Zom(bie) Con: Feed Your Brrraaiins at Drexel’s Symposium on the Undead

Drexel's day-long Zom(bie) Con symposium is free and open to the public.
The day-long Zom(bie) Con conference at Drexel is free and open to the public.

From the wildly popular TV show “The Walking Dead” to movies like “World War Z,” zombies have become a full-fledged pop culture phenomenon. But they can also serve as a gateway for discussions about some challenging issues.

“Zombies can help us deal with some difficult topics,” said Kevin Egan, PhD, director for the Center of Interdisciplinary Inquiry in Drexel University’s Pennoni Honors College.

“For example, if you look at film director George Romero's use of zombies in the 1968 film ‘Night of the Living Dead’ as a proxy for race relations at the time, you can see that not only are zombies really interesting and scary, but they can also represent some critically important problems that society is contending with.”

Zom(bie) Con: Feed Your Brains, a day-long symposium at Drexel on Thursday, May 14 from 10 a.m. – 4 p.m., will offer a multiplicity of perspectives on the figure of the zombie. Guest speakers will discuss the zombie in relation to film and videogames, Jewish studies, history, literature and the health sciences, among other fields. It is free and open to the public, but registration is required here. For more information about the conference, click here. The event will be held in the Sky View Room on the 6th floor of Drexel's MacAlister Hall (32nd and Chestnut Streets).

“The zombie is incredibly pervasive in society right now, and it draws together a wide range of fields and disciplines – from literature and cultural studies, to film and art, to public health and epidemiology,” said Egan.

“We thought it would be cool to bring together experts and practitioners from these diverse fields for one day to discuss how and why the zombie has become so prevalent. Why did the CDC use a hypothetical zombie outbreak to draw attention to disaster preparedness? How has the zombie been represented in film, and what insights into our cultural anxieties might that represent? Where does the zombie appear in and across literature? These are the types of questions we really want to engage.”

Conference Timeline:

10 – 11:30 a.m.:  The Zombie in Literature and Culture

  • Simchi Cohen, PhD, comparative literature expert, Drexel University Great Works Symposium Visiting Fellow
  • Norberto Gomez, Jr., PhD, media art and text expert, author of “The Book of Cannibals or How to Consume”
  • Barry Vacker, PhD, communications expert, associate professor of media studies and production, Temple University

11:45 a.m. – 1:15 pm.: The Zombie in Film

  • Dave Parker, editor and director, known for “The Dead Hate the Living!” (2000), “Masters of Horror” (2002) and “The Hills Run Red” (2009)
  • Jace Anderson, writer, known for “Toolbox Murders” (2004), “Night of the Demons” (2009) and “Fractured" (2013)
  • Adam Gierasch, writer and director, known for "Autopsy" (2008), “Night of the Demons” (2009) and “Fractured" (2013)
  • Panel moderated by Jared Rivet, writer and actor, known for “The Crystal Lake Massacres Revisited" (2009), "Hell Froze Over" (2009) and "Earbud Theater" (2015)

2:30 – 4 p.m.: Zombies, Epidemics and Public Health Initiatives

  • Deanna Day, PhD, history and sociology of science expert, author of “Toward a Zombie Epistomology: What it Means to Live and Die in Cabin in the Woods” and “How to Tell if You’re Dead: The 19th Century Doctor Who Wanted to Create a ‘Death Thermometer'”
  • Jonathan Purtle, DrPH, sociology expert, assistant professor at the Department of Health Management and Policy, Drexel University

The event is part of the Pennoni Honors College’s Great Works Symposium, an interdisciplinary, research and writing-intensive course series centered around a common theme each academic year. The idea behind the symposium is to give students an opportunity to think about how their chosen field fits into an interdisciplinary topic and to interact with people they might not see too often during their normal course of study.

The courses are team-taught by several instructors from different subject areas, and are open to all students regardless of their major.

This year, the course series examined the theme of the ‘supernatural,’ drawing on the literature (including films, ghost tours and exhibits) and experts from disciplines as diverse as psychology, history, history of science, literary criticism, metaphysical and religious studies, popular culture, anthropology and others, to study supernatural phenomena.   

“The supernatural appeals to people because it deals with our fascination with the unknown,” said Egan.

Kevin Egan, PhD, director for the Center of Interdisciplinary Inquiry in Drexel University’s Pennoni Honors College, oversees the Great Works Symposium.

“If you look at mythology for example, tales from classical Greek mythology up to modern day superhero comics are filled with supernatural events and beings, and I think this speaks to our universal attempts to grapple with the unknown in ways that are accessible and meaningful.”

Each year, the Great Works Symposium selects a visiting fellow, a scholar who is brought to Drexel for a one-year appointment with a focus on teaching and conducting research within the symposium.

This year’s fellow, Simchi Cohen, PhD, earned her doctorate in comparative literature from the University of California, Los Angeles. Her work stands at the intersection of film studies, 20th century Jewish American literature, Yiddish literature and contemporary American popular culture, and is particularly invested in images of the monstrous, the uncanny and the living dead.

Simchi Cohen, PhD, is this year's Great Works Symposium Visiting Fellow.

Her research considers the influence Jewish history and culture have had on the production of American popular horror culture, and the way in which the zombie functions as the thread that pulls Jewish literature and American popular culture together.

“The zombie is a particular kind of monster – one that straddles borders: borders between living and dead, borders between human and inhuman, borders between belonging and un-belonging,” said Cohen.

“And so it's really the perfect vehicle through which to generate an interdisciplinary dialogue, a dialogue that starts precisely at the space between disciplines.”

As part of the conference, the College is hosting “The Writing Dead: Creative Writing Contest.” Aspiring writers are invited to submit their best zombie-themed short stories and poems. All entries must be submitted digitally to Ana Castillo-Nye at ana.nye@drexel.edu by midnight on Friday, May 1. Students can submit entries in either or both categories: one fiction entry that is no longer than 5000 words or roughly 20 pages and/or one to five poems total. Drawings, photographs and artwork will not be accepted. All entries must be the work of a single student and each work must be the original work of the student authors.

Winners will be announced during Zom(bie) Con on May 14. One winner from each category will be chosen by a selection committee consisting of Drexel staff and faculty. Winners will each receive a prize to be announced later. Winning entries will also be featured with appropriate credits on the Center for Interdisciplinary Inquiry’s Great Works Symposium website.