In light of the start of The Walking Dead’s new season this month, it seemed fitting to examine zombies in a social and cultural context and given that the our culture’s undead fascination seems to be a popularity contest between vampires versus zombies, examining the two side-by-side seemed only right.
History of the Vampire
While both zombies and vampires have stirred the imagination and stroked the fears of many generations from campfire stories to dramatic Hollywood productions, their history runs quite deep. The history of the vampire is quite long and traces its origin back to the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia and China with various myths of blood-sucking demons, undead rising from animals jumping over their graves, and tales of various night-born terrors. The legends surrounding the vampire are connected with beings like the Indian vetala, the Hebrew Lilitu and estries, and the Greek Lamia and Empusae. While the specifics of the vampire tale vary from region to region they are almost always supernatural in origin, associated with chthonic forces, and represent the dangers of the night and all it holds. Specifically they were tied to death of children, the drinking of blood, miscarriage, night-time sexual emissions, and the appearance of strangers late in the night.
The oldest depictions of these creatures clearly showed them as grotesque monsters. While some legends were connected to ancestors rising from the grave, the majority of vampire legends revolve around a curse-like existence. Lamia, for example, was a mistress of Zeus and so was cursed by his jealous wife and the queen of the gods, Hera. A bad death or intense spiritual suffering was also connected to the creation of vampires as seen in the Cihuateteo who are women who died during childbirth—seen by the Aztec as a form of battle—and became much feared spirits that haunted the crossroads, drank blood, and led men to sexual debauchery.
The connections to sex are also quite clear. Some modern authors have decried the sexual connotations often associated with modern vampires as found in books like Dracula or the various characters of Anne Rice, but the history of the vampire is very strongly associated with sex. The empusae of the Hellenic culture, were seductive female demons who would lure unwary men to their doom. The Lilitu of Mesopotamia and Lilith—at times referred to as the mother of such night creatures—are both tied to wanton sexuality, night-time sexual emissions, and the dangerous female that cannot be tamed by man. The mandurugo of the Philippines has its roots in a legend of a beautiful woman who left a trail of dead lovers behind her.
Of course not all vampires are quite so sexy; West Africa’s asanbosam is more akin to an ogre with iron teeth than a seductive female. Despite that, the overwhelming depictions of vampires combine death with sex in a fascinating combination that both allures and repulses. With the rise of Medieval Christianity and its repressive views of sexuality, these sexual connotations were further heightened and the vampire became forever more entwined with the succubus and incubus. Indeed, it was not uncommon for surprise pregnancies of “virginal” maidens to be blamed on these night-time creatures, forget the randy youths sneaking out the windows.
It was in the medieval era where the popularity of the vampire seemed to cross genders. While the female vampire with its wanton sexuality continued to be a threat to patriarchal society, male vampires were also popular and often were the bane of bored housewives and secretly stole the virginity of young maidens. This strain of the vampire was further evolved by Bram Stoker’s Dracula, into what eventually became the paradigm for the vampire. Aristocratic, cultured, seductive, but cruel, Count Dracula combines death and sex into a bestial impulse that transforms vampires after him.
Interestingly, it is also from Stoker that vampirism as a disease of the blood with supernatural origins is put forth. Vampirism takes on a medical and contagious quality.
With a brief stint where vampires were restored to their monstrous roots in the 1922 film depiction of Nosferatu, vampires in culture have mostly remained that lethal combination of seduction and danger. Some modern attempts have been made to expand upon the disease of vampirism as seen in Blade among other stories, but generally the supernatural component of the vampire legend has remained strong.
This is where the evolution of the vampire varies from the evolution of the zombie.
History of the Zombie
Like the vampire, the root of the zombie myth rests in the supernatural. The actual word “zombie” comes from West and Central Africa. “Zombi” is the name of a West African sky-deity and in the Bantu language of mbundu “nzumbe” is the creator deity. How this is connected to the living dead rests with a magical practice found in West Africa where a sorcerer known as a “bokor” can steal the soul of another and keep it in a container until it is released where it returns to Zombi.
In this magical act, the spirit contained by the sorcerer is often referred to as zombi, as it is a little creator, bringing luck and blessings to the sorcerer. On the other hand, the healer shamans of South Africa, sangomas, are believed to have the ability to revive the dead. This is connected further in West African practices which were brought to Haiti. Here, there is a melding between the reviving of the dead by the sangoma and the enslaving of souls by the bokor and from this union of healing and slavery the zombie was born.
In Haitian culture it is believed a bokor can revive the bodies of his or her victim to enslave them as supernatural servants. People feared becoming a zombie after death and so would seek out the assistance of healer-priests, or houngans, to protect themselves from the machinations of the bokor. Interestingly, the zombie also was connected with social control and justice. When there was a dangerous criminal whom the law could not touch a righteous bokor could employ his powers to make the person into a zombie without actually killing them, thereby executing a sort of spiritual justice. Here the zombie can be seen as taking on two forms, the dead coming back to life, and the living made into a zombie.
While the tales of the zombie were popular in Haiti and its local regions, it was popularized to a global scale with William Seabrook’s Magic Island in 1929—Seabrook also recorded partaking in cannibalism in another of his books—and the writings of Zora Neale Hurston, the famed folklorist and anthropologist, in her wanderings. Zombies sparked the imagination and eventually evolved from their magical and supernatural roots.
Like the vampire, zombies have their root in the supernatural and like vampires they took a turn towards the medical and contagious, but unlike the vampire, the zombie is now almost exclusively viewed in these terms bereft of its supernatural roots.
