My first real vampire was Universal’s Dracula, and my first zombies were certainly from Dawn of the Dead. I washed down the Universal movie with the Bram Stoker novel in my teens, cementing in my mind the idea of vampires as insidious, predatory creatures that not only killed you, but turned you into a soulless monster, whose best case scenario was peace in death at the end of a stake. As for zombies, who wouldn’t be scared of a walking corpse, intent on pulling out your innards and eating your brain? If one bit you, you would slowly die, only to rise again and kill your friends… if you hadn’t saved a bullet for yourself. Nasty stuff.
The following decades, with some notable exceptions, marked a steady decline in vampires and zombies as things to be feared and hunted. I won’t say it started with Ann Rice, but Interview With a Vampire was certainly a benchmark, as was Buffy (not that I don’t dig on the slayer!). Not to take away from the impact of True Blood or The Vampire Diaries, but I see Twilight and the million or so paranormal romances that it spawned as the the end of the road for the evil bloodsucker. Zombie movies in the 80s got sillier, but it wasn’t until the turn of the century that the walking dead started to become ubiquitous (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, anyone?), and today, zombie movies are as much about action (Resident Evil) as horror, or have turned into full-on romances like the charming but not in the least bit frightening Warm Bodies.
Vampires and zombies aren’t scary, any more, and a couple of posts I wrote recently – A Monstrous Mirror: The Other in Speculative Fiction and Horror, Primal Fear, and the Terror of Choice – got me thinking about why I cared; I realized that my frustration was due to what I saw as misguided attempts to humanize The Other. On the surface, it sounds like a great idea: embrace what you don’t understand! Let’s all hug! But before we file down the vampire’s fangs and teach the zombie how to love, maybe we should take a few moments to look at what those scares were all about, and what happens when we leave them behind.
Vampires and Zombies Used to Mean Something…
Zombies can represent a paranoid fear of possession, or of the body being violated. They can represent conformity and consumerism (Dawn of the Dead) or a deep-rooted anxiety that the people we know and love are on some level strangers, and could turn on us. Shambling, groaning, with still-bloody wounds, they remind us of the body’s frailty, and the essential truth that all of us will one day fall apart. In Warm Bodies (the book and the movie), though, the zombie’s message is about how love brings us to life. I’ve got no problem with that, but the net result is that the zombie becomes something to be pitied more than feared: something to embrace, and transform.
Vampires have represented everything from hatred and fear of Eastern Europeans (especially Jews – Stoker’s anti-Semitic imagery is hard to deny), to demonization of sexuality and fear of societal parasites. Lately, I’ve been thinking about the vampire’s role as a predator that hides in plain site, and gains strength from our failure to believe in its existence. These days, the vampire is likely to be tortured about his own predation, more of a figure of romance and teenage longing (Angel, Edward Cullen) than something to be feared.
Tales of children eaten by witches or turned into toads are still out there, but they’ve been largely supplanted by stories of friendly monsters, who are at worst misunderstood. What’s new (at least in the last decades) is how this sanitation has crept into fare meant for teenagers and adults.
The problem with humanizing The Other is that confronting it is how we grow, either by overcoming or integrating it. Taking a (negative) other – a fear – and transforming it into something harmless doesn’t rob it of its power, it only hides it. Edward Cullen is still a predator: he stalks Bella, he ignores her protestations, but his obsession is seen as romantic because he’s no longer perceived as a threat. Zombies at this point are so commonplace that we’ve become desensitized to them: they’re something to populate a video game with, or run a 5K as, or fend off with plants. In short, zombies are no longer social commentary, they’re mainstream fun, and whatever archetypal messages they once had for us isn’t getting through.
A World Without Hunters
The Other is something that we ideally need to understand, but sometimes need to combat. Confusing the line between when we need to humanize and when we need to fight is dangerous because refusing to recognize danger doesn’t incapacitate it, it just takes away our ability to react to it properly.
A world without hunters is one that can’t recognize danger – one that instead of dealing with and conquering fear, buries its head in the sand and pretends that if it just doesn’t call scary things scary, they can’t hurt it. Predators are still out there, though, as are consumerism, fear of sexuality, and death. We are made more vulnerable by our failure to look fear in the eye and make the hard choices that follow.
New monsters may emerge, but by letting go of the old ones we lose the power of the established archetypes. Perhaps, in time, the trend will reverse, and vampires and zombies will once again become creatures to fear, and to fight. I miss the creepy vision of Dracula, climbing like an insect up a castle wall, or a survivor, pulling a pin from a grenade as the zombies crash through the door. We need to start hunting, again.