“The Zombies Are Coming!” An Interview with Kelly J. Baker on the Zombie Apocalypse

By Philip L. Tite, Religion Bulletin

Kelly Baker Zombies are comingRecently, our colleague here at the Bulletin, Kelly Baker, published a short ebook entitled, The Zombies Are Coming! The Realities of the Zombie Apocalypse in American Culture (Bondfire Books, 2013). In this readable and engaging book, we are thrown into the eclectic realm of zombies in American culture(s). Rather than seeing zombies as a fad or an entertaining escape from reality, Baker draws up into the web of imagination where zombies become sites of political, social, and ideological contestation. Yet the book is directed at a general audience. In reading through this book, I thought that it would be good to introduce readers of the Bulletin’s blog to this work and, more importantly, the implications of a scholar sharing her research through such a work.

Kelly was kind enough to agree to an interview on her book. To begin, let me share the book’s description:

Zombie Runs. Zombie Guns. Zombie Preparation Classes. Look anywhere in America these days, and you’re sure to find the living dead. We have TV shows, comics, novels, and films all enthralled to the vision of a world post-zombie apocalypse.

But what’s the line between fantasy and real life? Horror fiction and real danger? In today’s zombie culture, that line is blurrier than ever. In this engaging, head-spinning ebook, zombie expert Kelly J. Baker shows us how our fascination with zombies has bled into far-reaching corners of American culture, including apocalypse preppers, gun shows, and even the federal government.

How do we know the zombies are coming? Because they’re already here.

PHILIP TITE: Can you tell us something about your target audience? This work seems to reach out to the non-academic. Does this tell us something about your view on the function of scholarship?

KELLY BAKER: I’ve always wanted to write something that my family would be interested in reading. My sisters and mom attempted to read my Klan book, but they didn’t finish it. The academic monograph does not captivate a larger audience, which is fine because it is not really supposed to. The ebook, then, is my attempt to reach beyond academic audiences to a larger general readership. The Zombies Are Coming! Is my attempt to engage not only my family, but also anybody else who is interested in zombies and the apocalypse. I am bringing my research in a different form to different conversation partners, which I find very exciting. Currently, my aunt and uncle are reading it, and my youngest sister read and liked it. For me, the ebook becomes a vehicle to move my scholarship beyond the limits of the academy into the fabled public square.

More and more, I think that we, academics, do ourselves a grave disservice by limiting our scholarship to our peers. I constantly ask myself what my scholarship should accomplish and interrogate the why of what I do. Yes, I want to continue conversations about my research topics with other experts, but I consider this only part of what scholars should do. We should also be able to take what we know, research, and write into more public venues and communicate what we do clearly and coherently. We need to explain what is at stake in our research to the general public. Otherwise, we allow pundits to control public discourse. Converting the complexity of what we study might seem like an insurmountable challenge, but it isn’t. If you can’t translate your project into something more easily accessible to a broader audience, then something has gone wrong. We deal in complexity, but that doesn’t mean we get to hide behind it.

PT: Do you think that other religious studies scholars will benefit from this book? What do you hope they will take away from this book?

KB: Yes, I hope that other religious studies scholars will benefit from this book, especially the discussion of apocalypticism’s central role in American culture and the importance of zombies in popular culture and public life. There’s a tendency in both media and scholarly accounts to represent apocalypticism as fringe and/or marginal. The coverage of apocalypticism tends to represent practitioners as “crazy” while also underplaying how many Americans participate in doomsday belief and practice. Crucially, this ignores the power of apocalypticism as a rhetoric tool and mode of interpretation for many Americans. Moreover, what does it mean that a religious system, apocalypticism, appears so readily in popular culture? Why does apocalypticism work so well in film, television, music, fiction, and now social media? What can attention to the prominence of doomsday tell us about the current moment and past moments in American history? What happens when we turn our analysis to apocalypticism’s popularity in American culture? What do we learn?

Zombies, then, emerge as only one particular example of pop apocalypticism with dark visions of humanity’s future. More and more, religious studies scholars study the relationship of religions to their various monsters, particularly Timothy Beal, W. Scott Poole, John Morehead, and Kim Paffenroth, as well as the importance of horror to religious systems with Edward Ingebretsen’s At Stake and Jason Bivins’ The Religion of Fear as the best examples. My work on zombies, then, carries forward the conversations on religion, horror, and monstrosity. We can learn much from what we fear.

PT: You also chose to publish your book through a very different venue than normal book publishing. Can you comment on that choice, why you think it is an advantage for this particular book?

KB: This project is not a traditional print monograph (though I am under contract for a cultural history of zombies). Rather, The Zombies Are Coming! is an ebook only, so this format was really an experiment for me. I wanted to see how writing and publishing of an ebook differed from my previous experiences with the monograph and how this electronic format might prove beneficial to publicizing my scholarship. When Bondfire Books approached me about an extended article (around 50 pages) about the zombie apocalypse, I jumped at the opportunity to write something more akin to cultural criticism based on my research for a general audience.

