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Zombies and the Professor Who Teaches Them

(Last Updated On: June 28, 2017)

At Guilford College, the walking dead have been feasting on students who don’t cooperate to defend themselves. This is not a game or a Halloween zombie walk, the blood-splattered mayhem is a serious academic exercise requiring problem-solving, critical thinking and trust. Professor Heather Richardson Hayton, Ph. D. of English and director of the Guilford Honors Program, created the experiment, which is the basis of her chapter in the book Monsters in the Classroom: Essays on Teaching What Scares Us, co-edited by herself, Adam Golub and published last April by McFarland Press.

Heather Richardson Hayton poses with Zombie Hunting License, given to her by her students

Heather Richardson Hayton poses with Zombie Hunting License, given to her by her students

Hayton is nothing like the straw-person, pop culture scholar mocked by bubbasphere pundits who no more understand academia than they do Shakespeare. Her infectious enthusiasm for not only zombies but all manifestations of the monstrous comes from a passion for rigorous intellectual inquiry.

“Monsters are important symbols of cultural anxieties and fears,” she said, “and Monsters in the Classroom is a serious book. I personally am committed to reminding politicians and parents that the liberal arts, and studying the humanities, matter. So I don’t want anyone to think my classes, however silly the topic may seem, aren’t significant inquiries into the types of questions that have challenged thinkers for thousands of years: what does it mean to be human, to live in a community, to be an individual, to make stories/fictions/lies so we can tell truths that cannot be named otherwise.”

The most recent zombie exercise at Guilford was last fall with a group of first-year Honors Program students in a course entitled, “Surviving the Zombie Apocalypse.” Hayton said for the simulation, several Guilford College alumni came back to be zombies, “continuing a lovely tradition.”

The zombies attacked at 10 p.m. Their intended freshman victims were forced to take sanctuary in a safe house (in a classroom on the second floor of King Hall) and plan their survival strategy.

“They were told there would be several ‘tests’ sprung on them throughout the night and they would be graded on their teamwork, problem-solving skills, and whether they survived until morning without getting a bloody handprint from a zombie,” Hayton said. “I acted as game master and moved back and forth between the students and the alumni-zombies, along with an off-duty public safety officer [John Matthews], and an Office of Student Life colleague [Steve Moran].

Hayton said the blood used was a sticky mixture of chocolate syrup and food dye that “took forever to clean up after it was all over.”

If one of the first-year students was tagged with the “blood,” Hayton said, they lost all the points in the assignment, which was an incentive to keep them invested in the game and take it seriously.

From left: Ian Weisenberg, Heather Richardson Hayton, public safety officer John Matthews and Suzanne Farmer in the fall 2016 simulation

From left: Ian Weisenberg, Heather Richardson Hayton, public safety officer John Matthews and Suzanne Farmer in the fall 2016 simulation

Hayton said she did not need to worry about the students, unlike her earlier experiment described in the book, in which some sacrificed others to escape the undead. “These Honors students were over-achievers,” Hayton said. “I was quite surprised to find them immediately working together to draw a schematic of the building and surrounding area on the whiteboard, breaking into smaller teams, and turning off the lights and keeping voices low so as not to attract the zombies.”

Hayton said at midnight, an alumnus reprised his role as pizza-delivery-guy and was “attacked” by the zombies in a test for the students: they had to liberate the hot pizzas for their hungry group by figuring out how to work together to distract enough zombies below, get the pizzas and get back to the safe house.

Inevitably, the students were trapped and stared death in the bloody teeth-gnashing face.

“We then did some processing, zombies and students together, as part of the final moments of the simulation, with hot donuts and coffee, and shared what worked and didn’t in each group,” Hayton said.

She said they found that both the zombies and students had problems pulling back from the simulation when adrenaline was involved.

“We continued the reflections over the next week as we watched Romero’s classic Night of the Living Dead, and talked about the limits of community,” Hayton said. “We noted how endorphins and stress strain the ethics we’ve chosen to live by and how important inclusive communication is. We returned later in the semester to the lessons learned that night as we talked about real-world conflicts within and beyond our own community.”

Guilford alumnus Michael Costolo plays as a zombie in the fall 2016 simulation.

Guilford alumnus Michael Costolo plays as a zombie in the fall 2016 simulation.

For Hayton and her students, zombies became real that night and the class had more appreciation for the power of a monster story.

“We learned that like most other monster narratives, the really interesting part is what the humans do to survive,” Hayton said. “What they lose individually and what they gain together.”

It may sound fun, but this kind of teaching is incredibly difficult. Hayton said she worked for months beforehand through all of the details, possible scenarios, potential snafus and etc.

“I had to have trust that whatever happened that night we would be prepared to handle and to use as a teaching moment for the rest of the semester,” Hayton said. “Students also had to trust one another and me–so we were all challenged [as a learning community] by the simulation.”

Hayton said the book Monsters in the Classroom came out of discussions Golub and she had about the cultural power of monsters and monster stories, as well as their sharing of teaching strategies as colleagues. She said they traveled with one of the other contributors for the book to Lisbon, Portugal to present their research at a conference on monster studies, and that had really solidified a lot of their thinking to begin the project.

