Monsters   /   Spring 2020   /    Thematic—Monsters

Our Mindless and Our Damned

Vampire and zombie stories are stories of a new mass folklore. But they have dreamt themselves into us for specific reasons.

Antón Barba-Kay

“I Walked with a Zombie” movie poster, 1943; Pictorial Press Ltd./Alamy Stock Photo.

Insofar as one denies what is, one is possessed by what is not, the compulsions, the fantasies, the terrors that flock to fill the void.
Ursula K. Le Guin, The Lathe of Heaven

You kill a vampire by driving a stake through its heart; you kill a zombie by shooting it in the brain. Vampires are alluring and zombies are repulsive. Both titillate our fear of cannibalism—but stories about the first have tended to glamorize the view of the predator (the vampire), whereas those about the other most often dwell in the perspective of the prey (a normal human being, pursued by zombies). Both stories call into question the relationship between the ordinary and the extraordinary. The vampire is an exceptional, privileged creature whose gifts are hidden from public view (a creature of superhuman strength and hyperacute senses, in the grip of an inscrutable and painful secret), whereas the zombie is a helpless victim of disease—a zombie story is one in which everyone else has become mindless, rendering the (otherwise average) human protagonists extraordinary. Both myths ultimately concentrate on the question of what it could mean for any ordinary person to become a complete human being, true to oneself and author of one’s own life, where the possibility is measured against the background of a society represented as venal, bored, false, governed by averages, and stale in conformity. The vampire and the zombie—these two are one pair.

Both myths also share the same generic mood of horror. Horror is, as a genre, specific to a rational, secular worldview—it is to us what tragedy was to ancient Greece. It gives voice to those aspects of our experience that have proved recalcitrant to the optimism offered by the sunny pragmatism of commercial, bourgeois, scientific modernity. Horror stories are antimyths, parodying our myths of total clarity. Darkness is what our daylight myths about progressive improvement cannot bear to face. As we have attempted to turn our backs on mythmaking and all forms of the “irrational” or Dionysian, it is those desires—desires for intoxication, violent transgression, ecstasy, transcendence, rapture—that, banished from our conscious pantheon, have forced their way back into our common mind, disfigured and horrible, in the inarticulate shape of nightmares.

Vampire and zombie stories are stories of a new mass folklore, recurring emblems to which many different themes have accrued. But they have dreamt themselves into us for specific reasons. Under the cloak of harmless irresponsibility offered by all fiction, their authority derives from the fact that they allow us to probe the greatest taboos we can imagine; they typify and explain us to ourselves because they allow us the pleasure of trying transgression on for size. Vampire and zombie are a condensed image of a widespread longing that reestablishes itself in the face of what we, as moderns, think to know better. They are the telltale shadows of Enlightenment.

* * *

Verweile doch, du bist so schön. (Linger awhile, you are so beautiful.)
—Goethe, Faust


To understand vampire and zombie, we should begin with Don Juan and Faust, an earlier mythical pair. Though these two have independent origins, they arose in close succession. The first extant Faust story committed to print appeared in Frankfurt in 1587, while the first version of Don Juan was staged in Córdoba, as early as 1617. While these stories eventually resulted in their best and best-known expressions—Mozart and Da Ponte’s opera Don Giovanni and Goethe’s tragedy Faust—they were worked into hundreds of different retellings and adaptations from their first appearances (in songs, novels, poems, plays, ballets, operas, and films). They caught on to become the most emblematic and influential myths of early modern Europe.

Both Don Juan and Faust are given a chance to choose between a secular, temporal good and eternal salvation. Don Juan is a seducer of women, unrepentant to the very last even as he is dragged into hell by an avenging statue come to life; Faust bargains with the devil for all the knowledge he desires, for the duration of his  life, in exchange for his soul at death. The stories of both Don Juan and Faust are dramas about the possibility of human freedom in relation to an eternal destiny—an issue especially interesting in the context of Reformation and Counter-Reformation Christianity. For this reason, both characters gradually came to be envisioned as humanistic heroes, unflinching before the threat of damnation. Rather than conceive of this life as a vale of tears to be suffered for the sake of eternal salvation, they choose the here and now as an end in its own right.

Don Juan and Faust illustrate the transgression of complementary taboos: unbridled sensuality and profaning intelligence (the “heart” and the “head,” roughly). Don Juan commits himself with all passion again and again, while Faust is a scholar so bored by his own erudition that he feels he must turn to necromancy, alchemy, and other dark mischief in order to find something worth living for. Don Juan is damned for desiring with abandon, Faust for abandoning himself to ennui. One of them finds each ordinary woman so extraordinary as to be worth the price of damnation; the other finds ordinary life so insipid as to cause him to damn himself in search of some single extraordinary experience.

Like peoples and their gods, myths undergo their deaths and transformations. Don Juan and Faust no longer grip us as they once did. The theme of transgressive “knowledge” (carnal and theoretical) had the effect of bringing Don Juan and Faust into close contact with each other, and the two figures assimilated to each other over the course of the nineteenth century. (Goethe’s Faust, for instance, is also, even if not primarily, a seducer.) As Europe became increasingly secularized, the possibility of eternal damnation was no longer sufficiently vivid to capture the imagination. And after the sexual revolutions of the twentieth century and the acquisition of immense prestige by the natural sciences, the thought of a serial seducer may still titillate, and a scientist venturing against The Authorities into forbidden knowledge might make for morally righteous historical drama, but neither retains the power to thrill and repel that attaches to the very greatest sacrileges. Our convictions have taken on new shapes.

