Where are the boundaries, the borders of the human? Can monsters be redeemed? In Asma’s insistence that we still have monsters no matter how the post-moderns relativize them, I see the strong desire to adjudicate who is human(e) and who is not. On Monsters begins with the author’s fear of murky waters juxtaposed with the reality of torture, so it was not entirely surprising that Asma wants to still be able to label the monstrous/the monster. Can’t we agree, he seems to say, that monsters still exist (and they torture, kill, and harm)? More important, that we know them when we see them. Monsters are always identifiable.
It was at this juncture that I wanted to nudge Asma in his attachment to the language of the monster, the morality of it, and the consequences of using this language to mark who is human and who is not. Dehumanization, he admits, is a part of the process of war and torture, but he still wants to claim the ability to dehumanize those who commit inhuman action. Edward Ingebretsen warns in his At Stake: Monsters and the Rhetoric of Fear in Public Culture (2001) that “no narrative is value-free, even, and especially, this one” (15). The narrative of the monster has agenda, complicity, and judgment. To Asma’s “can’t we agree?” is Ingebretsen’s “why do we have to?” Where Asma continually compares monstrosity and humanity without really positing how we define a term like human, Ingebretsen makes the relationship clear: monsters emerge as “failed humans” (2). He continues: “By locating monsters off the social map, we locate the human–and, thus, we hope ourselves–on it. Shall we ourselves, pass the “Monster Test”? From day to day, the answer to that question is never clear, never certain. This, ultimately, is what is at stake” (5). Hope begets humanity, and fear surrounds the abjected. Monsters, then, become a method to present our own humanity back to ourselves. We *are* not monsters, but those (people) are. This, for Ingebretsen, is the slippery slope of the monster, the identification, the label, the category.
For my own work on an unloved group, the language of the monster popped up in the most interesting of places, academic works describing the modern day hate (white supremacist) movement. In my early stages of research for the book that is now Gospel, I found that some of the scholarship followed a predictable pattern: meet supremacists, describe initial disgust/fear, socialize and uncover their humanity (shock!), write about nice conversations over coffee or sweet tea, then realize that actually these folks our inhumane/despicable/monstrous even, and finally emphasize that they aren’t ALL bad people, except for the ones who are. What struck me was not the attempts to humanize but rather the moment in which the narrative turned, for lack of a better term, creature-esque. Conversants’ bodies change, and they shifted from human to hateful creature (or monster). The supremacist rhetoric mapped onto their bodies, and they emerged as less human(e) in the telling. They became as monstrous as their words. Narratives are always already value-laden. Only monsters preach hate, the texts told me. Only monsters burn crosses and wear robes. Only monsters, only monsters, only monsters, echoed. My work, then, responds to that echo with: what if they aren’t monsters? What if the labeling of white supremacists as monsters allows one to ignore one’s own racism or the collective history of intolerance and racism in America. How do those boundaries, monster or human, impact not only public culture but our own individual strivings of self? How do monsters work for us?
We aren’t, you are becomes a dangerous supposition. Narratives are never innocent. Ingebretsen reminds, “Monster-talk might be cheap, but it is easy to use and takes toll on human lives” (9), in that he and Asma are in agreement. Yet Ingebretsen wants to push further to ponder: why we even make monsters in the first place? The answer to that question, like all good questions, is more questions, but the pursuit of monster-making has drug me asunder (which means prepare for more on monsters).
While perusing facebook yesterday, I happened upon a friend’s event, entitled “Zombie Apocalypse.” The end via shambling, brain-eating zombies is scheduled for December, 22, 2012, so please mark your calendars. It seems that the zombie apocalypse follows very closely behind the Mayan calendar’s end on December 21 of the same year (unless you believe new estimates.) What was striking to me was not that such an event existed, since facebook is a world of random events, fandom, and strange pages, but rather the number of people attending said event. According to the event page this morning, 521, 035 people are attending, 80, 798 are maybe attending, and 289, 558 have politely declined their invitation to a gun-toting, gore-filled end. While some might still be shilling for the Mayan apocalypsis, zombies appear to be the vogue way for the world to end.
Zombies have become a sci-fi/horror/fantasy genre staple. From the popularity of AMC’s The Walking Dead to Romero’s zombies and their legacies in film to Max Brooks’s franchise of World War Z and the survival guide to various anthologies (The Living Dead I and II, Zombies, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and my personal favorite Zombies vs. Unicorns), the zombie apocalypse is a cottage industry. While I could reflect on what the zombie apocalypse teaches us about (in)human nature, gore, or the necessity of high power weaponry, I think the more pressing and interesting point for scholars of American religion and popular culture is the pervasiveness of this genre and the continued presence of catastrophic millennialism in American popular culture.
Michael Barkun discusses the “pervasive millennialism” of American culture in which end times theologies and scenarios are popular and consumable. Pervasive millennialism works because of the commodification of these ideas. Do you need to be briefed in the Mayan calendar? Buy this book or dvd. Need to survive zombies on the front step? Please purchase one of the many survival guides, necessary hardware, and stock up with food. Need to ride out the looming end (of any variety)? Please buy your rations for a year at Costco. Want to know how the world looks post-Rapture? Purchase the Left Behind series. Perhaps, one wants to survive post-apocalypse? Download various films via Netflix, read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or maybe not, or pick up any number of young adult fiction titles from Carrie Ryan (zombies) to Suzanne Collins (Hunger Games trilogy), pick up survivalist gear and stock up food. We can consume the end and all its possible varieties. What is clear from the proliferation of end times products is the hope and fervor that the right products can save us. Read, watch, stock and prepare.
In her excellent book, Tourists of History (2007), Marita Sturken argues that cultures of fear and paranoia bolster “consumer practices of security and comfort” (5). This “comfort culture” allows Americans to purchase goods that supposedly might protect us, and this “culture of comfort functions as a form of depolitization and as a means to confront loss, grief and fear through processes that disavow politics”(6). We consume supplies to comfort ourselves in the face of global war, domestic politics and personal strife. Moreover, Sturken claims that often Americans seek to be “tourists of history” who remain distant to the sites they visit, where they are often defined as innocent outsiders, mere observers whose actions are believed to have no effect on what they see” (10). As I read Sturken’s book, I couldn’t help but wonder if maybe apocalyptic consumption functions as a “culture of comfort.” Purchasing survival guides or survivalist training, reading books, watching films that direct us how to kill zombies, purchasing a year’s worth of food can all provide comfort. Americans are often “tourists” of the apocalypse.
Apocalyptic thinking is rife with paranoia, conspiracy and fear, and the genre of apocalyptic tales is as well. Consuming (products of) the end provides comfort that the end is not quite here but could be. Products can “save” us. The comment sections of the “Zombie Apocalypse” event page makes this obvious: what weapons, cars, tools, etc. might you need. Folks discussing the merits of a Louisville slugger over various guns or axes or other household objects. Part of my interest is the question of what does this mean about not only apocalyptic thinking but also about more secular visions of millennialism? What is at stake if we are “tourists” of the end? Why does consumerism go hand-in-hand with visions of catastrophe and the undead?
It is at this point that I wish Katie Lofton’s book on Oprah was on the shelves. Now granted, I imagine Oprah doesn’t have much to save about zombies but I bet Lofton has much to say about how products can save and how consumerism can become religious practice and devotion. Moreover, if half a million people are excited about the prospect of taking down zombies, then what is at stake in the consumption of this particular end? Why is the zombie apocalypse comforting? And why am I more and more convinced that apocalypticism functions as a comfortable rhetorical and imaginary space? If the apocalypse provides comfort, products can save us, then how might we understand the role of popular culture in the study of American religion?