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SIOUX CITY -- Zombies have proven to be a force in literature, on movie screens and on TV. Collectively, they are also known to have unpretentious, "anything goes" dietary habits. 

But let us make something abundantly clear. Historically, zombies have had no demonstrable impact on the availability of affordable energy.

Also, any threat of a zombie apocalypse will likely not affect the size of your wintertime heating bills.

Those were the findings of Briar Cliff University English and writing associate professor Matthew Pangborn, whose article "The Zombie Apocalypse Is a Failed Energy Transition" appears in the December issue of The Journal of American Culture.

Basing his research on an examination of filmmaker George Romero's 1968 cult classic "Night of the Living Dead," Pangborn said pop culture zombies are much more prevalent during times of anxiety or fear of the unknown.

During the lifespan of America, we've gone from a nation that was dependent on timber as an energy source to a nation that was dependent on coal. Then, we switched from coal to oil. 

From the mid-1950s to the mid-1980s, it was thought that nuclear energy would replace oil as America's primary energy source.

"We forget how anxious people became about the safety of nuclear energy and how worried we were over America's energy future," Pangborn explained. "Even more troublesome were these nightmarish visions of resource scarcity."

"What would happen if energy ceased to exist?" he asked. "What would happen to man? What would happen to society?"

These are all good questions despite the fact that nuclear energy still accounts for just 20 percent of America's electrical generation.

"Despite suffering through energy crises and oil shortages in the 1970s, we never did transition into a nuclear powered-nation," Pangborn said. "But it did generate plenty of good fiction."

Why do we see more zombies -- or more horror fiction, in general -- during times of transition?

"From a historical perspective, zombies have been a part of our existence since the early 19th century. People in Haiti would discuss zombies in religious ceremonies. Over time, zombies lost their religious overtones. It became a literary device used to establish anxiety. It probably isn't too surprising to note that monster movies became popular when the world was experiencing the Great Depression." 

I know you utilized 'Night of the Living Dead' as a way to pinpoint anxiety over energy sources. But given the time period, the movie could also be used to express anxiety over civil rights, the Vietnam War, student unrest, right?

"That's correct. You can go the Freudian route and say we are facing our inner monsters through literature. Still, people like to be scared. Zombies as a plot device is effective because people get it. It isn't too deep. Once you establish a zombie trope, you know where the story's going to go."

I guess that's why zombies can be found in fiction throughout the world.

"Exactly, we're seeing zombies in Cuban literature as well as Korean literature, It's all around us."

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