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Taylor Halverson: Why are zombies everywhere?

I thought a zombie was just a character in movies and games, just for entertainment. I was surprised to learn that zombies are a reflection of our culture.

A zombie is a character that is neither alive nor dead, it simply exists to mindlessly consume; it is especially fixated on consuming living things, which then become new zombies.

For my day job, I work as a Brigham Young University teaching and learning consultant. Core to my job is building relationships with faculty across campus, to understand their needs for support as teachers, and then working with them to enhance their teaching and student learning in their disciplines.

It is a wonderfully invigorating job to interact with top thinkers in so many diverse fields. I discovered an easy way to meet and learn more about faculty: take them to lunch. Everyone has time for lunch, and conversation is always easier over food. During these lunch conversations, I seek to understand someone’s personal background, what motivated them to study their chosen field, what specific problems they are working on, what audacious goals they have for the future, and something significant they have learned recently.

These conversations are consistently enlightening and fascinating.

I learned about zombies from David Laraway. Like everyone I meet, he has a story. Laraway is chairman of the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at Brigham Young University. Not content with his doctorate in romance studies with an emphasis in Hispanic literature, he briefly pursued doctoral studies in philosophy at the University of Utah before completing yet another doctoral program in philosophy, art and social thought at the European Graduate School in Switzerland. He has so many interesting insights about the world and is such an affable guy.

I’m not sure how we got on the topic of zombies, but with his expertise in media studies, Laraway taught me succinctly how a zombie is a character used to represent our society: Beginning after World War II and accelerating with each passing decade, increasing consumerism, even mindless consumerism, has dominated so much of Western post-industrialized culture. Though zombies were introduced into our culture long before World War II, they have become a convenient representation of what happens to a society that so mindlessly consumes. Everything becomes the undead, neither living nor dead, some terrible limbo state of awful nothingness, existing only to consume.

Tellingly, one of the most iconic stages for zombie encounters is a large shopping mall in George Romero’s 1978 movie "Dawn of the Dead" (see a short clip of mindless consuming at a shopping mall here).

Why zombies and a shopping mall? Because shopping malls became symbols of congregated consumerism, especially during the 1970s and 1980s.

I know all about malls, and I admit this with some embarrassment and chagrin.

As a kid growing up in the Twin Cities (St. Paul/Minneapolis) of Minnesota, shopping malls were the place to be. If you wanted to be cool as a teenager, head to the shopping mall. If you wanted to avoid the insane cold of winter, head to the heated comfort of the indoor shopping mall. If you wanted to escape the debilitating effects of relentless summer humidity (and, yes, Minnesota has intense humidity in the summer) head to the air-conditioned mall.

There at the mall, if one had the pocketbook, a kid could mindlessly waste away afternoons or whole days playing in the video arcade, watching movies (both memorable and forgettable) while consuming all manner of unholy junk food that could turn anyone into a zombie, or roam myriad stores that seemed to sell everything that one could imagine. If one had the money at a mall, one could buy anything in this world, it seemed.

So I was intrigued to learn that the character of a zombie had specific symbolic value and had a narrative to tell that put our society into the mirror. Even more revealing was the realization that I have lived this zombie lifestyle of mindless consumerism from time to time.

This insight made me rethink my relationship to my needs and my wants. What do I really need and how much of it? Are any of my needs actually disguised wants? How can I fulfill my needs while also being responsible to God’s creations and his other children on this Earth?

Strangely, zombies have encouraged me to keep asking myself these valuable questions.

Taylor Halverson (Ph.D.s: biblical studies; instructional technology) is a BYU teaching and learning consultant. His views are his own.