* * *

“Said he not that the transfusion of his blood to her veins had made her truly his bride?”
“Yes, and it was a sweet and comforting idea for him.”
—Bram Stoker, Dracula

Vampires were a bugaboo of European folklore as far back as the Middle Ages, but the first recognizably modern vampire appeared in an 1819 short story, The Vampyre. Its author, John Polidori, conceived it while traveling in Switzerland as Lord Byron’s personal physician. The circumstance is almost too good to be true, since it suggests that Polidori’s vampire arose as a direct mutation of the Don Juan type. Byron was widely seen to epitomize the bon vivant playboy in his own life, and he himself authored a Don Juan. Polidori’s fictional vampire—Lord Ruthven—was also felt by contemporaries (fancifully or not) to refer to Byron, to whom the story was at first attributed. In any case, this story sparked a vampire craze that spread throughout nineteenth-century Europe, supplying the pattern for most subsequent variations: A mysterious aristocrat, dangerous and alluring, travels around Europe seducing and murdering young women, drinking their blood in order to extend his own life. It is as if Don Juan has walked out of the farcical pageant he hitherto inhabited, to find himself translated into the new genre of gothic horror.

Vampire protagonists are almost always male, and The Vampyre and Dracula, like most vampire stories, make it obvious that the act of drinking another’s blood is a symbol, even a euphemism, for sex. But the vampire has become horrible for other reasons. For one, the story activates fears about the violation and destruction of human nature through scientific tinkering, about the ways in which technical know-how threatens to undermine our conception of human personality. By another suggestive coincidence, Polidori seems to have been party to the conversations that inspired Frankenstein. In his published diary of his travels with Lord Byron, Polidori chronicles a conversation with Percy Bysshe Shelley in which they discuss “whether man was to be thought merely an instrument.”11xWilliam Michael Rossetti, ed., The Diary of Dr. John William Polidori, 1816, Relating to Byron, Shelley, etc. (London, England: Elkin Matthews, 1911), 123. (The date of the entry is June 15, the feast of St. Vitus, the Christian saint associated with mania and frenzy.) This exchange bears comparison with a remark by Edward Dowden, who writes that during that period Mary Shelley got the idea for her novel as she listened to a conversation between her husband and Lord Byron: “What was the nature, they questioned, of the principle of life? Would it ever be discovered, and the power of communicating life be acquired? Perhaps a corpse would be reanimated.”22xIbid., 124. (Dowden’s words are interspersed, secondhand, by the editor.)

The monstrous is monstrous because it presents us with an image of ourselves that we refuse to acknowledge even as we are unable to disavow it: It makes visible a recognizable yet repugnant aspect of who we are. In the case of gothic horror, it is the terrible dissonance between scientific materialism and the principles of Romantic individuality—that each human being has an impregnably private, exceptional, and creative personality—that generates the monster. Frankenstein raises the possibility of a world of human-like mass-produced automata, even as the narrative takes a different direction (the awakening of passionate individuality in the monster himself). Had Shelley’s novel remained an account of an animated body without consciousness, a very different story would have resulted. The latent possibility of the zombie arises in this way alongside the vampire.

It was not until Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) that the bioethical dimension of the vampire story was rendered fully explicit, as it is not in The Vampyre. Some of the issues in Dracula have come to appear quaint: Hypnotism, somnambulism, and other parapsychological phenomena are entertained in the novel as challenges to the scope of scientific explanation. But the most important scientific issue in Dracula is the transferability of blood. Blood, as has been subsequently discovered, is physiologically unusual: It is transferable because blood cells lack a nucleus. It is also (by virtue of being liquid) homogeneous and continuous. One might say that it is, in this sense, naturally promiscuous, and that these attributes are in evident contrast with our view of each person as a unique, inviolable integer. The fact of distinct blood types was ascertained only in the early twentieth century (soon after Dracula’s publication), but extensive experimentation in that direction throughout the nineteenth century had rendered the prospect of safe and reliable blood transfusions increasingly likely.

But if blood can be successfully transfused, may it not be possible to use the blood of others to keep oneself alive indefinitely? Since we, like all animals, keep ourselves alive by feeding off other organic tissues, might the “fittest” human beings in the struggle for survival be those who can nourish themselves from the bodies of other human beings? Renfield, Dracula’s crazed minion, is depicted as indiscriminately feeding on all the insects and rats he can lay his hands on, exclaiming (in an echo of Genesis 9:4 and Leviticus 17:11), “The blood is the life! The blood is the life!”33xBram Stoker, Dracula (New York, NY: Vintage, 2011), 145. First published 1897. He is horrible to the extent that we recoil from the realization that he might be, in some technical sense, correct.

While “young blood” is still being peddled by a San Francisco–based company, Ambrosia Health (for $8,000 per transfusion), blood has turned out not to be a means to eternal life. An updated version of Dracula’s questions would be, rather, about medical trials, cloning, chimeras, and the harvesting of organs from embryos. The vampire remains nonetheless a monstrous fascination to the extent that we recognize in him the figure of our doubts about our ability to sustain secular, rational justifications of human individuality over and against a disinterested objective view in which all the materials of life are fungible. The story embodies our anxiety that the dignity of human beings might turn out to be a superstition like any other, that our personalities might turn out to be reducible to materials of no intrinsic worth. The vampire is, from this angle, a mad scientist like so many others in horror and science fiction: an emblem of the possibilities of an experimental science cut loose from human value, a supposedly beneficial (or at least disinterested) kind of knowledge turned to ill, perverted and amok.

