Zombies ate my homework

A new course at Dal brings the undead into academics

The poster for Dal’s zombie class is proudly displayed on Prof Vincent Masse’s door. Photo: Jessica Flower

The end is nigh, folks. Zombies have officially invaded Dalhousie.

The End of the World – From ‘Apocalypse’ to ‘Zombies’, is a new course available this term, but as the name suggests, it’s not your average university class.

Vincent Masse, an assistant professor in Dalhousie’s French department, is bringing the walking dead to the classroom.

His new survey course examines zombie and apocalyptic tropes from 20th-century BC religious writings all the way up to 21st-century films, most of which were originally written in French.

While most think of zombies as a modern cinematic invention, undead narratives are an age-old archetype. The most recent class featured a guest lecture on ancient Hindu cycles of creation and destruction. Students study various books from the New Testament, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne and Pierre Boulle’s groundbreaking Planet of the Apes (La Planète des singes,) as well as the ensuing 1968 film. The reason for the French focus is simply due to the immense amount of creative end-of-the-world narratives written in the language throughout the ages.

Masse, a specialist in medieval literature, is the master brain behind the course and hopes to explore the origins of modern zombie and apocalyptic clichés, beyond the screen.

The course is unique beyond its subject matter. It isn’t cross-listed with any department, not even French, so it operates as an elective credit. This means most students taking the class are doing it out of pure interest, said Masse.

The class is taught in English as part of the department’s efforts to make French culture more accessible to the general student population. Masse was pleased to see that more than half of the registered students were from unrelated faculties, demonstrating the course’s wide appeal.

Masse developed the class two years ago as a way to blend his research interests in end-of-the-world narratives and a common interest among students. There’s no doubt that the undead and various apocalyptic themes are popular with, well, most of the general population.

“One student has a huge interest in the genre and had already read all of the assigned texts (before enrolling in the class), but is taking the course anyways to read them in the original language,” said Masse.

The inspiration for such a course came partly from the vampire and modernity course taught at the University of King’s College, said Masse, which is scheduled at the same time on Wednesday nights.

Masse promised the conflict was a fluke. “I did not realize it at the time. … It was not intentional competition.”

Masse himself has seen most of the zombie movies produced, so he hopes to tap into popular culture using historical and analytical perspectives.

Kevin Hatheway, a third-year finance student in commerce, registered for the course out of pure interest.

“Zombies are my favourite genre. I’ve always loved them. Walking Dead is my favourite show — (zombies) are just really interesting,” he said.

While the course topic originally attracted him, Hatheway said the diverse readings have kept him engaged. “The different points of view from different religions and backgrounds (on the undead) are really interesting.”

Chantal Dube, on the other hand, a fifth-year psychology major, was just looking for an easy and interesting course to complete her degree requirements, but was pleasantly surprised.

“The readings are a bit more difficult because they’re older and translated, but once you get past that they’re more interesting than the readings from other classes,” Dube explained.

If this year goes well, Masse would like to continue the course and expand it to include the full text of Les Tragiques by Agrippa d’Aubigné, once the full translation becomes available next year.

And if the subject isn’t tempting enough for some, the last week of classes are set aside specifically for watching zombie and apocalyptic movies as “a kind of treat,” said Masse.

It’s strictly BYOB though — Bring Your Own Brains.