Stories of monstrous creatures have existed for thousands of years, with the inspiration for these tales of terror coming from a number of sources. While some of these stories might be rooted in physical artifacts being misidentified and others being created as cautionary tales, even the most unbelievable of myth could come with some sort of reality. With the series Monstrum, host and researcher Dr. Emily Zarka dives deep into all manner of monster to share with audiences what birthed the most popular of myths, shedding new insight into the famed beasts, ranging from the most mundane explanations to otherworldly beginnings. In honor of Halloween, Zarka also developed the PBS special Exhumed: The History of Zombies, which you can watch on your local PBS station or the PBS Video App on Friday, October 30th at 10 p.m. ET.
The special is described, "There are few monsters more recognizable or popular than the zombie. The reanimated corpse has been a staple of folklore, film, literature, and popular culture for nearly 200 years. In this new one-hour special, Dr. Emily Zarka, who studies literature and film through the lens of monsters and is the host/writer of PBSs popular Monstrum digital series, will deconstruct some of the most significant moments in zombie popular culture over the last two centuries to reveal what these creatures say about us."
ComicBook.com recently caught up with Zarka to talk about her interest in monsters, the dark root of many myths, and what makes zombies so fascinating.
ComicBook.com: You've manage to use not only your personal interest in the macabre, but also your educational pursuits to become a doctor of gothic studies, and now use those skills to host a series that combines many of your passions. Looking back, when was it that you identified these interests and how did you manage to blend your passions into the career you have today?
Dr. Emily Zarka: The first thing I can say is that this has all been a completely strange, serendipitous surprise in so many ways. Growing up, I always loved all things macabre, which you would never have guessed by looking at me, I looked like a very stereotypical girly girl, but I was always a big reader. And more than that, my mom introduced me to horror and science fiction at a super young age. I just grew up surrounded in an environment where talking about scary, spooky things wasn't that strange. And my dad's a pathologist, so part of his job is to do autopsies. So, again, I think those two elements of my mom as a horror and science fiction fan and my dad as a pathologist, it was never weird to talk about things other people would maybe consider gross or not proper dinner-table conversation, but growing up, I still felt like liking horror was something I had to hide. Which is so strange to me, looking back now, but I'd be reading Stephen King far too young and hiding that, like doing it in the car, not at school, and not verbally saying how much I really loved all this spooky stuff.
Fast-forward to college and my undergraduate career, my initial degree was in journalism, but since I love to read so much, I was taking all these literature courses, that my advisor recommended, "Why don't you just pick up a second degree while you're at it?" In that first semester, I also decided to double major and get a degree in English literature. I happened to take two classes by two wonderful professors, one about the history of Georgian England and then one about topics in popular culture, zombies. And it was really those two classes and those two wonderful professors that made me realize that I can write about horror, potentially for a living.
I applied to grad school looking to specialize in British Gothic and I actually wrote my honors thesis and undergraduate about the undead in the romantic period and that became the inspiration for my doctoral thesis. So, yes, I wrote my dissertation about the undead, pre-1850 basically. I kind of just got "bold," is the best way to say it, as it became very clear to me throughout my PhD career that I didn't necessarily want to have a tenure-track job. That wasn't what I was trying to do.
I think education should be accessible and out there for as many people as humanly possible, so I started positioning myself as a public scholar, meaning that I would go to comic-cons and speak at art galleries and do interviews and just try to really get education and knowledge out there and the fun way that I found was monsters. I like to say that monster history is human history and I think that, by framing all my research and my career around monsters, it allows me to introduce people to some pretty serious and heavy topics throughout history, through this lens of something that's a little spooky, a little fun. I hook people in with the monster and then I teach them a little something along the way.
And what's so evident, not only from speaking to you, but also from watching Monstrum, is that you appreciate this opportunity to share this love you have with others and how you're almost as shocked by your career as anyone else who is inspired by your pursuits.
It's absolutely insane. I've never thought that I would be doing what I'm doing right now. And I think I've just got lucky, but I'm also really stubborn. I basically cold-pitched PBS digital studios in 2018. They gave me 15 minutes to pitch the show and I know that part of my pitch was, I want to do for monsters what Anthony Bordain did for food. Show these connections that we have throughout communities and types of people that you might not think you can identify with, but how fear is universal. Luckily they latched onto that idea and it's been an absolutely crazy ride. We went from what was supposed to be six episodes on Facebook only to now Season Two of this amazing show and YouTube. I'm just so fortunate to have the fans that I do and just people watching, I can't believe I get to share my nerd knowledge with millions of people. I'm just so grateful for that, absolutely.
When it came to that initial pitch and desire to develop this series, what was the main monster that you wanted to cover that you knew, no matter what else you accomplished, you had to get this one concept across to audiences?
