With regard to recent media entertainment, if you haven’t been out from under your rock in the last 10 years or so, don’t worry—you haven’t really missed much. The last 10 years or so of popular entertainment has been a blurry montage of zombies, vampires, and apocalyptic scenarios that have been so heavily pushed into the minds of the common populace, you’d think the governments of the world were trying to warn us of some similar impending doom awaiting us in the near future.
What’s interesting to see is the evolution of the undead and the context of their presentation over the last few decades. Vampires went from castles and capes, to wearing glitter make-up and enrolling in your local high school. Zombies used to be slow and stupid, hanging out in one-man teams scattered about graveyards after sundown; now, they rival olympic sprinters, cooperate, and congregate in groups of 1,000’s down at your local 7-eleven in broad daylight.
Another important distinction to make is the context in which the undead exist in modern story lines, as modern zombies and vampires are delivered under two key conditions:
A.) The undead inexplicably come to us now
B.) No one is safe
No more remote forests, abandoned towers, or dungeons to explore. The cursed creatures of the netherworld world no longer dwell off the beaten path; they’ve ditched their anti-social behavior and moved in next door. In the decades before, one needed to travel to Transylvania or some remote part of the world to encounter the undead. And often times, an experience with zombies or vampires required that you be of a particular class of person or profession, such as professor Indiana Jones, or Van Helsing. Victims who became involved with unearthly beings were those purposely flirting with evil, or some reckless anomaly amongst a general population that, otherwise, had bills to pay and mouths to feed.
The difference now, though, especially with zombie apocalyptic scenarios, is that encounters with the undead have become unavoidable and can happen to virtually ANYONE of the general populace. There’s no more concept about being “the last vampire” or “a dying race” of the old world. Vampires and zombies have attained red carpet profiles and now dominate on a scale that highlights the uniqueness and fragility of being human. Whether it be your local high school hottie, or the entire population of the world, the undead no longer wait for us to come to them—they practically throw themselves at us now. How desperate they must be for attention…
So, has modern entertainment done us a favor by bringing the undead closer to home, out of the woods and into our bedrooms? Maybe not. I mean, don’t get me wrong: zombies and vampires are pretty friggin awesome. But, I just can’t shake this feeling that they used to be MORE awesome. There was a shroud of mystery and unworldliness to the zombies and vampires of the past. The fear that they brought upon us was sprung out of ambiguity about where they came from and IF they could be killed. Now having flooded the market with the undead, modern entertainment has answered all of those questions for us:
A.) Zombies are the product of a disease or virus and can be killed with lots of weapons and ammo
B.) Vampires are the result of a virus or blood disorder that can be cured if doctors try really hard, or by an accidental discovery made by people who have no medical knowledge whatsoever.
C.) Both creatures propagate through biting victims and “turning” them
Vampires and zombies today have lost their magical charms. All of their previous street credit of evil, which stemmed from an association with the underworld or spirit world, made them rare and well beyond our understanding. The evil vampires and zombies of past realms were not savable by humankind and no one WANTED to save them—there was no interest in understanding beings that were completely evil and beyond our ability to contend with. The zombies and vampires of today have been exhibited as being a diseased form of humanity that might be remedied by something as laughable as falling in love, getting a shot, or drinking the blood of a “cured” vampire. Give me a damn break. Popular entertainment mediums today have domesticated and humanized these creatures to the point of boredom where vampires are no longer the hideous and winged creatures of deformed evil, but rather, now, 17-year old pretty boys that sparkle in the sun and drive Volvos. No longer are the undead interested in possessing your soul or stealing the virginity of a young woman in the late hours of the night, but rather, now, they just want to be your friend and be accepted for what they are. PUKE.
She couldn’t stop smiling and her voice took an upswing and a dive as she described her love for undead romance.
“It’s just…so romantic how strong he is and how he could kill her at any moment, but he doesn’t…he protects her…uhhhh!” She grunted toward the end of her sentence like a toddler taking a huge shit in a small diaper. It made my stomach turn—partly because of that mental image, and partly because no grown woman should ever make that sound. Period.
