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?

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© 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?

 

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© 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.

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© 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?

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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.

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© 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

Quote for Today: Terry Pratchett

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© TORLEY with CCLicense

Veil, you see, if I vas to say something portentous like “zer dark eyes of zer mind” back home in Uberwald, zer would be a sudden crash of thunder,’ said Otto. ‘And if I vas to point at a castle on a towering crag and say “Yonder is . . . zer castle” a volf would be bound to howl mournfully.’ He sighed. ‘In zer old country, zer scenery is psychotropic and knows vot is expected of it. Here, alas, people just look at you in a funny vay.
― the vampire photographer Otto, Terry PratchettThe Truth

Synkroniciti is fond of Terry Pratchett, we have quoted him here and here.

Undercurrents of Sensuality and Aggression in Bram Stoker’s Dracula

Bela Lugosi as Dracula

Bela Lugosi as Dracula

The most famous of vampires is Dracula. Why are we mesmerized by this character created more than a century ago?

We owe our acquaintance with Dracula, a figure who has laced himself through western culture and has been portrayed on film more than Sherlock Holmes, to the mind of Bram Stoker, who wove him from legend and his own imagination with daring skill. Stoker was known during his lifetime chiefly as the personal assistant to actor Henry Irving and the manager of Irving’s theatre, the Lyceum, in London. It is ironic that his name would eclipse that of Irving, only to be overshadowed by his greatest creation, the aristocratic vampire known as Count Dracula.

Origins of a Monster

Vlad the Impaler, aka Vlad Dracula

Vlad the Impaler, aka Vlad Dracula

Stoker spent seven years researching vampires before writing Dracula, with particular attention to the strigoi, or undead, of the Balkan peninsula. The strigoi were peasant men and women who came back from the dead to feast upon the blood of their own kin. Although he was excited by the animal ferocity of these creatures, who often transformed themselves into wolves or bats, these folktales were not completely satisfying to Stoker, who wanted to create a character to be played by his own employer, Henry Irving, a regal and noble presence who often played impressive villains onstage. Much to his delight, he ran across the history of a Wallachian prince of Transylvania, now a region of central Romania, renowned for his unspeakable cruelty and bloodlust. This prince was called Vlad Țepeș, the Impaler, after his habit of impaling his enemies on long wooden stakes, but not while he was within earshot. His title was Vlad Dracula, son of the Dragon, after his father who had been knighted into the Order of the Dragon and was thus sworn to keep Christianity safe from the invading Ottoman Turks. In fusing the strigoi with this infamous historical warrior, Stoker produced a menacing and enduring personality who contained both aristocratic and uncivilized elements.

A Shadow of Victorian Values

800px-Dracula_1958_c

Christopher Lee as Dracula

Contrary to what we often see in movies, Stoker’s Dracula is not charming and seductive, nor does he seem susceptible to romance. He is a violent and methodical predator who is capable of taking what he requires by overwhelming and out-thinking his victims against their will. Although he cannot enter a home without being invited in, he has, over centuries, amassed techniques for tricking the inhabitants into doing just that. Thus he uses Lucy’s sleepwalking to trap her and his power over the insane Renfield to gain access to Seward’s asylum and his guests.  With the exception of a quick glimpse on the street, neither Lucy nor Mina ever meet him in a normal social situation.

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© Il Fatto Quotidiano with CCLicense

If he is not conventionally seductive, why are Dracula’s victims women and why do they end up under his power? Here lies a deep shadow. At the time Stoker wrote Dracula the push for women’s rights and universal suffrage was beginning, hence there are many references to the “new women”, usually spoken by Mina or Lucy in a pejorative fashion that belies considerable fascination. In addition, Sigmund Freud was promoting his ideas about sexuality and the subconscious. Victorian blood was beginning to boil. We see the men in Stoker’s novel trying to protect their women from the vampire while seeking to retain the proper distance and decorum between genders that was required by society. This strategy very nearly gets them all murdered and the ladies turned into immortal killing machines. It is ultimately Mina’s coordination and communication across the gender divide that provides hope for overcoming Dracula, not the overprotective schemes of Van Helsing and his crew, who consistently make quite a mess of things. These men are crippled by their own refusal to see women as complete beings and their idealization of the feminine. Unfortunately, it is usually the women who pay the price for their ignorance.

