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