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Zombies Rule, Vampires Drool

Richard Dansky | 14 Jun 2011 12:47
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On the surface, it would seem that right now is a great time for all things vampire. Twilight has sparkled its way into cultural omnipresence. True Blood has critical cachet, not to mention enough gratuitous nudity to make it appointment television for certain types of nerdy pervs. And Syfy's adaptation of Being Human, about a vampire sharing an apartment with a werewolf and a ghost, has the promise to be, well, better than Lexx.

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But dig a little deeper and the truth becomes clear: Vampires may be popular, but they've paid a terrible price for it. Simply put, they're not scary any more. They're not monsters, at least not in the traditional sense. And so, having been de-fanged (as it were), they've been shoved to a different place in the cultural marketplace while center stage for monsters has been claimed by an entirely different species of undead: zombies.

Taxonomy

Without diving too deeply into the historical, it's still safe to say that the vampire figure has always meant something. The classic Nosferatu - snaggle-toothed, desiccated and inhuman - is a creature of plague, a manifestation of terrible wasting disease. The classic Victorian incarnation is all about bad sex, seductive and terrible. More recently, AIDS metaphors were the vampire trope du jour.

And all of these flavors of monsters are accepted as existing just as they are. They're things outside the natural order, neither sympathetic nor incomprehensible. What they stand for is obvious and instantly understood. Give in to Dracula's lascivious blandishments and you will go mad, you will abandon your family, you will in turn seek to infect others. That's just the way it works; everyone who confronts it understands it and then acts accordingly.

These days, however, it's not good enough. We can't just accept vampires as being monsters who like to drink blood. They need an explanation and an excuse, a rationale for what they're doing that undercuts their archetypal nature. In 2009's Jesus-of-the-vampires flick Daybreakers[1], the vampires are addicts, only becoming truly brutal when they can't get a fix of the good old red stuff. Recent bestselling doorstops The Passage and The Strain both walk down the path laid out by the Will Smith vehicle I Am Legend, rendering vampires as plague victims themselves. Transformed by pathogens into ravening inhuman things, these vampires (or whatever euphemisms the authors choose to slap on them) just can't help themselves. There's no agency there, and so we find ourselves pitying them, just a little bit.

And pity is anathema to fear. The notion of getting killed by one of the beasts on the pages of The Passage may be scary, but there's nothing about them in and of themselves that leaps off the page and frightens the reader[2].

[1] Spoiler Alert: Willem Defoe's character is purged of vampirism by the combination of the Sun and a quick immersion in water, a baptism metaphor if ever there were one. Later in the film, it becomes clear that drinking the blood of a cured vampire will in turn cure any vampire who partakes, eating of their blood and their flesh. As metaphors go, it's not particularly subtle - or scary.
[2] There's also the point that plague-generated mindless vampires sound a lot like...zombies.

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