For my first post in three months, I’ve been wondering what accounts for the popularity over the last ten years or so for vampires and zombies in genre literature. Of all the monster archetypes that seem to say something about the human predicament–the Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde character, Frankenstein’s creature, the cosmic hostility of Cthulhu–I’ve seen more vampire and zombie books, movies, video games, Happy Meal toys, and cutesy merchandise than for any other monster.
I say this knowing that vampires have largely passed from the flow tide popularity they had during the heady days of the Twilight Industrial Complex. But Twilight was really just a recapitulation of the energy of the Anne Rice books and movies that had been popular 20 years before. I fully expect that a few years from now there will be another vampire fad, hopefully less annoying than Twilight, but still mining the anxieties and desires that the vampire represents for us.
My tentative conclusion is that both zombies and vampires are about exploitation. What resonates with us, I think, is that modern people are dimly aware of–and anxious about–having been domesticated. The modern American is in some ways as domesticated as cattle and laying hens: our time is strictly managed by school and work, our food comes to us pre-processed (and often pre-cooked and practically pre-digested), and we are all taken advantage of, to a lesser or greater degree, by companies and agencies and authorities that understand human psychology and probability and algorithms better than we do.
In other words, we see ourselves in the zombie: the zombie is in a kind of un-life, a feeling people are all too familiar with after binge watching a TV show for 14 hours (or playing X-box or trolling YouTube or Facebook for 14 hours). In the vampire, we see the exploiter: the advertisers and employers and investment bankers whom we perceive to be insatiable for our money and our labor. We vote and play the lottery and pay our insurance premiums, all while being dimly aware that those asking for our votes or advertising the lottery are playing us for suckers, figuratively sucking us dry. Perhaps we are unconsciously anxious about the power the exploiter (the vampire) has over us, as well as of the chaos and misery to come when the exploited (the zombies) turn their indiscriminate and poorly thought-out hatred on the world. As a community college English teacher not so far from Umpqua Community College, where an ordinary English class ended very badly last week, I’ve been thinking more than I usually do about young men’s poorly thought-out hatred.
I’m genuinely curious, though, about why these monster types have such staying power with us. The Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde character, or Frankenstein’s creature, both seem just as relevant to me as the vampire and the zombie, yet neither of the first two have anything like the resonance of the zombie to us today. I suppose one could make the argument that our AI fears, as represented in Ex Machina or Blade Runner or 2001, are our modern reworking of the Frankenstein myth. Even if true, though, zombies are still more popular right now. Why?