Bram Stoker’s novel makes use of an older religious apparatus in order to reinstate this difference between what is scientifically possible and what is moral. After Dr. Seward fails to master the vampire through modern scientific means, Dr. Van Helsing manages to thwart and kill Dracula, but only by reading about vampires in dusty medieval books and then deploying religious amulets and prayers against him—crosses, garlic, the Host, and so on. But coming from an Irish Protestant author writing for a British Protestant readership, this must have seemed less like a plea for Catholic revival than as a way of showing that it takes some mumbo-jumbo to drive out hocus-pocus. Even if such amulets are demonstrably effective, they remain at sharp odds with the very problems they solve—their effectiveness remains side by side with scientific fact, not harmonized with it. The slaying of Dracula does not resolve the basic question of how the irreducibly human could be credibly grounded in the presence of new scientific insights.

* * *

When the population of a city becomes so numerous that the citizens are not all known to each other, then may depredators merge in the mass, and spoliate in secret and safety.
—Charles Christian, A Brief Treatise, on the Police of the City of New-York, 1812

Stadtluft macht frei. (“City air makes you free.”)
—German proverb

Myths do not offer a single straightforward meaning. For instance, in one of the best vampire films, Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In (2008), the issue of the transferability of blood is turned into an allegory about emotional dependence between the sexes, about the ways in which we bully others from a position of strength, or manipulate them from a position of weakness, in order to “feed” our self-esteem. But alongside the theme of transferability is that of the intransferability of blood—the question of aristocracy and of historical location—that is at issue in the vampire story. Blood stands at once for a permanent distinction of family that our egalitarianism prides itself on having abolished, and for our continued attraction to fixed ties of family, race, and place that, loosened by social mobility, still promise us the possibility of “belonging.”

The vampire is usually an aristocrat. Lord Ruthven, Count Dracula, and Sir Francis Varney (from the nineteenth-century penny dreadful Varney the Vampire) are of noble stock. In recent American tellings, the stories have been placed specifically in the Deep South, where the issue of aristocracy (along with blood ties, racism, and all kinds of hoodoo) has its closest historical approximation. Bill Compton (in the HBO series True Blood) and the Salvatore brothers (in the CW television series The Vampire Diaries) are southerners who became vampires during or immediately after the Civil War, while Louis (in the 1994 film Interview with the Vampire) is a plantation owner from antebellum Louisiana. Because vampires don’t age, these characters are in some sense frozen in their original context. Sometimes the class marker is more subtle: When we are first shown Edward Cullen’s home in the film Twilight, a Debussy piano piece happens to be playing on the stereo—as if to say that he is not just wealthy but refined. In this he is unlike those who come into contact with him. The social class of his victims is almost always unremarkable. They are ourselves—sometimes very studiedly so, as in the case of Twilight’s Bella, who is notoriously written in such a way as to be a blank cipher, an everywoman. The vampire’s aristocracy is alluring because he stands out as someone whose place, unlike ours, is permanently recognized and guaranteed.

That as egalitarians we should find nonetheless aristocracy attractive and interesting is not news. From Jane Austen to Game of Thrones, much of our popular culture has revolved around fantasies of highly stratified societies, in which everyone knows his place, acknowledges his dependence on others in personal (often violent) ways, and adheres to an elaborate protocol of honor. Equality entails ambivalence for us. Even as we honor its political promise and scorn elitism, we are nonetheless ceaselessly enjoined to be leaders, influencers, winners, to make our mark, to change the world—to be, in sum, preeminent. To the extent that our daylight myths about successful enterprise are believed (e.g., that hard work will pay off, and that everyone is endowed with limitless and fully realizable potential), it follows that we all must spend our lives trying to distinguish ourselves as much as possible. Since our relative status seems constantly up for grabs, we are obsessed by our success or failure.

These worries are of course much attenuated in societies in which one’s station and duties are determined by birth. Aristocratic settings figure so prominently in egalitarian stories because they give us an image of a world in which we have been relieved from the outset of all such anxieties about our right place and role, allowing us to read the distribution of influence and responsibility directly from the social hierarchy. Unlike wealth and prestige, our clearest marks of status, blood and birth can be neither acquired nor lost.

 But the vampire is not just a bloody Mr. Darcy, either. If the vampire is alluring because he possesses an aristocratic identity, it is also the case that Dracula (like many vampire stories) is the story of urbanization. The monster moves to the big city for the first time in history precisely in order not to have a rooted identity: He reckons on the fact that it will be easier for his feeding to escape notice in a setting in which everyone must remain, to a greater or lesser degree, strange to everyone else, where not knowing the neighbors has become the norm.

Just as it is one of Dracula’s powers to change himself into a bat or a wolf or dark smoke, one might figuratively say that his shape shifting pervades and disrupts the very possibility of self-knowledge and communication for everyone in the Bram Stoker novel; he becomes an atmosphere, a mentality, a climate that melts into thin air. The monster cannot be straightforwardly overpowered because he is as much a psychological phenomenon as a physical one. It is a recurring theme that he must be invited into a house before entering it—like jealousy, paranoia, and all forms of corrosive skepticism, you must let yourself believe in the vampire before he can fully act on you.

