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Zombie research. It seems like a contradiction in terms, since actual, literal zombies are impossible, right? Two panels on the first day of San Diego Comic-Con 2011 addressed this question in different but fascinatingly parallel ways, grounding their discussions in hard, scientific methods and theories. This was a way not just to make their case for the fun and fascination of studying the ever-popular zombie phenomenon, but it was also a way that many of them used to encourage interest in the science itself.

The first panel was a presentation of Spike TV’s show “Deadliest Warrior” which in a future episode will pit zombies against vampires in a battle to the death, or undeath, or at least great piles of gore. In this first attempt at depicting a battle between fictional rather than historic characters, they wanted to play up the science in science fiction so they evaluated and argued and tested their imaginary standoff, calculating that it would take 63 zombies to defeat one fast and furious vampire in 58 seconds. As wild as the premise is, it showed how to think about a problem and how to calculate the parameters even for this impossible scenario.

Walt Disney, in an episode of his “Disneyland” television program in 1956, referred to this act of thinking about odd and weird things in a calm, logical way as the “plausible impossible.” Citing the book, The Art of Animation, he explained that the plausible impossible was “taking something that is against the laws of nature, something impossible, and make it appear rational and acceptable, plausible.” As the basis of all animation, as well as comic books, movies, fantasy, science fiction, and every other storytelling form found at Comic-Con, the plausible impossible is a wonderful way to exercise the imagination and think of creative strategies. It also explains the appeal of the zombie phenomenon because if ever there was a plausible impossible, it is the potential for a zombie apocalypse.

Zombies, it turns out, are good to think with. Whether as a way to teach doctors about a possible viral pandemic or a way to teach homeowner how to prepare for a disaster, the zombie apocalypse scenario helps us think about the unthinkable and rehearse our reactions to it. This was a point made by author Max Brooks in both the “Deadliest Warrior” panel and one later in the day with authors of zombie books. Brooks and several others mentioned the popularity of zombies and their usefulness for thinking about incomprehensible crises that we seem to hear about everyday in the news. Through a fictional zombie apocalypse we can get some grasp of the ways to approach real crises or at least feel better about it, according to the panelists.

But a missing element from these discussion are the social and cultural factors. As several participants mentioned, we may have more brains than zombies, but somehow we always mess things up, either in these fictional crises or in our real ones. Why? The explanations that rested in either individual psychology or in neuroscience could only take us so far. The real source of explanation for the impossible scenarios has to be in how humans interact, with each other and their environments, through their group behaviors and their cultural patterns rather than just their instinctive reactions. Culture is the great complicator and I will explain how in a future post. Zombies are “uncultured” as well as undead and lacking culture gives them an advantage even if it does leave their lives a bit monotonous. I will soon tell you why.

Back to Comic-Con 2011.