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At Walker Stalker, Emory brains weigh in on zombie ethics

The discussion certainly was more cerebral than gory.

Zombies may eat brains, but zombie lovers treat gray matter with much more reverence. Well, at least a few of them.

Barely twenty Walker Stalker Con attendees staggered into a downtown Westin Peachtree conference room where Emory University served up four of its fattest, juiciest minds for a Saturday morning panel discussion on Zombie Ethics. The results were, um, heady.

After a lengthy pondering on the precise definition of zombie (there were four academics on stage, after all), the first real point, made by film studies prof Eddy Von Mueller, was that while other monsters like vampires and werewolves act with conscious motive, zombies are “monstrosity without psychology,” stripped of humanity, acting solely out of impulse. Therefore, since zombies don’t have ethics, any discussion must stem from how we, the uninfected, treat the walking dead.

But, as bioethics scholar Cory Labrecque pointed out, those scenarios can powerfully reflect some of real life’s most challenging ethical questions. Labrecque used the example of Hershel, The Walking Dead’s elderly veterinarian, keeping his zombified wife and family “alive” in his barn as a parallel to dealing with loved ones with Alzheimer’s or who are on life support. “How contiguous is this person with the person you knew?” he said.

There are also religious implications. Gary Laderman, professor of religious studies, said zombies represent humanity’s ancient struggle with how to deal with corpses, the remaining vessels of our kin. “In the immediate aftermath of death,” said Laderman, “how do I treat the body? It’s a religious question.”

Of course, in pop culture the only dilemma is finding gorier and more creative ways to slaughter those bodies. But a kindhearted conventioneer from Toronto proposed using the live and let live (or, um, unlive?) credo when dealing with zombies. Von Mueller quickly pointed out that like terrorists, the undead have always been portrayed as aggressors, making pacifism in the zombie apocalypse problematic. Another audience member rose and invoked the fringe theory that the undead actually have full cognitive capacity and are simply trapped in bodies that are unable to communicate (like real-life “locked-in syndrome”). “What if the zombie reaching out to grab you is actually trying to give you a hug?” said the audience member.

“If we give the zombie free will,” said Von Mueller, “the equation changes.”

To which, bioethicist Paul Wolpe added: “Then they’re not really zombies.”