The zombie’s salient place in the collective imagination is evident in modern culture; from cult classics such as Night of the Living Dead to more recent triumphs for zombie culture such as The Walking Dead, we see that the zombie is a figure that continues to haunt the collective imagination. Indeed, it appears to become ever more popular with time whereas the figure of the vampire seems to be fading from cultural imagination. The unwavering appeal of the zombie can be explained in many ways, as can the decline of the vampire. In the forefront remains the fact that the figure of the zombie is adaptable to the zeitgeist, much more so than the vampire, who has become humanised, even idolised and doesn’t allow for the same adaptability of our fears.
The zombie can be seen as an anthropomorphism of the human fear of death, and moreover a manifestation of our fear of the loss of humanity as a result of death; humanity being defined by characteristics such as social attachments, emotions and the control of our base instincts. ‘Corpses cause a variety of strong emotions in the living: corpses look like normal, living people, yet they fail to behave like ones’ (Clasen, 2010). In contrast, the vampire retains certain elements of humanity after death; it can still interact socially and it can feel pain, joy and even lust. The fear of death is one which persists throughout human society, which is why the zombie is such a foreboding figure. On the other hand, the vampire does not signify death, but eternal life; albeit a half- or cursed life. One might say then, that we fear atavism or even the degradation of the human collective into animals, which by and large, is what the zombie can be perceived as. Being without the traits of humanity, the zombie is considered little more than a particularly vicious animal; we fear the degradation of our sentience and therefore our society, and so are drawn to this macabre depiction of the human as an animal. This is illustrated extremely well by a quote from The Walking Dead; “You KNOW that when we die — we become them. You think we hide behind walls to protect us from the walking dead? Don’t you get it? We ARE the walking dead! WE are the walking dead” (Kirkman, 2009). While this fear of and interest in the zombie is an element that remains unchanged over time, the real lure of the zombie lies in its adaptability to the zeitgeist.
The zombie can be seen as an allegory for many elements of culture today, and indeed has been seen as an allegory for numerous social movements and ideas since its rise in western culture. “Historically, zombie cinema had always represented a stylized reaction to cultural consciousness and particularly to social and political injustices” (Bishop, 2009). The vampire does not hold the same allure, instead using out-dated allegories and references to spirituality that no longer hold the cultural consciousness. The vampire is associated with spirituality, specifically living outside God’s grace; with the secularisation of society, these themes and allegories have become less relevant. The spiritual symbol of the vampire has become ever weaker and is unable to adapt as the zombie has.
“The success of a cultural concept, then, really hinges on whether it is perceived to be relevant to people. The zombie satisfies this criterion of relevance: it connects solidly with evolved features of human mental make-up, and it seems to be finely suited to representing salient cultural anxieties. A zombie can symbolize anything from the nameless Other, to the mindless consumer of late capitalism”. (Clasen, 2010).
So, the figure of the vampire has been reduced to a sexual object, one that is to be desired rather than feared. Although the glamorisation and sensualisation of the vampire is something that has persisted since its arrival in western consciousness (Stoker, 1897), this writer believes that the recent idolisation of the vampire, such as its depiction as angst-ridden yet attractive teenagers in works such as Twilight and The Vampire Diaries, has laid the figure to rest once and for all. The mixture of revulsion and attraction detailed in Dracula; “I felt in my heart a wicked, burning desire that they would kiss me with their red lips” (Stoker, 1897) is a far reach from the entirely humanised and mawkish relationships that vampire pursues with humans today.
The evolution of the zombie and its unremitting adaptability and relevance to the spirit and problems of different eras is one aspect that can help us understand the lure that this figure holds for the collective imagination. For centuries, many cultures have told stories of the reanimated dead and over time, these legends have caught hold of popular western culture and art because of their representation of that which we fear; degradation of that ‘human’ part of ourselves and the collapse of society as a result. During the early 20th century, the western fear of superstition, voodoo and cannibalism gained momentum as a result of American occupation of Haiti and the subsequent birth of the zombie on screen; White Zombie (Halperin, 1932). By many accounts, the 1915-1934 occupation of the small island nation brought the first wave of zombie interest and consequent fear to popular western culture and the zombie rose as a ‘cinematic monster uniquely suited to address many of the social tensions of Depression-era America’ (Dendle, 2007). The Haitian folklore legends of the soulless corpses rising to do the bidding of their masters is evocative of issues that may have resonated in Depression-era America as it “records a residual communal memory of slavery” (Dendle, 2007).
The 1960’s saw a resurge in the presence of the zombie in the collective imagination, with zombie fiction such as Night of the Living Dead attributed by some as a result of and reference to the civil rights movement, anti-war demonstrators and other movements that were perceived by the dominant culture to be destructive to the status quo and therefore, zombie-like. This movie forever changed the figure of the zombie (Pulliam, 2007). However, the most interesting adaptability of the zombie is that which is occurring right now. The most recent revival of zombie interest in popular culture is seen by some as linked to the resulting cultural consciousness of the 9/11 terrorist attacks as noted by Bishop (2009):
“Since the beginning of the war on terror, American popular culture has been coloured by the fear of possible terrorist attacks and the grim realization that people are not as safe and secure as they might have once thought. This shift in cultural consciousness can be most readily seen in narrative fiction, particularly through zombie cinema.” This shift is seen, according to Bishop (2009), through images of urban desolation and desertion that resonate with contemporary audiences.
“The end of the world is the ultimate societal fear” (Bishop, 2009). In zombie fiction, this end seems to come from atavism. The collapse of social structures is a common feature of the zombie culture, particularly in more recent works such as Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead or Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, perhaps echoing fears borne from the seemingly ever present threat of societal destruction from terrorists or nuclear warfare. According to Brooks as cited by Bishop, “People have apocalypse on the brain right now. . . . It’s from terrorism, the war, [and] natural disasters like Katrina” (Bishop, 2009). This collapse of social infrastructures adds to the fear of the zombie’s ability to dehumanise. In contrast, however, the vampire is still a social creature and can interact with both its own kind and humanity. Therefore, the vampire poses no threat to societal infrastructures and thus, lacks that dehumanising element that renders the zombie so morbidly alluring.
Due to its adaptability, elements of the zombie have changed and evolved over time as our cultural consciousness becomes more aware and invested in issues that bear little resemblance to the issues and fears evoked by the original zombie of Haitian folklore. The modern zombie incorporates biology and science with attempts to explain their origin, an example of which can be seen in 28 Days Later; whereas the previous incarnations had a more moralistic and spiritualistic basis (Pulliam, 2007). This ability to evolve and shift keeps the zombie from becoming a stale and dreary monster that holds little relevance to contemporary audiences; as, some including myself would argue, the vampire has.
The zombie’s hold over the collective imagination is one borne of fear and relevance. As long as the figure of the zombie continues to be relevant to the zeitgeist and as long as humans fear our animalistic nature and atavism, the zombie will never cease to instil fear and morbid attraction in the cultural imagination. Conversely, the decline of the vampire can also be summed up by this very reason; the figure is no longer relevant to society’s fears and issues. This lack of adaptability is the final nail in the coffin of the vampires allure.
So, you guys should know by now that I’m ever so slightly a Walking Dead fanatic! Naturally, I was thrilled when one of my college courses required an essay on the zombie vs the vampire in popular culture! Well, here is the result! I hope you all enjoyed and let me know whether you agree with the points I made in the comments!