Studying the apocalypse

Studying the apocalypse

French class at Dal teaches students about the end times

The end of the world is worth studying. In fact, there is even a course devoted to it.

The End of the World – from A(pocalypse) to Z(ombie), is a second year French elective taught by Dalhousie University professor Vincent Masse. The course is taught in English, and focuses on the chronology and themes found within apocalyptic stories, from the story of the flood in Gilgamesh to the 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake.

“Every year we try to do a few English classes for students who are not in the (French) program but are still interested in French cultures,” said Masse.

Professor Vincent Masse explains the relationship between the floods in Gilgamesh and Genesis. (Photo: Nikki Jamieson).
Professor Vincent Masse explains the relationship between the floods in Gilgamesh and Genesis. (Photo: Nikki Jamieson).

“It’s a research interest for me, apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic literature, and I wanted to find… a topic that’s of interest to students.”

This is the first year the course is being taught at Dal. Unlike Dal’s religion and German cross-listed course The End of the World: the Apocalypse in German Thought, which focuses on Judeo-Christian imagery, the material used is heavily drawn from early narratives, modern fiction books and films.

Most of the material is translated from French, and French artifacts are studied to examine the origins of genres.

Students will read texts such as Albert Camus’ La Peste/The Plague, Jean-Bastique Cousin de Granville’s LeDernier Homme/ The Last Man and Pierre Boulle’s La Planete des singes/Planet of the Apes. Students will also watch the films Twelve Monkeys and Dawn of the Dead.

Similar courses have been offered at other Canadian universities.

Memorial University in St. John’s offers a religion course called Apocalypse: the End of Times in Thought, Action and Imagination. Last year the University of Victoria offered a continuing education course, Bring on the Apocalypse, which coincided with an undergraduate English course, The End of the Human.

“I’ve always liked things that are kinda alternative, like monster movies and horror, and zombies are pretty prevalent,” said Nadia Perry, a biology student taking the course.

“I’ve told my some of my friends about it, and they think it’s really cool, because they don’t have it at their universities.”

There is a morbid fascination with apocalyptic stories.

“It cycles. I think we see, depending on the time period we’re in,” said Joni Crocker, director of communications for Hal-Con.

“We like to imagine a situation where it’s worse. And you can’t get a lot worse than the apocalypse .… (It) is a reflection of our fears.”

Apocalyptic stories are not just about the end of the world. They often end with some sort of hope for the future, and it is often people, not aliens, zombies, viruses, or unseen forces that are the true villains.

“The interesting part of it is how human beings are in this horrible situation and fighting for their survival … a lot of times it’s people who are opportunistic,” Crocker said.

Recently, television programs like Revolution, in which society loses all technology and has to start over, and the The Walking Dead, where humanity has to start from square one while battling zombies, have become popular.

Films about the nuclear apocalypse are making a come back with Mad Max, a remake, set for release in 2015. Alien apocalypse films also remain popular, with movies like War of the Worlds and Pacific Rim. Even natural-disaster films have managed to remain kid-friendly with sucessful films like WALL-E.

However, the popularity of the zombie apocalypse genre appears to be slowing down.

The course will focus on the Haitian origins and film interpretations of the zombie genre. Other topics include visions, disease, time travel and destruction with and without renewal.

“Stories that end badly are older than stories that end well,” said Masse.