Arts & Culture

UCF Class Spotlight: Anthropology of the Undead

Learn more about the cultural history of mummies, zombies and vampires.

By Nicole Dudenhoefer '17 |
October 22, 2018

UCF Associate Lecturer of Bioarchaeology Sandra Wheeler teaches students about the history behind mummies, zombies and vampires in her online course.

Class Name

ANT 3026, Anthropology of the Undead: Mummies, Zombies and Vampires

Description

Anthropological exploration into the phenomenon of the undead (namely zombies, vampires and mummies) and our fascination with this subject

Instructor

Sandra Wheeler ’98 ’02MS, who has been teaching at the university since 2010 and graduated with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in anthropology from UCF

When is it offered?

Online once a year as part of the regular curriculum or through UCF Online

How many students are in a class?

120 – 190

Prerequisites

Students must be in sophomore standing to enroll; open to majors nd non-majors.

From the Professor

How did you get the idea for this course?

It came to me during a brainstorming session with our undergraduate curriculum committee when we were looking at new courses to offer that students would be interested in. At first I wanted to do a class on the scientific study of mummies, but at the time The Walking Dead was really popular so my chair suggested I focus on something similar to that. So I said, “Let me think about it.” I came back with the idea of teaching this course that focuses on how we conceptualize the corporeal undead from an anthropological perspective, thus the mummies, zombies and vampires part. I began teaching this course in 2013.

How would you describe this course in five words or less?

Supernatural, fascinating, surprising, interesting, spooky.

The most important thing students learn in this course is the different ways human cultures interact with the dead. – Sandra Wheeler

What are three things students will learn in this course?

The most important thing students learn in this course is the different ways human cultures interact with the dead. There’s not just one way; humans interact with, bury or have relationships with their dead in very real and meaningful ways.

Secondly, it just tells us a lot about human belief in the supernatural and just thinking broadly about what that means. Whether you believe in life after death, heaven and hell, or the oneness of the universe, or nothing at all, there is a huge diversity in belief in what happens after this physical life is over.

And the third thing is that the boundaries between life and death are often blurred. The living and the dead may exist together in the same time and place. There are many cultures that believe the dead are still here with us, whether it’s in the form of angels, demons or spirits, and they can affect our daily lives. So it’s important to be aware and be mindful of the supernatural, including [cultural] things like properly burying the dead and performing the proper mortuary rites because the dead might come back and affect your daily life.

Even though we’re talking about things like mummies, zombies, and vampires, this class is ultimately about cross-cultural human interaction with the deceased.

Why are you passionate about teaching anthropology?

I love my discipline and I really enjoy teaching about anthropology. I’m really interested in studying mummies in particular from all different perspectives, including cultural, scientific, and mortuary perspectives. I like engaging in discussions about the supernatural and how different human cultures conceptualize the world that exists beyond this physical one. I think when you find someone who is passionate about [a subject] it comes across in their teaching. Many of the assignments I have students complete are reflective so they have to think about their beliefs and why they think a certain way, and I kind of challenge their beliefs as well. So I really enjoy seeing the students’ beliefs change or open throughout the semester as we cover various topics.

What are some of the most frequently asked questions in this course?

I start off the class talking about why people believe weird things and why they think it’s weird. I think anthropology in a lot of ways is about pushing boundaries, pushing comfort zones. It’s easy for students to get into this comfort zone, but this class pushes them to think harder and more deeply about their own and others’ beliefs.

We just finished a module about a Southeast Asian culture that mummifies the dead and keeps them in their house until they can afford to give them a proper funeral. – Sandra Wheeler

We just finished a module about a Southeast Asian culture that mummifies the dead and keeps them in their house until they can afford to give them a proper funeral. The dead, mummified person continues to live in the house and do the same things that they did but in one spot. The family turns on the TV for them, brings them food, and they still sit with their relatives and they talk. The idea is the person is still in there even though it’s just a body, so they need to be visited and respected. That is blowing some students’ minds like, “What do you mean the body is in their living room for four years?”

What is the classwork like?

