Our (Undead) Bodies, Our (Undead) Selves

NOTE: This project was my capstone for undergrad. I’ve tweaked it a bit and reformatted it for online use. Yes, I know, it’s really freakin’ long. Godspeed.

Vampires and zombies are basically the same thing, so why do we view them so differently?

As media consumption rises in modern Western culture, one thing has become abundantly clear: we are freakin’ obsessed with monsters. There is much speculation as to what monsters represent. Perhaps they represent our fears and society’s scorned– or perhaps they are ourselves, reflected through a distorted frame. They act as both the thing we fear and fight against as well as the thing we have recently come to relate to and support. Asa Simon Mittman says it quite nicely when he tells us that “[Monsters] break and tear and rend cultures, all the while constructing them and propping them up.” Folklore has existed about monstrous creatures from back before recorded history and shows that they are present in cultures around the world. Mystical monsters in The Epic of Gilgamesh, dragons and whatever the heck Grendel is in Beowulf, star-studded Itzpapalotl in Aztec religion, the list goes on. However, one particular theme of monstrosity has captivated humans across the world: The cannibalistic undead. 

Strange as it may seem, people have a fascination with the consumption of the self. By “consumption of self,” I don’t just mean cannibalism– I’m also talking about dismantling the image of humans as complex beings. 

Two recent incarnations of undead cannibals have gained an unprecedented amount of popularity: the vampire and the zombie. However, despite being very similar by way of how they function and what makes them monstrous, these two exist in vastly different social circles. The vampire is depicted as a wickedly intelligent aristocrat with ashy skin and flawless bone structure, whereas the zombie is a mindless, decaying beast with the single-minded intent to feast upon human flesh (or, shall I say, “Braaaaiiinnnsssss…”). 

So, what gives? Why do we see these two so differently? What are they to us? I argue that these monsters are both objectified by the public eye: the vampire as humanity’s dream, and the zombie as its nightmare

Our idea of vampires has existed long before our idea of zombies has. However, prior to the mid-18th century, the vampire was confined to local folklore from the Balkans. In 1732, things changed. A report by Dr. Johannes Flückinger about vampires in the village of Medveđa, Serbia caught the attention (and the imagination) of Europe when thirteen out of forty corpses in the cemetery seemed to bleed when cut, despite being long dead. This report also detailed that humans could catch the vampiric condition through either being bitten by the afflicted, or by eating infected meat of cattle that has been drained of blood by a vampire. 

This concept of vampirism as a viral pathogen is weirdly similar to how modern culture sees zombies. Zombie contagion is the chief theme in movies like 28 Days Later (2002) and World War Z (2013), as well as video games such as The Last of Us (2013). These modern zombie depictions often cite a man-made zombie illness, whereas this early modern vampire disease seems not to list a source (this, of course, reflects the relative lack of virological knowledge in the 18th century), but the acknowledged fear of an uncontrollable disease is paralleled in these two monsters. Additionally, reports around this time described the afflicted as “behaving as though possessed by wild beasts,” which is at odds with our modern perception of the even-tempered vampire from movies such as Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) and Jordan’s Interview with the Vampire (1994)—both adapted from books that show similarly mannered vampires. But you know who those vampire reports do sound like? Zombies.

Thus, the original vampire was, in essence, a very close approximation of a modern zombie, not only in the savage behavior and undead nature but also in the rate at which they infected others with the disease. The second plague pandemic ravaged Europe approximately every six years, during that time, so perhaps the minds of the Balkan people were on this threat, especially considering the rampant plagues that spread in waves through the Ottoman Empire. Additional evidence of the Ottoman connection is suggested when the 1732 incident’s “vampire patient zero,” is listed as Arnod Paole, a soldier who allegedly caught the disease from a vampire while stationed in Turkey– the central seat of the Ottoman Empire at the time.

