Saturday, November 22, 2008

Undeadly

So... apparently people are all about vampires these days. If you're a second printer, you're a geek and thus have probably seen every episode of 'Buffy' and freaked out when you saw Anna Paquin naked on 'True Blood'.

I fancy myself pretty much in-the-know on geek stuff, but I totally missed the boat on this 'Twilight' business. Now, as much as I'd like to take up blog space talking about the merits of pale teenagers ogling each other and debating the merits of fluid exchange, I can't because I haven't read it nor have I seen the movie. But what I can do is ask: Where'd this recent vampire zeitgeist come from?

There's always been a steady stream of vampire-related material in pop culture. From 'Buffy' to 'Underworld' to '30 Days of Night', vampires have always tended towards ubiquity. But it seems to be in high gear at the moment. And I have a theory about why.

Vampires, in my estimation, are the recession-era undead. In times of economic uncertainty, vampires make good characters. They represent biological and economic elitism (ever notice how vampires are always loaded? I gotta get on that gravy train). And they choose who they bring into their fold. Everyone else is just food. Vampires are the ultimate 'other'... which makes sense considering that much of their mythology is probably rooted in peoples' attempts to assign logic to people or phenomena they couldn't understand. The vampire, in many popular formats, is often portrayed as an aristocrat who literally feasts on the working class. Since a lot of us have mortgages, 401(k) plans, and debts of all kinds, I don't have to explain the modern relevance of that metaphor.

A few years ago, it wasn't vampires everywhere... it was zombies. 'Dawn of the Dead', 'Land of the Dead', 'Shaun of the Dead' and '28 Days Later'* all came out around within a few years of eachother. We were all about zombies back then. And I have a theory about that too... I think zombies were appropriated as the post-9/11 undead.

Zombies represent the existential horror of terrorism. They are a nihilistic, undeterrable threat whose logical end is the destruction of society, and that is the perception (and in some cases the reality) of the modern terrorist. Zombies, like suicide bombers, are a foe beyond reason, which is why so many zombies films, either consciously or sub-consciously, seize upon our fear of the unreasonable.

I realize that these theories can't be applied uniformly, nor have I subjected them to any sort of academic rigor beyond movies that I've seen. But I'm a blogger, so I'll do as I damn well please. I do, however, believe that as consumers of pop-culture (in some cases, rabid consumers) we should do our best to put what consume in context to figure out what it says about us as a society.

Now it's your turn, fellow geeks. What other monsters or foes have a socially or politically charged significance?


* I've had a lot of arguments about whether '28 Days Later' is a zombie movie. While they are not strictly 'undead', they do have zombie-like characteristics, particularly the ones relevant to this blog post. Any application of the 'walks like a duck, talks like a duck, must be a duck' standard puts '28 Days Later' in the zombie genre. So, suck it Ben Hatton.

11 comments:

Aridawnia said...

Well, Frankenstein's Monster, obviously. He represents the Enlightenment notion that human beings are born (or created) innocent, but that society inevitably corrupts them, turning them into monsters...

kushiro said...

To be honest, I can't really see how your recession theory fits into the recent economic history. The current popularity seems almost entirely based on this Twilight phenomenon. And this has been going on since 2005, when the economy was pretty strong. The Buffy TV show started in the late 90s, when the dotcom bubble was driving the market up, and the mid-80s was pretty good for vampire lit/film (e.g. Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles, Lost Boys, Near Dark) and for the economy.

From the looks of it, Twilight isn't a vampire series, it's a tweener romance series, with the vampire being the object of desire. The Bella character represents a wish-fulfillment character for the primarily young female teen readership/audience. Here's this perfect boy: beautiful, immortal, sensitive, honourable. But also untouchable, which means they can identify with the frustration of sexual repression. It's got little to do with an interest in vampirism.

I think the parallel existence of the True Blood series as an example of a network wanting to pick up a show about vampire relationships in order to cash in on Twilight's popularity. And if you know anything about the creator, Alan Ball, or have seen any of the episodes, it's pretty clear that True Blood is all being a metaphor for the Religious Right's intolerance of homosexuality, and thus, there you go, more repression and personal turmoil.

So, for me, it just doesn't tie in to the recession economy. Twilight's been around long enough to have spawned sequels, a movie, and imitators. And that's long enough to significantly pre-date the recession. Expression of one's sexuality appears to be pretty strong in the "MySpace generation", and that seems to have a lot more to do with the popularity of a steamy forbidden-romance story like Twilight.

I do go on, don't I?

BIG MIKE said...

Kushiro,

I see your point... we would have to argue in far more depth than I care to in order to sort out whether 2005 or the mid 80s were 'strong' economic times. I fully admit that vampires have been and always will be popular, but I also think that there's an economic piece of the zeitgeist behind this new set of vampires that have jumped off the page and onto the screen.

Having seen True Blood, I would have to disagree with the idea that it's an 'imitator' of Twilight, since it seems to be directed at a very different audience. I, along with several other adults I know, follow True Blood and love it, and we've never read Twilight because... well, because it's a teeny bopper love book.

kushiro said...

