Vampires and zombies

I have recently been on a Sherlock Holmes kick, watching episodes of the old British TV series starring Jeremy Brett and then reading the stories again since some years have passed since I last did so. The latest one was the 1994 episode The Last Vampyre based on Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire in which a case is brought to Baker Street about a possible vampire in the county of Sussex. Holmes, the epitome of rationality and scientific deduction, dismisses out of hand the idea of vampires and has no doubt that there is a perfectly ordinary explanation for the reports.

The Sherlock Holmes short stories are written in a very spare style with very little obfuscation and few tangential story lines. There is simply not enough plot in this short story to make into the length of a TV film of 102 minutes and so the writers of the screenplay have added an elaborate backstory and new characters, all emphasizing the vampire aspects of the mystery. It is clear that they thought that this is what would appeal to the audience.

It made me curious as to the reasons for the popularity of vampires and more recently of zombies in films, TV, books, and popular culture. The current crop of vampires seem to be a far cry from the days of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. These are not your grandfather’s pasty-faced men living in dusty and remote bat-infested castles whose main goal is to get their feast of human blood while avoiding detection. From my causal reading of news reports of pop culture, the recent vampires consist of attractive young people living in modern times in urban settings, mixing socially with non-vampires, and encountering the same kinds of problems and romantic entanglements as their non-blood drinking peers.

I am curious as to whether the familiar tropes of vampire literature still apply to these new ones. Are they repelled by crosses? By garlic? Does sunlight kill them? Do they produce reflections in mirrors? Can they be permanently killed only by a wooden stake driven through the heart?

I must admit that I have only a passing interest in the vampires and zombies genres and that too only as a sociological phenomenon concerning their appeal. If not for the Sherlock Holmes angle, I would not have bothered to watch something called The Last Vampyre at all. But I am also curious as to why vampires and zombies have so much appeal in this modern age when, to my mind, it should be obvious that they are total fictions. After all, unlike with other non-existent entities such as gods, there are no organizations like churches to promote the illusion of their existence and parents also do not indoctrinate their children with these ideas. So why are they still around and not gone the way of other frightening myths of the past? Is it because people think that there is a possibility that they might actually exist and thus gives them delicious chills? Joan Acocella’s article IN THE BLOOD: Why do vampires still thrill? in the March 16, 2009 issue of The New Yorker tries to analyze the enduring appeal of vampires.

I suspect that my disdain for this genre it is largely due to my instinctive dismissal, like Sherlock Holmes, of the supernatural as nonsense. This is also why I have a hard time with the literary style known as ‘magical realism’ and found parts of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses or the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, especially his One Hundred Years of Solitude, hard to stomach. It is not that I disliked the books or did not appreciate their point or the quality of writing. It is just that I thought less of them than I might have otherwise because of the supernatural plot devices where things that simply could not happen, did seem to happen.

But I am aware of a seeming contradiction. My dislike cannot simply be due to the fact that vampires are unbelievable. After all, I enjoyed the Harry Potter books and films, which were outright fantasy. And I have no trouble with Shakespeare’s frequent use of witches and ghosts and fairies and elves in his plays.

In trying to make sense of this seeming contradiction in my attitudes, the only reason I can come up with is that as long as the supernatural elements are clearly unbelievable and unlikely to be taken as anything other than pure fantasy, I have no trouble with them. But when the authors introduce them in such a way that makes them seem possibly real and not obviously fanciful or merely hallucinations in the minds of their characters, then I find it off-putting because it seems to give the supernatural a degree of credibility that is unwarranted.

I simply do not see any upside to believing in the supernatural and plenty of downside, so am turned off by things that seem to make it plausible in any way.


  1. B-Lar says

    Consistency is important. I was aghast at the Twilight series, where instead of vampires turning to ash in direct sunlight, they instead turn into pretty shiny diamond men. This is, i am sure, changed so that the heroine can have her sexy immortal vampire boyfriend AND sunny picnics in the park with him.

  2. mnb0 says

    Consistency is important indeed, but there is a little more. How much can you write about vampires and zombies? Especially the latter tend to become stereotypical very fast. When the creatures are just washed-up stuff gets boring.
    Also I like some jokes. In fact I think Rowlings’ jokes the most attractive feature of her books. Another example is An American Werewolf in London, which is partly scary, partly funny.

  3. Rory says

    It seems to me that like any other genre convention the ‘rules’ governing supernatural creatures are often subverted for dramatic purposes. If everyone ‘knows’ that vampires can’t stand the sight of the cross, then when the vampire laughs at the priest brandishing one it causes tension and excitement in the viewer. As another example, a number of modern zombie films (and for my purposes I’ll include the ’28 Days Later’ films) feature fast zombies very unlike the plodding ghouls of Romero’s ‘Night of the Living Dead.’ Even Romero toyed with the tropes of the genre in ‘Land of the Dead,’ which showed zombies eventually learning how to coordinate and use weapons.

    And as B-Lar noted above, sometimes the rules get bent for the sake of story. A vampire boyfriend who has to be in his coffin by dawn or else turn to ash wouldn’t be able to take the mopey heroine to the prom, so voila, sparkly daytime vampires! There’s a novel and attendant film combination coming out which is basically ‘Twilight’ for zombies; the producer has said he is committed to bringing the most attractive zombies ever to the big screen.

    So no hard and fast rules. Whether that’s a good or bad thing or fans of supernatural horror is open for debate. It certainly demands a healthy suspension of disbelief.

  4. smrnda says

    A theory I heard (from where I cannot remember) is that the new ‘vampires’ are kind of just idealized versions of ordinary people, a little more epic and larger than life, kind of like the X-men.