374px-1800-jumprope-pinup-Sophia-WesternShe is one of God’s women, fashioned by His own hand to show us men and other women that there is a heaven where we can enter, and that its light can be here on earth. So true, so sweet, so noble, so little an egoist – and that, let me tell you, is much in this age, so sceptical and selfish. 

–Professor Van Helsing, speaking of Madam Mina, Chapter 14

The Victorian lady was presented with few options: she could retain an innocent, angelic personality and show childlike devotion to a husband whom she would regard worshipfully without lust, she could become a spinster on the edge of society who would always be dependent on male relatives and regarded with some suspicion, or she could become a lady of ill repute. Female sensuality was taboo and any woman who admitted to enjoying sex, even within the bonds of wedlock, was not considered wholesome or healthy, although mothers were revered. There is a sense in Dracula that, rather than see their women as sexual creatures, these men would see them dead and their bodies desecrated. Are they engaged in battle with a vampire, or are they victim to their own fears and imaginations?

The unfortunate Miss Lucy has three suitors. In her letters to Mina, she expresses dismay at having to choose between them, admitting to having the scandalous thought of marrying all of them. Later, in an attempt to keep her alive, she will receive blood transfusions from each of these suitors, as well as one from old man Van Helsing himself. Is it this underlying sensuality which condemns her, and if so, are the men guiltless in this regard? Perhaps Dracula is terrifying because he lies at the intersection of female sensuality with male aggression.

Dracula in the 21st Century

Dracula takes place in a culture where women are not permitted to make choices vital to their own survival and where they are stigmatized for their natural sexuality. Old habits die hard, because these issues are front page news these days, although women have many more options and a stronger voice than they did in the Victorian era. Maybe we can put a stake through the heart of misogyny some day in the future.

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© FICG.mx with CCLicense

Dracula may seem like your grandfather’s vampire, but there is life in him yet. A foreign invader possessing skill, intelligence, and animal sensuality, he remains a persuasive argument against eternal youth at a time when our culture seems ready to embrace it as a path of little risk. Come to think of it, maybe the vampires of the 21st century are more frightening. Would anyone want to spend eternity as a sparkly teenager?

Grab the Garlic: The Bloody Truth About Serbia’s (Modern) Vampire from National Geographic

© Heather Bauer with CCLicense

© Heather Bauer with CCLicense

I think we’re yearning for something beyond the every day. And I will tell you I don’t believe in the supernatural, I believe in the supernormal. To me there is nothing that goes against nature. If it seems incomprehensible, it’s only because we haven’t been able to understand it yet.

Richard Matheson

Modern man often prides himself on his rationalism, but there are strange things happening everywhere, many of them quite human in origin. The small town of Zarozje, Serbia, issued an edict in November to warn residents that the local vampire, one Sava Savanovic, might be on the prowl because the old mill where he formerly resided has collapsed. Read more about this anachronistic yet fascinating story here.

Supernormal or supernatural, is there really so much difference? I would hate to think that humans could tie up all of their mysteries with time, but I doubt we would ever be able to. Questions always lead to more questions and understanding is elusive.

Dracula’s Nemesis?: Night of the Vampire by Alê Camargo

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© ishankasaurus with CCLicense

This is an amusing short by filmmaker and animator Alê Camargo. It features a vampire in the city of São Paulo, Brazil, who is having an exceptionally bad night. A predator more persistent and horrifying is making him miserable. I can relate, what about you?

I guess that is what he gets for napping when he should be out getting a bite! If Looney Tunes had a vampire cartoon, this would be it. Slapstick humor and vampires, just plain awesome. Cream cheese and broccoli pizza? Not so sure about that.

If you want to know more about Alê Camargo and Buba Films, click here. It helps if you read Portuguese.