The psychology of social fragmentation and alienation carries over into almost every aspect of Stoker’s novel, which is gloomy with every shade of mutual distrust and second-guessing. Mrs. Westenra cannot be told that her daughter is in danger (lest she die of a heart condition); Mina cannot be told the details of the hunt for Dracula (because she is possessed); Arthur cannot be told that his beloved Lucy has been transformed into a vampire (because he will not believe it), and so forth. Jonathan captures this mood exactly, as he reflects on what he can tell his wife: “There may be things which would frighten her to hear; and yet to conceal them from her might be worse than to tell her if once she suspected that there was any concealment.”44xIbid., 259. The situation is everywhere sticky with suspicions of mutual surveillance—as in a spy thriller, all must look askance at themselves as possible victims of self-deceit.

This inability to know what is on others’ minds is matched in turn by the possibility of heightened intimacy that accompanies many versions of the vampire story. Dracula’s epistolary form and style are significant in this regard: The telepathic connection between Dracula and Lucy (as a consequence of her being bitten and possessed) is rhetorically reenacted in the fact that we, as readers privy to their correspondence, diaries, and voice recordings, seem to have been granted unequivocally transparent access to the characters’ innermost thoughts. Telepathy (along with a heightened sense of smell) is a recurring theme of many vampire stories. It serves as the ideal communicative foil to the miasma that prevents communication with everyone else in the story; it is the yearned-for equal and opposite.

These two psychological poles—the obstruction of communication and a communication that can forgo its very expression—both stem from a breakdown in the links of mutually meaningful action. The two poles reiterate in this way the social alienation within which the story is set. Since the possibility of knowing others through their deeds is tenuous—as it is when we transact and live with large numbers of people with whom we have no continuity of experience—then appearances and words must bear a heavier burden. But appearances and words themselves are equivocal without acts to hold them to account.

Where the context of their expression has become unstable, where there is no strong common “sympathy” with the reality of other beings on the earth, words and acts are deprived of external significance altogether. Communication in such a world has transformed the solidarity of acts into empathetic projections of imagination. The vampire exemplifies a worry about this fundamental disruption in shared meaning, a loss of confidence in it. It is therefore also supremely appropriate that the vampire cannot partake of human food, cast a shadow, or be seen reflected in a mirror: He stands for the potential horror of a setting in which there is no fully fleshed substance behind conventional appearance, in which our means of expression are not transparent to our meaning, in which the world we see is not a world in which we can see and recognize ourselves in others.

The ambiguous meaning of appearances also spins the vampire story into the question about the status of mechanical reproduction and replication of images. Dracula (with its diaries, recordings, portraits, reports, and letters) already feels like an explicit exploration of different media. But the theme of reproduction on film is explicitly prominent in several more recent tellings: Friedrich Murnau’s Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror, released in 1922, ostentatiously depicts the vampire as a cinematic “special effect” of the new medium. E. Elias Merhige’s Shadow of the Vampire (2000), in turn, is a fictional account of the making of Murnau’s Nosferatu in which the actor playing Count Orlok turns out to be a true vampire. As we are isolated by the darkness of a movie theater, we also encounter in film a world of mere surfaces, of likenesses and shadows permanently separated from their true being: It is a place in which we each become voyeurs with no relationship to the actors, in which we regard people who are themselves frozen in time, in which we feed off the pathos of others’ fortunes and misfortunes. We are vampires at the movies.

* * *

You will never find a human man you can be yourself with.
—Bill Compton, True Blood

With a few notable exceptions, vampires have been depicted on screen as gorgeous young people. The story is, from this angle, about the experience of being in the grip of overpowering desires that seem to have no appropriate expression in the conventional world, about coming to terms with the demands of one’s blood. (One might likewise conjecture a connection between the vampire and nineteenth-century metaphors for tuberculosis, as a disease that renders blood visible: TB patients were frequently aestheticized as possessed of a superior sensitivity and a seductively “consuming” ardor.55xSusan Sontag, Essays of the 1960s & 70s, ed. David Rieff (New York, NY: Library of America, 2013), 682, 686, 692. ) The theme of “possession” in Dracula, particularly as it applies to the female characters, is a clear sign of their having lost their minds to a lust: It is a narrative device that allowed Victorian readers to acknowledge the presence of such passions as something beyond the scope of responsibility. But adolescence is also about existential awakening, an awakening that is experienced with all the loneliness with which we all initially encounter our identity, in contrast with the grown-up world that seems to have forgotten its capacity for passionate commitments.

The success of the 1992 movie Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the television series The Vampire Diaries and Twilight is surely due to a realization that the vampire story could be retold in the context of the modern high school: a setting that all but the most precociously popular of us associate with a dreadful social unease relieved only by episodes of busywork. The vampire, however, is able to keep aloof from the predominant norms of the world. The cost of this refusal is that the vampire is incapable of taking effective part in public life. But, by virtue of occurring in a secret world of violent atavism, his spectatorship is a denial of the authority of the powers governing the day.

