Things That Go Bump in the Night: What monsters mean to us today

Fyodor Dostoyevsky once said, “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” I’d take it a step further and say a society can be judged by its monsters. That is, what a society chooses to make monstrous says a lot about that society’s people. The thing about monsters is that they’re all real. Blaming an unexplainable event on a “monster” makes it real, like the medieval women who guarded against demons because that was their explanation for high mortality rates among children. Or how it’s human nature to fear the dark, so as children we invent monsters lying wait under our beds to grab us at the first opportunity because we don’t know why we’re afraid, just that we are.

When it comes to monsters, we know, rationally, that they aren’t real. We know we have instinctual fears to which we give human—or humanoid—faces, but we know they aren’t actually real. Or do we? Because as rational and modern as we’re supposed to be today, vampires and zombies have never been more popular. They are with us now more than ever, and they exist in forms that reflect uniquely millennial values. We call the cultures of a thousand years ago superstitious yet we seem to miss how we code our modern superstitions in the monsters and myths being created today.

“If there is in this world a well-attested account, it is that of vampires. Nothing is lacking: official reports, affidavits of well-known people, of surgeons, of priests, of magistrates; the judicial proof is most complete. And with all that, who is there that believes in vampires?” These are the words of Jean Jacques Rousseau, the eighteenth century philosopher whose writings contribute hugely to modern thought. Rousseau is right—there is a massive compendium of historical data about vampires. They’re one of our oldest monsters. The Ancient Egyptian goddess of war and pestilence, Sekhmet, drank blood, and Persian pottery has been found depicting demon-like creatures drinking blood from men. The idea of consuming blood to sustain unnatural life is not new.

Vampires like we know them today evolved in medieval times, largely in Eastern Europe, from a combination of local superstitions and actual historical figures. For instance, Vlad III of Wallachia, also known as “Vlad the Impaler”, is the popular assumption as Bram Stoker’s “real life” Dracula. It’s not a bad assumption—Vlad’s surname was Draculea, which derived from his father’s nickname “Vlad Dracul”. It’s easy to see how Vlad the Impaler may have inspired Stoker in 1897—he was famous for his beyond cruel methods of torture and execution—but there is no actual evidence that he ever drank anyone’s blood. But he was a violent figure, a hero to his people but anathema to his enemies, and so he is remembered as a blood-soaked monster of war. Ripe pickings for a fevered imagination like Stoker’s.

Historical accuracy be damned, Stoker’s Dracula is the basis of the modern vampire—urbane, wealthy (when was the last time you saw a poor vampire?), charismatic, a sexual predator. What has changed about Stoker’s concept of the vampire is that they no longer embody the Other which is to be feared and loathed as an interloper, here to steal our women. In Stoker’s era, Dracula was thinly-veiled xenophobia and sexual psychosis wrapped up in pulp fiction. Twenty-five years after Dracula was first published, F.W. Murnau made the silent horror classic Nosferatu. His “Count Orlok” (played by the eternally creepy Max Schreck) is not sexy or urbane, but is instead more of an actual creature—hunched, cronish and just plain weird. Cinematic vampires would reflect this weirdness combined with Stoker’s Otherness for decades.

The thing about vampires—the reason they remain fascinating to us—is that they reflect our interests and values as a society. Early vampire mythology is firmly rooted in the monstrous. Vampires are harbingers of evil and are regarded as little more than demons by a people who had a habit of burying people who aren’t quite dead yet. By the late Victorian era, vampires are still firmly evil creatures but they’ve moved up the ladder from “demon” to “suave seducer”. Now they represent fear of a perceived foreign threat and this is also when vampires also become coded as sexual predators. The act of turning someone into a vampire becomes a distinctly sexual act, the implication being that these encroaching Others are turning Victorian women into raging nymphomaniacs. Yet vampires remain distinctly negative creatures and their place in cinema as King Bad Guy is cemented by Nosferatu.

But things change. The 1960’s TV show Dark Shadows introduced Barnabas Collins, a vampire searching for his lost love. Barnabas isn’t entirely sympathetic—he does a lot of killing and kidnapping and such—but he is presented as a figure tormented by grief, a person unwillingly turned into a vampire and who doesn’t want to do bad things but falls victim to his own monstrous nature. The 1987 film The Lost Boys continues the trend of semi-sympathetic vampires, for while vampires are still the bad guys, they are really cool. The Lost Boys gives us teenage rebel vampires, with cool clothes and hot girls. They speak in slang and have motorcycle races and while we root for Sam, Michael and the Frog brothers, who didn’t kinda sorta want to get with vampire gang leader David (Kiefer Sutherland)?

For centuries vampires were the destroyer/destroyed—this complex sets vampires up for mutual destruction. They will destroy humans so that they may live, but ultimately they will be destroyed by the people they prey on. No matter how cool a 1980’s movie made them look, at the end of the day vampires were still embodiments of death. To be a vampire remained a negative state of being. Enter Anne Rice and her Vampire Chronicles. Rice presents vampires quite traditionally—outsiders, seducers, and Lestat, at least, is appallingly selfish—but she also depicts vampires living in highly structured societies. Cast out of humanity, yes, but able to maintain the niceties of life all the same. She also features a character (“the boy” who interviews the vampire Louis in the first book in the series, 1976’s Interview with a Vampire) who begs to made into a vampire. For so long objects of disgust and fear, meant to be reviled, late 20th Century vampires are beginning to be seen as something to covet. For vampires have something humans intrinsically want—eternal life.