Despite the connections between the old folkloric vampire and the new Hollywood zombie, the development of each did not happen on a linear timeline, and in the modern age these two serve far different social purposes. A footnote in Persephone Braham’s essay, “The Monstrous Caribbean,” makes this point as she says, “The recent proliferation of popular culture zombies in film, literature, television, and games echoes that of the vampire […] they stand in for new anxieties.” 

As I’ve said, vampires have existed in their basic form for much longer than zombies. As a comparatively recent addition to the undead abhuman family, the zombie emerged a little after the time of the “Encounter” of European colonizers and the peoples of the Caribbean. Characterized by the “theft or capture of the soul,” zombiism, according to Braham and others, has become a symbol for many colonial and postcolonial scholars to speak through regarding the theft of mind and body of innumerable enslaved societies. 

The monstrous zombie is a product of a few different religions, the primary one being cited as Haitian vodou. Unlike the voracious cannibal of today’s movie screen, “zombie” was a word used to describe an individual whose soul has been stolen by another and, consequently, who was now employed as a slave to do the bidding of this person. According to Braham, zombies and vodou practice grew to become a symbol of fascination and a strong reason for the occupation of Haiti by the USA in the early 20th century—white man’s burden, and all that. 

However, the spread of the zombie image in popular culture was due, as Braham says, to Americans combining the concepts of zombiism and vodou practice with “cannibalism, vampirism, and the gothic” until the zombie was commonly associated with “vampire/cannibal rituals… depraved sexual excess, and other tales of inhuman savagery.” Gothic scholars Angela Tenga and Elizabeth Zimmerman agree with this assessment and take it a step further by suggesting that the fall of the monstrous vampire (and the rise of the sympathetic one) left a vacuum that zombies were influenced to fill as their newly, truly monstrous young relative.  

The rise of zombies as monstrous humans is investigated by Kette Thomas in her article, “Haitian Zombie, Myth, and Modern Identity,” where she delves into, among other things, the differences between the zombie and other, European forms of the undead, such as revenants. Thomas argues that though these figures existed, they did not contribute to “discourse on subjectivity,” whereas in modern zombiism this is a primary focus. This could be, in part, due to the bulk of US knowledge of the Haitian vodou practice appearing in the form of ethnographic accounts. Unlike the development of the vampire myth, which was allowed to marinate internally in the folklore of the Balkans for centuries before being released to Europe, where it was refined and polished, our first contact with zombies was from an exploitative, outside perspective.  

Zombies in “real life” grew powerful under the rule of Haitian dictator Papa Doc Duvalier in the late 20th century, a man said to keep an elite task force of zombies who were impervious to pain and lacked emotion. 

However, even before this we have our first film depiction of the zombie—and no, it isn’t Romero’s famous film. In 1932, a feature length film was released entitled The White Zombie. It starred Bella Lugosi as the evil master of a zombie-run mill on Haiti (fitting that the first zombie movie would star Dracula). A few things about the pop culture zombie were introduced in this movie: 

  • Zombiism is not a ritual performed by a vodou priest, but rather a potion given to the victim.
  • The zombie is mindless and controlled through mental force by the master.
  • Though the victim initially dies before rising as a zombie, the zombie ingenue at the end of the film is freed from the spell and seems to have no aftereffects of being dead. 
  • And, of course, Lugosi’s villain lived on a clifftop castle. 

Another early zombie depiction appears in the 1943 film I Walked with a Zombie, a film seem by many to mirror the plot of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. What makes this interesting is the postcolonial criticism Jane Eyre has received in recent literature—I am, of course, referring to Caribbean writer Jean Rhys’s 1966 novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, a short novel written as a response to the inadequate single-story narrative told by Rochester about his insane attic-imprisoned wife, Bertha. This zombie interpretation is also interesting because in Jane Eyre and in Wide Sargasso Sea, Bertha is said to be originally from Jamaica, where zombie myths proliferate. 

The re-imagining of Bertha as a zombiefied figure in I Walked with a Zombie also shows an important cultural checkpoint for zombiism as a consequence for being morally or socially divergent. In the film, the mindless zombie wife is said to be thus afflicted as a consequence of trying to leave her husband and break their family apart.  

