Vampires & Zombies: A Pop Culture Study
Article by: Miranda Jarnot, PRS General Member
Given the popularity and number of paranormally influenced cultural and media references, I’ve chosen to focus on two of the more popular ones, which also happen to be two of my personal favorites: vampires and zombies. Growing up in the late sixties and seventies, the Big Three of horror were Frankenstein’s monster, the Werewolf, and Dracula, or some spinoff of these three. The Mummy was around, but was pretty much localized to Egypt; in some ways, reanimated mummies and Frankenstein’s monster both actually fit in with the zombie theme, so I’ll consider them in that category. Both zombies and vampires have deep cultural roots in their respective areas of origin, and both had turning point where their image became fixed and ingrained into popular culture.
Vampire legends are most likely as old as human history, but the culturally iconic “vampire” arose from the character created by Bram Stoker in his 1897 novel, “Dracula”. The Count has become the basis for almost every modern vampire character (except for the sparkly ones, who are just… different.) Vampires of folklore were usually ugly, pale, evil creatures, with no manners and smelling of the grave. The 1819 work “The Vampyre” by John Polidori was the first attempt to create a more appealing vampire character, and his Lord Ruthven was a direct predecessor to Stoker’s Dracula. When first brought to the screen in the 1922 film “Nosferatu”, Dracula was a terrifying character, bald, long-fingered, and with frighteningly sharp, biting teeth. But in 1931, Bela Lugosi transformed Count Dracula into the image that most of have of a vampire: black cape, tuxedo, pale, high forehead with widow’s peak, and Eastern European accent. Suave and mesmerizing, he transformed vampires from horrific, bloodsucking corpses to charming, bloodsucking love interests/tragic heroes. The 1931 version of “Dracula” gave rise to a string of vampires with versions of Lugosi’s character in the main role: Christopher Lee and many others as Dracula, Blacula, Barnabas Collins, Count Yorga, Lestat, the Count from Sesame Street. Some films have kept the 1922 version of the character alive (‘Salem’s Lot), while others have gone in different directions. “Let the Right One In” and “30 Days of Night” created ancient races of beings that prey on humans, while “Daybreakers” civilized the vampire to the point of farming humans for blood, and “True Blood” has vampires mainstreaming with humans thanks to the invention of artificial blood. “I Am Legend” falls somewhere in the middle, with a race of vampires relentless in their search for blood, but able to reason and hunt their prey. Jim Butcher’s Dresden novels also rely on standard vampire characters, as in the Red and Black Courts, but take a different, more realistic track with White Court vampires, which resemble modern psychic vampires. And “Twilight”… well. Less said is better.
Most of these examples (with the notable exception of “Twilight”) have followed the general tenets of vampire lore: vampires may be killed by stakes or sunlight, they are repelled by garlic, crosses, and holy objects, and cannot cross running water. These ideas have become deeply ingrained in popular culture, to the point where the myth has created a reality. Video games and role-playing games with vampire characters, television shows such as “True Blood” and books such as Laurell K. Hamilton’s “Anita Blake” series strengthen these perceptions, as they portray vampires living among, interacting with, and dating humans. The emergence of a vampire subculture is evidence of this, and is based largely on the myths and images of fictional vampires from film and literature.
Zombies have had a similar path to cultural popularity as vampires. Their existence in folklore was brought to light through literature and especially through film. Historically, zombies are creations of the West African religion Vodun and its New World version, voodoo/voudoun. The concept of animated dead, however, is an integral part of Jewish folklore dating back to the creation of Adam. Golems are animated, humanoid beings, created from inanimate matter, usually mud. They are obedient, mute, and lack innate intelligence. According to the Talmud, Adam was initially created as a golem, and breathed to life by God. Golems were created by holy people, who then controlled them and could de-animate them at will. The 16th century story of the Golem of Prague, which was created to defend the Jewish ghetto from attackers, describes the creation of the golem by the rabbi, and how it eventually turned violent and turned on its creator – a foreshadowing of the Frankenstein story.
The voudoun version of the zombie has some of the same elements as the golem, though the zombie is not created anew from inanimate matter but from the body and personality of the person who is transformed. Wade Davis’ book “The Serpent and the Rainbow”, which is a scientific examination of Haitian voudoun and zombie creation, opened the eyes of the public to the actual truth behind zombie mythology. Zombies are not actual dead bodies that had been raised from the grave, but living humans who had been drugged with a concoction of hallucinogens and paralytics, then subjected to a powerful cultural ritual by a powerful wizard, or bokor. The combination of drug, ritual, and resulting psychological trauma basically psychologically remade them as outcasts from society, both in their own minds and in the minds of others. They literally became the “walking dead”, as they were dead to their families and friends, and had no will of their own, but were controlled by the bokor.
Long before Davis examined the factual basis for zombies, however, a work of fiction brought forth the images that the public has since adopted as the cultural norm for the zombie. George Romero’s 1968 film classic “Night of the Living Dead” essentially took the idea of reanimation of the dead and breathed life into it. As with Stoker’s Dracula, Romero’s zombies have spawned a whole subculture of flesh-eating, brain-craving fiends, complete with the concept of a zombie apocalypse. As with vampires, the basic tenets of zombie lore seem to remain constant: they are created by some sort of contagious disease or natural disaster, or of course by the bite of another zombie. They eat human flesh, especially brains, and can be killed reliably only by a shot or blow to the head, or decapitation. The move slowly (except for the zombies in “28 Days Later”, who were incredibly fast and raveningly bloodthirsty), and seem to have no will of their own. They have infiltrated every facet of popular culture, from books to video games to smartphone apps. They are a case, like vampires, where the myth has created a reality. Case in point: I downloaded the app “Run, Zombie!” for my phone, and as I sat in the car watching the satellite map of my location and saw a zombie emerge from the woods behind me, I actually got a little nervous and turned around… several times. Just to be sure.
The power of the cultural icon is amazingly potent. It would be interesting to conduct a survey on public beliefs in zombies and vampires, based of cultural concepts. In the two cases I’ve discussed here, while both are based on legend and folklore, the fictional characters that we associate with vampires and zombies are much stronger than the truth. This might be helpful in a societal sense, but we may have lulled ourselves into complacency. If we do ever face a plague of vampires or the zombie apocalypse, will those rules we’ve all been taught by movies, TV, books, and video games be the rules that the monsters actually play by?
About the Author:
Jarnot is a Biomedical indexer and a current general member of the Paranormal Research Society, headquartered in State College, Pa. (Jarnot lives in Maryland). The above article was part of a homework assignment for PRS.