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Zombies, Vampires and Philosophy: New Life for the Undead

(Open Court Press)

Philosophy from Beyond the Grave

The Popular Culture and Philosophy series from Open Court Press has discovered a perfect recipe for publishing success. Take an au courant pop culture franchise, attach some academics that can make connections between the franchise and classic philosophical problems, and publish. The series is now up to volume 43 with more on the way.


I’ve picked up one or two of these volumes in the past and had a very mixed experience. The early volumes are the strongest, dealing with pop culture franchises that seem to cry out for deeper reflection (Buffy, Star Wars and The Matrix). More recent volumes seem less necessary, with titles that could be satire on trendy academe. Some examples include Jimmy Buffet and Philosophy: The Porpoise Driven Life, Transformers and Philosophy and Facebook and Philosophy.


A new volume Zombies, Vampires and Philosophy suggests to me that the series may need a stake through the heart or a bullet to the brain. It is essentially a reprint of an earlier volume in the series, re-released with a sexier cover and the new title that makes clear that it deals with those uber-popular creatures of the night, zombies and vampires.


Unfortunately, most of the contributors to the collection have stronger philosophical chops than pop culture knowledge. A ham-handed attempt to examine George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead in connection with Aristotelian notions of happiness may be a good reading of Aristotle but manages to twist Romero’s clear critique of American consumerism into an unrecognizable shape. An interesting essay on Heidegger contains a useful explanation of the German existentialist’s notions of death and authentic being but falls flat when it attempts to make a connection to Dracula. I remained unconvinced by the author’s claim that “How we interpret Heidegger will largely reflect how we interpret Bram Stoker.”


There are a few essays that are worthwhile so I want to mention those individually. It’s important to note that the books in this series tend to favor short essays and so these standouts only represent four out of a total of twenty-one contributions. The rest are of indifferent quality.


Noel Carrroll, philosopher and long-time scholar of horror and aesthetics, turns in one of the best studies. Carrrol examined the nature of fear and what ingredients create the experience of horror, a topic that has an intrinsic connection to the genre being explored. Though I found his essay problematic from a theoretical perspective (it leaned too heavily on individual, psychological reactions to horror for my tastes) it at least seemed a topic that zombie and vampire films could be mined to explore.


The best contribution to this collection, by far, is an essay by Eileen Townsend and Randall Auxier that’s really a kind of epistolary short story purporting to be the correspondence of two vampires over a twenty-year period. The authors (who move from letters to e-mail to instant messaging to texting) touch on religion, Anne Rice, Michel Foucault, and the image of vampires in Buffy. Their insights, and their ability to make brilliant connections through dark humor, are a pleasure to read (at one point, one of the pair attempts to vamp Foucault). It’s so good that it strengthens the collection all by itself and really deserves to be in a better one.


There are a few other standouts. Joan Grassbaugh Forry examines aesthetics and the vampire and creates a meditation on gender, horror and it relationship to our conceptions of the beautiful. K. Silem Mohammad, one of the collections editors, has a fascinating piece that uses “fast” versus “slow” zombies to think about Spinoza’s conception of death.


All of the collection’s strong contributions have in common a clear love for the vampire and zombie genre that does more than use undead analogies as a departure point for philosophical meandering. At times, the book feels like listening to that annoying professor you had sophomore year who kept making pop culture allusions (and getting them wrong) in an attempt to “get down on your level “ (and look cool doing it).


In general, most of these essays will irritate serious lovers of the horror genre. Devotees will be exasperated by the book’s awkward efforts to shoehorn their favorite monsters into philosophical conundrums. Essays that suggest that Michael Myers is a zombie or that view Romero’s Land of the Dead as, for some reason, “the last word” on the definition of a zombie cannot be taken seriously. Pop culture monsters have a context, an etiology and a genealogy. If you are going to write about them, it’s essential that you know and respect these narratives as much as you know the history of philosophy. This is especially important if you plan to read one along with the other.


I can see this volume, and similar collections in the series, being of some use in a college classroom. I would hasten to add that most would only be useful in a philosophy class where zombified freshmen needed some encouragement toward philosophical reflection. It would not be of much use in a course where the history and meaning of pop culture is bring explored.


The occasional strong essay does make good use of well-known popular icons to illustrate classic philosophical problems. For this reason, it could provide an easy introduction to the general reader interested in knowing more about some of those classic philosophical questions. Otherwise, get out your chainsaw and holy water to keep this one away.

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W. Scott Poole is a writer and an associate professor of history at the College of Charleston. He's the author of Monsters in America: Our Historical Obsession with the Hideous and Haunting (October 2011) and Vampira, a cultural biography of America's first seductive horror host forthcoming from Soft Skull Press in 2014. He's inordinately proud of his record and comics collection. His website is monstersinamerica.com. Follow him on twitter @monstersamerica.


Tagged as: philosophy | vampires | zombies
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