The majority of zombie films prior to George Romero’s famous movie put the brunt of the villainy not on the zombie, but on the vodou master that creates and directs the zombies. However, though Night of the Living Dead (1968) did not mention zombies directly, it became the mold for many zombie movies thereafter. 

Ironically, Romero has directly cited his inspiration for the movie to be the 1954 book I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson, which features an outbreak of vampirism. the inspiration was so great that Romero is quoted as saying he “basically ripped off” Matheson’s novel. The cause of the outbreak– cosmic radiation– provides a scientific prototype for later zombie depictions. In the article, “Survival Horrors, Survival Spaces,” John Edgar Browning argues that the primary focus of Romero’s film is not on the creatures attacking, but on the group of survivors holding out against the mindless horde. The blank space Romero created by not providing an origin for these undead creatures left much room for interpretation—and in an increasingly modern world, the image of a mindless slave combined with the tireless savagery of Romero’s monsters created the zombie we know and fear today.  

The progression of the pop culture zombie has been the virtual inverse of the vampire. Whereas the zombie began as a mindless yet often blameless sympathetic figure at its outset, its association with cannibals, vampires and gothic horror has brought upon it an unsympathetic, animalistic identity—just like the original depictions of the vampire in the Serbian reports. 

In contrast, the vampire has gone from a terrifying image of undead cannibalism and mindless viral transmission to a sympathetic victim of cultural circumstance. As I have said before, the 18th century vampire sightings created a huge stir in Europe. These incidents were a direct influence on Bram Stoker’s famous novel. However, even before Dracula was a short story written by John Polidori, personal physician to Lord Byron, for the same playful competition that produced Shelley’s Frankenstein. 

Polidori’s story, The Vampyre, is seen as the first modern vampire story. In it, the vampiric Lord Ruthven has the characteristics of a traditional Byronic hero (similar to Mr. Darcy of Pride and Prejudice and Rochester of Jane Eyre). However, his standoffish, gruff manners do not hide a heart of gold as the story’s young protagonist hopes. Instead, Ruthven is revealed to be a villain who preys on young women and corrupts their virtue as well as their blood. Despite this dastardly practice, Lord Ruthven is an important figure in creating today’s sympathetic vampire because he creates the image of an aristocratic, intentional villain. He exhibits free will in his decisions, seeming to take pleasure in sowing ruin and debauchery, and his maliciousness is given dimension outside of the traditional image of the vampire as a savage beast.  

The later image of Lord Dracula shows echoes of Ruthven’s aloofness and adds still more onto the modern image of the vampire as a thing of wealth and ancestry rather than of blind hunger. Frank Grady argues that Stoker’s vampire is a personification of wealth and capitalism, as are the vampires in Anne Rice’s novels. Though once (with Stoker’s novel) representing the dangers of Victorian capitalism and singling Count Dracula out as the cultural misfit that must be stopped, the vampire story has developed over time to depict vampires as complying with, and even reinforcing, cultural ideals of wealth and luxury. Rice’s vampires and, later, those of Stephanie Meyer in her Twilight series, base their immortal existence on just that: existence. 

I again return to Grady as he comments that these new, modern vampire groups place value on aesthetic enjoyment, “as if to be a vampire is to be a curator of culture.”

The “demonsterizing” (I absolutely just made that word up) of the vampire can also be seen in one of the most interesting and iconic characteristics of our sparkly friends: the thirst for blood. As I have said before, initial modern vampire reports claimed that the creatures fed on animal blood and human flesh. In Polidori’s short story, Lord Ruthven leaves at least one victim drained of blood, and though it is unclear whether all of his victims fall prey to his bloodlust, one of his victims has blood on her chest and teeth marks on her neck. Original depictions of vampiric individuals describe them as ruddy and reddish-purple, with faces bloated from the blood they’ve consumed. Today’s vampire pales (literally) in comparison. To once more reference Twilight, the Cullen vampire family jokingly refer to themselves as “vegetarians” because they drink the blood of animals rather than humans to survive. Many vampire scholars, such as Sam George and Bill Hughes, see the classical depictions of blood consumption in the vampire myth as representative of cultural fears surrounding the mixing of bloodlines, racial or otherwise. This makes sense in Polidori’s story because Ruthven is described as ruining the lives of virginal young women he seduces, causing them to fall from grace and into social ruin after the vampire has had his way with them. Another, more recent, association with the transmission of blood is the fluid as a carrier for AIDS and other diseases.  