It is not hard to see how this kind of theme could be marketed to average teenage vanity, which often thrills at repudiation for its own sake, reversing good and bad for the hell of it. But while the vampire story may be naturally suited to appeal to those beset by adolescent growing pains, its appeal suggests a wider sense of spiritual isolation—the realization that in being free, we are also responsible for our freedom. It is hardly a coincidence that existentialism has been the most popular philosophy of the past century: It is a philosophy that focuses on the individual experience of the vertigo of free choice, a Hamlet philosophy developed from and appropriate to an alienated social experience. The vampire’s night is appealing to all insofar as it seems to express a secret depth that can be neither accounted for nor comprehended by the bloodless squares in charge of tamer forms of success. What society regards as deviant, perverted, or “different” shows up as valuable in vampire stories. Hotel Transylvania (2012) and its two sequels are cartoon movie comedies about having a “weird” family, as What We Do in the Shadows (2014) is a mockumentary (subsequently made into a television series) about misfit vampire flat mates (“They accept me for who I am,” says one); True Blood mobilized the issue of “vampire rights” as analogous to contemporary questions about LGBT rights.

The vampire narrative remains a Romantic story in this respect, one in which one could choose to be damned to be shut off from the light of day in exchange for the chance to share the eternal cover of night with one’s true love. This angle is already the theme of Goethe’s early vampire poem, the 1797 Bride of Corinth, in which a young Christian woman returns from the grave to drink the blood of her pagan beloved, whom her parents had forbidden her to marry. Then too: “I would love her more than the waking world,” says Louis in Interview with the Vampire; Bella positively wants to become a vampire in order to prove her love for Edward (in Twilight); the Count rejects God in order to be damned with his love, who has committed suicide (in the film Bram Stoker’s Dracula); Vlad is forced to become a vampire in order to defend his wife and son in Dracula Untold, and so on. The choice is similar in some respects to the Don Juan story—whether to love someone more than God—but with two significant differences: It is usually just one person who is being chosen over eternity, and eternal damnation does not signal a religious transgression so much as a social one. Damnation in Twilight, say, is not represented as part of a full theological drama, with God on one side and hell on the other. To be damned for love means, rather, to share one’s isolation with another, to be alone together as a means of escaping the condition of alienation that brings the two into contact in the first place. Damnation is the curse that conformity puts on true love.

* * *

Society expels what it cannot assimilate.
—Octavio Paz, The Bow and the Lyre

There is no more helpful book for understanding the emergence of zombies from vampires than Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951). Arendt does not mention either monster by name. But she describes in detail, first, how nineteenth-century racism and anti-Semitism appeared in the context of attempts to politically capture widespread anxieties about mass identity. As the influence of class and aristocracy waned throughout early modernity, racist doctrines arose as attempts to reinterpret the older hierarchy of classes as a hierarchy of national races. Arendt identifies this logic, in turn, with a more generalized nineteenth-century malaise:

Bourgeois society, in its search for entertainment and its passionate interest in the individual, insofar as he differed from the norm that is man, discovered the attraction of everything that could be supposed to be mysteriously wicked or secretly vicious…. The Enlightenment’s genuine tolerance and curiosity for everything human was being replaced by a morbid lust for the exotic, abnormal, and different as such.66xHannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York, NY: Schocken Books, 2004), 90–91. First published 1951.

The vampire occupies, in this way, a role in nineteenth-century mythical thinking that is connected and analogous to the role of the Jew in emerging narratives of anti-Semitism: a figure ambivalently envied for his exoticism and stigmatized as an outcast, at once marked by the stain of the pariah and the privilege of exception. The vampire too is not a political actor, but a projection of what is feared to be lurking beyond the realm of political action. Critics have pointed out that the depiction of the vampire arriving in the West via a shipment of cursed soil from Eastern Europe in Murnau’s Nosferatu is meant to flirt with anti-Semitic paranoia—a paranoia itself connected to the long-standing “blood libel.”77xBarbara W. Tuchman, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century (New York, NY: Random House, 2014), 118. First published 1979 But, whether or not some versions of the vampire story have been meant to evoke anti-Semitism, it is more generally clear, as I’ve argued, that the modern vampire is a creature specific to a widespread social allergy to merely average, mass identity. Only the one who is “different” manages to escape the “terrible boredom and general weariness”88xIbid., 108. of the conventional.

The zombie is the next iteration of this theme, originating in World War II, in the spectacle of nations of highly civilized, ordinary citizens complicit in insane crimes as well as of human beings compelled into a condition resembling automation. If Arendt does not use zombie when describing the concentration camps (the word was not yet employed in its current sense when she was writing), she refers to the “ghastly experiment of…transforming the human personality into a mere thing,” “living corpses,” and “ghastly marionettes with human faces,”99xArendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, 565, 576, 586. stating, in conclusion:

What meaning has the concept of murder when we are confronted with the mass production of corpses? We attempt to understand the behavior of concentration-camp inmates and SS-men psychologically, when the very thing that must be realized is that the psyche can be destroyed even without the destruction of the physical man…. The end result in any case is inanimate men, i.e., men who can no longer be psychologically understood.1010xIbid., 568–69.

The vampire story is about a bloodthirsty monster able to possess the will of others, while the zombie story is about a bloodless monster dispossessed of mind. Both stories pivot on the question of how to understand the presence of what is unconditionally valuable in a world that makes it impossible to sustain or acknowledge it. But the localized, secret horror of the gothic vampire has been fully generalized in the zombie story. The exception has become the norm.