Rice gives us a vampire society that is alluring for more than just the sexual foreplay that leads to destruction. This is a world of wealth and unlimited power and almost-limitless life (the sun and fire can still kill vampires). Rice’s vampires are beautiful creatures, erudite and well traveled. Add to that immortality and who wouldn’t be tempted? Vampirism evolves from outright awful to something worth desiring. Certainly there are still sacrifices made to become a vampire, and there are still standards and mores in the vampire world, but by framing vampires as beings worthy of human envy, Rice moves them into anti-hero territory.

From Rice’s anti-heroes to today’s romantic-heroes, it’s a short evolution for vampires, and it has a lot to do with millennial culture’s obsession with remaining young. Today vampires aren’t even anti-heroes, they’re straight up regular heroes. Television shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Moonlight and The Vampire Diaries (adapted from a book series) show vampires going about as nearly-normal people, holding jobs, going to school, falling in love and often trying to right past wrongs they have committed. True Blood, both the books and the TV show, give vampires a social structure as complex as Rice’s, but we also see vampires owning businesses, and the business of “raising” a new vampire looks less like companions and more like a traditional parent/child relationship.

Of course Twilight presents us with a vampire coven that actually does function exactly like a nuclear family—mom and dad work and raise the children who go to school and engage in everyday teenage angst-filled dramas. My issues with Twilight lie more with the technical writing than the idea—in this age when we place such a premium on youth and beauty, of course we’re ripe for a story featuring impossibly beautiful and young vampires who long to be like humans again. Twilight best embodies the millennial idea of vampirism as something worth having—be a vampire but don’t lose your sense of morality!—and of vampires as creatures who experience emotions, especially love, just as they would as humans. We don’t revile vampires anymore—they are our ideal romantic heroes and heroines and they represent the youth we as a culture crave to retain.

As vampires have gained in mainstream popularity and acceptance, so too have zombies, although for very different reasons. While vampires evolved from demons of death to romantic leads, zombies have only ever signified one thing—the unrelenting march of death. Compared to vampires, zombies are relatively new monsters. Their origins lie in the Afro-Caribbean beliefs that formed voodoo and the idea of people placed under a curse and controlled by a witch doctor. This is basically necromancy (except in voodoo beliefs the cursed person can be alive, not brought back from death), which has been around for ages, literally—the Bible references a powerful necromancer called the “Witch of Endor”. Zombies are locked into this depiction until the 1930’s when HG Wells published The Shape of Things to Come, which features a populace afflicted with the “wandering sickness”, a disease unleashed in biologic warfare.

Zombies as we know them today began to evolve in the 1950’s, particularly in 1954’s I Am Legend by Richard Matheson. Technically this is a vampire story, but it is the first example of the idea that a pandemic of undead creatures would lead to global apocalypse. In 1968 George A. Romero delivered the first cinematic vision of the “modern” zombie—undead, slow, dangerous in a horde, ravenous—in Night of the Living Dead, and he was deeply influenced by I Am Legend. Today’s zombies have little to do with their voodoo-influenced forbears and everything to do with Romero’s vision of an inescapable horror.

There is much discussion of what a “real” zombie would be like and while that is an interesting conversation, it’s not really the point of zombies. The one thing all zombies, slow or fast, have in common is the unrelenting impulse to consume. Many interpret this to mean that zombies represent modern society’s emphasis on consumerism, but I don’t think that’s it. Yes, consumerism is a major part of our culture today, but there is another facet of our society that accounts for zombies’ recent and rapid rise in popularity—the fear of death. Humans instinctively fear death (probably because of all that dark that comes with it) and millennial culture places an all-time high on not dying. Our obsession with preserving youth goes hand-in-hand with this fear.

Where vampires have been “softened up” in modern culture, zombies have only grown more monstrous, and they come with the worst accessory—apocalypse. The assumption is that the arrival of zombies signifies the end of life as we know it. You can’t separate “zombie” from “societal collapse”. The most dramatic representation of this is Max Brooks’s seminal World War Z, at this point the most authoritative text on what a “real” zombie apocalypse might look like. World War Z distills the fear of zombies to its most basic point—the will to survive in the face of certain death. At the conclusion of Z zombies have not been eradicated but pushed back. Survivors have reclaimed most of the US and Canada but the Northeast remains heavily infested. One of the survivors comments that the children being raised post-apocalypse know not to wander alone at night or to play too close to water. The zombie presence has been subdued and accepted but it will always be there.

All things being cyclical, the popularity of vampires and zombies in entertainment will wax and wane over time, but these monsters, once named and defined, are here to stay. The vampire may yet evolve again and take on a new iteration, redefined by the changing ideals of society, but zombies remain cemented as idioms for death. And this current pop culture fascination with monsters could lead to a less-used creature gaining popularity. The werewolf is woefully unappreciated; it often gets treated like the redheaded stepchild of folklore. (We need an evening soap opera about a werewolf struggling to maintain his humanity and searching for his soulmate.) One thing our interest in the monstrous shows is that, no matter how advanced or modern we become, we retain the same intrinsic fears as our superstitious ancestors. We’re always afraid of the things that go bump in the night.


4 thoughts on “Things That Go Bump in the Night: What monsters mean to us today

  1. This is awesome. It’s refreshing to read someone who thinks very similar lines to me. I do hold to the idea that zombies are icons of mass consumption and the unrelenting mass-materialistic ideal to just have more. Why else do most zombie films feature malls, fast food outlets or supermarkets in them somewhere? As a genre tho, I agree the conventions the evolution is get past the cliches of consumption but they still hold true.
    Sorry for the rant, but thank you for a very interesting and engaging read.

  2. Lance

    My students are currently reading Dracula, having finished Frankenstein and Beowulf. You helped us think about the relationship between the way monsters are represented and the cultures these stories came out of. Today we had a good discussion of the symbolic nature of monster narratives. Thanks for providing food for thought.

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