When Bryan Hall combined two of his favorite things — ethics and horror — into a medium designed to both enlighten and entertain, there was never any doubt about which did which.
His just-released book, “An Ethical Guidebook to the Zombie Apocalypse: How to Keep Your Brain without Losing Your Heart,” covers a lot of essential philosophical ground, but his aim was to incorporate classic zombie conventions into a narrative that makes the deep stuff not only palatable, but appetizing.
“If you have a child and you want them to eat their broccoli, you slather it in cheese,” says the Colorado-raised Hall, 42, now the academic dean of and professor in Regis University’s College of Contemporary Liberal Studies. “In this case, the zombies are the cheese.”
Hall grew up in Longmont and attended the University of Denver, where he double-majored in philosophy and English literature before heading to the University of Colorado to earn his Ph.D. in philosophy. His specialty is 17th- and 18-century European philosophy, but he has taken particular delight in teaching ethics.
For the past 15 years he has led a teacher/philosopher’s nomadic existence, moving among universities in the U.S. and, thanks to two stints as a Fulbright Scholar, abroad. He arrived at Regis from St. John’s University in New York, where he began putting his own spin on the idea of shaping an affinity for cinematic horror into an effective teaching tool. He even road-tested it with one of his honors classes.
The basic concept isn’t new — academics have long employed pop culture to sweeten the medicine of complex subjects. At CU, Hall and some friends even created a philosophy-and-film series. Imagine “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” as the launching pad for a discussion on the ethics of eating meat.
But with his ethical guidebook, Hall has sought to incorporate a broader and more compelling fictional element to keep the reader engaged amid the philosophical discussions.
His two previous books — “The Post-Critical Kant: Understanding the Critical Philosophy through the Opus Postumum” and “The Arguments of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason” — steer clear of the undead.
Hall sat down in his office with The Colorado Sun to talk about his dual interests, the issues where they intersect and the advantages of zombies that actually evolve. He will do a live reading from his book at 7 p.m. Saturday at BookBar, 4280 Tennyson St. in Denver.
The following has been edited for length and clarity.
Colorado Sun: So which is the greater love — horror or philosophy?
Bryan Hall: Well, I guess since I ended up in a career in philosophy I’d have to say philosophy. But I worked at a haunted house when I was in high school and I just always, always loved horror. I’ve always been trying to think of ways that I could bring those two aspects of my personality together and bridge those two interests in a way that would be beneficial to people.
CS: You’ve noted some other attempts to popularize philosophy, including a number of books examining the comic-turned-TV-series “The Walking Dead.”
BH: And it’s good as far as it goes. But the mode of presentation can be alienating for a lot of audiences. Most philosophy and pop culture anthologies consist of argumentative philosophical essays with pop cultural examples, but these essays are hard to get into, especially for people without any philosophical background. I wanted to write something that would kind of reach out and grab you, that there’d be people walking through the bookstore or looking online who would say, “I’m really into zombies and I’m really into horror — I want to read this thing.” And the philosophical content is kind of snuck in there, such that they’re enjoying the process of reading the book but they also end up being enlightened at the end.
CS: There are rules for the zombie apocalypse, right? What conventions did you draw upon for your book?
BH: So, there’s a bit of “The Walking Dead” in there. There’s also this series of zombie horror novels called “Newsflesh” by Mira Grant. That’s a pretty popular series of zombie fiction and I borrow a lot of the rules for this world from her. The other main influence I’d say is (movie director) George Romero. So, one of the big things that you’ve probably seen is that the zombies can evolve within the context of my book, which allows you to talk about a lot of useful issues and ethics that you wouldn’t be able to talk about if you’re just talking about non-rational zombies.
You have basically three kinds of zombies in my book. You’ve got the “cracked up,” who are kind of a “28 Days Later”-style infected human, highly aggressive and non-rational but they still feel pleasure and pain. And so from the moral standpoint it would be kind of like a wild animal or something along those lines.
Then you have the “moaners,” who are the non-rational kind of classic “Night of the Living Dead,” George Romero zombie from early on. And then you have this group of zombies that you run into near the end of the book called “talkers,” who have evolved and they’ve developed rationality — but they still have this insatiable desire for human flesh. They also seem to have certain communicative capacities that normal humans lack, so they’re able to kind of telepathically connect with one another as a herd in order to hunt and things like this.
CS: So why did you choose to use the evolving zombie in your book?
BH: Because it raises all kinds of interesting questions about moral considerability. The talkers, I think, are interesting from the moral standpoint because they have some capacities that we lack. So does that mean that they have a higher moral status than us? Or do we need to reconceptualize what determines an individual’s moral status? So those are the kinds of questions that the reader should be asking themselves by the time they get to that point in the book. But I try not to be too professorial, especially with the stories where you come to confront these different kinds of zombies in different contexts.
CS: The book is essentially a diary-like sequence of observations told from the point-of-view of a former philosophy professor trying to navigate the zombie apocalypse. Though not told in chronological order, there is a storyline. Give us an overview.
BH: So the outbreak originates somewhere in the American Midwest and is initially associated with whiteness, because it’s much easier to see the signs of infection on pale skin. This is picked up by the media, which associates whiteness with susceptibility to infection. Then that’s picked up by certain foreign media outlets and then that’s projected as fear of whiteness. And what ends up happening is what often happens in post-apocalyptic fiction: society, north of the border in the United States, falls apart fairly quickly. And you get this mass exodus of white people trying to make it to the south. And you have someone down south, who is in charge of the Mexican government, who is not supportive of this immigration from the north. And you know, people will see certain parallels.
CS: Right. Early in the book, you quote the fictitious Mexican President Mentemuro saying, ”When they send their zombies, they’re not sending their best.” Cultural reality’s script gets flipped.
