Sometime in late January of 2016, the always enterprising Erika Cornelius Smith, PhD, was scrolling through a list serve and came across one call-for-papers on Monsters and Monstrosity in 21st-Century Film and Television, which she sent to me. At the time, I was teaching a SEM 115/Current Issues Symposium called “Zombie Evolutions” that trained students how to write authoritatively about their research of a particular theme—in this case, zombie films and criticism of the 20th century.
Around the same time, Burr Steers film, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, based on Seth Grahame-Smith’s 2009 “literary mashup,” came to theaters. Excited by the prospect of the essay, Erika and I coordinated a Cultural Credit event and escorted students of both zombie- and Austen-studies to see the film in theaters. It was a perfect storm of classroom inquiry intersecting with scholarly interest.
I had never read Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (sacrilege for an English professor, I know), so Erika became the literature and history guru while I functioned as the zombie and film sage. We read Austen’s novel, as well as Grahame-Smith’s mash-up, and together watched the 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice (starring Colin Firth as the genre-defining Mr. Darcy). Eventually, we submitted an abstract on zombies, history, and the intersection of gender and class in the most recent film adaptation; the name of our proposed paper was “Twice Dead: Gender, Class, and Crisis in PP + Z.” (See below for the abstract.)
The process of writing the abstract—and integrating Erika’s with my perspective—was challenging: Erika wrote the first version, which I tried to incorporate in an additional three drafts (the word limit of 300 didn’t help). We settled on one version that represented both our interests and expertise and submitted it; we were emailed an acceptance several weeks later, at the end of May.
Erika jumpstarted the research process in the early summer (once grades were in, and everyone had rested for a week or so), examining British Regency attitudes toward individuals who did not fit neatly into the imagined nation-state (like immigrants or zombies), and how such views haunted both Austen’s novel and Steer’s film. I studied major theories regarding gender in film studies, and considered how the portrayal of zombies was both similar to and different from the treatment of women in traditional horror films. At the end of June, we began drafting the paper, bringing together our understandings of history, theory, literature, and film.
Over the summer, we got together a few times a week for multiple hours to trade research, brainstorm ideas, and outline our argument. We traded drafts through email and Google docs; by the end of July we were proofreading and perfecting our arguments and we emailed the final version by the deadline of August 1st (with a whole three hours to spare). On August 19th, just as we were preparing for a new fall semester, we received email confirmation that our essay had been accepted without any required revisions for the collection.
Ultimately, this project provided an opportunity to collaborate on areas of mutual interest—gender and nationhood—while allowing each of us to bring her unique strengths and areas of expertise to the discussion. Composing an essay with another person can present logistical and ideological challenges to anyone (especially those English scholars so used to working alone), but is a tremendously valuable experience that strengthens the bonds of collegiality and friendship.
Proposed Essay Abstract: “Twice Dead: Gender, Class, and Crisis in PP+Z”
Drs. Erin Casey-Williams and Erika Cornelius Smith
Following Jeffery Jerome Cohen’s theses that monsters appear at sites of cultural crisis and enable “the formation of all kinds of identities,” we propose a critical analysis of the recent Pride and Prejudice + Zombies (2016) that allows insight into the class-, gender-, and national-politics of our culture. While many studies of zombie films attend to either class or gender, our work explores the intersection of these two crisis areas as evidenced by PP+Z (2016). The use of zombies in this film to disrupt canonical literary and historical texts allows insight into contemporary American anxieties regarding migration/immigration, the militarized state, and the role of gender and the family in stabilizing culture.
We begin by scrutinizing how gender and labor issues pervade the zombie film cannon, from Halperin’s White Zombie (1932) to Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) to Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2005). We will then consider how PP+Z fits into and departs from both this cinematic legacy and its historical origins. We will examine the film’s debt to Austen’s novel and its context of industrialization in Regency England, specifically the mechanization of individuals in factory labor and subsequent demonstrations of Luddite protestors (a precursor to labor strikes). We will then examine to what degree the film’s portrayal of the Bennet sisters problematizes traditional understandings of women as monstrous abjection existing on the threshold of nation, politics, and culture. Following a decade of particularly heightened social fears and apocalyptic anxieties, our analysis of PP+Z demonstrates how the zombie at the turn of the millennium directly reflects contemporary American fears: of migration, of authority, and of the collapse of social order.