Finding love in the arms of monsters
Human narratives have always been fascinated with the undead. They’re seen in the works of Bram Stroker, John Polidori and Mary Shelley with the gothic undead, and in the zombie films of George Romero. They have been whispered about throughout history, such as with the Countess Elizabeth Bathory, famous for allegedly drinking human blood. Folklore from all human civilizations has created images and perceptions of the undead, some of which are disgusting.
These creatures permeate civilizations around the world through countless mythologies. Western thought has circled back to the living dead with the gothic innovators of the Victorian era and within the past few decades. Our culture has become fascinated with shaping and reshaping the bodies of the dead, whether it has been through the novels of Anne Rice, The Walking Dead or Twilight.
The real question is why our most recent cultural shift has placed these characters within a romantic narrative. Even when Dracula and Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla feature commentary on sexuality, the undead figures were decidedly horrific. John William Polidori’s The Vampyre and Dracula both present the undead as men of the aristocracy, but the vampires still felt more comfortable in crypts and crumbling castles than sparkling in the woods of Forks, Washington.
Tami Veldura, author of the romance anthology Fanged, said she believes the undead have narrative purpose.
“The undead strike a particular note of horrific in the human consciousness,” she said. “We’re very attuned to find human-like faces in things that are non-human. The dissonance created by making a recognizable human form intellectually non-human is powerful, and the more closely it can interact with the uncanny valley, the stronger that effect is. Stories are, at their most basic, trying to evoke a reaction. The non-living are good for that.”
These supernatural narratives often exist within the realm of popular media. Veldura, as an author of romance, horror and erotica, saw the space as one that can use supernatural creatures like the undead to ask questions.
“The undead have always been a way for people to explore part of the question about death,” she said. “What happens after death? Does any part of you survive death? Does the mind exist as an organizational structure of the brain or is consciousness something more ethereal than chemical and mechanical systems? If you could raise the dead, would they be who they were? What does that say about the notion of souls?”
Present-day narratives have latched onto one type of the undead, the vampire, with large commercial success. The 1980s brought on the success of Rice’s Vampire Chronicles series, which started with Interview with a Vampire and spawned a successful film of the same name. The late ’90s was the home of television show Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the Anita Blake book series. The former ran for seven seasons and spawned a cult following; the latter is still in print, with the 24th full-length book coming out in June of 2015.
Post-2000s, the most prominent successes with vampires have followed similar pathways. Twilight was a bestselling book series and an equally successful film franchise; The Vampire Diaries was a book series that started in the ’90s and came back to life as a television series on the CW, along with a spinoff show. Both are still airing new seasons. True Blood, a hit show on HBO, ran for seven seasons and was also based on a bestselling book series.
Twilight’s overwhelming popularity is considered by many to be a height of vampire saturation in the media. It still deals with vampires as undead immortal beings, but it presents them in a new light that may be one of the reasons for the growing popularity of non-living love interests.
Melissa Click, a professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Missouri, said its success initially lies in its fan base. “Before Twilight, we didn’t use to see — and we still don’t see it much — film franchises marketed towards women,” she said. “A lot of our blockbuster media tends to focus on men.”
Click’s research found the audience of Twilight, one mostly made up of women, to be an interesting aspect of the fan base. “There were a lot of instances where teen girls were made fun of … and also the adult women that were Twilight fans were made fun of,” she said. “They were told that they ruined Comic-Con, that they didn’t belong there.”
Despite the sexism and alienation women often face in fan cultures, the fan culture of Twilight is one that allows women to explore traditional romantic narratives. Click made it clear the placement of an undead figure like a vampire in these narratives is far from unusual.
“I think, for the most part, male vampires are an interesting love interest,” she said. “They do a lot of things that men that aren’t vampires in that genre of romance already do. They’re bad boys in some way — they’re dangerous in some way, you don’t want to mess with them because there’s danger around them. But they also have a sort of sensitive side. One of the oldest tropes of romantic fiction is that there is this bad guy, and he meets this true heroine — this pure woman — and it’s kind of her job to turn him into a suitable partner, and once she is able to transform him, he’s everything that she’s ever desired.”
