The late May “bath salts” hallucination that caused Rudy Eugene to eat another man’s face in Miami has sparked a national frenzy over a zombie apocalypse. Similarly, the cliffhanger ending of the third season of Vampire Diaries has left audiences speculating about what will happen next season. What’s with the craze?
Zombies and vampires are undead beings that prey on human flesh, reflecting our most basic fear of death throughout Western cultural history. Recently, however, something has changed. While zombies have not yet become sexual icons, vampires have entered popular culture as Hollywood heartthrobs. Thus, these cultural monsters may be evolving as ways to grapple not only with death, but also with sex.
The undead lets us explore our fears of death. Zombies, which Haitians imported from African voodoo tradition, are dead humans returning to life. In Western folklore their presence almost always causes a breakdown of society: whether caused by disease or scientific-experiments-gone-wrong, zombie apocalypses tend to be omens about the hubris or limits of civilization. Similarly, vampires are evil demons, suicide victims, or witches who have come back to life to haunt humans. Eighteenth-century psychologists argue that immortal vampires reflect our desire to reunite with loved ones, our guilt about unresolved dead, or our fears of death.
While zombies have zero sex appeal, vampires recently have entered popular culture as Hollywood hunks. Vampire bites are used to represent some pathological or subcultural notion of sexiness -- neck-biting may be hot, but Dracula was creepy. But now Edward from Twilight, Brad Pitt, and Tom Cruise have made the creatures Hollywood-blockbuster mainstream. The entertainment industry has taken vampires out of gothic, horror-film castles and into our modern world.
Sex or no sex, both zombies and vampires obsess over human flesh -- whether eating or sucking blood from it. These creatures have taken such a prominent place in our culture because they freak us out -- and fascinate us -- on a primal level. Will Liam Hemsworth’s next role be in the next Dawn of the Dead film? Probably not. But zombies and vampires will always be a part of our culture for the way in which they let us tell stories about death -- and now sex.