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.