Honestly the whole impetus for the show was the undead. I'm absolutely obsessed with reanimated corpses of any kind. I always have been, whether that's zombies or vampires or mummies or what have you, I love a good reanimated corpse. The research that I was doing for my dissertation, which I'm hoping to now turn into a book, I just realized that that idea of the reanimated body is inherently tied to resistance and uprising of ideas in addition to corpses. That made me spiral into this approach of looking at human history as monster history.
The initial episodes, we stuck with more classic monsters, stuff like dragons and Dracula, like post-Dracula vampires. But as the show developed, it was really important to me and it still is, is one of the driving mission statements of Monstrum, as I like to say, is that we're not just doing white people monsters, there's been enough coverage. Don't get me wrong, I still love monsters of all kinds, but I think it's so important to talk about monsters in different communities besides European monsters or white, North American monsters. I really try to get a global perspective, again, because fear is universal, and I think that we can learn so much about each individual culture and point in history by the monsters that those people create.
With zombies, for example, you can see how their evolution in films often represents the fears and anxieties of the culture at the time. Speaking more broadly to all sorts of monsters, how much xenophobia, racism, or sexism do you discover to be the root of these monsters? Obviously witches are a go-to example of sexism that gets brought up, but are more myths rooted in such hatred of others?
Well, it's funny, you mentioned that in terms of zombies, because I will actually be tackling the history of the zombie, which I believe is inherently rooted in racism, in an hour-long broadcast on PBS called "Exhumed: The History of Zombies." It's going to air on October 30th, so it's perfect timing for Halloween.
To your general question, that special episode definitely talks about slavery and racism. I still don't think that we have entirely escaped from viewing the zombie as "other" in so many different ways. If that's race, if that's religion, if that's gender. To be quite frank, I see that in a lot of the monsters that I study and, as you alluded to with witches, a lot of it's usually female monsters, not exclusively, but a lot of the time when a female monster is created or that a creature is specifically gendered as a woman, there definitely seems to be ties of sexism and oppression for women in there.
And then, expanding outwards, I think the reason so many monsters are rooted in sexism and xenophobia and racism and all those different kinds of negative -isms is because monsters are outsiders. They're about that thing or that person that you can point to and say, "You're the bad guy." That makes the person pointing the finger feel better about themselves. I think that we can actually trace history through where that finger is pointing about what we're deeming as being deviant or other or outside the norm in whatever way and I think that's where monsters come in, because monsters aren't just things that go bump in the night, they're meant to teach us and to warn us. That's actually where the name of the show "Monstrum" comes from, is the original definition of monstrum is a portent or a warning. I think that that's so much more significant than just looking at a monster as something scary. We need to look at the things that we fear and learn about ourselves from what we fear.
When it comes to internal exploration, in all of your research for Monstrum, has there been one creature or one topic that has most surprised you? Something you went into expecting one thing, only to totally uncover something you hadn't anticipated?
Something I'm working on right now for one of the forthcoming episodes, is gargoyles, super random, started as an architecture feature and then became these living monsters, which I had no idea and I find hilarious. I think, honestly, every single episode I learned something new about the monsters. Part of that is not only for my research, but I have been so fortunate to talk to scholars and experts and librarians and museum curators and religious, spiritual leaders across the world. I always say that I couldn't do this show to the level that I'm doing it without the help of other people and so I think, honestly, being able to talk to people that I would never get to be able to talk to is one of the most rewarding things about the show.
I think, going back to your original question, one of the things that I had no idea about actually has to do with zombies and this is something that we are going to explore in Exhumed is I knew that racism clouds zombie, that the original zombie, Z-O-M-B-I, comes from slavery. And from, as you said, the voodoo religion, but what I was actually unaware of, and I learned this from talking to real vodou and voodoo spiritual leaders, is that the religion vodou, Haitian vodou is different from what you could call Louisiana voodoo. And that while both vodou and voodoo have the concept of the zombie, they're completely different. So that voodoo, V-O-O-D-O-O that you see in the movies, they don't think of zombies as reanimated corpses, that's something exclusive to Haitian vodou. Even just learning something like that, the fact that there's vodou and voodoo and that there's a difference between that, that's been something that I had no idea about. And, again, I'm just so fortunate to the people who were willing to talk to me, let alone talk to me on camera to help me learn these things.
You mention your own personal favorite stories, so I can't help but ask about one of my favorite and if there are any plans to explore doppelgngers? I've always been fascinated and disturbed by the concept so I'd love to see more about them, if you haven't already covered.
Absolutely. We haven't covered it yet, but it's definitely one of those ones that's pretty high on the top of the list. Same thing with other big hitters, like, werewolves we haven't done yet. The reason we haven't done some of those is that there's so many years of history, thousands of years of history that, I do all the research and writing for the show, so just trying to balance everything, I have to dedicate at least a solid month probably to researching doppelgngers or werewolves. So, yes, we will definitely be doing them in the future, but all monsters are fair game in my book.
When your whole year is spent diving into things like monsters and ghouls, when Halloween rolls around, do you get even more excited or is it just like every other month of the year?