BH: It was tough to decide how I wanted to do this. Very often in philosophy classes we introduce cultural relativism by talking about ancient cultures. Students understand that point, but it doesn’t resonate with them.
And so I wanted to create an environment where I could tell a similar story where you had two cultures that had a very different attitude on the same thing. In this case, the moral value of “gringo” lives, which in the book just means being light-skinned. One conclusion might be, well, there’s a moral value north of the border and there’s a different one south of the border and that’s all there is to it. I’m hoping that those positions will resonate with students, whether they agree or disagree with them. The criticisms of cultural relativism will also resonate with the reader, by couching it within this kind of lightly fictionalized contemporary political context.
CS: In terms of structure, you’ve actually positioned this account as a fictional historical document.
BH: I have this note from the archivist at the beginning, which kind of lays out the groundwork that this was a handwritten book found in a location just south of the border, and was brought to the War on Infection Archive in Denver. It’s this kind of odyssey where this person starts out somewhere in northern Colorado and must kill their husband in order to survive. And then it moves on from there. There’s a scene in Denver set at Mile High Stadium. There are stories that are set down in the southwest corner of the state, things that take place in New Mexico, things that take place in Texas and on down the line. The person is doing everything they can to make it to Mexico and escape the chaos to the north.
Although the fictional author of the book does not identify themselves as this person, the author is either the protagonist within each story, or at least someone who’s observing the action in some way. So they all tie back together. This is the fictional aspect of it that I thought might be valuable to keep people engaged.
CS: By making the protagonist a former philosophy professor, you really set the table for discussion of moral choices. Why is this significant?
BH: It’s clear from reading the book that this individual knows what they ought to do, what’s right. However, to use an ancient Greek term, they suffer from akrasia — weakness of will — and they end up making a number of choices that lead them to cultivate a fairly vicious character.
So you have someone who goes from having a fairly virtuous character at the chronological beginning of the story to being a fairly debased, vicious person at the end. But then you have this overarching philosophical narrative that shows they still know what they ought to have done. But they simply were incapable, either because of their will, or because of the circumstances that they found themselves within.
CS: You never indicate the gender of the protagonist in the book. Clearly that was intentional, but what was your reasoning?
BH: There’s a couple of reasons. One of the things that you discover early on is that it seems like the person who’s writing the book was in the process of turning when they wrote it. There’s a long history in zombie fiction of not assigning gender to zombies. They’re referred to as things, not given gendered pronouns. And so I wanted that to be reflected in this individual.
The other part of it was when my students (at St. John’s University) were reading it, the women in my class were really identifying with the protagonist in some stories. And there were other stories where the guys in the class really identified with the protagonist, and I kind of felt like just leaving it open. I just didn’t see a reason to be specific, in this case, especially given some of the genre conventions in zombie horror.
CS: Your protagonist experiences a number of life-or-death dilemmas throughout their odyssey. Those seem to form the core philosophical discussions in the book.
BH: This is one of those really valuable aspects of science fiction. It allows us to imaginatively separate ourselves from our moral prejudices. I mean prejudice in the sense of having prejudged — that animals don’t have rights so they’re not morally considerable, or abortion is morally permissible or impermissible. And when you start delving into the reasons why people believe what they do, often those reasons do not hold up to scrutiny.
But people are often unwilling to examine those reasons, if they’re tied to things to which they have a very strong intuitive emotional connection. By talking about zombies instead of talking about fetuses, talking about zombies instead of talking about animals, people are able to provide some imaginative distance from those intuitive emotional commitments that they have. And it opens up the space for them to rationally examine their beliefs and the reasons that they hold those beliefs.
CS: Well, one really compelling example involved the protagonist trying to determine whether he or she can kill their children as they begin to turn. Were some of these parts really difficult to write?
BH: That was the hardest to write for me. I didn’t really want to write it but I knew I had to write it for the purposes of the book, but you can’t help but write a story like that and think about your own children. The abstract, impersonal ethical theories that we’ve been talking about up to this point aren’t compelling in certain situations. This is one of those situations where it’s like, I don’t care if killing them promotes the greatest good. I don’t care if they’re not rational agents anymore and so no longer morally considerable. I still feel I still have this obligation to them that has some other basis.
CS: As you mentioned before, your zombies evolve. I think I lost interest in “The Walking Dead” because its zombies didn’t.
BH: With certain exceptions, generally the central conceit and also irony of zombie fiction is that we have so much more to fear from one another than we have to fear from the undead, and that’s the point that I wanted to make very clear in this book. So in a lot of ways, the zombies are furniture here, too, though there are places with the evolving zombies where important ethical issues come up.
They’re really there to serve certain philosophical needs within the book itself but because I am such a big fan of zombie horror I also wanted to do it in a way that would be consistent with genre convention. And so that’s why you see all of these references to Romero. For instance, the kids in the book are Karen and Cooper. Karen Cooper is the name of the daughter in “Night of the Living Dead.” So there are a lot of little Easter eggs like that for horror fans throughout the book.
CS: How has academia reacted to this project so far?
BH: I guess I’d say a few things on that score. The first is that some philosophers I meet at conferences and have a brief chat about this, there is some skepticism or just light-hearted laughter. But those that have had a chance to look at it I think are pleasantly surprised by the degree of rigor from a philosophical standpoint. But the other thing that I should say is that it’s not really meant for them.
It’s meant for people who haven’t been exposed to philosophy. And it’s a way of not only making philosophy accessible to them, but doing it through a mode of presentation that will help to ensure that they actually access it. If you finish, you’ve gotten most of what you would normally get out of an intro to ethics class.