Your Friendly Neighbourhood Undead, and Other Metaphors

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.

Fido zombie pet film theme

Doesn’t he make such an adorable addition to the family?

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.

About Aramithius

I'm always interested in the birth and expression of new ideas, from world creation to philosophical and metaphysical exploration. Fantasy and its related genres are the perfect vehicle for this sort of thing, and I enjoy exploring it in various ways.
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2 Responses to Your Friendly Neighbourhood Undead, and Other Metaphors

  1. waterraven says:

    We’ve had similar thoughts over at Fantasyrantz! Although, I have to admit, we completely forgot about the magic/spell/curse zombie idea. Glad you brought that up in your article. I was totally confused about the “zombie-fied” crew member’s of Queen Anne’s Revenge from Stranger tides– I still don’t understand how they were zombies and still… intellectuals? Voodoo Dr’s even.

    The one thing I would like to say is, I think Bram Stoker’s Dracula was one of the first movies to bring in a more romantic idea of vampires. Not the book by any means, yuck, but the movie DEFINITELY. Dracula started out gross and hairy palmed (which is the origin of the sexuality of the vampire, because hairy palms implied um… hem “self gratification”), like vampires did back in the day– smelling like rotten death and being scary monsters, but later he transformed into sexy Gary Oldman! Woo!

    It was like a different movie suddenly, with Dracula and Mina, finding each other’s souls again through the ocean of time… *le sigh* but yeah, a lot of people died and um, well, she ended up cutting off his head… but that’s true love, damn it!

    I think what we’ve seen more than anything is the vampire going from powerful, mysterious, immortal, to porcelain dolls (sparkly). If anything the vampires have become weaker and more pathetic, but then again, not every vampire can be Dracula or Carmilla (check her out, she’s cool).

    Tim Burton made a weak attempt with Dark Shadows (though I’ll admit the movie was funny) at bringing back the classic version of the vampire, but he simply could not catch the eternal (literally) love of Dracula and Mina with Barnaby and Vicky (weak).

    Alrighty, well, this has turned into it’s own rant. Perhaps I should do something similar on the topic of pathetic vampires 😀 Great read! Love the blog!

  2. Yes, I saw your posts on Fantasyrantz today. You had some good points on the differences between the two types of undead, as they have very different concepts at their core. I would argue that the films started to glamourise vampires, but their association with sex etc was right there in the gothic novels. Stoker’s Dracula has the implied sexuality with Lucy, and Carmilla as a character had very definite sexual overtone, from what I know.

    Not seen Stranger Tides… could be that it’s hewing close to the voodoo origins of zombies, as the original zombies were bodies possessed by a dead soul, which were still quite self-aware (I distantly remember a report about a man claiming to be a zombie, now I think back…).

    As far as the “weakness” of Meyerpires is concerned, I’ve actually heard them described as some of the most powerful vampires, in their own terms – hard, crystalised skin, ok in sunlight, and not actually able to be killed by anything apart from other vampires or werewolves. No steak through the heart, no silver, no cross/crucifix issues, etc. Not that this makes them good concepts, but still. I’m not sure it means that vampires as a whole are getting “weaker”, as there are so many variants out there. Or maybe I’m just clinging too hard to Vampire: the Masquerade…

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