The Unquiet Dead

Human life and artistic narrative can both be presumed to share one crucial defining feature: each always comes to an end. This course explores the persistent connections between various forms of storytelling (particularly fiction, poetry, film, and television) and imagined scenarios for life after death. While many of the most famous afterlife genres have strong roots in folklore (stories of vampires, ghosts, and zombies), one also finds stories that do not fit such conventional classifications. We will pay particular attention to the phenomenon of the posthumous narrator, a storytelling device that is deployed more often than many might think. As we examine a large variety of narratives that make use of these "afterlife" devices, our goal will not be simply to provide a typology, or to show the evolution of a particular character type over time. Rather, we will ask ourselves about the nature of the fascination with the "unquiet dead" (the dead who cannot or will not rest). How do tales of the unquiet dead affect the very nature of narration (which usually assumes a final stopping point)? What is the political and ideological potential for the deployment of the unquiet dead in popular and elite storytelling? In particular, we will examine the possible connections to socioeconomic anxieties (zombies and haunted houses), cultural and sexual purity (vampires), and collective guilt (ghost stories, and the perennial American trope of the desecrated Indian burial site). We will also be looking at the roles that race and gender play in the imagination of undead "monsters." Finally, we will pay close attention to the problem of the sovereign corpse: the body of the leader left in state to both reassure and haunt the body politic (Lenin will be our primary example). Though we will pay particular attention to the Slavic world (as the source of some of the most compelling tales of the unquiet dead), our primary sources will come from a wide range of times and linguistic traditions, including folk tales, novels, short stories, films, and television episodes. We will also read a number of critical works that will help illuminate the material.






Spring 2022

Eliot Borenstein
MW: 3:30 PM - 4:45 PM GCASL 374