Bring Out Your Undead!

TED BERG: Does our current fascination with vampires say anything about our societal fears?

The season premiere of True Blood a couple of weeks ago was HBO’s highest-rated show since the finale of The Sopranos, and Twilight‘s pale hunk Robert Pattinson has become alarmingly ubiquitous. Our culture is currently vampire crazy.

Societal fascination with undead flesh-eaters is nothing new, but I wonder if the reanimated being du jour could have more to do with the big-picture collective consciousness than we might first assume.

Check it out: In the early part of this decade, we were all about zombies. There were a couple Resident Evil movies, two 28 Days flicks, and someone even revived — pardon the term — George Romero to make Dawn of the Dead and Land of the Dead.

Now? Vampires everywhere. You can’t turn a corner without some beautiful vampire seducing you or threatening you or, in the case of True Blood, simply charming your pants off.

So what accounts for the transition from flesheater to bloodsucker?

This is a half-formed theory at best, but I wonder if it has something to do with the governments of each period. When we doubted the Bush administration, we were mostly worried that Bush and his cronies had no idea what they were doing – that they were mindlessly lurching forward, exerting their will through inexorable force alone and brainwashing or overpowering all who got in their way.

You see what I’m getting at here. Zombies are always imperialists.

With Obama, the fear seems to be mostly that he’s hiding something, that he’s a secret Muslim or a closet radical or has a clandestine socialist agenda. He’s two-faced and breaks his promises. He works to regulate tobacco while smoking cigarettes himself. He might as well be sucking on a vein.

It’s not perfect. For one, you could argue that there was plenty of deception from the Bush administration, and so there should have been plenty of vampire movies in the era. I’d counter that fear (especially of zombies) is not often rational, and so likely the widespread perception of the powers-that-were would have affected the era’s horror movies more than what was really happening.

Secondly, both Twilight and True Blood started capturing attentions in late 2008, meaning not only were they certainly written and produced before Obama emerged as a favorite (and without any silly theory like this one in mind) but that they came out before he was even inaugurated. But listen to Walter Mirisch, supervising producer of Invasion of the Body Snatchers:

People began to read meanings into pictures that were never intended. The Invasion of the Body Snatchers is an example of that. I remember reading a magazine article arguing that the picture was intended as an allegory about the communist infiltration of America. From personal knowledge, neither Walter Wanger nor Don Siegel, who directed it, nor Dan Mainwaring, who wrote the script nor the original author Jack Finney, nor myself saw it as anything other than a thriller, pure and simple.

See that’s just the thing. No one intended Invasion of the Body Snatchers to be about communist infiltration, but because so many people in 1956 were afraid of communist infiltration, it became about communist infiltration. The movie tapped into that fear whether the writers wanted it to or not, so the intent there doesn’t really matter.

Good, interesting and compelling movies and TV shows are produced all the time. The ones that last — the ones that get sequels and big ratings and make it so we can’t open a magazine without seeing Robert Pattinson’s stupid, handsome face – are the ones that resonate somehow.

So that Twilight and True Blood have hit with contemporary audience suggests that something’s happening to make people afraid of and fascinated by vampires and everything that goes along with them. Or, of course, it could just be a good movie series and a good TV series feeding off one another’s popularity.

Again, there’s lots of room for coincidence here, but there are contextual hints all over the place in certain examples. The best scene of 28 Days Later comes when a military officer  explains that the Zombies they’re fighting are no different from humans as humans have been killing each other since the beginning of time. The religious right leads the anti-vampire crusade in True Blood, and the show is as much about racial intolerance as it is about bloodsucking.

Is that proof of anything? Of course not. I’m only suggesting that next time you watch a zombie movie, you consider whose head it is that’s really being severed.

Vampires?  Who Said Anything About Vampires?!

AKIE BERMISS: I can’t with it when it comes to vampires.  I just can’t — And I’m not sure what it is.  Maybe I’m just too into science and magic.  For me, when it comes to entertainment — there’s science fiction, fantasy and then (though I don’t really mean this): everything else.  In practice its ostensibly true.  You can find me in a movie theatre for some of the worst scientific schlock known to man — just some of the worst crap, really.  And yet I went kicking and screaming to see Robert Deniro as the Frankenstein Monster.  Turns out I really loved the movie (but I remember kicking and screaming through the book as well).  Horror?  Monsters? Werewolves? Vampires?  They just ain’t my thing.

I love, love, love wizards and warlocks.  And Ogres.  And Orcs.  And all sorts fell beasts and magicticians.  Hey, I’m also into aliens and such (I just re-watched the first Predator movie).  But when it comes down it — I need a reason to suspend my belief.  And I can’t be compelled by horror.  I’m not afraid.  I’m not titillated.  I’m not even impressed, really.  Don’t get me wrong — i get scared.  But when a story is meant to be scary, it has little effect on me in terms of enjoyment.  And vampires, while they’ve gotten much sexier and deeper and brooding-er, are just supposed to scare you.

On the outer limits of the argument, I love Ted’s theory.  There certainly is a preoccupation with the un-dead.  And perhaps the manner in which is manifest popularly does indicate something about our collective fears or need to escape or desire to have a clear, common enemy.  But if that is meant to be the rubric — then I’m part of the population sitting cozily in the margin of error.  My feelings about vampires don’t really change.  Not interested, really. No thank you.  Zombies and monsters… same thing.  Not tonight, darling.  Maybe next time.

Maybe there is a science/fantasy rubric for us geeks out here.  Like a Frank Herbert/J. R. R. Tolkein duality.  They seem to go in and out of fashion at regular intervals.  And after John Hodgeman’s work at the TV Correspondents Dinner, I suspect Dune may be back on the rise.  And the first Lord of The Rings movie did come out like 9 months in to George W. Bush’s presidency, didn’t it (though Jimmy Carter was president back when the Hobbit animated movie came out in 1977).  Or, ok, Star Trek vs. Star Wars.  If you want a feud as venomous and irreparable as the Democratic/Republican battle — there you have it (never mind that Star Trek predates Star Wars by about a decade).  There’s got to be something in that.  And maybe even a link up between Zombies and Star Wars (yeah!  That’s right Star Wars fans!  I took the damn shot!).

There are exceptions to the rule, naturally.  An adequately blended sci-fi/fantasy/horror mix is probably the best of both worlds.  Take the Blade series for example — then you’ve got the trifecta and you throw a little martial arts on top for seasoning.  The movies were pretty good… the show was pretty bad — but I watched them all.  I love me some Hellboy — thank you Guillermo Del Toro — but my girlfriend has yet to convince me to watch Pan’s Labyrinth.  The Evolution series almost had me — but when it came down to it: it was a vampire vehicle.  And I couldn’t get next to it.

I have no real beef with vampires or vampire lovers.  I say the more geeks specializing in esoteric topics the better.  Diversity is great.  But I am saying this: I’ll take Locutus-of-Borg over Dracula — any day of the week.

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