    Trying to make vampires ‘plausible’ might be a kind of intersection between science fiction and fantasy – genres I don’t really read, but which I occasionally encounter – the idea that something taken as ‘supernatural’ is really just something that has a rational, scientific explanation that we don’t understand. It’s kind of like a premise that ‘gods that people believed in were just aliens with better technology’ sort of premise. I almost see it more like a de-mystification.

  5. slc1 says

    Speaking of that particular episode, I found it to be one of the worst adaptations by the producers. Part of the problem was that Jeremy Brett had obviously become bored with the series by that time and mailed in his performance. In addition, the writer’s “enhancements” to the original story greatly degraded Doyle’s work. Rather similar to the way that Sean Connery became bored with the James Bond role.

    That was a problem with the entire series, IMHO. The closer that the writers stuck to the original Doyle story, the better was the resulting production, and as the series wore on, they strayed further and further away.

  6. Rory says

    Richard Matheson’s novella ‘I Am Legend’ (don’t even talk to me about the Will Smith film) was an early example of this. His ‘vampires’ were people infected with a blood disease which didn’t really give them any special abilities, but it made them vulnerable to sunlight and garlic (because of their antibacterial properties) and gave them a thirst for blood. Not perfect, but a good example of ‘rationalizing’ the supernatural. And a fun read, too.

  7. astro says

    That’s it I think. As far as vampyres and zombies go, stick a fork in it and turn it over…It’s done

  8. steve84 says

    “Supernatural” has a pretty interesting take on vampires. For example, they don’t turn to dust in sunlight. It just hurts them a bit.

  9. longstreet63 says

    Well, traditionally, vampires were a mythological allegory of the fear of contagion, IIRC, back when contagion was a very serious fear indeed. ‘Beware of strangers’ it says, for they will infect you.
    After all, at a time when people seldom travelled in their lives as far as our morning commute, there was a very real danger of strangers carrying diseases for which there was no local immunity.
    But they became what they are now, culturally speaking, less because of Stoker than because of the film adaptions of his work. Many of Stoker’s ‘rules’ and powers were changed due to the needs of film, and those rules became the tropes that modern vampire fiction seeks to subvert.
    (For instance, in Stoker, Dracula is not harmed by sunlight. He just loses access to many of his powers. He becomes a normal person, more or less. But in film, it’s more spectacular and symbolically satisfying for him to fear the sun.)
    Zombies, on the other hand are wholly modern inventions. Zombies before Romero were victims of Voodoo, and were generally not dead, merely bereft of volition–unwilling slaves to a magical master.
    Romero invented the walking dead more or less out of whole cloth in 1968. Perhaps it has become so popular because it speaks to the sort of nameless dread that society is changing in ways that are inimical which is not uncommon in people, or that its mythology places the everyday person in extreme circumstances where there are none of the rules that tyrannize our lives.
    There are many, many classes of zombie in fictional works. Many have contradictory characteristics. (You can find charts online if you’re interested.)
    We’ve now reached the point at which zombies are being made the protagonists in fiction and the rules have to be subverted to make that possible, as consumers change from identification with the humans to the zombies.
    probably there’s an obvious pop psychology reason for that, but it is apparently, just the sort of thing bored people do.

  10. MNb0 says

    “Supernatural” is an excellent example of a boring series about supernatural phenomena – predictable and way too serious.

  11. Rory says

    I enjoyed the first two or three seasons, but the whole apocalypse story arc left me kind of indifferent, and rather than ending it there it’s kept trudging along. I’ll tune in occasionally, but it doesn’t grab me too well anymore.

  12. Pierce R. Butler says

    In the 1950s and ’60s, the primary B-movie clichés were giant monsters and alien invasions from outer space. Now we generally see those as reflections of Cold War themes and anxieties.

    Today’s vampires and zombies probably mirror modern sociopolitical issues in a similar way. I like to see them as 1%er parasites and hyperchristians/teabaggers, but that probably says more about my worldview than that of the moviemakers – perhaps they’re intended to represent insidious liberal elites and undocumented foreigners.

  13. bad Jim says

    Vampires and zombies are a small part of a larger phenomenon. It seems that half the movies anymore are about people with extraordinary powers, mostly but not always supernatural. Perhaps the selling point isn’t so much the magic as the power, which could be especially appealing to an audience feeling more than usually powerless.

  14. Jared A says

    The current crop of vampires seem to be a far cry from the days of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. These are not your grandfather’s pasty-faced men living in dusty and remote bat-infested castles whose main goal is to get their feast of human blood while avoiding detection.

    What?! Stoker’s Dracula is primarily sexual horror, and that remains the primary appeal of vampire stories. Frankly, I’m baffled by this whole article and the majority of the comments, to boot.

    But I am also curious as to why vampires and zombies have so much appeal in this modern age when, to my mind, it should be obvious that they are total fictions.

    Ok, and by this point you are surely joking. Why do people tell ghost stories around the campfire? Why do people tell monster stories at all, for that matter? It has nothing to do with actually believing in actual monsters. You don’t think that people like Stoker’s Dracula because they thought vampires were real, do you?

    Ok, all berating of the author aside, I can’t think of any good literature references for this, but you may as well look up articles on why people tell and read fairy tales, because it’s basically the same thing.

    Why Vampires specifically? Well vampires are a really appealing topic because of the obvious sexual subtext. Recently some people have found that they can tap into this cultural vein to produce more escapist fiction, which is the whole “supernatural” aspect that bad Jim (#8) was talking about. The most famous, of course, is the Twilight books. If you want an in depth dissection of where these book are coming from, what’s wrong with them I recommend reading Film Critic Hulk’s review.

    IN fact, this may answer many of Mano’s questions in his article. It’s hilariously written, to boot. Film Crit Hulk is the greatest film critic.

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