Bryan Hall on Ethical Dilemmas of the Zombie Apocalypse

Brett Stakelin
Bryan Hall shows off his love for zombie flicks along with his new book. And a cricket bat, because you never know.
Bryan Hall may be the academic dean of the College of Contemporary Liberal Studies and a professor of liberal arts at Regis University, but he still knows how to take out a zombie, if it comes down to it.

That he might then want to discuss that zombie head shot and its ethical implications? Very likely.

Hall’s new book, An Ethical Guidebook to the Zombie Apocalypse, is all about the practical study of ethics theory and zombies and how the twain might meet. It’s The Good Place if it had a crossover with The Walking Dead. It’s the sort of philosophy course you may have wanted to take when you were in school — the kind that is serious about the theory, even if the treatment isn’t so much.

We caught up with the good professor between semesters (and apparently between zombie movies) to talk about the book, his upcoming readings at the Tattered Cover LoDo (Saturday, January 11) and BookBar (Saturday, January 18), and how the undead can breathe some life into the ivory tower.

Westword: You're bringing your book to theTattered Cover LoDo this Saturday for a discussion and signing. What do you have in mind for that event? I imagine it like a literary zombie crawl, only localized.

Bryan Hall: The entire book is written behind the fourth wall by someone living through a zombie pandemic and includes short stories, graphic art and philosophical prose. I want the audience to have a good feel for the post-apocalyptic world the book is set within and how important philosophical thinking is for not only surviving, but ultimately flourishing in that world. My hope is that people come away from the reading entertained as well as enlightened.

How did the idea for this book come about? Clearly, it's closely related to your field, but how did you cross the streams of academic and apocalyptic sci-fi?

I’ve been a huge horror fan for as long as I have been into philosophy. When I was a graduate student at CU Boulder, I started a Philosophy and Film series, which was mainly an excuse for me and my friends to expose a captive audience to our favorite films. Many of mine were horror films. For example, I showed Texas Chainsaw Massacre as a jumping-off point for talking about the ethics of eating meat. It was only after reading Max Brooks’s The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection From the Living Dead, however, that I got the idea for this book. I noticed that the zombie survival guide (a subgenre in zombie horror) and the kind of primer that one would read in an Introduction to Ethics class are structurally very similar to one another. It seemed natural to me to mash up the two genres, and with them, these two aspects of my personality.

There seems to be a connection between this book and some of what the TV show The Good Place has tried to do with the marrying of philosophy, ethics, the human condition and comedy. Are you a fan of that show?

I think it is trying to do something similar to my book insofar as it uses a pop-cultural medium to deliver philosophical content. In this respect, The Good Place is quite good as far as it can go. The problem is that it is bound by the conventions of a thirty-minute sitcom, which limits the breadth and depth of philosophical exploration. The philosophy has to be in service of the comedy, and too often the philosophy is played for laughs, which can minimize its impact on the audience it is supposed to reach.

What other pop-culture references can you trace back from this book?
I have a real love for zombie horror, and I hope that comes out in the book. When it comes to movies, there are lots of references to George Romero, including the names of certain characters and the idea that zombies can evolve. I also draw on zombie literature. For example, I really like Mira Grant’s Newsflesh series, and I borrow a lot of her rules for the world I created. Not surprisingly, The Walking Dead is another major influence throughout the book. In the “further study” section at the end of each chapter, I include references to episodes of the show or issues of the comic that could be used to illustrate the philosophical themes that were discussed.

What is it about zombie stories that they speak so naturally about how we can all be better (living) humans?

Zombies provide a post-apocalyptic vehicle for us to talk about ourselves and how we would behave in the absence of any external authority: police, military, etcetera. The irony of most zombie fiction is that we have much more to fear from the living than we do from the undead. Philosophers have used a similar approach for thousands of years. Everything from Plato’s Ring of Gyges in The Republic to Thomas Hobbes’s State of Nature in Leviathan introduce ethical concepts by considering human beings without social constraint.

Let's get real: Zombies have been having something of a moment for a while now. Is the trend abating, do you think? The heyday of The Walking Dead has passed, and we've seen a plethora of movies, TV, comic books, etc. Shaun of the Dead is clearly a favorite of yours; what are some of your other favorites?

Wow. Thanks for the opportunity to geek out! As you note, I’m a big fan of the “ZomCom.” Besides Shaun of the Dead, I love Dead Alive, an early Peter Jackson movie; the Evil Dead movies — though not the 2013 remake; and Re-Animator. I also really like the new wave of so-called Emo Zombie fiction — horror with an existentialist twist. This would include books/movies like The Girl With All the Gifts, Ravenous and Warm Bodies. I don’t think the trend is necessarily abating, but it is mutating — as any good virus should.

