Crash Reports: MAPACA Fall Conference – Who said Academics Do Not Appreciate Horror?

MAPACA is the Mid-Atlantic Popular and American Culture Association. Unlike otherzombie_walk_2010_by_jillybean77-d31j4aj academic organizations and conferences, this Philadelphia based group welcomes critical analysis regarding everything in our culture from memorials and literature, to film, comic books, and horror. No category seems to be beyond the breadth of the organization, which always makes for an annual conference that is full of life, passion, and intrigue. This year was no different.

The 2013 conference took place in Atlantic City, New Jersey at the Tropicana. A three day event from November 7-9 with an array of panels focusing on a plethora of topics from sports to GLBTQ, gender studies and architecture, to fan fiction and music – and much more. Not only did I have the pleasure of witnessing three fantastic panels, but I was honored to take part in the “More Zombies” discussion as a contributor.

Horror is no stranger to MAPACA because the genre permeates our culture from movies to books, and from zombie walks to haunted hayrides. You couldn’t escape the element of horror if you wanted to.

Friday morning’s roundtable, “Zombies!” incorporated five panelists from CUNY: John Giunta, Alexandra Helmers, William Hendrick, James Romberger, and Marguerite Van Cook, and chaired by Sylvia Tomasch. The presentations included the role of zombiism in PROMETHEUS and the ALIEN franchise, to “zombie protesting” in the United States, and how the zombie horde in SHAUN OF THE DEAD mirrors Simon Pegg’s apathetic cult character, and much more. (For some reason, the titles of the presenters’ papers do not appear in the program or search engine, so I apologize for not listing them.)

The panel discussion I took part in, and helmed by Pace University’s fabulous Lisa Miller, featured “’Monster Inside Me’: Zombification as Parasitism” by Kristine Larsen, “Laundry and Ammo: Subversive Gender Politics in The Walking Dead” from Lehigh University’s Elizabeth L. Erwin. Both papers were fabulous and riveting and gave us much to consider on both intellectual and emotional levels. I only hoped I added to the mix with my “The Surviving Protagonist: Virtual Control for Angst Ridden Audiences.”

I tried to answer why many love zombie movies so damn much. My point was two-fold: zombie cinema serves as a vehicle for those to take virtual control in their lives while also serving as a virtual rite of passage. After all, most of us fear our futures due to devalued homes, lack of job security, and healthcare concerns, besides fears of war, disease, and terrorism. Many may find solace in a zombie based film where audience members may connect with one of the surviving protagonists so they can finally take charge of his or her life (on a virtual level). After all, choices would be simple: The basics of food, clothing, and shelter must be met. And that’s it. All the other craziness of scheduling, bill paying, and obligation that consumes are lives are no longer concerns. However, since many in Generation Y feel cheated because they were lied to about their future (study hard, earn a degree, and a great position in the business world will await you), zombie films provide an outlet where they can unleash steam – while undergoing a “virtual rite of passage.” After all, especially in the western world, such rites of passage do not exist. We have no way of proving ourselves as adult males and adult females on a community level in our modern society – but imagining that we can stand up against a zombie plague and survive accomplishes this for us. This is why we watch the same zombie film again and again: zombies rise and humans fight to survive. We’re not bored by this because we need that jolt of feeling in control. Since we have little semblance of control in our daily lives, we revisit the same premise in zombie cinema to obtain that virtual satisfaction.

“A Discussion of Children and the Horror Genre” ensued where Shawn Kildea of Rider University showed the short film, “Mary: Portrait of a Horror Fan,” followed by commentary from Holly Blackford and Cindy Clark (both of Rutgers University – Camden). The film focused on eleven-year-old Mary and her love for gory and grotesque horror, and her formation of a horror club of children her age to view and discuss such cinematic features. I enjoyed the roundtable and welcomed the end result: It is fine for Mary to engage in such films as long as she can handle them on an emotional level.

But the conference wasn’t all about horror. I also enjoyed “Surviving Insubordinate Narratives: Franzen’s Freedom, Djebars Fantasia, and Rydberg’s Labyrinth.” I was most intrigued by Tamara Andersson’s “No Longer Lost in the Labyrinth: Using Spatial Metaphors as Methodological Tools in Literary Analyses” because of her insight – and because the work of Rydberg is not available in English. I certainly hope I convinced her to translate the stories for American audiences.

The only problem with the conference was me. Due to other engagements, I could only appreciate the sessions on Friday. It would be wonderful if the conference could be held in late May/early June after the spring semester commences, but after midterms in the fall will have to do. I look forward to next year’s conference in the great city of Baltimore, where MAPACA will celebrate it’s twenty-fifth year. As for me, I hope to be on another panel where I can discuss the thematic depth of John Carpenter’s THE THING. Yes, I know I should work on a Poe piece, but Mac and company are calling to me through the perpetual winds of the Antarctic.

Regardless, many thanks to MAPACA for another riveting conference, and for Lisa Miller’s neverending encouragement and energy. It was a pleasure to see the amazing Antares Russell Leask once again, and to meet Elizabeth L. Erwin, Tamara Andersson, John Bayard, and so many more wonderful educators with a love for all those intriguing elements that give our culture flavor.

(Photo from Jillid.Deviantart.)

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