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Professor: Zombies an expression of our unhappiness

A professor at Clemson University delves into the societal underpinnings of the popularity of zombies in our culture.

Zombies are complicated. On the surface, they're just hapless undead who want to feast on your delicious brains. Underneath, they may actually be expressions of economic dissatisfaction or disappointment with the government. Or they may serve as community-building exercises.

Yep, that's me as a zombie. Don't worry, they found a cure. I'm fine now. Amanda Kooser/CNET

Sarah Lauro, a visiting assistant professor in the English department of Clemson University, has a lot of ideas about what zombies really mean.

Lauro has been studying the zombie phenomenon for years. She starts by looking back at the history of how zombies came to America, primarily as an import from Haitian folklore about re-animated dead that were used as free labor. Zombie movies of the 1930s brought this image of the zombie to the public.

"On the one hand, the zombie's black body stood for racial prejudices that were strikingly felt in the U.S. at the time; on the other hand, white workers in the U.S., oppressed under the floundering economy of the Depression era, felt a kinship with this disempowered figure," Lauro says. Sometimes, a zombie isn't just a zombie.

Fast-forward to modern day. Zombies walks are infecting the country. College campuses are seeing outbreaks of Humans vs. Zombies tag games. Why are we so eager to dress up like zombies and shuffle around moaning for brains?

Lauro has a few theories. "Some do it to make visible their dissatisfaction with a government they feel isn't listening to them or an economic system that makes them brain-dead consumers; some do it as a kind of exercise of community, just to show how the collective can be organized and made to participate in an event without any ties to commercialism; many have no idea why they do it, but some play dead, one supposes, just to feel alive," she says.

I once took part in a zombie walk. Why? I guess I fall into the no-idea group. I thought it would be fun. I like to play dress-up. I could get all the supplies I needed from the make-up section at the drug store. I had a blast without once considering my thoughts on consumerism or the state of the government.

But I think Lauro is onto something here. From "The Walking Dead" to zombie obstacle-course races, zombies have thoroughly infiltrated our culture. At a time when the economy is harsh for so many people, maybe we really are feeling a certain kinship with our unfortunate, undead fictional friends.

If you want to learn more, keep an eye out for Lauro's upcoming book, titled "Rise Up: Living Death, Slavery, and Rebellion."