Inside "The Zombie Class" That Taught Maryville Students to Survive the Walking Dead

The screech of an emergency alert buzzer summons students to the video broadcast. "The bodies of the dead are returning to life," the ticker announces, just before clips of world leaders, scientists and news anchors frantically explain that hundreds of millions of people may die after being exposed to a virus thanks to a laboratory mishap in San Francisco.

Soundbites come fast, as scenes of doctors rushing through packed medical facilities and military groups leading patients into detention zones splash across the students' iPad screens.

"Anyone showing signs of a contagious illness will receive special treatment here, at the airport's purpose-built quarantine center."

"The mandatory quarantines have sparked civil unrest."

"Containment is not very likely."

"Those who aren't killed by the virus will probably die in the fighting, so maybe this is it. This is how it ends. Pretty soon, there won't be anyone left."

The broadcast suddenly cuts to a newsroom, empty except for a desk where a man with bloody bandages around his head holds a script and prepares to read to the camera. Next to him, a woman in a patient gown is unconscious, her arms restricted by thick chains and her face covered by some sort of respiratory mask. Her lifeless body slumps over the desk.

"Hello, this is Dr. John Marino broadcasting on the emergency system," the man reads. "If you are a survivor, there's a safe zone established. It will be available Monday at 9 a.m. in Kernaghan 3136, Maryville campus." The video screen behind him shows b-roll of the military shooting chaotically at a horde of zombies surging into a fenced-in area.

Marino repeats the safe-zone instructions, adding, "Do all you can to survive." Then the broadcast abruptly cuts out, replaced with black-and-white snow.

And with that, eighteen Maryville University students are welcomed into HUM 297H: Are You The Walking Dead? — or, as it's better known on campus, "the Zombie Class."

click to enlarge Maryville professors Kyra Krakos and John Marino are wrapping up their fifth and final year of classes based on The Walking Dead and other works from the horror and fantasy genres. - THEO WELLING
Maryville professors Kyra Krakos and John Marino are wrapping up their fifth and final year of classes based on The Walking Dead and other works from the horror and fantasy genres.

The Outbreak

Despite being five years old, the Zombie Class has remained a big mystery on the Maryville campus — a secretive club whose inner workings are known only to students, class alumni and professors.

Sure, undergrads can find information about how the class might align with their interests or which core requirements it satisfies. "This course will use the thought experiment of the premise that the popular 'zombie apocalypse' has taken place," the syllabus promises. "Within that construct, students will examine their ideas about survival, ethics, quality of life, communication, core beliefs, and social mores. Parallels and discussions will be drawn to other times of crashed society constructs in history as a way of exploring human responses. When the zombie apocalypse happens, who are the walking dead?"

But the day-to-day occurrences? The projects that make some students scream, cry and nearly give up? The physical and mental tests of perseverance? What happens in zombieland stays in zombieland.

Until now, that is. With the Zombie Class in its final semester, professors Kyra Krakos and John Marino agreed to let in a journalist.

Krakos and Marino debuted the class in 2014 at Maryville, a private university in suburban Town and Country with about 2,700 undergrads. It seemed like a perfect time and place to focus on The Walking Dead, one of the biggest comic book and television titles in history.

In both mediums (launched in 2003 and 2010, respectively), the plot begins like this: Sheriff Rick Grimes is shot while on the job and ends up in a coma, waking in his hospital bed a month later to find that his facility — and city — are completely abandoned except for the ravenous undead. He begins a years-long journey that has him making hard decisions about humanity, community, government and survival.

And there's blood. Lots of blood.