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Not just make-believe: zombies are people, too

Hannah Predojev

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When one pictures a zombie, they may envision a corpse that walks around- excuse me, limps around- after the midnight hour exhibiting long groans of what seems like agony, saying “Brains, Brains, Gimme Brains!” This zombie, with putrid-smelling rotting skin, has blood dripping down their face, jagged teeth, and is dressed in torn clothing which protrudes in every direction and has an inevitable taste for human flesh.

Alongside the walking dead is a cluster of helpless teenagers who are hiding in a deserted supermarket or garage, desperate to stay alive. With no weapons to keep them company, the fear of greeting death makes them sweat with anticipation. Their breathing is shallow and their heart thumps loud, as if it will explode out of their chest at any moment.

Some may agree or disagree that there are both sweet, misunderstood zombies, like “R” in the 2013 romance film Warm Bodies, or the evil, soulless zombies like those in the 2009 science-fiction film Zombieland, but ultimately, much like witchcraft or voodoo, zombies have been a part of pop-culture for centuries.

Richard Gray II, the associate professor of French in the department of foreign languages, hosted a book reading for his translated work, Zombies: An Anthropological Investigation of the Living Dead (originally written by French forensic scientist and author Philippe Charlier) which took place Wednesday evening.

For two hours, individuals had the opportunity to listen to Gray read various excerpts from chapters in the book, as well as watch short film clips about zombies and Haitian culture, complete with a question and answer session at the end of the event.

The book, which Gray began working on in April 2016, collaborating with both Charlier and the University Press of Florida, uncovers the truth behind ancient Haitian voodoo and the myth of the zombie.

From a young age, Gray always had a fascination with zombies. Specifically, with movies such as George Romero’s 1968 film, Night of the Living Dead, and Benjamin Clark’s 1972 film, Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things. When he got older, he began to understand that the zombie itself has only been portrayed as a pop-culture phenomenon for decades, and that there is much more meaning behind the creature than one initially thought.

“As I moved forward in my education, I learned that the zombie represented on television and in the movies is not, in fact, the real zombie as it is known in Haiti,” Gray said. “This academic knowledge doesn’t necessarily shatter my enjoyment for zombie films, but it does put it into a proper cultural and historical perspective.”

Junior Brianna Sargent, who serves as the vice president of French Club since the fall of 2017, and the president of Phi Sigma Ioda since the fall of 2017, attended the event, introducing Laura Burch, the Associate Professor of French and Francophone Studies at the College of Wooster, who acted as a moderator during the question and answer session.

She says that while zombies movies in today’s society are “overplayed and not scary,” before the presentation went underway, she had never heard of a Haitian zombie, and was immediately captivated.

Sargent acknowledged the importance of an event like this.

“It would be interesting to see how we can use this to learn and adapt ourselves to be more open about other cultures, [and] other places,” Sargent said.

Junior Naomi Sims, who attended the event as part of her French class’ assignment, explained how she did not watch Zombieland growing up, or read Jane Austen’s romance novel from 1813, Pride and Prejudice, or anything zombie-driven. She says that she tends to stray away from the horror genre because she does not like being scared, although there was something about Gray’s presentation that ultimately caught her eye.

“This topic is pretty interesting, and the title is pretty attention-grabbing for people,” Sims said. “Anytime people say “zombies,” they show up in TV shows, and people think that [they] aren’t real.”

She considers herself an “adrenaline junkie,” and if given the opportunity to travel to Haiti to investigate zombie culture even further, would definitely consider it.

Sophomore Alex Gordy, who also attended the event as part of his French class’ assignment, noted that although he did not particularly enjoy watching the hit TV series The Walking Dead, he would be open to reading Gray’s book.

He was intrigued by the factual evidence and records of zombies.

“I was surprised at some of the stories; how someone had died and was seen years later– they had actual records of stuff,” Gordy said. “It was cool.”

During the question and answer portion of the event, individuals asked compelling questions surrounding what it was like for Gray to translate the book, if he had any prior knowledge about the undead before participating in this project, and if the media ultimately influenced his perception of the mysterious beings as a whole.

Gray says while a sequel is not likely to happen, if he ever came into contact with a zombie, he acknowledged what he would do.

“If I ever did see a zombie, it would most certainly be an authentic Haitian zombie; I would most assuredly seek to better understand its significance,” Gray said.

The book was officially published in Sept. of 2017, and is available through all major retailers. For more information, contact Gray at 419-289-5792.

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