Yeah, good points, Big Mike (is it ok that I find it odd to type that?). I think my point was not really that True Blood was an imitator, though I took the easy route of using a throwaway comment to say so...it's more that I don't really know if it would have been greenlighted by network brass had Twilight not been so successful.

I guess what I intended to do was highlight some examples where the theory didn't hold up. While we can argue that the periods I mentioned weren't entirely beneficial for everyone involved (read: working class layoffs, inflation, trade deficits), on the whole things were pretty rosy in terms of other indicators such as market performance and consumer spending. There's a reason why the economic gains of 3-4 years ago were compared to 1984, and it's hard to argue against the overall positive feeling that was prevalent during the Clinton years (which, as we know now, was almost completely dependent on artificial real estate market levels and unconscionable credit card debt). If the thesis is that vampire popularity is a function of hard economic times, those examples would at the very least dilute the strength of your argument.

I am fully on board, though, with the zeitgeist part of your argument; however, I'm not fully convinced that it's got anything to do with vampires, as opposed to the romantic aspect, which to me appears to be somewhere between Hannah Montana and Gossip Girl in terms of its appeal to girls who are moving from sexual innocence to experience, being old enough to idealize relationships, but young enough to not be cynical about the way those fantasies are destined -- unfortunately, painfully -- not to come true.

And that, Big Mike, is a run-on sentence I am proud to stand behind.

Benhatt said...

Holy shit, Anna Paquin is naked?

By the way "28 Days" later is in no way a zombie movie. Zombie is defined as A) any voodoo snake deity, as in Haiti and parts of the S U.S. or B) in West Indian voodoo, a supernatural power through which a corpse supposedly is brought to a state of trancelike animation and made to obey the commands of the person exercising the power - a corpse so animated.

The people taken over by the "Rage" virus or whatever, are obviously not animated corpses brought back in a state of trancelike animation to obey the commands of their master. They are just super pissed off and want to kill shit.

Now, if you take the slang definition for a zombie - a person considered to be like a zombie in listlessness, mechanical behavior, etc. - hence your "like a duck" argument - I think you cannot really call "28 Days Later" a zombie movie either. After all, the infected seem neither listless nor mechanical in their behavior. Nor do they eat flesh which I find to be one of the most important characteristic of a zombie.

"28 Days Later" not a zombie. I think we should create a new genre in which for it to fit.

And - um - as to your point of monster vs. socially economical whatever - I say - er - that our economy is like a, like a, hmmm, a werewolf because it is only awesome and ready to tear some shit up like once a month at this point.

Graig Kent said...

1) Godzilla came about as a means for a post-Hiroshima Japan to deal with their fears and feelings about the bomb. Bless them.

2) Sweden's "Let The Right One In", as atypical a vampire movie as you can get, has been one of the best reviewed films of the year (and is going to get all Americanized by that Cloverfield guy next year). I think you're right that there's a new vampire trend coming our way.

3) When both Danny Boyle and Alex Garland (director and writer of 28 Days Later) call it a zombie film, I'd say it's a zombie film... perhaps not the purest of zombie films but still a zombie film. See also: I Am Legend.

Adj said...

So then, in regard's to Graig's point number one, wouldn't that mean Cloverfield is post-9-11 NYC's way of coming to terms with the events of 9-11? A catharsis of sorts?

Harvey Jerkwater said...

I thought that the rise of zombies, particularly in nerd culture, was tied to the rise of the internet.

As us nerdly folk spend more and more time online and less and less dealing with actual people, the actual people of the world become more distant to us, more alien. We become abstracted from the mass of humanity due to lack of contact.

And what's a zombie horde? (Remember, it's always a horde -- zombies never work alone.) It's "a giant crowd of people who scare the poo out of you and want to kill you." It's a fear of crowds and other people made flesh. Rotting, undead flesh. The Faceless Crowd, come to devour you, thereby either ripping you to shreds or turning you into One of Them.

Internet-types often fixate on extreme individualism. I don't think that's entirely a case of people with like interests finding one another. I think this mighty Series of Tubes we call the internet promotes a separation from the grubbier, shared humanity, and the resultant alienation makes the rest of the world feel a little...mobbish and dangerous. Like a zombie horde.

The monster of our present era is the serial killer, o'course. Despite our cultural disregard for rules (e.g., "Be a rebel -- buy a Chevy!", "Be a rebel -- Drink Mountain Dew!", etc.) we actually have quite a few. The serial killer draws us in not only because murder is the biggest taboo, not only because we're drawn to the dark parts of ourselves, but also because a serial killer is "free." He can do what he wants and indulge his darkest urges. He is free from societal pressure, he is powerful in a way we never will be. He's what we fear and what we want at the same time. He's a consumer culture icon taken to its ultimate limit: the rebel who takes what he wants when he wants, lives how he sees fit, and glories in it.

(I'm not talking about real serial killers. I mean the Hannibal Lector-types of fiction.)

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