Faculty of Social Science

True Histories: Zombies, Vampires and the End of Days

November 09, 2016

Jonathan Vance, Professor, Department of HistoryWhat can zombies, vampires and doomsday cults tell us about history and society?

According to Jonathan Vance, fears of these dangers show how society deals with sweeping changes.

Vance will expand and explore these themes in a mini-lecture delivered during Fall Preview Day.

Vance, a professor in the Department of History, is interested in irrational behavior and whether academics should try to come up with rational explanations for irrational behavior. He uses the examples of zombies and vampires, what some may consider make-believe boogeymen, as examples to show how humans have reacted to enormous challenges and difficult situations. When societies face a number of larger anxiety producing factors – technological or economics changes or challenges, diseases or other changes – panics tend to develop.

“General anxiety finds a particular panic to focus on,” said Vance. “Specific panic is always more emotionally satisfying than general anxiety.”

“Despite the fact modern society knows more than any other society in history we are no less likely to panic than we were 1,000 years ago. In some ways it’s depressing,” said Vance. The biggest difference in modern panics, he said, is how quickly the panic can spread.

In the 19th century, you could track the spread of panics and it would largely be reflective of steamship routes. With modern communication, we can spread information more quickly and we have “expanded the ability to be irrational.”

“Zombie is just the new equivalent of communists in the 1950s and ‘20s and Papists in the 16th century,” said Vance. “We find new villains in generalized panics, but always have the same process for developing the panic.”

For Vance, looking at a topic like panics provides an opportunity to understand, not just the past, but also our place in time.

“History helps you understand your society and those societies that came before,” said Vance. “This is true of looking at zombies, it’s true of looking pop culture, and it’s true of looking at human rights discourse. It’s true of anything”

History, Vance said, “gives a breadth of experience that is unusual. History places before you the entire range of human experience. It teaches you think expansively in a way not a lot of other fields can.”

Vance thinks history is inherently fun. “There is no such thing as boring history; there is only boring historians,” he said “I try to make people appreciate that – if you are bored by history, you are bored by life.”

It can also make you a better person. “It’s often not appreciated that history teaches empathy. I think the most important skill a historian can have is to see the past through the eyes of the people who lived through it. If you can do that, you can see society and the present through eyes of someone else,” Vance said. “I like to think that it actually teaches you to be a better citizen and a better person.”

Vance will expand and explore these themes in a mini-lecture delivered during Fall Preview Day, on Sunday November 13. The lecture will be at 10:45 am in Room 2036, Social Science Centre.

Vance’s Fall Preview Day mini-lecture will be on Sunday November 13. The lecture will be at 10:45 am in Room 2036, Social Science Centre.