HOUGHTON - Since the movie "Night of the Living Dead" came out in 1968, zombies have played a large role in pop culture.
That role was examined recently by a group of students, faculty, staff and community members that gathered at Michigan Tech University's Zombie U.
"Some of you might be wondering, why zombies? Why not?" said Syd Johnson, assistant professor of philosophy at Tech.
John Dahl of the University of Minnesota-Duluth discusses diseases that can result in zombie-like symptoms during Zombie U, a symposium at Michigan Tech University Friday evening. (Houghton Daily Mining Gazette photo by Meagan Stilp)
Four speakers led discussions during the symposium. Each speaker focused on different aspects of the zombie tradition, covering topics such as why we like zombies to the ethics of zombie killing.
"Zombies provoke in us real fears about the real world we live in," Johnson said. "We have fears about other people or people who are ... who are different, we fear our own human nature which appears to be violent, we fear disease and war and, of course, we fear death."
Adam Feltz of the MTU Department of Cognitive and Learning Sciences provided an analysis of why we are so fascinated with zombies. To answer that question, Feltz looked to existing theories first.
Those theories include the Stephen King theory, which poses the idea that our fascination with zombies reflects modern consumerism, and the war and atrocity theory, in which we like zombies more during times of hardship. Feltz dismissed those theories by simply tracking zombie movies made during those times and finding either no relationship or an inverse relationship with those trends.
He then surveyed more than 150 people and try to find common indicators that would predict who would like zombies. He found that people who like zombies are more likely to be male, to be young, to be less educated and to be liberal. But, of course, many people outside of those parameters also enjoy zombies.
"Why do we like zombies? It's complicated because there is no 'we.' There are some people who like zombies and some people who don't like zombies," Feltz said.
Following Feltz was Kette Thomas, assistant professor of diverse literature at Tech. Thomas explored the origins of the zombie in American culture that stems from the Haitian zombie tradition, even though the two ideas of a zombie have little in common.
There is less emphasis in the Vodou idea of zombies, she said, of the figure being dead and more of a focus on returning to a natural state - for the zombie, that means death.
John Dahl of the University of Minnesota-Duluth explored diseases that exist today that have a zombie-like effect on victims.
"Because they are not undead, we can only focus on the living characteristics to describe them," he said. "Some of those are shuffling gate, loss of mobility, loss of memory, decreased ability to speak, they can communicate limited to moans and groans, they seem to have a taste for human brains - or at least the willingness to bite people. There are infectious diseases that will mimic some of these symptoms, if not all of them."