By Christopher Thrall –
Augustana musicologist Alex Carpenter never expected to be invited to speak to the Jane Austen Society. However, when they asked him to discuss the history of zombies in popular culture, it all made sense.
While Carpenter normally focuses on the development of Viennese music in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and especially on the work of Arnold Schoenberg, he is an avowed fan of zombie movies. Inspired by what he heard within them, he wrote a paper on the use of music in zombie cinema.
“The original Dawn of the Dead was made so cheaply that the [musical] scores were cobbled together from stock scary library music,” he said. In the juxtaposition of innocuous mall music and horrible on-screen violence, George Romero made further commentary on our consumer culture. “The recent version is stacked with Muzak which was carefully chosen to counterpoint the action on screen.” Carpenter’s conclusion was that Muzak is zombie music: it establishes normalcy and highlights the horror that zombies represent. All of a sudden, Carpenter was an academic expert on zombies.
The timing couldn’t have been better. Bridget Toms, president of the Edmonton Jane Austen Society, needed someone to comment on Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith. The bestselling satirical book inserts a plague of zombies into the stilted and formal world of Jane Austen’s mannered comedy. References to Asian martial arts training contrast with the stuffy Regency-era environment, and the original feminist element of the book gets updated with ninja battles.
“They asked for a history of cinematic zombies,” said Carpenter, who will then facilitate a discussion about the use of zombies in the book. “The polished surface of Jane Austen’s world is totally shattered. The book mocks the mannerisms and concerns of the time and is meant to relate to a modern reader with how foppish it was back then.” The modern reader is drawn into the book by the inclusion of now familiar, filmic scenes of graphic horror action and the domestic intrigues of the original seem absurd by comparison.
Asked about our fascination with zombies, Carpenter refers to his research on Freud, who was a contemporary of Arnold Schoenberg. Freud wrote about how we are unsettled by the uncanny, by things which are both familiar and unfamiliar. “Zombies are also terrifying in ways that go beyond the alien creature,” or the sometimes-human transformer such as a werewolf, said Carpenter. “Since the question about whether zombies are human or not still lingers, they pose questions about – and even threaten – our own humanity.”
Edmonton Jane Austen Society
Stanley A. Milner Library
January 23, 2:00 p.m.