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The Living Dead

posted: 6.14.12 by Jack Solomon

One of the unavoidable challenges of creating pop-culture-themed textbooks is the rapid pace of cultural change. For example, when Sonia Maasik and I were preparing the sixth edition of Signs of Life in the USA, MySpace was the space for social networking (especially among the young), while Facebook was a small outfit generally used by northeastern college students and adults. Well that sure changed fast.

Similarly, while we were preparing the seventh edition of Signs of Life, vampires were the hottest living dead characters around, what with the exploding popularity of the Twilight series of books and movies, and TV shows like Vampire Diaries and True Blood. So we included a detailed analysis of the phenomenon in our text.

Well, with the disappointing box office performance of Dark Shadows (how could Johnny Depp as a vampire disappoint?) and Kristen Stewart’s moving on to new fairytale roles, it is clear that vampires are rapidly becoming old hat: yesterday’s monsters. Goodbye Buffy, hello .  .  . zombies.

I expect that by the time we get to work on the eighth edition of Signs of Life, zombies will be getting stale, but right now they seem to have taken over the popular imagination. The phenomenon is so large that I couldn’t begin to tackle it in a single blog, but I’ll say that what matters most in the teaching of popular cultural semiotics is not being able to keep exactly up to date on whatever the current fad, but instead being able to show the significance of the changes that inevitably occur.

As different as the contemporary “romantic” vampire and gory-gross zombie are, they share something in common: both don’t really exist. While there do appear to be some people who are seriously preparing for a “zombie apocalypse,” zombies, in their incarnation as cannibalistic corpses (not their original form as the victims of Voodoo rituals) are simply fantasy monsters. Like vampires (and werewolves), they belong to a horror story subphylum with its roots in ancient mythologies (and probably even earlier Totemic tales) but which today is a category within the fantasy genre of story telling.

So, for that matter, are stories involving wizards and extraterrestrials, which brings me to my point. Ever since the explosive popularity in the 1960s of both Star Trek and The Lord of the Rings, fantasy (you can most certainly include costumed superheroes in the list) has moved from the fringes of B-movie and children’s/adolescent literature status to become the dominant form of storytelling in our popular culture. And so, while we can see variations on the general theme (Star Wars ruled the later 1970s and 1980s, The X-Files and other Roswell-related stories towered over the 1990s, vampires took over in the “naughts,” zombies rule the present, and so on), the overall trend has been consistent.

It’s easy, as is so often the case in popular culture, to take this for granted. But while fantasy storytelling is the oldest form of storytelling in existence, there is a crucial difference to be noted in the modern fantasy era. This difference is the fact that fantasy storytelling, at least since the latter part of the nineteenth century, had been regarded as something for children and adolescents. Indeed, the English novelist C. P. Snow evinced some irritation at the popularity among college students of J. R .R. Tolkien’s novels: Snow thought that Tolkien’s books were childish, and though they were published in the 1930s and 1950s, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings didn’t become international sensations until the 1960s. And, in a cultural sense, fantasy stories were childish in the mid-twentieth century. Something for afternoon movie matinees but not serious movie making.

No more: fantasy is the lifeblood (pun intended) of today’s movie industry. Most of the top grossing movies of recent years have been out-and-out fantasy in one way or another.  As The Avengers breaks Harry Potter’s box office records and The Walking Dead chomp their way through cable TV, it is clear that amid the fads there is a trend—and that trend is a sign of something I have had occasion to refer to often in this blog: it is a signifier of the way that American culture is a youth culture in which what were once deemed mere children’s stories of little interest to adults have now become the shared culture of all ages.

The implications of this are enormous, and it a good class exercise would be to discuss the many ways in which America manifests itself as a youth culture. To clarify things, it would be useful to also explore the signifiers of a more traditional culture in which maturity brings power and prestige rather than being left on the shelf.

As always, I should mention that being a signifier of a youth culture is not the only significance of the current popularity of fantasy storytelling. The matter is overdetermined, and there are numerous other angles that might be explored. I may do so myself in a future blog.

 

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