However, since our modern advancements in cultural diversity have (somewhat) lessened the taboo of interracial and interclass mixing, the transfer of blood is more of a moral issue based on causing harm to others than a societal issue of blurring class distinctions. Tenga and Zimmerman describe this as the vampires “develop[ing] a conscience” and “eschew[ing] human blood.” Additionally, these two scholars point out that the taboo of mixing blood has been so reduced in modern culture that in shows such as True Blood and The Vampire Diaries, vampire blood is actually valued as a healing elixir that saves humans who consume it, even becoming a sought-after addictive drug. 

We have come to covet the vampire to the point that not only have we begun to infer that the vampire produces its own blood, thus dispelling the parasitic nature of its initial creation, but we have begun to consume the vampire itself. After all, the vampire is on our breakfast cereal and in our children’s television shows.  

Another example of the glamorized vampire is a new facial procedure accurately dubbed the “vampire facial,” during which the patient has their blood drawn and processed through a centrifuge, then is given hundreds of tiny injections of the platelets from that blood into their face to encourage a more youthful texture and appearance to the skin.

Demonsterized vampires, pristine and eternally young, have become the beauty standard for Western culture. 

However, an ironic twist of fate for this new standard is the continued presence of underlying disease: In summer of 2018, two patients in New Mexico who received the vampire facial contracted HIV. Though the spa was revealed never to have been certified to perform this facial, it still goes to show the power of blood as a symbolic and literal carrier. True Blood also has a theme similar to this as, despite the addictive and valuable commodity of vampire blood as a drug, it is also, as George and Hughes say, a “vector of disease.”  

Despite the obvious threat surrounding vampiric tendencies, they are still a representation of the human self, and an idealized one at that. Zombies, on the other hand, exist as beings who are beyond viewer connection. This is echoed by James McFarland in his essay, “Philosophy of the living dead: at the origin of the zombie-image,” when he says that, “The living dead do not simply lack charismatic energy; they have no subjectivity with which to identify.” Their mindless hunger, as McFarland says, makes zombies a “vacuum” for human subjectivity, which does not stop many human characters from attempting to appeal to and connect with their zombiefied loved ones. 

An interesting development to consider is one that is prominent in The Walking Dead (the comic and the television series): a character will tell their companion that, should they become bitten and infected, they wish their companion to kill and mangle the body so as to prevent the person’s return as a zombie. 

This acceptance of a lack of autonomy or control is an interesting one because it raises an important question: What is it to be human? Are we not simply a core of nerves and impulses driven for survival? Our mind is what gives significance to our actions, but aside from symbolic thought we are not much more than lumps of muscle, fat, and bone with a constant drive to consume things and increase our number– just like zombies. As Tenga and Zimmerman say, “The zombie reminds us that we will soon be rotting flesh without thought or control.” This causes the zombie to become an eternal reminder of our own mortality, which in an age of increasingly complex symbolic thought and technological advancements, is as daunting as it is horrifying—thus making zombies a complete representation of humanity’s nightmare.  

In contrast, vampires in literature and popular culture retain both their autonomy and their humanity. To reference Tenga and Zimmerman once more, their section about “vampire individuals and zombie bugs” relates this point quite well as the authors insist that vampires retain, above all, their sense of self; that “the individual may be corrupted, but never lost.” I agree with this point, and also when they go on to contend that the modern vampire may even “amplify” the self and its natural desires. Compared to the morally strict Victorian culture in which the decadent and sometimes homoerotic vampire is seen a scourge on the current traditional ideals, the late 20th century leading into the present day provides a more welcoming environment for the undead blood suckers. 