The romantic narrative above focuses less on the graphic aspects of vampire mythology and more on the darker, human qualities that can be attributed to the creatures.
Well-known franchises are not the only places the undead inhabit in our modern media. Paranormal romance and urban fantasy author Lori Devoti has published books about the supernatural since 2007, giving her a long-term perspective on these tropes.
“I have written a few undead characters, both vampires and zombies, but I tend to drift more toward other fantasy creatures,” she said. “My favorites are from various mythologies. So as far as why I wrote about the undead that I did, I like the tortured back story that you can give these characters. There is nothing too deep or dark for a vampire. The zombies in my stories were classic villains. Nothing sexy or appealing about them.”
She added: “It’s a great contrast to the warmth they find from acceptance and romantic love. They start out dark, tortured and cold and have an arc that makes them much more human. It’s kind of the ultimate character arc for an author to write.”
The appearance of the undead in these narratives is more than sex appeal (or a lack thereof). Dark, tortured characters have inhabited romantic narratives and supernatural narratives alike. The addition of death or a death-like state opens the door for a dark and tortured past beyond human understanding.
Because of the resurgence in vampires and zombies in romantic narratives, our society’s interpretation of them is changing. “I do think today people see vampires, and probably to some extent zombies too, as more sympathetic with either potential to again become good or so tortured by their dark past that even if they have to be destroyed it is with sadness for the loss of who they had been,” Devoti said.
Changing images don’t necessarily mean changing fans. “I think Twilight polarized a lot of the creative community,” Veldura said. “Some people are solidly in the camp that vampires are over. Others are trying their best to revert to monstrous undead in response. Others have been writing in the paranormal genre for decades and they’re simply doing what they’ve always done.”
Devoti mentioned a similar coupling of fans and resistance when it came to the presence of vampires in particular. “The main negative response that I have noticed is from hardcore vampire fans who object to newer authors (newer to Bram Stoker) making them sympathetic. There is also a huge jealousy factory towards some of the newer authors who have made it ‘big’ with these sympathetic vampires. I think both are completely natural and to be expected, but not particularly important so far as a negative effect that might stop readers from wanting these books.”
Fans, more than anyone else, seem to be dictating this sympathetic, romantic view of the undead. This clash of vampire styles is one found within fan communities, specifically between Twilight fans and fans of other franchises. While the validity of modern vampire franchises and the women that love them may be questioned, the impact on our culture and our views of the undead is still significant.
Click said she believes Twilight in particular affected the film industry. “I think the thing that Twilight did was that it proved to Hollywood that women can fund a franchise like men can.”
On the subject of vampires, Click saw more than just an impact. “If you look at the Anne Rice books in the 1980s, I think there is a way in which the vampire — even going back to Bram Stoker — there is a way that the vampire circulates through popular culture.”
Today’s popular culture does more than romanticize the undead: it uses them to ask questions. “I think that media is sort of focused on this idea of struggling with your inner demons and how you can live with the bad aspects of humanity,” Click said.
“The undead are a solid part of our cultural consciousness now, which makes subverting their narratives the next step in the evolution of their stories,” Veldura said. “A zombie who runs around trying to eat brains is common. But a zombie who falls in love? A spirit that doesn’t have total control over the body it’s possessing? A spirit that can’t quite hold the dead body it’s possessing together? These are all unexplored avenues.”
Undead figures in our popular media have the opportunity to become something more, both as cultural mythology and as springboards for larger ideas. While the circular nature of our media suggests we will see less of the undead, the opportunities to make them romantic and sympathetic give them room to become something new for our culture.
That’s the thing about vampires, right?” Click said. “You might fight them off, but they come back.”
John Jacobson is a sophomore integrated marketing communications major who won’t be mackin’ with a zombie anytime soon. You can email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.