Many people recently have asked me why I like [some] zombie and vampire stories (and, more generally, why they’re so popular right now), and after taking the time to think carefully on the topic and explain it to them in person, I thought I’d do my 3 readers a favor and write it out here as well.
First, the two apparently-different genres have several similarities:
- fantasize about what could be done with [effectively] unlimited power
- fantasize about existing as an amoral being – one who is no longer bound to human standards because of their “conversion” to something other-than-human
- follow a “scorched earth” scenario to clean the slate and allow individuals to create new societies (also, consider The Postman and other apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic stories)
- fantasize about how humanity as a whole can recover from an unconventional apocalypse (so many stories have gone the “nuclear option” that it’s almost passé)
- explore the dark side of the human condition without being criticized [as much] for talking about taboo topics (eg racism and [healthy] feminism in Night of the Living Dead)
In many ways, zombies and vampires are the prototype supervillians we love to hate in comic books.
Vampires (in some form) have been mythologized for at least a thousand years. That wikipedia page goes further to note that dating back to at least the Mesopotamians there were stories of protovampires. Additionally, various recent archaeological news stories show “vampire graveyards” being found all over Europe – some dating 2000-4000 years ago.
Modern fascination with vampires started a long time before the paranormal romance section in your local bookstore started (which predates Twilight) – we can backup to Dracula by Bram Stoker for igniting the interest in vampiric stories over the last ~120 years in the West. However, until Twilight came along, there were very few vampire stories which had “good” vampires in them – Wesley Snipes’ Blade trilogy did, as has Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Dark Shadows (which, as a sidebar, starred characters with the last name of “Collins”, which has made me wonder whether Stephanie Meyer picked “Cullen” for her prime protagonist family’s last name because of the “positive” vampires in the previous series), and, arguably, Interview with the Vampire.
However, the vast majority of stories surrounding undead creatures who appeared human but drank the blood of mere mortals, or who could morph into bats was far more prolific than any “good” rendition of the genre. Surely there is a reason that, in general, when we hear “vampire” the first thing we think of is something coming to suck our blood and make us like themselves (or dry us out like the creature Imhotep did in The Mummy).
What about zombies? And no, I am not referring to the voodoo zombies (though it’s where we get the term from). The undead who come to prey on the living have been glorified in Western pop culture horror, scifi, and fantasy stories for at least the last century. And they have existed in mythology dating back to at least the Epic of Gilgamesh.
The basic background always falls into one of a few camps:
- government/private research gone awry (Mira Grant’s Newsflesh trilogy, Resident Evil, etc)
- intergalactic space dust / viral/bacterial mutations/outbreaks (Fido, World War Z (the movie))
- some unexplained phenomena (the George A Romero zombieverse (Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, Land of the Dead, Diary of the Dead), Shaun of the Dead, The Walking Dead, Zombieland, etc)
- there for [nearly] pure comic effect (Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland, Fido (yes, I have double entries))
The zombies portrayed always fall into one of three types:
- “believable” – ie, slow, uncoordinated, existing only to feed and replicate their infection/condition, and gradually getting worse / more decomposed
- may include non-human zombification, but generally within certain “guidelines” (eg the animal size and type (mammal) limit in the Newsfleshiverse)
- traits of the recently infected/”undead” most closely resembling the uncontaminated “living”
- may have zombies display apparent semi-rational activity as the virus (most often) in control decides whether to feed or replicate (generally related to the time elapsed from contamination and/or from last feed/spread activity)
- may display hive/swarm “mentality” in large enough groups (Mira Grant and George A Romero)
- any of George A Romero’s works, or the AMC (and graphic novel) series The Walking Dead are good examples of this classification
- “superhuman” – fast, ravenous, unintelligent, but displaying swarm/hive mentalities
- because the adherents of this theory tend to discount decomposition to some greater or lesser degree, the universes tend to be substantially more violent and bleak than in the “believeable” category
- the Dawn of the Dead remake 9 years ago, 28 Days Later, and the movie adaptation of World War Z are prime examples of this zombie theory (interestingly, Max Brooks’ book World War Z (my review) did not have the superhuman zombie type on display)
- not all superhuman zombie examples are outside the realm of plausibility outside their own worlds, but most stretch believability past where you could think, “hey – that could happen” (especially when dealing with “infections”)
- “transhuman” – research / engineering gone wrong
- this category tends towards the superhuman
- may (and often does) include non-human zombification
- can only exist in the world created by the imaginers – ie, the background explicitly makes known that it is not “our” world, but the one of the story-teller’s making (though, of course, it may closely mimic our world)
- Resident Evil is a perfect example of the transhuman category
The CDC released a “Zombie Preparedness Guide” in the last few years. Some people have scoffed at the concept, citing the guide as a prime example of government waste – up there with the $7600 coffee pot on the C-5 Galaxy and congressional pensions.
However, especially because of the recent spike in interest of the topic of zombies among the general public, such a guide is a fantastic way to raise public awareness to general emergency preparedness, under the guise of humor and fantasy. Such techniques have been employed throughout history (thinking in somewhat recent past, consider the cartoons that accompanied movies in the 30s, 40s, and 50s or the “duck and cover” songs with the turtle propagated during the height of the Cold War; you could also cite the “this is your brain .. this is your brain on drugs” ads from the 80s and 90s with an egg and then the same egg cracked and sizzling in a frying pan).
Unlike aliens (and demons, djinn, and similar otherworldly beings), vampires and zombies do not come from anywhere but “here” (excluding the intergalactic space dust creation theory of Fido and others – where the zombies are terrestrial, but the cause is not). The purely terrestrial – though typically unexplained, and certainly not understood – nature of the creatures that want to eat us gives them an unusual power over our psyche that cartoonish or non-terrestrial evil cannot. If aliens, a la those in Independence Day, come to invade earth – there’s not much we can do (because by now they’ve all seen the movies we’ve made, and know not to come here if they’re allergic to our bacteria (War of the Worlds), hygrophobic (Signs), or running compatible-with-a-Mac-and-CodeWarrior computers susceptible to electronic infiltration by a cable guy with a master’s from MIT).
If vampires exist, depending on which vampireverse is most true, there are ways of destroying them … though it’s hard (fire, silver weapons, the sun, etc).
And if zombies can exist, we all know from every good zombie story (though first promulgated in the Night of the Living Dead) that we can kill them “in the brain and not the chest, headshots are the very best”.
If vampires and zombies are our most primal supervillians, who are our superheroes to deal with them?
Though mentioned, there are many of other myths of the undead, third-world, and/or otherworld inhabitants, including jinn (include Vikram the Vampire in Alif the Unseen by G Willow Wilson (review), aliens, and daemons. Perhaps I’ll get around to writing about them someday. But for now, I’ll keep them as mere passing references.