Fair enough. But there’s always the bad with the good. How about your least favorites in the genre?

Look, let’s be honest: There is a lot of shlock out there. In fact, your more discerning readers will likely put some of my favorites into that category. When I am consuming less than appetizing zombie fiction, I sometimes blurt out “Less chat, more splat!” The chat is great as long as it is engaging and thought-provoking. In the absence of good chat, however, the splat must make up for the deficiency. The worst thing is for a zombie book/comic/movie/show to be boring. I can only hope people do not say the same about my book…

One of the central conceits of the book is that it was found as a manuscript in the basement of a restaurant in a Mexican border town, and that the epidemic itself started somewhere in the American Midwest. Any reason that you chose those locations specifically?

The fictional author of the book, who also features elliptically in all of the short stories, has undergone a vicious transformation of character motivated, in large part, by the harrowing physical journey they undertook and the choices they had to make to get as far as they have. The author is an immigrant fleeing certain (un)death, and I wanted readers to understand — and perhaps even empathize with — this person and their transformation. As to location, it seemed appropriate to have the cause for immigration — in the fictional world — stemming from the place that is most terrified of it in the real world.  

Speaking of Mexico, the first field exercise in chapter one takes a little swipe at then-candidate Trump's quote about Mexico "not sending us their best," only subbing in zombies for immigrants, and re-attributing the message to a fictional "President Mentemuro." Mentemuro shows up occasionally in the book, every time clearly as a Trumpian stand-in. Talk a little bit about the decision not to just use Trump himself, and why you chose the name Mentemuro.

All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or undead, past or present, is purely coincidental. That being said, my favorite episode of Star Trek — to name another pop-culture influence — is “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield.” I want readers, especially those who look like me — probably a fair share of the potential readership — to consider themselves in the position of those they might be inclined to discriminate against. The name “Mentemuro” was the idea of my former colleague Steve Alvarez. He suggested it when we were working together at St. John’s University in New York City, where I was before coming to Regis University. I wanted the character’s name to be a portmanteau in Spanish, and he suggested this name which combines “mind” and “wall.” It toys with connection between the mental and physical barriers we build to exclude one another.

So is this book in part a satirical warning shot about the dangers of Trumpian politics as much as it is an introduction to ethics?

By including oblique references to our current politics, I wanted the section on cultural relativism to resonate with readers in a way that philosophical presentations of the view often do not. For example, a classic way of presenting the position is by using Herodotus’s Histories and the example of Darius, King of Persia, who is adjudicating between the Greeks and the Callatians. The Greeks burn their dead and find the practices of the Callatians, who eat their dead, morally reprehensible. The reverse is also true, and Darius is asked to decide between them. This is supposed to motivate the idea that morality is culturally relative. It would have been easy enough for me to “zombify” this story, and I wrote a draft of the first chapter doing just this. Although readers would have understood the philosophical point, they would not be invested in either side. I want readers to be invested (one way or another) in the cultural standpoints, which is why I frame things divisively. This should also make the criticisms of cultural relativism far more impactful than they would be otherwise. The goal throughout is for readers to imaginatively inhabit the philosophical views being discussed and criticized.

Any other geeky passions that you could adapt into textbooks? It seems like you could do a whole thing on the manipulation of time in Avengers: Endgame and free will. Assuming Disney would get a bite of the licensing, no zombie-pun intended.

That’s a great idea! You can work on Disney, and I’ll work on the book. Speaking of time and free will, at least one of us will be stuck with a Sisyphean task!

Before zombies, my first love was vampires. I was a bit of a goth kid growing up. I would love to do an Introduction to Philosophy text that deals with personal identity, free will, self-knowledge, moral responsibility, and concepts in philosophy of religion using a vampire conceit. There is a really rich canon of vampire fiction — both in content and form — to draw from in writing a book like this. Prospective publishers, I patiently await your offers… 

Last question: Where were textbooks like this when I was taking Ethics 101 in undergrad?

Well, in all fairness to your ethics professor, we have been using popular culture to convey philosophical content for generations. All I have done is packed it all into a gory little box topped with a lovely bow of entrails.

Bryan Hall will discuss and sign copies of An Ethical Guidebook to the Zombie Apocalypse at Tattered Cover LoDo at 2 p.m. Saturday, January 11, and at BookBar at 7 p.m. Saturday, January 18.