Instead of being a cautionary tale against the dangers of vice, this newly unveiled vampire body—complete with pristine skin, cultural excellence, and sexual virility—becomes an object on which to project humanity’s dream of a youthful, immortal self.  

Proof of this underlying fear of not only the zombie, but what it represents, is evidenced in the response I received after presenting my preliminary findings to a group of peers. One person related to me that when she initially watched the 2007 movie adaptation of I Am Legend, the infected human creatures scared her because she assumed they were zombies. But once she realized they were actually vampires, her fear dissipated. Although vampires were once seen as evil, infectious creatures, the sympathetic coding on their identity in popular culture for the past century has been so influential on younger generations that the mere semiotic shift from zombie to vampire can lessen the monstrous impact it has on the human consciousness. 

Though vampires are certainly monstrous in their creation and their actions, I argue that they still exist within the bubble of civilized normalcy in the eyes of the public: Stoker’s and Castlevania’s Dracula can be reasoned with, the Cullens fight against their bloodlust, and the True Blood vampires are trendy, sexually desirous elite. Zombies, on the other hand, lie outside of this sphere. Their mindlessness and grotesque reanimated bodies lie in the uncanny: they are the familiar human body defamiliarized.  

Recent subversions of this modern take on vampires and zombies must be addressed, as they may symbolize yet another change in the development of these two sides of the human coin. The first is the vampire show, Van Helsing (2016). It has a similar flavor to the widely popular zombie series, The Walking Dead, since it depicts a vampire apocalypse against a small resistance of humans. However, the vampires in this show retain their sense of self and basic reasoning skills, which allows them to remain inside the bubble of humanity. 

The next subversion is the television series iZombie (2015), which has a sentient zombie coroner as its protagonist who, as long as she is able to consume human brains on a relatively consistent basis, remains visually pristine and in control of her mental faculties, with the exception of when she goes “full-on zombie mode” and exhibits superhuman physical characteristics and red eyes. We are able to sympathize with her because she works in a morgue and thus is able to “ethically source” her brains. Added to this is the benefit of psychic visions and special powers that come when she consumes the brains, both of which she uses to fight crime and bring the murdered owners of these brains to justice. Her need to avenge the murders of those she consumes clarifies her intact morality and demonsterizes this individual. Even still, the traditional modern zombie-image is seen a few times as a consequence of going too long without human consumption: the flesh will begin to decay, the individual is lost, and the hunger and savagery take over. The source of the outbreak is striking: a slightly more modern take on the classic zombie theme of scientific experimentation gone wrong, the cause for zombiism in this show is a tainted batch of a mind-altering drug called Utopium.

Another example of the zombie role subversion is in the comedic television series, Santa Clarita Diet (2017). Here the zombie image is represented much like that of iZombie: Renewed, human-ish life dependent upon consumption of human remains. Unlike iZombie, where the zombie characters demonstrate virtually the same personality and will as they had before being transformed, the Tenga and Zimmerman theory of amplified desires in vampires is in Santa Clarita Diet applied to characters afflicted with a condition later identified as zombiism. In the show, this is represented through an observation that, post-transformation, the zombie’s Freudian id is amplified. It is important to note, however, that in this show, zombies are portrayed as sentient beings rather than mindless creatures, and zombies are never shown to become mindless creatures. The main consequence of zombiism in the show is a slow descent into decay, but that is soon solved by an “anti-aging” cure. As with iZombie, the victims of the “good” zombies are morally acceptable: Sheila and Joel, the two main characters, go out of their way to find local Neo-Nazis to kill as food for zombified Sheila.  

The last example I will bring up is a recent vampire television series called V Wars. The listed cause of the outbreak is the release of a pathogen caused by the polar ice caps melting. Like the use of drugs in iZombie, this is an interesting evolution of the public’s fears surrounding future outbreaks,. It not only touches on the possibility of a pandemic by way of an unknown virus, but it also ties in the very real threat of global warming. 

