On Sunday October 13, the AMC television show The Walking Dead premiere drew in 16.1 million viewers, topping out the ratings for the 18-49 demographic, which even beat out Sunday Night Football. This is one of the many instances of the growing fascination with zombies, paired with a similar fascination with vampires. Whether the zombie waves multiplayer mode in Call of Duty, or the upcoming Dracula show airing on NBC, Americans relish the undead. But these legends go much farther back.
Zombie was originally a Haitian term for a corpse reanimated by witchcraft, and with the 1968 film Night of the Living Dead, the zombie appeared in its modern, recognizable form of an ambulatory, animated (yet still dead) corpse. It came to be used as a symbol of conformity to an establishment, usually eats the living or turns them into zombies, and is often depicted in a mindless (and causeless) pandemic. Hence, the sub-culture warily expects an apocalypse for which we must always be prepared, when the undead will begin to spread and infect the planet.
Vampires, on the other hand, are a far older and more global legend. Tales of vampiric beings were spread among the Mesopotamians, Hebrews, Ancient Greeks, and Romans, though the lore as we know it today originated in early 18th century Europe. Usually “vampires” were evil spirits that inhabited corpses and devoured the living. They were viewed with horror and often hunted by the panicking public, much like witches in Salem. Authors began to delve into the vampire lore, and from this came Bram Stoker’s famous Dracula, establishing the current idea that vampires need blood to survive, their fear of daylight and garlic, and also the image of sensual, seductive characters that charm and kill their victims.
When Dracula became a movie sensation, right around the same time that the proto-zombie stories were emerging, vampires steam-rolled into the popular icon they are today. Playing up their immortality, and the unfortunate blood-sucking habit, we finally arrive at the angst-filled depiction of romantic vampires in the teen-favorite Twilight stories. No longer malicious, vampires are seen as pitiable people and, since it really isn’t their fault they got bit by other vampires, we are asked to look past their natures. In the zombie culture, there is potentially a similar trend emerging: the recent film Warm Bodies depicts a male zombie who falls in love with a non-zombie girl and the two try to work out their awkward relationship across the lines of dead/living.
Two types of creatures, whose origins were associated with demons and death, have become a normal subset of our popular fictions, whether as something we fear or as something we misunderstand. The stuff of Halloween is fabricating the terror of things like vampires and the undead, and the successful movie is about surviving their attack, or sympathizing with them as victims. Their mythos, both then and now, centers on being dead but not dead, on being immortal by stealing the life from others; they are unending flesh and unending bloodlust.
I point this out because the things we imitate or enjoy shape us and resonate with what is already inside of us. Regardless of the particular changes in taste, stories have usually followed the beautiful things that give hope to the reader and set an example. Even if historical knights were wicked noblemen, who started wars without cause, at least the knight in shining armor was an ideal of courage, a figure we could look to for timely rescue. We strive to become like the knight, and encourage others in the quest to be truly noble and heroic. Quaint or silly, traditional myths look to the good for their entertainment.
But what can be praiseworthy in zombies and vampires? The conformity metaphor is promising, and the connection of blood to immortality has, for Christians, a great potential for the gospel. However, these are not the things we look to in this sub-culture. More troubling even than the cases of ‘good’ zombies and vampires, is the traditional reveling in the ‘badness’ of the undead. Horror haunts are replete with gory corpse-like walkers or smartly-dressed fanged figures, meant specifically to scare the living daylights out of us. Popularity with zombies is precisely the fear they engender, and the best zombie narrative is when the living have no chance to defeat the undead, only to escape. Vampires get the most ratings as seductive bachelors, or as back-stabbing, rather than neck-biting, teenagers.
In short, these legends are mostly enjoyed for their darker side, not as examples to avoid or evils to be redeemed. Zombies and vampires lose their appeal when they can be defeated; then the apocalypse ends, and the cat-and-mouse game is over. We want them to scare us, not to tell us what our fears mean and how we can overcome them. When a culture enjoys being scared, by reliving an incurable despair, can it be good for their future dreams? When a generation is raised on stories of unexplained fears that offer no hope of being overcome, only of being outrun, can we expect those people to ever be heroic?
For disciples of Christ, this culture of fear is particularly troubling. These undead are mockeries specifically of the crucifixion, faith in which brings salvation. Zombies rise from formerly dead bodies, not imbued with eternal life but with eternally extended death, tortured into an inhuman animus that relentlessly haunts the living. Vampires do not give eternal life by sacrificing blood, but steal the life-blood to make themselves immortal; remember the strict Mosaic commands against consuming any creature’s blood.
The undead bring death, not life. Whereas Jesus offers peace, these demand, and have their mythic life, through fear. They are of the flesh, the worldly system that is our bitterest enemy and seeks to prevent souls from finding new life in the Savior. How much better can Satan cloud the central theology that we have eternal life through Christ’s death and resurrection and through ‘drinking’ His blood, than to support legends of terrifying blood-suckers and dead-walkers? I cannot say what future Christian myth-makers might be able to do to redeem this genre, but I can say that, currently, the undead sub-culture is a huge, subtle slap in the face of everything we believe.