EIGHINGER: Popularity of 'The Walking Dead' elevates zombie preparedness to very real level

Posted: Nov. 6, 2012 7:43 pm Updated: Dec. 5, 2012 9:15 am

For those who are addicted to the incredibly gruesome "The Walking Dead" each Sunday night on AMC, this will probably not come as a surprise.

(Wait, before we continue. Let me add for the non-Deadheads who are reading this, that as "incredibly gruesome" as the show is, it is equally entertaining and thought-provoking. Well, as entertaining and thought-provoking as a flesh-eating zombie apocalypse can be.)

The show's ascent in popularity -- it is among the most-watched shows on TV -- over the past two-plus years can be seen even in our OWN little corner of the world. Nearby Truman State University in Kirksville, Mo., is launching the "Zombie Scholars Academy" to elevate public awareness about the need to BE better-prepared for natural and man-made disasters. It should be noted that Truman State had this idea before Superstorm Sandy, but its relevance was heightened by what unfolded across the eastern part of the country last week.

"The Zombie Scholars Academy" is a new summer youth concept designed by the Truman Institute that aims to foster critical-thinking and problem-solving skills by situating students in a hypothetical zombie apocalypse.

"The Institute is working cooperatively with various health professionals, researchers and literary figures to launch the new program and focus attention on disaster preparedness, as well as a range of topics in both the sciences and the humanities," said Travis Miles, the communications coordinator at Truman State.

The "academy" will be a one-week residential camp experience in July for qualified high school students. Organizers say fictional zombies -- they are fictional, aren't they? -- are a "safe: way to explore our worst fears, especially with the popularity of a show like "The Walking Dead" and the run of films featuring the undead that started in 1978 with director George A. Romero's classic "Dawn of the Dead."

("Dawn" was actually Romero's second zombie film, the first being "Night of the Living Dead" in black and white in 1968. That film never caused much of a stir. Of course, special effects were much better a decade later. The violence and carnage in "Night" was mostly implied.)

The threat of chemical weapons that could potentially cause some type of virus that creates a race of zombies has been the subject of numerous films in recent years, heightening the fear of some sort of real-live zombie apocalypse or other planet-threatening occurrence.

Did you know in 2011 that Assistant Surgeon General Ali Khan of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta wrote "Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse." CDC officials said it was aimed at emergency preparation, much like the Truman State idea.

"People are so tuned into zombies," said Dave Daigle, a CDC spokesman, in a May 2011 interview. "People are really dialed in on zombies. The idea is, we're reaching an audience or a segment we'd never reach with typical messages."

Kevin Minch, the director of the Truman Institute, agrees.

"Zombies are a safe way of exploring our worst fears," Minch said in information supplied by the school. "We all have an ego defense mechanism, a mental barrier that keeps our fears and anxieties from driving us insane. Discussing something as horrific as a natural disaster or a terrorist attack triggers many people's ego defense mechanisms. They shut down. They tune out. They don't want to talk about (the) worst-case scenario.

"However, if the catalyst for that ‘worst case' is fictional, it circumvents our ego defenses and allows us to talk about the gritty details of preparedness."

Minch said that by starting a discussion about how to prepare for a zombie apocalypse, "you stand a very good chance of having a very spirited, practical and ultimately helpful discussion about preparedness."

"If, on the other hand you ask, ‘How would you prepare for a swine flu quarantine?' you stand a very good chance of clearing the room," he added.

So I no longer have to feel guilty about enjoying "The Walking Dead" and other zombie fare, right? And if my wife suggests I'm spending too much time doing so, I can now tell her I'm simply fostering my critical-thinking and problem-solving skills.

And enjoying the occasional gnawing of an arm or leg.




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