What a Zombie Movie Made by Particle Physicists Tells Us About Science Education

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Dec. 12 2012 2:15 PM

Why a Zombie Movie Made by Physicists is the Best Kind of Science PR

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A still from Decay.

Back when I was a science writing intern at a major U.S. lab, there was a short list of words we were cautioned never to use in our public articles. Radiation was at the top of that list, not because the lab produced it in dangerous amounts (actually, it produced less than exists normally in nature), but because when people read the word, they freak out. The public’s fear—and by extension, this lab’s fear of talking about—radiation is understandable, but it’s also unreasonable and reveals a disappointing ignorance of science. Indeed, in a moment when science education, science literacy, and basic science funding are suffering, the kind of PR divide that a little word like radiation can wedge open is supremely unhelpful. But how can we combat it? With boring public lectures? With childish open-house-style “science days” full of cheesy demonstrations? A group physicists and engineers at CERN, the particle physics lab outside Geneva, Switzerland, had a better idea: Make a zombie movie.

J. Bryan Lowder J. Bryan Lowder

J. Bryan Lowder is a Slate assistant editor. He writes and edits for Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section, and for the culture section.

CERN is the place where the Higgs Boson, the particle-size snippet of a previously theorized field thought to imbue matter with mass, was discovered back in July. And before that, it was best known as the home of the Higgs-producing machine—the Large Hadron Collider—that some claimed would create a black hole or other exotic phenomenon capable of ending the world. (For the record, this hasn’t happened—yet.)

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The frustrating questions from under-informed journalists and phone calls from crackpots inspired a group of CERN researchers and technicians (almost all with little or no filmmaking experience) decided to have a little fun with the unfounded anxieties surrounding their work. They would create a genre-aware, DIY horror flick called Decay in which the populace is zombified not by a virus, but by “Higgs radiation.” And though CERN never authorized or endorsed the film, it also didn’t stop the team from making it.

Burton DeWilde, a physics Ph.D. and Decay’s director of photography/editor (and a friend of mine), explained the genesis of the project in an email:

The idea of filming a zombie movie at CERN was originally conceived by Luke Thompson (writer-director) and Hugo Day (props master) while exploring the lab's creepy labyrinth of underground maintenance tunnels. It was agreed that they would make an excellent setting for a horror film. From there, the story evolved into a cheeky riff on the black hole hysteria: "The LHC didn't produce earth-devouring black holes after all—but have you considered brain-devouring zombies?" Concerns about the Higgs in particular and clichés of mad scientists were also mixed in. We took all these worries to a totally ridiculous place.

And Decay is totally ridiculous, in the best sense of the word. The 75-min, $3,500 movie is remarkably well-made, given the creative team’s lack of experience. It’s studded with all the gratuitous gore, cheap shocks, and absurd plot twists that zombie fans crave. Science nerds and those who love them will bask in its shameless use of sci-fi clichés like “the results are inconclusive at best,” and “my research is too important!”

But all joking aside, this research is important, and sharing it with the public is a worthy goal. For this reason, CERN was wise to offer its tacit support of a project that, despite its undead conceit, actually does a better job than any narrative film I have ever seen of introducing a lay audience to the world in which ground-breaking science gets done. DeWilde recalled that while he and his team were “concerned that CERN's administration wouldn't appreciate the humor in what we were doing,” they found the lab brass to be “good sports” in the end. “I think CERN recognizes that every time people engage with particle physics, there's potential for a learning experience,” he said.

I couldn’t agree more. In not being afraid to make a joke about “radiation”—or, for that matter, to show a little brain-eating at an internationally renowned institution—Decay gives the public a mite of credit for being able to discern between fact and fantasy. It will also likely inspire a few more people to Google “Higgs Boson” and learn more about how reality works on the most fundamental level. If that’s not worth a few gallons of split corn-syrup blood, I don’t know what is.

You can watch the entire film below, or download it for free here

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

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