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DeSantis is taking aim at ‘zombie studies’ on the campaign trail. It’s a real thing

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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis laughs during a press conference in Auburndale, Florida, Jan. 30, 2023.
Paul Hennessy | Lightrocket | Getty Images

During a campaign event in Iowa in early August, Republican presidential hopeful Ron DeSantis made it clear that he was against student loan forgiveness.

Given broad criticism on the issue from Republicans, the Florida governor’s view is not unusual. His example, however, was.

“Why should a truck driver have to pay for somebody that got a degree in zombie studies?” DeSantis asked.

The governor’s comment, which he has made several times over the years, seems a twist on the popular argument from the right that working-class Americans shouldn’t be forced to pay the tax bill for canceling the debt of those who have benefited from higher education.

But less clear is why DeSantis is taking aim at “zombie studies.”

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“To my knowledge, there are no academic majors in zombie studies,” said higher education expert Mark Kantrowitz.

There are, however, several colleges that offer classes on zombies, as well as a growing body of academic research, CNBC found. Scholars in the field defend the subject, pointing out that zombies are an important symbol in our culture, with ramifications for the U.S. criminal justice system, the history of slavery, neuroscience and more.

“The figures that haunt our popular narratives are a society’s way of working through shared experiences and problems,” said Sarah Juliet Lauro, an associate English professor at the University of Tampa. Lauro edited a collection of zombie scholarship, “Zombie Theory: A Reader,” in 2017.

Zombie lessons center on free will

Eric Smaw, a philosophy professor at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, teaches a course called “Zombies, Serial Killers, and Madmen.” He is well aware of the governor’s dismissal of his work.

“My guess is that DeSantis chose zombie studies to suggest that colleges are wasting time and money teaching about fictional creatures instead of practical knowledge that will get students jobs,” Smaw said.

But there is no doubt the topic has real-word significance, he said.

Smaw’s coursework and research focuses on disruptions to human consciousness, including from infections similar to the one caused by the ophiocordyceps unilateralis fungus, also known as the zombie-ant fungus. According to an article in The Atlantic, “when the fungus infects a carpenter ant, it grows through the insect’s body, draining it of nutrients and hijacking its mind.” Similar diseases and viruses can impact humans and lead to what is known as “homicidal automatism,” in which people unknowingly kill others, Smaw said.

If our behavior is completely determined by our neurology, then we are not free.
Eric Smaw
professor of philosophy at Rollins College

In one famous legal case that Smaw goes over with his students, a Canadian man who murdered his mother-in-law and severely injured his father-in-law was later acquitted because the attacks occurred while the man was sleepwalking. He had no memory of the events when he woke up, and he didn’t have any motive.

“For hundreds of years, we jailed and executed people suffering from insanity because we did not recognize that they have diminished mental capacities,” Smaw said. “The more we learn about homicidal automatism, the more likely it is that we will develop more humane ways of responding to it, and even preventing it from happening.”

Beyond these extreme cases, Smaw said, the study of zombies provides an opportunity to explore ideas around human autonomy and free will.

“There are many interesting philosophical and cultural considerations that arise in the course,” Smaw said. “One question is: Can humans act freely according to their own choices, or do they act only according to their neurology?”

“If our behavior is completely determined by our neurology, then we are not free.”

Meanwhile, at Saint Xavier University in Chicago, Tatiana Tatum, a science professor, teaches a class called “Biology of Zombies.” She said the topic helps her explain how the human body works.

“There is an innate fear of death that intrigues people, and an intense sense of survival,” Tatum said. “These juxtaposing feelings find a great home in zombie stories.”

Her course lessons include chemical zombification, bacterial zombification and fungal zombification. “We also discuss a bit of neuroscience,” she added.

Eye of newt, fin of … pufferfish?

Some researchers claim the organs of pufferfish, which contain the potent poison tetrodotoxin, in the past have been used to create “zombie” potions in some parts of the world.
Bildagentur-online | Universal Images Group | Getty Images

Tatum’s class is hardly confined to science fiction or hypotheticals. She teaches her students about a poison that can actually bring on zombie-like symptoms. The concoction is made up of tetrodotoxin, a potent toxic substance found in pufferfish.

“It blocks the flow of sodium ions, but leaves the potassium channels unaltered,” Tatum said. “This allows the victim to stay conscious but in a paralyzed, coma-like state.”

There is evidence that similar poisons have been used.

In a 1986 article in Harvard Magazine, journalist Gino Del Guercio said there are poison makers in Haiti, traditionally considered the birthplace of the zombie myth, who mix together ingredients such as pufferfish, dried toad and human bones, wearing nose plugs to protect themselves.

“For rural Haitians, zombification is an even more severe punishment than death, because it deprives the subject of his most valued possessions: his free will and independence,” Del Guercio wrote.

‘Who’s afraid of zombie studies?’

Lauro, the University of Tampa professor, is scheduled to give a talk in Frankfurt, Germany, this month called, “Who’s Afraid of Zombie Studies?”

“The talk is pretty much entirely about this DeSantis nonsense, as well as what DeSantis is doing to education in Florida,” Lauro said.

DeSantis’ policies have led to an increase in book bans, and Florida’s Department of Education recently rejected an Advanced Placement course on African American studies.

Since DeSantis has taken aim at Black history, I think we can connect the dots on why the idea of ‘zombie studies’ gets under his skin so much.
Sarah Juliet Lauro
associate English professor at the University of Tampa

The governor did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Lauro theorizes that the myth of a still-living body separated from its soul began in Africa, around the time of slavery. From there, the stories made their way to the Caribbean via the transatlantic slave trade.

“The zombie first comes to wider awareness during the U.S. occupation of Haiti, and from there, the legend that ‘dead men’ are forced to work in the cane fields for free in Haiti,” Lauro said.

The first wave of zombie fiction hit the U.S. in the late 1920s, during the time of the Great Depression. At the start of the country’s worst economic disaster, Lauro argues, the government largely abandoned the poor, and the myth of the zombie became a way to critique how workers are oppressed by capitalism. Zombies eventually made their way to Hollywood, at first in films about disempowered workers and then later contagion and cannibalism.

But Lauro argues in her book “The Transatlantic Zombie” that the stories are always in some way about slavery and resistance to slavery, given the myth’s origin.

“Since DeSantis has taken aim at Black history, I think we can connect the dots on why the idea of ‘zombie studies’ gets under his skin so much,” she said.

At the same time, Lauro said the governor was giving the subject too much airtime on the campaign trail: “No university or college that I’ve ever heard of has ever offered a degree in zombie studies.”

But, she said, “If any of your readers want to hire me to start a program in zombie studies, they can look me up: I’m about ready to leave this state until we get a new governor.”

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