Absolutely. I like to say that it's always spooky season, especially in my world. My house has skulls and other zombie heads and creepy things year-round, but in terms of Halloween, and again, I think it's just coming from how I grew up, I loved the fall. I actually spent a lot of my childhood years in Vermont, so I miss doing things like apple picking and playing in the leaves. But I think, particularly for Halloween, one of my favorite things to do is to bake a lot of Halloween stuff, but I also just start rewatching all of my favorite horror movies accumulating up to [always watching] Halloween on Halloween night, it's my tradition.
I've also started to do something over the last, I think two years, where, for the month of October, I actually tweet my 31 favorite horror comics that I read over the year, so people can follow along and maybe learn about some horror comics and some spooky reading material that they hadn't heard of yet. And, again, I read that stuff year-round, but I think I love October because I get to be even more enthusiastic about the everyday aspect of my life.
Other than Exhumed, are there other things you'd recommend fans keep an eye out for this month?
Exhumed: The History of Zombies is the broadcast special airing at 10 p.m. ET on October 30th, but also for the regular YouTube audience, we're doing a special three-part series on the normal Monstrum YouTube show on the Storied channel that is going to explore the different types of zombies that change history. That three-episode run started on October 14th. We are going to be looking at Haitian zombies, [George] Romero's zombies, and what I like to call the "pandemic" zombie or the 21st-century zombies. October is the month of zombies, as far as Monstrum is concerned. Other projects, we're still just gearing up for Season Three of Monstrum. We're actually, as some people probably are very excited, working on merchandise for the first time. Hopefully we'll have some fun ways that other horror fans can show their spooky side coming up in the next few months.
This might be a long shot, but since you love zombies so much, could you narrow it down to your favorite or top five favorite zombie movies that fans should watch this month if they haven't already?
Oh, my gosh. Okay, let me think about this. I feel like I should have known this question was coming. Top five, if I had to say, especially if you weren't familiar with zombies, Night of the Living Dead, a hundred percent, 28 Days Later, Pontypool, Train to Busan ... this might be a controversial one, but I actually prefer the remake of Dawn of the Dead. Sorry, Romero. But yeah, I just think it's campier and the introduction of the pandemic zombie, with the fast-moving type of zombie, is such a departure from the original Romero that I find that shift fascinating. Also, there's a zombie baby. I mean, you can't not watch a movie, if you like zombies, if it has a zombie baby. So if I had to choose, those would probably be my top five.
Those are some bold selections. I appreciate the unconventional approach of Pontypool and 28 Days Later, which, when you put out that you think those are the best zombie movies, you'll have someone say, "Well, technically they're not zombie movies," but I say, "Yes they are, shut up."
Yeah, that's something we actually talk about in Exhumed and the YouTube three-part zombie special, and I will die on the hill that is 28 Days Later and the rage-zombie are zombies. In my mind, the way I justify it, and I talk about this more in the show, is that inherently the zombie comes from a fear about losing control of oneself and being enslaved after death. And even if the rage zombie, like the type we see in Resident Evil, 28 Days Later, although the fast-moving ones where they're not technically dead, like their hearts may still be beating, they've lost control. They're no longer capable of acting like humans. And as someone who's studied the history of the zombie, I think that goes back to the original zombie, so I am fully confident to say that they are zombies.
Audiences were upset with how Land of the Dead broke the "rules" and showed zombies using weapons, but you go back to Night of the Living Dead, and they use tools.
I know. There's guns. They can talk.
Or you look at the "rules" of werewolves and how they come out every full moon, but when you look back at the original The Wolf Man, it specifies that the transformation happens when the "wolfsbane blooms and the autumn moon burns bright." Instead, pop culture latches on to just some of the conditions and some of those tropes and cements those as the standards while ignoring other parts.
Absolutely. And I think that's an issue that we have with classifying and naming things in general. I always, even when I'm teaching literature, I try to tell my students, "Hey, canon isn't this set list of things you have to read, it isn't really a thing. And genre isn't even really a thing." I think that one thing monsters do so well, because they are boundary-crossers, is monsters allow us to have these broader definitions. So I'm right there with you. I don't think there's necessarily specific criteria for every single monster, but I think that's why so many of them endure for so long, because without having some of those super-strict definitions, we're able to play with them and continue to evolve the creature based on what current society is afraid of at the time.
My degree is in anthropology so I'm familiar with cultures wanting to express their expertise or knowledge over any subject, or any species, just by attempting to define it and categorize it.
I think it goes back to, you probably understand as an anthropologist, that a lot of the time, it's usually colonizers and people in positions of power who were the ones putting these labels onto things in a way that's inherently problematic. But it's part of history, so I think it's good to recognize it and then talk about why maybe we should move away from it.
Watch Exhumed: The History of Zombies on your local PBS station or the PBS Video App on Friday, October 30th at 10 p.m. ET. You can check out Monstrum on YouTube and keep up with Dr. Zarka's projects through her Twitter and her official website.
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Reviewed and Recommended by Erik Baquero