There are 13 modules and each module covers a specific topic. The modules contain required readings, audio lectures and other content pages, and maybe a short film or documentary. Each module has a quiz as well. I divide the class into thirds — the first covers decomposition and mummies, the second vampires, and the third zombies. Each section has assignments, quizzes and an exam associated with it. There are also two major Discussion assignments, one at the start of the course and the other at the end, where students reflect on how and if their perceptions or beliefs have changed.

In the vampire section, one of my colleagues who does fieldwork in Poland at a postmedieval cemetery where suspected vampires are thought to have been buried, she gives a guest lecture about her work and how archaeologists interpret atypical or non-normative burials.

In the mummies class, I have the students mummify an apple using ancient Egyptian recipes, but there are no major projects for the course.

Where do the ideas for each of these supernatural beings come from?

Mummies are found all over the world and in all different types of context. There are many different ways to be mummified: there’s accidental; there’s natural mummification; and there’s purposeful mummification, which most people are familiar with, like Egyptian mummies. Some of the oldest mummies, in fact, come from South America, not Egypt. The Chinchorro culture [in Peru] has the oldest mummies in the world.

Some of the oldest mummies, in fact, come from South America, not Egypt. – Sandra Wheeler

The original idea of zombies comes from West Africa and the Caribbean, where West African religious beliefs blended with Christianity and Catholicism that was brought by European Colonialists to the Caribbean Islands. The phenomenon of zombies also comes from the West Africans who were enslaved and forced to work on plantations, where they were basically worked to death. So there was this belief that when you were forced into slavery and worked on these plantations, your soul was ripped from your body and you became a zombie. It reflected the brutal conditions that enslaved people had to endure.

There are other types of religious connotations about how you make zombies and control them and that was picked up by travel writers in the 1920s and 30s and brought to the U.S. and Europe. It turned into this phenomenon that film and literature picked up and blew up into this huge pop cultural thing, like The Walking Dead.

Looking at changes in [dead] bodies and not understanding what they were, people believed the bodies of the dead were still living. – Sandra Wheeler

Vampirism is an idea found in many different places, certainly in eastern Europe and also in some parts of eastern Asia. There are some modern beliefs about vampires in places like Romania, Hungary and in certain parts of Africa. If you go back into the medieval period, before germ theory and before people understood the process of normal human decomposition, there were people who believed vampires were real because they didn’t understand the causes of disease and attributed it to something supernatural. We know now that through the decomposition process, the [human] nail beds kind of peel back from the nail as a normal part of shrinkage and drying of the body. If you didn’t know that you might believe that the nails were continuing to grow, suggesting the person is still alive, even after they’ve been buried. Looking at changes in [dead] bodies and not understanding what they were, people believed the bodies of the dead were still living.

From the Student

Why are you taking this course?

Elizabeth Auricchio, a senior biology major: I signed up for this because it seemed really fun and I needed an upper-level elective to fill out my schedule. I learned about it because my friend is an interdisciplinary studies major and she signed up for the class and said there was one more spot.

I thought [this class] would be more about learning about the fiction and it’s more about actual people that thought vampires, [mummies and zombies] were real. – Elizabeth Auricchio

What’s the most surprising thing about this course?

I thought [the course] would be more focused on reading about mummies, zombies and vampires, but it’s not. Since it’s an anthropology course, it’s more about learning the real scenarios where they thought people were vampires and what people did about it. We learn about real vampire hunters in the past and so it’s interesting because I thought it would be more about learning about the fiction and it’s more about actual people that thought vampires were real.

So the most surprising thing would probably be just that — people really, truly believed that vampires were real and they were the cause of [negative] things happening. They’d go as far as to dig people up just to stop the problem but really it was making it worse.

Is it challenging being in an upper-level anthropology course without this being your major?

Even though I haven’t taken any anthropology courses before I don’t have any problems understanding what we’re learning about.

What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned so far?

I learned that there are a lot of Buddhist monks that mummified themselves over time. In the last 10 years of their lives, they slowly started to mummify themselves so when they died, they died in the position they were sitting and some of them are still on display even 100 years later in the temples.

One of the things we [also] learned was a sign of a vampire was having new, pink skin but what was happening was the outer layer of skin was coming off. Part of the reason they’d stab [vampires] with a stake in their stomach area is because when you die your stomach kind of puffs up and it would deflate it so [vampire hunters] thought they did a good job.