Our Darkest Parts
Since the earliest days of humanity, there have been legends of the dead returning to life. The most familiar tales of the undead in western culture are those of the vampire and the zombie. Countless novels, comic books, movies, and video games are devoted to portraying these night stalkers, these predators of predators. Both vampires and zombies return from death to feed upon the living; vampires drink blood and zombies consume flesh. As apex predators, humans are unaccustomed to thinking of themselves as prey. The thought of being another creature’s food is atrocious to us. It is not the fear of consumption that makes vampires and zombies horrifying, however. It is the mirror which they hold up to our culture, reflecting our darkest parts, that makes the undead terrifying. Vampires and zombies, in their opposing extremes, reveal American fear of that which is outside the mainstream.
The way in which one is turned from normal human to vampire or zombie reveals our twin fears of individualism and collectivism. The act of turning someone into a vampire is intimate and personal. The progenitor vampire is often portrayed in fiction as stalking its victim and learning everything about their lives. The vampire then seduces the would-be convert. The victim is told only they are worthy of the vampire’s gift of immortality; only they are special enough among the teeming throngs of humanity to be elevated above their peers. Zombies, on the other hand, are equal-opportunity undead. They transmit their infection through bites and scratches delivered to their unlucky victims. Rich or poor, young or old, black or white matters not to a zombie. If you are alive, you’re a valid target. If you escape one zombie attack alive, it’s simply a matter of time before you become one of the shambling dead yourself. You will be assimilated into the undead collective. This is one of the most common themes in zombie movies. Inevitably, one of the minor characters of the movie will be bitten, conceal the violation, and turn into a zombie at the most inopportune moment.
Americans pride themselves as individuals, but understand we are all part of a linked society. Neither the vampire nor the zombie operates within the confines between the extremes of egoism and collectivism: vampires holding themselves above the masses, zombies dragging everyone down with them. We loathe equally people being swallowed by the collective and being held up as better than their peers. Should an American hold themselves to be of a status far beyond the lot of common folk (as is often the case with celebrities), we feel the need to knock them down a peg or two. Our independent streak, however, prevents us from embracing the other extreme, collectivism (or communism).
The societies vampires and zombies exist in reveal our dual fears of autocracy and anarchy. Vampires form autocratic societies centered around a “head vampire.” This head vampire becomes the center of a cult of personality, its members made up of the converts it previously exalted. We see this theme frequently in the cinematic portrayal of the vampire. The heroes in vampire movies frequently are on a mission to destroy the head vampire in order to save a loved one from the curse of vampirism. The vampiric autocrat echoes the tradition of dictators like Hitler or Stalin, convincing its followers to commit unspeakable acts without hesitation. Conversely, zombies need no prompting to kill and devour. They are uncoordinated packs of ravenous cadavers. No one zombie directs the others; no vote is taken to determine which unlucky victim is to be consumed. Zombification is anarchy. Zombie novels often focus on the random nature of these beings. Living characters may be attacked at any time, in any situation.
Americans cherish democracy, where every voice is heard, but understand restrictions need to be placed on individuals for the common good. Neither the vampire nor the zombie respect this balance: vampires trampling democracy with their autocratic machinations, zombies disobeying all laws in their hunt for flesh. The American Revolution was fought to throw off the shackles of a tyrannical monarch, and our hatred of autocracy is deeply ingrained in our culture because of it. On the other hand, we are a rational people. Our rationality makes it impossible for us to abandon all government and laws in the other extreme.
The symbolic results of destroying a vampire or zombie reveal our opposing fears of existing without reason or emotion. Vampires are killed with a stake through the heart. The heart is seen, traditionally, as the seat of emotion. Thus, destroying a vampire with a stake through the heart is symbolically the same as destroying its emotions. Ironically, vampires are cold, calculating monsters, devoid of emotion. Nearly every vampire-themed comic book, game, story, or movie has the stake through the heart as a means of destroying the vampire, or at least immobilizing it. Zombies, conversely, are ended by destroying the brain. As the brain is seen as the organ of logic and reason, putting a zombie to rest is akin to the destruction of reason in the creature. This is again ironic, as zombies are mindless, flesh-eating corpses. The annihilation of grey matter is always a means to eliminate a zombie in fiction and folklore.
Americans use reason and emotion in harmony, striking a balance between what is practical and what feels right. Neither the vampire nor the zombie have this harmony: vampires abandoning emotion for cold logic, zombies eschewing rationality in their hunt for flesh. We fear being subsumed by emotion as much as being caught in the icy grip of dispassionate logic. Most Americans believe, as the ancient Stoic philosophers did, that being ruled by emotion limits one’s ability to make sound decisions. On the other hand, we also believe capitulation to pure logic limits one’s ability to sympathize with other people.
Vampires and zombies are truly terrifying creatures. The undead feed on our very flesh and blood. They devour those we love; they make a lie of our predatory supremacy. The terror engendered by vampires and zombies is not due to their consumption of human fluids and tissues, however. It’s due to the extremes in our culture they represent. We see the danger in collectivism or extreme individualism. We fear anarchists as much as dictators. We prize emotion and logic, and avoid the destruction of either. Vampires and zombies embody the extremes of thought we seek so desperately to balance in life. Perhaps it is because these monsters are not alive that we are able to project our faults on them so easily. In any case, the undead have become the examples of our darkest parts, and we fear them for it.