Vampires vs Zombies: A Shift in Consciousness

Popular culture is an interesting barometer for shifts in thought. What do modern portrayals of vampires and zombies tell us?

© Michael Blomberg Bentsen with CCLicense

© Michael Blomberg Bentsen with CCLicense

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.

― Seth Grahame-Smith, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies 

I hate the vamp jobs. They think they’re so suave. It’s not enough for them to slaughter and eat you like a zombie would. No, they want to be all sexy, too. 

― Kiersten White, Paranormalcy

 

Vampires and zombies are nightmare visions of the undead, of what it might cost to live out eternity in our current human bodies. They tell us much about what we fear and what we value. In recent years, the portrayals of these monsters has changed. Does this reflect a change in society?

 

© FICG.mx with CCLicense

© FICG.mx with CCLicense

The vampires of the 20th century became increasingly complex and increasingly attractive. Dracula went from a predatory monster who scaled walls and harvested children to a suave and debonair gentleman who preferred to seduce women before sucking their blood. Francis Ford Coppola went so far in Bram Stoker’s Dracula as to give Dracula a poignant backstory complete with transforming and eternal love, something that Bram Stoker would never have done a century earlier. Anne Rice’s novels, including Interview with the Vampire and Queen of the Damned, show the vampire as a tortured soul, always doomed to commit the evil he did not wish to carry out. The more we understand and sympathize with the vampire, the less terrifying and more pitiful he becomes.

© Sparkle in the sun with CCLicense

© Sparkle in the sun with CCLicense

The vampire legend has made another turn, this time into the realms of teenage romance. Walking around in the daylight, sparkling, and sitting through classes at the local high school, vampires seem to have lost their teeth. We even have the notion that a vampire can, through an act of will, resist murdering and find alternatives to drinking blood, like Bella in the Twilight series. There has always been an allure to the heightened senses and awakenings the vampire experiences. Formerly this was balanced by the horror of becoming a creature that must kill and destroy to stay alive. Is it possible that the hunger for experience has so surpassed our respect and love for others that we no longer fear becoming a monster, or do we see a new way of balancing our needs with those of others?

© Sarah G with CCLicense

artwork and image © Sarah G with CCLicense

The zombie’s path in modern culture is quite different. The origins of the myth lie in West Africa, where sorcerers known as bokors were reported to be able to reanimate corpses and have them carry out tasks. The zombi had no will and no consciousness and therefore could be used as an unstoppable assassin, one who didn’t even realize that it was dead. Richard Matheson’s I am Legend presented us with a population infected by a terrible disease that made them into vampire-zombie hybrids, both bloodsucking and devoid of consciousness. This was the inspiration for the zombies in George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and the source of the fabled zombie apocalypse. Romero’s zombies never stopped attacking, so the human need for sleep and rest became a death sentence. And yet zombies were so dreadfully slow that any human who wasn’t caught off guard could escape pretty easily, supposing they were in good condition and the way out wasn’t blocked. Zombies were actually rather funny, lurching around, drooling and moaning incoherently. Who can forget Shaun of the Dead?

Around the time that vampires started to sparkle, zombies changed too. The film 28 Days Later, about an outbreak of illness caused by the bite of a monkey escaped from a scientific testing facility, was the first to mainstream the new zombie, one who could move very quickly. “Fast zombies” were in part the result of new camera techniques and technology, but they also represent a change in thought. The emphasis moved from the victims weakness and failure to escape to the superhuman abilities of the zombies themselves. Like a vampire who could eat garlic and stand against a crucifix, these zombies break the rules. It is terrifying.

© Thomas Hawk with CCLicense

© Thomas Hawk with CCLicense

If vampires reveal a fear of living at the expense of others, perhaps zombies reveal a fear of going through life in a form we feel is beneath us: either as unenlightened and unawake beings, or as beings incapacitated by addiction, debilitating disease, or mental illness. I would venture to say that, as we have extended our lifespans but not our quality of life, the zombie has become more frightening to us. Even if we adhere to good hygiene and a healthy lifestyle, diseases like cancer and mental illness can strike out of nowhere like a “fast zombie”. The fear of global illness and mystery diseases is so great that the CDC has a page of instructions for dealing with a zombie apocalypse, not because they fear the undead, but because they find it an effective way to get people to prepare for disasters in general. If you are ready for zombies, you are ready for anything.

Saying Goodbye to a Legend: Richard Matheson’s Obituary in the Guardian

artwork and image © Kieran Guckian with CCLicense

artwork and image © Kieran Guckian with CCLicense

American author Richard Matheson passed away on June 23rd at the age of 87. He was famous for many novels, including I am Legend, The Shrinking Man, Hell House, What Dreams May Come, and A Stir of Echoes, all of which were made into films, some more than once, as well as many film and television scripts, such as Steven Spielberg’s Duel, Nightstalker, and the famous Nightmare at 20,OOO Feet episode of the Twilight Zone series, starring William Shatner. Inspired by Dracula to write I am Legend, his meaty and fascinating works have in turn inspired many writers, including Stephen King. This obituary from The Guardian includes a wonderful video of Matheson accepting the award of Vampire Novel of the Century for I am Legend. Synkroniciti is  excited to feature the last final paragraphs of that novel as our Quote for Today. Matheson will be missed, but never forgotten, a prolific and talented writer whose works have been adapted for the screen time after time. 

Quote for Today: Richard Matheson

artwork and image @ Merrick Brown with CCLicense

artwork and image @ Merrick Brown with CCLicense

And suddenly he thought, I’m the abnormal one now. Normalcy was a
majority concept, the standard of many and not the standard of just
one man.

Abruptly that realization joined with what he saw on their faces —
awe, fear, shrinking horror — and he knew that they were afraid of
him. To them he was some terrible scourge they had never seen, a
scourge even worse than the disease they had come to live with. He was
an invisible specter who had left for evidence of his existence the
bloodless bodies of their loved ones. And he understood what they felt
and did not hate them. His right hand tightened on the tiny envelope
of pills. So long as the end did not come with violence, so long as it
did not have to be a butchery before their eyes…

Robert Neville looked out over the new people of the earth. He knew he
did not belong to them; he knew that, like the vampires, he was
anathema and black terror to be destroyed. And, abruptly, the concept
came, amusing to him even in his pain.

A coughing chuckle filled his throat. He turned and leaned against the
wall while he swallowed the pills. Full circle, he thought while the
final lethargy crept into his limbs. Full circle. A new terror born in
death, a new superstition entering the unassailable fortress of
forever.

I am legend.
— Richard Matheson, I am Legend