Apologies for the lack of posting lately, in addition to musings on Mists of Albion and failures in playtesting Magic: the Multiverse, the I’ve been caught up with vampires, zombies and undead in general. Fortunately not an infestation of my own, but how they’re presented in media. And it got me thinking about why the supernatural genre is so popular now relative to science fiction or fantasy. And I think it’s grounded in the modern world, and how we respond to it. Zombies, first off. Interestingly, there’s only one kind of zombie that has prevailed in the popular mind, the “epidemic” zombie. This is the idea that the condition of zombiehood is caught or imposed by a force completely beyond the characters’ control. The first notion of a zombie, created by a voodoo priest or other spellcaster, remains the domain of less-than-popular fantasy. This is because you end up telling vastly different stories about the each kind of zombie.
When they’re created by an identifiable outside force, zombie stories become immediately more classically adversarial and task-oriented – take out the evil necromancer, and everything will go back to normal. It becomes your basic questing storyline. But make zombies much more permanent, with an unfightable origin (like a radiation leak, or a virus), and they become less an adversary and more a fact of life. The focus of the narrative can then shift to the interactions between the main characters, or making points with the setting, as zombie film granddaddy George A. Romero did in the various Night/Dawn/Day of the Dead films, right up to the satire of Fido, where zombies are kept as conditioned pets/servants by well-to-do families. This almost never happens in fantasy, and is a rarity in sci-fi, where the shiny magic/technology/metaphysics is frequently given centre stage. Science fiction can break away from this to an extent by just not exploring the social and technological consequences of the new gadgets, which might also explain why science fiction is a more popular genre than fantasy; it’s less self-obsessed, and so can explore far more about the human concerns of the film, from family dynamics to society’s attitudes towards the “Other”.
The other big undead thing at the moment is vampires. From Underworld to Angel to Twilight, these things have also sprung up like weeds in recent media releases. The thing that opened the floodgates here was Interview with the Vampire, making vampires appear much more human than previously imagined. Until that point, apart from Vampire: the Masquerade we had very little media to help us empathise with vampires, they were just bloodsucking tyrants that stood alone and oppressed everyone. But once Interview happened, the way was clear for every kind of vampire empathy, right up to Twilight. And, as much as there’s all sort of different abilities of vampires, their core remains the same and, for the most part, the moral quandry does as well. Their humanity makes them intriguing, as much as the zombies’ lack of it does the same thing.
And then there’s the sex. Lots and lots of sex, and sexual metaphors are often claimed for vampires whole reason for being. It’s even been claimed that vampires express a society’s current attitudes towards sex – for the Victorians who read Dracula and Carmilla, sex and women’s sexuality in particular was threatening, and so vampires were bad. For Twilight readers and Angel viewers, vampires are dangerous and to be handled with care, but not necessarily bad, and can be very good or even a desirable state for the protagonist. Yes, Bella does want to become a vampire – she wants to have sex. And so the themes continue to get expressed.
The key in all this? Both vampires and zombies once were human, but have been twisted one way or another. The sense of empathy remains much more than it does for an elf, a dwarf or an orc, no matter how cuddly you make them. And so comparisons can be more readily drawn between the undead and modern-day humanity. While this does rather make them into chameleon archetypes, shifting and interpreted however they can be in the face of society’s current woes, the fact that they can be portrayed in such a way is fascinating contrast to other non-human races. And it’s not even the setting; urban fantasy, with fantasy tropes ported into semi-modern settings or the real world, are also nowhere near as universal as vampires and zombies. Because fantasy races are still one step removed from humanity, and the empathic link or reflexivity of the characters is missing, even if it’s not swamped by expository passages. We’ll always be closer to vampires and zombies than elves and dwarves, it seems.