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Emily Zarka is the official 'brain trust' on zombies

ASU’s 'monster expert' will host Oct. 30 PBS special dedicated to our fascination with flesh-eaters and the undead

Woman in red dress

October 29, 2020

Zombies have been scaring us with horrible table manners since the 16th century, but now they’re about to get an air of respectability. 

On Oct. 30, Arizona State University’s Emily Zarka will host “Exhumed: A History of Zombies” on PBS. Known as ASU's “monster expert,” Zarka also wrote the new documentary, which airs at 9 p.m. Arizona time (check listings for local times).

Zarka, who earned her doctorate in British Romantic literature and gothic fiction from ASU and is a faculty associate in the Department of English, is no stranger to television. She is the writer and host for “Monstrum,” an online series with PBS’s "Storied" channel on YouTube that looks at the complex histories and motivations behind some of the world's most famous monsters. 

For “Exhumed,” she will discuss with fellow scholars why zombies have risen in popularity over the last decade. ASU Now also wanted to know why these flesh-eating monsters have also held a place in the firmament for centuries while scaring us to half to death. So we tapped her brain in an intimate Q&A ahead of her documentary.

Question: My introduction to zombies was several decades ago, with the midnight movie staple “Dawn of the Dead” (1978). When were zombies introduced in historical literature and later, in popular culture?

Answer: Historically, the zombie goes back far before written literature. It is important to keep in mind that many monsters exist in oral folklore and history, perhaps even art, before their descriptions were written down anywhere. As the concept of the zombie emerged in Vodou from West African spiritual practices brought to Haiti via slavery, Europeans became aware of the idea as a fleeting concept only. Because of this, we can trace the first written iteration of the word “zombie” in any language to a 1697 French text detailing the story of a Creole countess in the French Caribbean who is plagued at night by the invisible spirit accomplices of a sorcerer that are referred to as “zombi.” This is a far cry from the undead corpses we now recognize today.

In English, “zombi” appears first in Robert Southey’s History of Brazil (1810–1819), in reference to an African deity. It wasn’t really until the American occupation of Haiti in the early 20th century when American journalists and military personnel documented their exaggerated accounts of the zombi that they appeared in fictional literature in any real way. Soon after Hollywood got ahold of the idea, and that’s when the zombie really entered into popular culture. The next big turning point occurred in 1968 with George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead,” which depicted the first reanimated, flesh-eating corpses in film — and changed zombies forever. 

Q: Anne Rice’s books and the feature film “Interview with the Vampire” (1994) seemed to set off a decadelong fascination with the vampire genre, and now that seems to have been replaced by zombies. Will the fascination with zombies die out or are they here to stay?

A: I don’t think vampires or zombies ever really leave our popular imagination — not for long at least. One may rise up stronger than another for a time, but they often run parallel to one another. The fascination with the undead goes back thousands of years, with a wealth of cultures and historical periods featuring reanimated corpses in their lore. Vampires and zombies are more popular in the 20th and 21st centuries because of the advent of film and video games, since they offer easy visual metaphors for everything from consumerism to segregation. They evolve alongside technology so I would think that as long as we continue to invent new technologies that are used for narrative dissemination, we will continue to see zombies in those stories. I think both vampires and zombies have incredibly long undead lives to look forward to.

Q: Your training is in literature and the Gothic. How did a nice professor like you end up as an authority on zombies?

A: I grew up on horror, but when I was a kid I thought that liking monsters and scary stories was something I had to keep hidden. No one told me that, but I internalized it anyway since I was afraid of being perceived as strange. Until my undergraduate work when I took two classes — The History of Georgian England and Topics in Popular Culture: Zombies — the same semester. Those classes and professors changed my life. I learned that horror was worthy of study, and that there was this perfect genre that already existed that encapsulated everything I loved — the Gothic. From there I just dedicated myself to it. My honors thesis on the undead in the British Romantic period ultimately became the basis of my dissertation and now my career. In my research, I quickly learned that people have not just been talking and writing about the undead for a long time, but that we have always used them as a tool for instruction. Once I recognized that, I knew I could make similar connections with other monsters, showing how they instruct us as much as they scare us, and the idea for “Monstrum” was born. 

Q: As writer and host of “Exhumed: A History of Zombies,” what experts did you consult to gain a perspective of how zombies became so popular in the U.S.?

A: I had the absolute privilege to talk to a variety of experts, spiritual leaders and academics. I talked with anthropologists, an art curator, historians, literature and film scholars, authors, and both Vodou and Voodoo practitioners. The sheer number of people who had not only knowledge but unique insights into the subject proves how zombies are a topic with universal appeal. The story of the zombie is not one that can be told by only one person or one type of individual. Zombies are part of our history as humans, especially here in America. 

Q: What are you three favorite zombie movies and how did they burrow their way into your “brain”?

A: Wow, that’s a hard one. “Night of the Living Dead” (1968) was the first zombie movie I saw, so it instantly had an impact on me, and as I grew up I realized how radical and smart it was not only as a genre-changing text, but as a commentary on the social and political environment in the United States at the end of the 1960s. The first film that really got me to see that the true villains in zombie narratives are the living humans was “28 Days Later (2002), and those absolutely terrifying soldiers, so I have to include that one in my top three as well. Plus, it was one of the first films on the big screen to show fast-moving zombies. My absolute favorite zombie movie of the last decade is “Train to Busan (2016). The cinematography, plot and acting are all phenomenal but I really appreciate how it uses zombies as a metaphor for social mobility and class division. 

Top photo: ASU faculty associate Emily Zarka poses for a portrait in front of the Tempe Center for the Arts on Oct. 4, 2018. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

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