Zombies, like vampires, have a pedigree that predates their pop-culture versions. While reanimated corpses figure in a number of different folklores (the “ro-langs” of Tibet, for example), zombies are, in their Caribbean origin, either people possessed by a spirit or corpses raised from the dead by black magic. The zombie of Haitian voodoo combines older West African conceptions of necromancy with the distinct horror of colonial slavery (the horror of being compelled to act in body against one’s free will). Both director Victor Halperin’s White Zombie (1932) and I Walked with a Zombie (1943), directed by Jacques Tourneur, depict white colonists on Caribbean plantations who encounter “zombies” from this older pattern. The contemporary zombie emerges only with Richard Matheson’s 1954 horror novella I Am Legend and George Romero’s film Night of the Living Dead (1968).

But White Zombie and I Walked with a Zombie, the first two great exemplars of the zombie fantasy, are (perhaps appropriately) not yet conscious of themselves as such. While Matheson’s monsters are recognizably zombie-like—staggering, glassy-eyed, mindless creatures—he still refers to them as “vampires” and abides by many vampiric conventions. (The monsters are vulnerable to garlic, sunlight, religious objects, etc.) Even in Night of the Living Dead (which is only loosely based on I Am Legend), the creatures are referred to as “ghouls.” The concept of a “zombie” was already in wide circulation in the mid-twentieth century as a term for someone mind-numbed and self-alienated, but it seems to have been only in interviews about his completed film that Romero referred to his ghouls as “zombies.” The name stuck.

Matheson’s most important innovation was to turn vampires into a mass phenomenon—normal people suddenly transformed into mindless, flesh-eating hordes. Worse, it is not an anonymous horde, but the protagonist’s very neighbors—people with whom he has carpooled and grilled with and shared the humdrum of middle-class life. The title of I Am Legend refers to the moment at the end of the story when Robert Neville, the protagonist, realizes that in remaining ordinary he has become extraordinary. He “looked out over the new people of the earth. He knew he did not belong to them…. Full circle. [I am] a new terror born in death, a new superstition entering the unassailable fortress of forever. I am legend.”1111xRichard Matheson, I Am Legend (New York, NY: Tor, 1995), 159. First published 1954. Both the vampire and the zombie are thus ugly duckling stories: One is a story about a swan surrounded by ducks and the other the story of a duck surrounded by swans. Both stories dramatize a situation in which individual meaning has been severed from its social reality, in which I am no longer able to recognize my own meaning in others around me. But the zombie story projects outward onto the world the alienation the vampire story projects inward into the self. A zombie story is an inside-out vampire story.

If fears about the impersonal nature of organic matter have receded from recent versions of the vampire story, a related set of worries about scientific materialism take shape in the zombie story. It is worth rewinding all the way to the beginning of the issue. Descartes wondered at the dawn of the seventeenth century what could be said to distinguish human beings from machines of sinew and meat merely resembling human beings:

I might consider the body of a man as a kind of machine equipped with and made up of bones, nerves, muscles, veins, blood and skin in such a way that, even if there were no mind in it, it would still perform all the same movements as it does now in those cases where movement is not under the control of the will or, consequently, of the mind.1212xRené Descartes, The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, vol. 2, trans. John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, and Dugald Murdoch (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 58.

Descartes’s “mind” is a substance distinct from matter that enables us to act freely and judge intelligently. He intended for this distinction to help him sidestep centuries of speculation about the soul—what it is and where it resides—since that did not seem like a question on which natural science could make headway. “Mind” stipulated the nonphysical presence of reason that distinguishes us from other animals. But Descartes’s proofs for the existence of a mind have satisfied few, and the question has deviled philosophers and scientists ever since. What could this “mind” be, after all, over and above the material stuff that makes us up? What concrete difference could it make, when “even if there were no mind” in us (as he says), we might still be able to account for bodily motions? Is it not a superfluous hypothesis? If there can be mind without body, there can be body without mind. Despite feeling as if we are freely thinking and willing, we might be mere husks hosting biological instincts outside our conscious agency. And so Descartes has let the zombie out of the bag.

Zombies are human beings seen through the lens of scientific skepticism. A zombie is the body unplugged from the mind and rendered automatic. For all we can prove, we might all be zombies: There can be no scientific demonstration that distinguishes a demented brain from a truly minded one, because a scientific demonstration deals only in material substance (and mind has been assumed to be immaterial from the Cartesian get-go). Just as there can be no material proof that anything is in fact sacred or lovable or worthy of respect, so are zombies human bodies from which human values have been subtracted. It is for this reason that the decisive organ for the zombie is the brain. Mind has been switched off from the zombie brain; the ghost has left the machine, leaving the “hardware” vacant.

But if it is easy for us to imagine a zombie, it is difficult to feel that there is not some essential difference between the mindless and the minded. Zombie stories take for granted the existence of soul or mind—they assume that we are free and valuable—but they present us with a world in which that distinction has collapsed, and in which the living must maintain themselves at all cost against the constant possibility of losing it (whatever it may be). The story revolves around this anxiety about how precarious the status and grounding of civilized mind is for us—how simple it seems for individual human beings to cease to lead their own free lives, say, or to cease to be able to walk in another’s shoes, or to devolve into a kind of clockwork that could continue to tick beyond the pale of reason. Zombies “look like people, act like animals,” in Night of the Living Dead. While being seduced by a vampire is often a highly intimate matter, a zombie attack entails no directed animus. Its violence is impersonal. There is nobody home.

