Roger Luckhurst on Zombies!
Date: October 23rd, 2016

Our annual Halloween special takes us to the world of the undead, tracking the history and transformation of the zombie genre.  Prof. Roger Luckhurst — a professor of Modern Literature at Birkbeck, University of London — joins us from across the Atlantic to discuss his fascinating research into science fiction, horror, trauma, and … of course … zombies.  After finding out how Prof. Luckhurst became enthralled with this aspect of modern literature and the reaction he has received to his research, we go back a couple centuries to examine where the myth of the zombie originated.  Interestingly, Roger notes that the vampire stories that originated in Europe during the early 18th century have a similar pattern to the zombie narrative in that both deal with superstitions about “the other” from a land far away that Europeans (and later North Americans) are beginning to contact.  This then takes us to the island of Haiti that, the first post-colonial nation and one that begins to “haunt” the former colonists imagination.  We learn that the term “zombi” first appears in the late 1880s and has its representations in many different forms including three-legged horses, ghosts hanging from trees, and other odd entities.  The notion of the “undead human” as zombie begins to take shape with the writing of two very distinct literary figures — Lafcadio Hearn and William Seabrook.  Prof. Luckhurst details their vivid lifestyles and contributions to fiction and pulp fiction.  With literacy spreading rapidly and printing costs dropping quickly in the early 20th century, travel novels of the odd and bizarre were popular fodder for books and magazines.  Roger then points out that much of the underlying narrative of zombie stories relates to anxiety of the US’s expanding empire and colonial subjects turning the table on their white masters.  Stories about “dead men working in cane fields” for American sugar companies becomes to be seen as the form of the zombie, a concept that mixed well with a growing fascination with Vodou (Voodoo).  We mention the interesting anthropological work of Zora Neale Hurston and her frightening experiences in Haiti as well.  The conversation then turns to more contemporary notions of the zombie, tracking some of the film adaptations of the literary zombie and how it meshed with other science fiction genres during the post-WWII era, noting similarities with The Manchurian Candidate and other films depicting communist subjects as brainwashed others.  The next major turning point discussed is George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and how it began to envision us as part of the zombie and the underlying subtext of America’s anxiety about the civil rights movement.  We take this further into what Prof. Luckhurst considers to be one of the most important turning points in the zombie narrative in recent years, Romero’s follow-up film, Dawn of the Dead (a movie that Tony admits to being a cult fan of).  It his here where it is modern living that turns us into the walking undead, meandering aimlessly through shopping malls in what might be a futile search for meaning.  True to Tony’s concern over radiation from Venus causing problems with our Skype connection, the audio does break down at this point, but we have Roger call in a few days later to finish the discussion about how the zombies we now see have three distinct features that separate them from the historical images of the undead: 1) zombies can now run (cf. 28 Days Later) and mutate quickly; 2) zombies now represent a global contagion (mirroring anxiety about globalization); and 3) zombies begin to regain consciousness (cf. Warm Bodies and I, Zombie).  All of this connects with other aspects of Prof. Luckhurst’s research that examines how “death” and “being dead” has been re-conceptualized ever since the definition of death was changed from a heart stoppage to “brain dead” in the late 1960s.  Concerns over the prolongation of life and diseases such as Alzheimer’s that erase human memories and what it might mean to be human come into play.  Roger finishes the conversation with some reflections about the future of the zombie narrative and what he has discovered over the course of several decades examining weird fiction.  He notes that pop culture does serious research for us with respect to the great philosophical questions of what it means to be a human being.  Recorded: October 14 and 17, 2016.

NOTE: We had some technical difficulties with the Skype connection that become most pronounced around the 40 minute mark of the podcast.  As such, we decided to return to finish the interview a few days later.  You will notice a significant break in the flow of the conversation around the 44 minute mark.  Our apologies, but we blame the undead.



Prof. Roger Luckhurst’s bio at the Birkbeck, University of London.

Zombies: A Cultural History, by Roger Luckhurst.

The Mummy’s Curse: The True Story of a Dark Fantasy, by Roger Luckhurst.

Science Fiction, by Roger Luckhurst.

The Invention of Telepathy, by Roger Luckhurst.

The Trauma Question, by Roger Luckhurst.

Tentacles: The New Fangs (and Teaching Tools)” by Roger Luckhurst in The Times Higher Education.

The Magic Island, by William Seabrook (mentioned in podcast).

I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson (mentioned in podcast).


Gary Laderman on Resting in Peace: The Death Industry in American History.

Chris Bader on Ghosts, UFOs, and the Paranormal.

Peter Lesson on Witch Trials and Human Sacrifice.

Scott Poole on Monsters.

Chris White on Debunking Ancient Aliens.

Sarah Bond on the Church and Funerals in Late Antiquity.

Eleanor Power on Rituals, Community, and Signaling.

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