In 1968 George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead brought zombies to the big screen in a big way. Rather than animated corpses raised through sorcerous means, the zombie was a flesh-eating, mindless, shambling undead postulated to have been caused by scientific means, likely from a returning probe from space. The movie was inspired by Richard Matheson’s 1954 book, I Am Legend, which is interestingly about vampires caused by a bacterial pandemic. But while the medical connection to the vampire does not seem nearly so popular, through Romero and Matheson, the medical connection to the zombie became standard package.
This connection was further stimulated by the research and theories put forth by Wade Davis in his Serpent and the Rainbow which postulated that Haitian zombies were created by a compound comprised of a mixture of poison from a puffer fish and datura—probably why you shouldn’t smoke datura. Datura, interestingly, has other weird connections as it is a plant often associated with the flying potions of witches.
While Wade Davis’ findings have been disputed by some and are certainly not conclusive, they further cemented the connection between the zombie and its birth in medical causes.
Today, nearly all modern depictions of the zombie are without supernatural connections and instead are seen as the result of a pandemic or having its birth in medicine gone wrong. With movies like 28 Days Later we see viral infections (known as Rage in the movie) causing people to turn into zombie-like creatures except really fast—zombies are bad enough, fast zombies are just ridiculous. While World War Z and The Walking Dead both feature the lumbering-type of zombie, both allude to some sort of medical pandemic, though the cause is not always clearly described. Even comedic depictions of the zombie like those found in Zombieland and Warm Bodies allude to a viral or medical cause for the condition.
This difference in emphasis is what is most revealing about what zombies and vampires truly represent to us.
Our Hidden Fears
Horror fans have always had their favorite types of monsters, but with the sudden craze of vampires and zombies in particular, we are left wondering what specifically appeals to us about these two different creatures.
The zombie, though having its roots in African mysticism, has evolved into a medical monstrosity. It represents the dangers of an unfettered society who explores the world of medicine and science without regard to boundaries. Often in these zombie movies it is some greedy pharmaceutical company, or a super-secret government experiment that leads to patient zero. These are fears of the modern world. We live in a world of large governments driven by the military-industrial complex exploring newer and more mind-boggling ways of waging war often through biological and chemical means. We live in the world of massive pharmaceutical companies that run our healthcare.
To the zombie fan, the zombie apocalypse is not just a great story, but something that might, just be a possibility. Maybe not to the extent of the movies or stories, but certainly it is not too far-fetched to think about. The idea of an infectious disease has particular resonance for our society, especially with regular scares of pandemics from Mad Cow Disease, Avian Flu, Swine Flu, and even the awareness of sexually-transmitted infections being on the rise. Disease and the catching of disease is not a distant possibility, but a real-world problem and consideration. The zombie fan wonders if maybe rather than nearly 4 out of 5 people having (insert disease name) it will be 4 out of 5 people are a zombie.
Zombie pandemic is tied to the idea of a post-apocalyptic society as seen in 28 Days Later, World War Z, and The Walking Dead and so it is likely the zombie fan is drawn in by the idea of living by your wits and fighting for survival. There is a visceral and primal resonance here that connects to our more savage history and roots. Here is civilization stripped of its luxuries and advancements and reduced to a state of *surviving.* It is the human condition removed of all its trappings and left to its bare minimum.
Zombies themselves are the mindless, unthinking horde that are unstoppable in numbers and so overwhelm the human population. While survival is possible, rarely do zombie scenarios have an actual solution to the problem. Here is the unthinking mass of society taken to the extreme; here is the loss of intellect, reason, and all human faculties without hope of recovery. There is a certain inevitable nature that leads to struggling for hope in a hopeless situation. One could take the zombie as a metaphor for what happens to society when it gives up those things that make us human: compassion, reason, intelligence, and working together as a species. It is what happens when we give into mob rule, consumerism, and the uncritical life. We go from living to surviving.
The zombie fan, then, is the pessimist—or realist—who looks at society and sees it stripped of its trappings and headed towards future that both excites and horrifies.
Vampires on the other hand continue to hold the mystique of the supernatural. They are immortal beings dangerous on a completely different level of the zombie. Where the zombie is the unthinking mob in action, the vampire is the ultimate predator of the night. Disguised as one of us, unmistakable from humans, but yet feeding upon us. Everything about them lures us from their dark charm to their dangerously seductive personalities. They are the face of our darker desires given a face come to haunt us in the lonely hours of the night. Without a doubt there is a deeply erotic connection to vampires; even the idea of drinking blood with its piercing fangs and sticky fluids all point to a carnal monster that plays upon fear and eroticism and so resonates with us in a completely different manner than the zombie.
The vampire is the gentleman’s monster, a creature cursed, cruel, but who also represents immortality and the ability for intelligence and sensuality to continue on after death. So the vampire appeals to our sense of fear, but also our romantic sense, our hope and fear that there is something more to this world than meets the eye.
Like the zombie, the vampire can be killed, but unlike the zombie, the vampire is the perfect murderer, able to conceal, trap, and ultimately seduce to your death. Where the zombie focuses on the horde and the faceless group, the vampire represents the individual and often movies and stories of these creatures will rise or fall based on the portrayal of a singular individual. The zombie horde is a pandemic problem that you see coming but often cannot stave off. The vampire however is the sudden and senseless death that strikes without warning. You’re walking through the park then suddenly you’re dinner. It represents the possibility of death concealed in everyday life.
Both zombies and vampires represent a critique on society and both appeal to different very primal parts of our personality. Which monster we are drawn to may give us a glimpse into the most frightening thing of all; our own mind.