The zombie updates the scientific situation within the vampire story, however, in one further respect: It is no longer a story about a particular group of people, but about humanity as such. Arendt says that the postwar threat of nuclear annihilation is “the most potent symbol of the unity of mankind.”1313xHannah Arendt, Men in Dark Times (San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace, 1995), 83. First published 1968. The zombie story in this way trades on a fear of worldwide catastrophe that would not have been imaginable before the experience of World War II and subsequent nuclear standoff—it includes the unprecedented possibility that life might be extinguished at any time by sudden, irrevocable decisions made by two or three trigger-happy people.

In Night of the Living Dead—made five years after the Cuban missile crisis—the cause of the pandemic is said to be radioactive fallout from a space probe. In more recent permutations—for example, Max Brooks’s 2006 book World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War or the AMC series The Walking Dead—a pathogen transmitted by being bitten turns people into zombies. Zombiehood is a globalized threat stemming from the fact that there are no longer any permanent barriers between countries by means of which a deadly plague could be contained. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention itself has, as a publicity gimmick, used zombie-themed warnings as a prop for its routine warnings against disaster. The opening credits for the film version of World War Z combine this possibility of pandemic with the possibility of a global catastrophe in which nature itself, finally roused by our indifference to our environmental sins, suddenly and viciously turns against us.

* * *

“It was all too intimate,” the chairperson said during one of our many “animated” discussions. “Too many opinions, too many feelings. That’s not what this report is about. We need clear facts and figures, unclouded by the human factor.” Of course, she was right. The official report was a collection of cold, hard data, an objective “after-action” report that would allow future generations to study the events of that apocalyptic decade without being influenced by “the human factor.” But…in the end, isn’t the human factor the only difference between us and the enemy we now refer to as the “living dead”?
—Max Brooks, World War Z

The conformity and social placelessness that make up the background of the vampire story are also present in the zombie story. It is no great stretch to pretend that the dissociated stream of unknown others we encounter in large cities might be a gibbering mob: “But then if I look out of the window and see men crossing the square, as I just happen to have done, I normally say that I see the men themselves…. Yet do I see any more than hats and coats which could conceal automatons?” (Descartes again.1414xDescartes, Philosophical Writings, 21.) Where there are no lasting bonds of reciprocal action between people, then empathy, or its lack—whether or not we attribute a secret inner life, or mindlessness, to others—rests rather more on our deliberate imagination.

The zombie story is thus usually a first-person story. The vague unease with urban anonymity in the vampire story becomes a positive fear of mass activity in the earliest zombie fiction and films. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead is clearly set in the context of the social unrest of the 1960s: The walking dead echo the “just following orders” inertia associated with the Holocaust and Yale social psychologist Stanley Milgram’s research on obedience, as well as the “silent majority” that passively continued to consent to the “living-room war” in Vietnam. It is ordinary people who are eating others and committing “mass murder”: This term is used again and again to describe what the monsters are doing in Night of the Living Dead. Yet with few exceptions—like Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978)—it is worth noting that the zombie heyday is more recent. Romero himself, in an interview, has perceptively claimed that the popularity of zombies in the past two decades is due not so much to his films as to their increasing popularity in video games. The year 1996 was, in this sense, an especially big one in the life of the undead, as the zombie became both a figure of respectable speculation in cognitive science (via David Chalmers’s book The Conscious Mind) and a mainstay video-game monster (via Resident Evil).

Why the zombie makes for a good virtual enemy is clear enough: In a context in which everything one encounters is a mechanical phantom, it takes no effort to dehumanize the hundreds of dummies that one must kill in order to succeed. A player of video games must “act” within a setting in which the player is the only “real” person in a world populated by the disembodied appearances of others, a world to which one has no vital connection or responsibility. Just as the digital world is already a place of bots and artificially intelligent (and therefore ambiguously human) responses, the gaming world is already a zombie world; the transition requires only cosmetic adjustment.

Yet the more general ethical significance of the zombie is not simply to indicate a worry about homogeneity and conformity—about dressing alike and living in houses made of ticky-tacky that all look just the same—but about the loss of agency in such a context. A zombie story is the comic strip Dilbert turned dark and antic: Like Dilbert, it expresses a theater of the bureaucratic absurd, a charade anomie within which common sense has become nonsense, a Muzak automatism bleached of substance and color. Both Dilbert and the zombie story are about being unable to distinguish “real” from “fake,” about performing mind-numbing mechanized work that appears amputated from any larger meaning or purpose, and about a setting where responsibility and power are so diluted into viral mass phenomena and procedural bureaucracy that no one in particular seems to be calling the shots. If, as Marx says, capital is “vampire-like” in that it “only lives by sucking living labor,” then zombies are the laborers sucked dry as a result.1515xKarl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, vol. 1, trans. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling (New York, NY: International Publishers, 1967), 224. First published 1867. But here we are, you and I, sensing ourselves somehow awake in a world otherwise somnambulant.