Though the image of the vampire has not yet been successfully reclaimed by the monstrous, the same terror and insecurity that haunts its origins is still being utilized to further the fears of the modern age. In a similar way, though the zombie is a grotesque reminder that we humans are in a constant state of decay, the freedom that state affords us (as exemplified in the heightened id of Santa Clarita Diet zombies and the dynamic memory of iZombie) is a concept still being born into today’s world. Even still, the sympathetic zombie is different from the sympathetic vampire in that it must be purified and subjectified in order to become the object of sympathy rather than tolerance or revulsion. The sympathetic vampire, on the other hand, is permitted to live in debauchery and sexual rebellion as long as it continues to provide a clear understanding of what it is doing.  

This exploration of two widely different yet strikingly similar undead abhumans is important to further our understanding of how we view outsiders and ourselves in the scope of humanity. With vampires, cultural anxieties and fear of class boundaries combined with the dangers of capital to create an undying aristocrat—then receded and began supporting the very system it initially threatened as wealth and class freedom rose in budding America. On the other side of the coin, zombies began as husks of obedience to vodou masters and, once explored and influenced by the latent image of the former vampire, energized into mindless depictions of hunger and mortal decay that cause us to feel powerless to resist. While the preserved form of the vampire remains a testament to the pureness of wealth and humanity’s dream, the zombie, its shadow self, persists in destructive decomposition as humanity’s waking nightmare.


Sources Referenced:

Castillo, David R., et al.  Zombie Talk: Culture, History, Politics. 1 ed., Palgrave Macmillan, 2015, pp. 19-20, books.google.com/books?id=qI8YDAAAQBAJ&lpg=PT29&dq=%22NIGHT%20OF%20THE%20living%20dead%22%20and%20%22basically%20ripped%20off%22%20and%20%22i%20am%20legend%22&pg=PT29#v=onepage&q=%22NIGHT%20OF. 

George, Sam, and Bill Hughes. “Introduction: undead reflections the sympathetic vampire and its monstrous other.” Gothic Studies, vol. 15, no. 1, 2013, 1+. Literature Resource Center, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A367421103/GLS?u=sain20269&sid=GLS&xid=758c19c8.  

Grady, Frank. “Vampire Culture.” Monster Theory: Reading Culture,Edited by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen,University of Minnesota Press,1996, 225-241.   

Koenig, Debbie. “Two Test Positive for HIV After ‘Vampire Facial’.” WebMD, reviewed by Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPH, WebMD LLC, 30 Apr. 2019, www.webmd.com/hiv-aids/news/20190430/two-test-positive-for-hiv-after-vampire-facial. 

McFarland, James. “Philosophy of the living dead: at the origin of the zombie-image.” Cultural Critique, no. 90, 2015, 22+. Literature Resource Center, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A421214657/GLS?u=sain20269&sid=GLS&xid=c8ea98a5.   

Mittman, Asa Simon, 1976-. The Ashgate Research Companion to Monsters and the Monstrous. Farnham, Surrey, England ; Burlington, Vt. :Ashgate, 2012.  

Polidori, John. The Vampyre. Sherwood, Neely, and Jones, 1819.  

Tenga, Angela, and Elizabeth Zimmerman. “Vampire gentlemen and zombie beasts: a rendering of true monstrosity.” Gothic Studies, vol. 15, no. 1, 2013, 76+. Literature Resource Center, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A367421109/GLS?u=sain20269&sid=GLS&xid=f690962a.  

Thomas, Kette. “Haitian zombie, myth, and modern identity.” CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture, vol. 12, no. 2, 2010. Literature Resource Center, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A237305521/GLS?u=sain20269&sid=GLS&xid=4e596521.   

Yapp, Malcolm E., and Stanford J. Shaw. “Ottoman Empire.” Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2019, www.britannica.com/place/Ottoman-Empire. 

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