They’re everywhere these days, it seems — the undead, we mean. Shambling through AMC’s gory drama The Walking Dead; drooling all over poor Lizzie Bennet in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. But, um, why?

If you asked my little brother, he’d probably roll his eyes and say “because they’re cool.” But English professor Jared Hickman of Johns Hopkins has an answer that’s a bit more academic than that:  “I do think that, historically speaking, the zombie narrative can perform a sort of critique in an especially hard-hitting way. It represents this loss of autonomy that we as human beings understandably fear.”

Bishop’s main area of zombie interest predates the current craze by a couple of centuries.  He studies the cultures of Atlantic slavery and slave rebellions in the 18th and 19th centuries; turns out that the word “zombie” comes from West Africa, translated through various Caribbean Creoles.  But Hickman has a take on today’s zombies, too:

“I think it is interesting in the post-Romero zombie invasion narrative that the threat is not so pressing that certain conditions of social life can’t be re-created. There’s the possibility of boarding up the house and, at least for a while, holding it off. You don’t need special knowledge or silver bullets. You just need to be able to whack them on the head. So particular to the genre is this possibility that human beings may return to social life after the attack—and all the fascinating questions that go with that. Can we go back to what we had before? Should we go back to what we had before?”

Hickman taught his first undergraduate seminar on zombies this fall. We’d love to read some of those term papers.