Part of the reason I found the ebook appealing was the quick turnaround. Since I was writing about events from the past couple of years, the ebook format allowed me to present my work much more rapidly than a traditional monograph. Importantly, this allowed me to think and write about zombies in a shorter form that is easier to market to a broader audience. Additionally, I appreciated the ability to experiment with my writing for different readers. For example, my fabulous editor, Patton Dodd, urged me to think very carefully about not only my style of writing but also my voice. Rather than the disembodied voice that characterizes much of academic writing, my voice is much more collegial and personal (and, I hope, engaging). I am visible in the ebook in a way that I am not in Gospel According to the Klan. There is certain vulnerability in including yourself as a part of the narrative, which might appear subjective and out of place in the monograph (though this style appears more readily in ethnography). I find this empowering and useful, and now, my academic work more often reflects my preferred voice.

PT: Are “zombies” a subject for religious studies research? It falls outside the norm of what we study. Have there been any reactions so far to the data you study?

KB: Ah, the “how is this religion?” question rears its ugly head. (Well, maybe, not ugly, but annoying, persistent, typical, or familiar head) I will admit that zombies do fall outside the “norm” of what religious studies scholars expect “religion” to be. But, I wouldn’t be happy unless I was pressing the boundaries of what religious studies can and can’t do. My research, for better or worse, challenges assumptions about what is/isn’t religion. My first book examined the 1920s Klan to demonstrate the centrality of Protestantism to white supremacy, and many scholars interrogated whether the Klan could be “religious.” If the Klan is hard to imagine as religious, then zombies are beyond the pale. Much of the reaction about the Klan and zombies comes from assumptions about what is properly religion, and I’ve already had my say about this in my piece on evidence for the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. Why are some scholars so avidly policing “religion”? What does this tell us about how “religion” is defined and deployed?

Frankly, I think that it shows that some still buy into a tired “I know religion when I see it” that fits neatly with a world religions paradigm, an emphasis on theology and institutions, or the common Protestantized definition of religion as belief. The living dead seem to not fit well with theses characterizations. Resurrected corpses, in this instance, become a problem. When I use zombies as data, it causes discomfort because it suggests that maybe religion is not as familiar or as easily identifiable as we think it is. Maybe, we would have to admit that J.Z. Smith is right about religion being constructed by scholars in every use. Maybe, we would have to note that our interlocutors also construct religion in every utterance of the word.

PT: I noticed that the book is a bit light on the theorization side of the analysis, which I’m assuming is a deliberate choice given the target audience. Yet, a recurring theme that hit me was that “zombies” are not divorced from broader political, social, and economic debates. Could you comment a bit on this point?

KB: Side swiping my readers with theory would not have been the best choice. They probably don’t care if I find Avery Gordon, Edward Ingebretsen, Julia Kristeva, or Kathleen Stewart remarkably helpful to my research on zombies. These scholars undergird my approach to monsters, but the ebook was more documentary and less theoretical. Of course, zombies are enmeshed in political, social, and economic debates because the rhetoric of the zombie appears in all these arenas. Zombie voters, Obama zombies, Tea Party zombies, zombie banks, zombie cell phone users, zombie consumers, and students as zombies are only some of the ways the undead appear in national and personal debates. Zombies are excellent signifiers; they can represent almost anything. Thus, they become the vehicles to describe anything that one wants to claim is mindless and destructive.

PT: Why is there such a fascination with zombies these days? Is this just a fad that will fade away or is this fascination something deeper?

KB: Why wouldn’t you be fascinated by the living dead? They shamble, ooze, moan, and fall apart. Isn’t that what we all aspire to? Likely not. There is much speculation about why Americans are fascinated by zombies that often hinges on escapism. I find escapism to be a wholly unsatisfying answer because it feels too easy and dismissive. It is clear that zombies work well as a metaphor for the early twenty-first century. There is a complicated answer as to why that I don’t fully understand yet, so I want to avoid the temptation to pin the zombie’s popularity on a possible answer. Postmodernity, global war, neoliberalism, racism, misogyny, secularism, supernaturalism, and gun violence all tie into the zombie’s pervasiveness, but the why still remains elusive.

Zombies could be a fad, but their duration from the 1930s until today suggests that maybe the zombie will outlast other monsters. They are the living dead, after all. They resurrect in different forms in different times and places from “voodoo” zombies to cannibalistic monsters to fast infected humans to introspective corpses. It makes me wonder if all that binds zombies together is the label affixed to them.

PT: Finally, are you a zombie?

KB: No comment.

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