“We knew we wanted to focus on teaching monsters,” Hayton said. “On how monsters let us engage with important cultural, philosophical, political, religious, literary, rhetorical insights in a way that is enduring, yet timely.”

In email, Golub wrote nothing but praise for Hayton, saying that it was a thrill to work with her and that she is a “terrific teacher, a sharp editor and an accomplished scholar.”

“With my history background and her literature background,” he wrote. “We worked together to create an interdisciplinary collection of essays that would be useful for teachers but also accessible to anyone who is interested in reading about the meaning of monsters in our society.”

Charleston College professor W. Scott Poole, author of Monsters in America: Our Historical Obsession with the Hideous and the Haunting, wrote in an email that he was similarly effusive about Monsters in the Classroom, for which he says he felt honored to write the introduction.

The cover of "Monsters in the Classroom," co-edited by Hayton

The cover of “Monsters in the Classroom,” co-edited by Hayton

“Over the past decade, a fairly large number of college courses have sprung up premised on the importance of monster tales and horror fictions in American popular culture,” he wrote. “Heather, and her partner on the project Adam Golub, recognized that the popularity of such courses too often have a ‘Gee whiz, aren’t vampires and zombies cool’ quality to them. Monsters in the Classroom will help scholars ground such courses in traditional disciplines while suggesting new methods of student learning provided by our cultural love affair with the monster.”

Hayton describes her own background as that of a first-generation college student who originally intended to become a lawyer. California-born, she started her university education in the University of Southern California Honors Program before transferring to University of California Davis. Hayton’s dissertation was on how medieval authors used love language, and the discourses of desire, to talk about political subjectivity. In her reading she said, “talking about the capricious actions of a haughty beloved was a way to talk about what it felt like to serve a selfish political ruler.”

“Then I went to Pennsylvania State University for my Ph. D. in comparative literature,” Hayton said. “I am a medievalist by training, so I had plenty of monster stories ranging from the great epics to Dante’s Inferno, to Beowulf, to Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur. In fact, I used to read a lot of them to my small children as bedtime stories. Not sure how smart that was, but both loved hearing and reading those monster stories.”

Having read heavily in Arthurian romances as background for my first novel, I’d like to talk medieval lit with Hayton, but suspect my readers want us to get back to zombies. She makes me reconsider the thesis of an article in progress, when I say the American zombie has gone from a metaphor for slavery and capitalism to a guilt-free headshot target in a pop culture shooting gallery.

“I’m going to disagree, slightly,” she said. “While I do agree that the zombie as a monster is an ethical intervention into first-person shooter games (would you kill your mother if she were a zombie? your girlfriend? your cat?), I think zombies are something more than that.”

Hayton said that in Romero’s “ghouls” (in the original Night of the Living Dead, the “z-word” is never used) were “certainly multivalent symbols of some of the chaos of the late 1960s and later became symbols of mass consumption, capitalism and racial tensions.”

Hayton said some of the most interesting zombie narratives in the last decade have dealt with economic tensions and anxieties over resources as humans live longer or have biomedical promises of longevity for some.

“For example, there is a fantastic indie mockumentary called American Zombie that deals with worker’s rights, exploitation of undocumented persons, and hipster culture all within a zombie narrative,” she said. “Zombie in a Penguin Suit is a short movie that is deeply troubling look at American suburbia using zombies as a lens. Max Brooks’ novel World War Z can also be read as a fantastic political and philosophical examination of the failure of our military industrial complex and our political mindset when challenged by a monster that cannot be extinguished without radically changing everything about our society and letting go of the ‘American dream.’”

Hayton said that for her, zombies are still “a symbol of enslavement to a false but destructive ideal, of unfair labor practices, of capitalist greed and economic disparity.”

She points out that even the most recent T.V. zombies, in shows such as, iZombie and Santa Clarita Diet, take on similar cultural issues. Hayton said iZombie is an elaborate metaphor for depression, self-loathing, body dysmorphia and social pressures on millennials who feel trapped. She said Santa Clarita Diet does the same thing with suburban moms.

“But both shows are about women finding their own voice and letting go of cultural indoctrination over who they should become,” Hayton said. “How they should look, what it means to perform in society and the cost of ‘normal.’”

Furthermore, she points out that, even in first-person shooter games, the walking dead can be more than guilt-free targets.

“I once pitched a video game that would populate the game with zombies who had faces from your personal Facebook or social mediascape,” Hayton said. “You’d turn a corner and suddenly have to shoot your way through a zombie horde that included your brother, your neighbor, your best friend from high school, or your grandmother. I think it would be way too dark to play for very long!”

As for Hayton’s favorite monster, she said she is really into Medusa at the moment.

“I love the monster who refuses to hide and whose very stare can destroy men,” Hayton said. “I think she’s a great monster/hero for our own cultural moment because she resists and turns an objectifying gaze back on those who try to consume her.”