Dr. Rae Muhlstock isn’t your ordinary, live-by-the-textbook professor. She incorporates her fascination with the undead to teach students how to conduct research.
By undead, I don’t mean the sparkling vampires you find in the Twilight movies. Muhlstock is more interested in the less “pretty,” less glamorized undead—zombies.
When it comes to Muhlstock’s perception of zombies, she believes that there is much more to them than their image in pop culture like Night of the Living Dead and The Walking Dead.
“The zombie figure is actually much more complicated than that, more nuanced, and more versatile,” she said. “Wade Davis tells us in The Serpent and the Rainbow that zombies are a doorway to other knowledge, and through the zombie figure we can learn about nature, biological, botanical, the insect world, the plant and animal world…so the zombie figure actually gives us a lot more than just the Romero, Walking Dead, brain-craving rotting flesh. We actually learn about humanity through the zombie. In order to understand the zombie we have to diagnose death. In order to diagnose death, we have to diagnose life.”
Muhlstock’s own interest in zombies was sparked when a friend of hers, an urban planner, pointed out that an evacuation route outside of her apartment in Buffalo wouldn’t be the smartest way to leave the city in the event of a zombie apocalypse after they had finished watching The Walking Dead with a group of friends.
“All of a sudden, it clicked that in an apocalypse situation through the hypothetical of the apocalypse situation, we can all find our strengths,” she said, “and suddenly I got very interested in what else zombies can reflect about us.”
She believes that people are able to find out more about themselves and the strengths they may have that would enable them to survive a zombie apocalypse.
Muhlstock then brought the concept of zombies into her Writing and Critical Inquiry class at SUNY Albany. She hopes that through realizing that the zombie isn’t just what is shown on the the surface, students would start to think more deeply about other things around them they used to take at face value.
“Most importantly, that community is survival,” she said when asked about how she incorporates zombies into the classes she teaches. “That we need to rely on each other, maybe a little more than we thought and maybe a little less than we thought, but certainly differently than we thought.”
The class focuses on how to survive a week on campus, another week traveling and six months at a settlement they will be required to set up during a zombie apocalypse. In order to be successful, students must take their research of things like resource conservation and apply it to these situations.
“The things they’re learning are a bit absurd at times,” she said, “but, what they’re really learning is how to do research and how to combine different methods of research.”
Muhlstock is trying to bring together the community of local zombie aficionados by hosting a film festival. “The Zombies Are Coming 2: Return of the Festival,” will bring people together to watch zombie films and participate in discussions lead by Mikel Koven, a well-known film and folklore studies professor from the University of Worcester in the UK .
Muhlstock was inspired to create the film festival after being a teaching assistant for a public humanities course at SUNY Buffalo, where the class was held in a movie theater.
“I got to see what happened when students learned alongside the community,” she said. “So when I came here for a faculty position, I really wanted to bring that here… zombies presented a great occasion.”
Films like Dawn of the Living Dead, Train to Busan and even a feature-length zombie film made by a local director will be shown. There will also be a podcast taping, a Halloween party with prizes for best costume and a food drive.
When asked why she studies zombies, Muhlstock said “It’s because they’re so damn interesting.”
“The zombie is very unlike the vampire,” she said. “The vampire retains itself when it dies and is resurrected. Vampire narratives tend to all rehash that same story. An exceptional or unexceptional man or woman is granted immortality; sure, some things change, if their favorite food was cheeseburgers now they have to eat blood… the zombie loses the self, loses narrative, everything that came before. It’s an existential crisis every time. Because we get this faceless, nameless figure, either an individual or in a horde, it can really reflect the anxieties and fears of a culture.”
“The Zombies Are Coming 2: Return of the Festival” will be hosted in the Madison Theater in Albany from October 26 – 29.