"While sick, he had dreamed the whole world was condemned to suffer a terrible, unprecedented, and unparalleled plague. . . . Except for a small handful of the chosen, all were doomed to perish. . . . Those infected were seized immediately and went mad. . . . Whole settlements, whole cities and nations, were infected and went mad. . . . People killed each other with senseless rage. . . . [T]he soldiers flung themselves upon each other, slashed and stabbed, ate and devoured each other."
--from Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1866)
As I write this, the news is that the Ebola virus has come to the United States. The threat of plague may be real or not. Fear remains. In 1954, Richard Matheson's novel I Am Legend was published. In it, one man stands against a horde of what he calls vampires infected by disease. In the 1980s and '90s, as AIDS was spreading or at least still on people's minds, vampires were extraordinarily popular. Was there a connection? Maybe. Maybe not.
Today, zombies have replaced vampires as the monster du jour. Contemporary zombies are distinctly different from the original, however. The original was a supernatural creature, created by man to be his slave. That's the kind of creature that appeared in the first zombie movie, White Zombie (1932), and in I Walked with a Zombie (1943). Times and the zombie have changed. In I Am Legend, Richard Matheson called his monsters vampires. When I read the book this summer, I saw the contemporary zombie in them. George A. Romero alone is responsible for that.
I Am Legend was published in 1954. Ten years later, the book was adapted to the silver screen as The Last Man on Earth. In 1968, Night of the Living Dead, co-written and directed by George Romero, came out. Since then, nearly every zombie movie has depicted his version of the monster as a soulless, ravenous, and cannibalistic carrier of a plague, rather than the original version of the manmade and supernatural zombie. Mr. Romero has acknowledged his debt to Matheson's book. In that book, vampires became scientified, that is, they were explained by science rather than by the supernatural. In Night of the Living Dead, vampires became zombified.
Like vampires, zombies are of the undead. Originally, both were supernatural creatures, and although the vampire can recruit more vampires, only a living human being could create a zombie. Now both can be explained by science, by an affliction of the blood in vampires, by some pathogen in zombies. Both are presumably eternal, though soulless, and can perish only by being killed. (1) One difference is that the vampire is aware of his state, while the zombie is oblivious. (2) The vampire can also act under his own volition, while the zombie is driven purely by its insatiable hunger. Both have a taste for flesh and blood. Both were once human but now are not. They need not dehumanize their prey before killing it, because they themselves have become dehumanized. They no longer have any compunction about killing. And in killing, they literally dehumanize their prey, in other words, they turn a human being into something non-human.
Both look human, the vampire more so than the zombie. The vampire can pass among us, whereas the zombie cannot. Both are also capable of recruiting new members. Significantly, both do so by biting, just as the original monsters--carnivorous animals--killed us with their teeth. Vampires tend to be solitary. They recruit new members slowly. Zombies on the other hand are always in masses and recruit new members exponentially. Both represent decadence. The vampire as we know him (except for the scientific explanation) dates from the fin de siècle and Bram Stoker's Gothic horror novel Dracula (1897). (3) The zombie as we know it dates from 1968 and The Night of the Living Dead but has become wildly popular only in recent years. (4) There is of course reason to believe we are living in an age of decadence.
One very significant difference between vampires and zombies is that some people like vampires and want to be one of them. There is the sexual attraction, too, I guess, and the attraction of eternal life. A Gothic decadence has some appeal as well. Nobody wants to be a zombie, though. People may dress up as zombies and go on zombie walks at Halloween time, but that's all in good fun. In movies and TV shows, every human being fights tooth and nail to survive, to preserve his humanity and his individuality, to prevent his being made a mindless, soulless, emotionless zombie.
With vampires, human society remains. Vampire society exists among ours in a state of perpetual decay. The people who like vampires and want to be one of them have fallen into a state of ennui or entropy. They have a desire to die. With zombies, human society is threatened. It can't survive alongside zombie society. We must fight back to preserve our humanity and individuality. That requires energy and vigor. There is a desire to live.
As in a totalitarian dystopia, zombies are uniform, undifferentiated, soulless masses. They are essentially slaves, though not to an animating idea but to their appetite for human flesh. We don't speak of a zombie dystopia, however. Instead, the expression is zombie apocalypse. Instead of order and entropy, there is chaos. Society disappears, leaving the individual and his clan or tribe to fight alone for their existence. So what do they fight against? It seems to me that they fight against dehumanization, conformity, uniformity, and becoming one of the masses. They fight in favor of their own humanity, identity, and individuality. I think that goes a long way towards explaining the popularity of zombies. That fight is in all of us. We all want to be human.
(1) I'm still not sure how zombies can exist in a continuing state of decay, but then our society exists in a continuing state of decay and has for who knows how long.
(2) Thanks to Stephen Richter for pointing that out.
(3) The period and the genre are and were about decadence.
(4) I wonder if any monster has ever been as popular or as pervasive in popular culture as zombies are today.
Copyright 2014 Terence E. Hanley