Consequently, for all its horror, the zombie story has been capable of producing the parodic subgenres of zombie historical novels (in the vein of 2009’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) and the zombie romantic comedy. If the vampire story is primarily about adolescence, then one might say that the zombie story, by virtue of being about alienated work, is primarily about adulthood. But when adolescence is reintroduced into the zombie story, comedy enters through the back door. Films like Warm Bodies (2013) and Life after Beth (2014) revert to the basic vampire trope of showing true love between two authentic or awake people, people for whom experience is vivid and true, against a backdrop of a phony conformity that goes through the motions. The surrounding threat of zombie apocalypse forces the protagonists together in the realization that everything is at stake, that they must live life to the utmost because it hangs at each moment in the balance. Like the vampire story, the zombie story expresses the question of what it would mean to take life seriously in a context in which the difference between self-consciousness and self-deceit cannot come into focus.

* * *

Where the gods have fled, ghosts will prevail.
—Novalis, Christendom or Europe

As far as God goes, I am a nonbeliever. Still am. But when it comes to a devil—well, that’s something else…. God never talks. But the devil keeps advertising, Father.
—William Blatty, The Exorcist

Horror is the consequence of the continuous friction between facts and values that, by virtue of remaining sharply distinct from each other, cannot be fully harmonized into one coherent, unified conception—it offers a view of a nightmare world in which objectivity is bereft of purpose or meaning. Insofar as we (we modern Americans, urban citizens, and workers in mass economies) may be said to share some one common view—a view that hovers above our particular religious differences, allowing them to coexist—it is a view committed to the good of human rights, of the intrinsic dignity of each person as such, as well as to the power of technological progress to improve the human lot. The vampire and the zombie are forms of unease borne of precisely this situation: unease that our justifications of the universal value of individuals cannot match the certainty of scientific objectivity, that weakened social links conceal the minds of our neighbors from us, that the inertia of mass phenomena and institutions is beyond the effect of individual agency, and that our commitment to egalitarianism conflicts with our commitment to individuality. It is because these fears are widespread and pervasive—because we cannot but participate in their workaday reenactment—that we know ourselves to be told in these stories.

But horror is also, in a more general sense, the way in which the holy reasserts itself in us after the expulsion of the religious, the sense of a numinous supernatural that resists full naturalization by scientific reason. Just as graveyards and corpses can easily spook us even in the absence of any particular belief about the supernatural, so does the horrible retain the feeling of awe toward the numinous—of an uncanny, supernatural, purposeful presence that announces itself as a dreadful taboo—while ridding it of any explicitly religious significance. It is our inability to suppress or exorcise these experiences from our daylight myths altogether that subsists in us as a fascination with deviance and gore. Where there is no recognized, conventional vehicle for these experiences, the “dream of reason,” as Goya long ago observed, “produces monsters.”

While both heaven and hell are essential to the theological drama of the Don Juan and Faust stories, vampire and zombie stories rely on the implicit possibility of hell alone. Horror, in this way, entails religious assumptions kept muted in the background. This is easier to see in the vampire’s case. Blood has always been regarded as holy and awful, the subject of regulation and taboo in many cultures. In Dracula, the Count is thwarted only through the use of Catholic objects and prayers (since it is in Catholicism, rather than Protestantism, that prayers and objects are still held to be in themselves effective, more or less independently of the intentions of those who resort to them). And the vampire is, in his bloodlust, presented more or less explicitly as an Anti-Christ: He controls the winds and the sea that transport him to England. Dr. Seward compares him in passing to the Real Presence, and his attacks are gruesome parodies of the Mass—ritual bloodletting that assures his own immortality. While the story says nothing about what hell and damnation are or about the God that their existence implies, the eternity of good and evil is nonetheless a necessary part of the cosmology that makes the vampire possible.

The zombie story has some apocalyptic (and therefore eschatological, Christian) echoes. What separates the elect from the mindless damned may, for instance, be described as something akin to an “awakening” or a conversion, just as one might read zombies as monstrous parodies of the Resurrection (or of the reanimated saints from Matthew 27:52). HBO’s Leftovers is a hybrid of Left Behind—the series of Christian apocalypse novels—and a zombie fantasy, in this sense: It explores the consequences of apocalyptic loss, even as it suppresses the theological picture that could make sense of it. The crux of the zombie story, however, is our sense that there is something uncanny about us (a soul or mind or self) that is more than an aggregate of mechanical parts, something we cannot materially account for. This is not necessarily a religious commitment. But as there is not, and cannot be, any logical, a priori argument that can endow us with dignity or freedom (as 2 plus 2 makes 4), it is a commitment the status of which is not fully explicit for us, or clear to us either. It is neither fact nor value; it is a moral without a story.

The holy has always been unsettled and unsettling. It is a permanent aspect of human experience that not only exceeds our grasp but promises to change us beyond what we could have the power to recognize. Even if no burning bush has beckoned, we continue to invoke the holy around the events of birth, marriage, and death—transformative events that beggar speech. By virtue of being irrational or trans- or supra-rational, the holy is an experience that has no acknowledged location in popular culture and our experience of modernity. Vampire and zombie nonetheless betray our continued attraction to the holy. They are images in which we continue to imaginatively evoke the sense of the transcendent without fully engaging in it: They put us in contact with the demonic, the scary negative of the holy, while keeping it quarantined from the light that, unencompassed, serves to make the darkness whole. Both stories affirm our belief that it is possible to be damned or undead—suspended in an eternal limbo—even as they thwart the question of what it would mean for eternal suffering to have some greater meaning, to be redeemed.