Let me just start off by addressing the conceit necessary to assume that an all-powerful vampire wants anything to do with you. The fact of the matter is, when one considers the hierarchy of magical beings with regard to humans, a unicorn would have a better shot at getting in bed with Edward Cullen than Bella. Unicorns are closer to a vampire level of awesomeness than humans will ever be. Yet,the vampires that we’ve created, parading around the scenes of popular books and television series, are utter wimps. It’s hard to imagine that any immortal being would waste their time engaging in human affairs, let alone attending high school.
If not for the passion in her voice, I might have shrugged off this kind of fantasy as a minor lapse in judgement or maturity—not to mention common sense: how can a man who is dead ever get a damn erection? (riddle me that one you lunatic). The funny thing about it, though, is that it wasn’t the first time I had witnessed this kind of testimony before. Nearly every young woman beyond puberty has expressed some impulsive desire to elope with a man with sharp teeth, a fierce bite, and a taste for blood. In the most extreme cases, women might faint or go wet between the knees over a vampire fantasy that—by any stretch of the imagination—isn’t even remotely possible. That being said, isn’t the value of a good fantasy somewhat dependent upon the possibility that it could happen? Imagining that the hot maid at the hotel might come in a give me hand job seems way more exciting than wondering how I might find access to a mermaid’s vagina while holding my breath underwater. And again, what’s to say that some dead guy with superhuman powers would even be interested in you? I imagine that being undead and all powerful means he’d have a lot more awesome things to do than window shopping and remembering to put the toilet seat down. But that’s cool, I mean, whatever turns you on.
ZOMBIES: IT’S PRETTY MUCH GOING TO HAPPEN
People have been so indoctrinated with the possibility of being that one dude who isn’t infected by some unknown virus, that entire markets have opened up to prepare the lay man for fighting off the hordes of infected people that may—at any moment—break down their door in search of living flesh. The popular fear of being eaten by the living dead has not only spawned trends in humor, with books like “So Now You’re a Zombie: A Handbook for the Newly Undead” by Austin Page, but rather surprisingly, more serious approaches to the matter with books like “The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection from the Living Dead” by Max Brooks, “The Zombie Combat Manual: A Guide to Fighting the Living Dead” by Matt Mogk, and of course the most important title of them all, “Can You Survive the Zombie Apocalypse?” by Max Brallier.
The idea that one day you may wake up and suddenly have to learn how to discharge several automatic firearms has really taken root. As modern presentations of zombies have introduced the “undead virus” theory, zombies have become more accessible than ever: no magic spells, no selling your soul to satan, and no eternal servitude for the higher powers of the spirit world. All you have to do is get bitten. The virus approach to the zombie experience was a spinnoff stemming from the popular “infectious decease” themes that had become popular in the 90’s with movies like, “Outbreak” and “12 Monkeys”. After people accepted that a biological killer could end the world as we know it, horror junkies injected a little extra spice and successfully married the two subculture favorites. The “undead virus” epidemic theme started gaining serious steam with movies like “28 days later” in the early 2000’s, and later found other mainstream mediums to prime us with, such as video games like “Left 4 Dead” (which I play a lot with my girlfriend Yoko).
Not surprisingly, though, the rise of the undead has become such a mainstream concept that it’s followed the common evolutionary course of transitioning from fantasy to reality. Yes that’s right, now it’s real. Zombies are definitely going to happen. So, pack your shit folks and get in some of that much needed target practice before it all goes down. It sounds silly, but that’s exactly the attitude of some people, as demonstrated By National Geographic’s Reality show “Doomsday Preppers”. Now, granted, most of the people featured that kind of programming are outliers in the grand scheme of general sanity and rational thinking, however, I have no doubt that while most people may not go as far as becoming a member of the NRA (National Rifle Association), they most certainly would be cautious about completely dismissing the possibility of some strange disease turning humans against each other.
Of course, all of this begs the question of: Why are we so obsessed with these apocalyptic ideas? Why do we find excitement and appeal in the event in which we are the lone survivors of a massive human epidemic? When you think about it seriously, the answer is quite simple: danger. We love danger. Having now tamed the former precarious nature of our most basic survival needs, humankind is now bored and suffers the unconscious desires of his animal instinct: survival. The human body is an amazing machine of perseverance, special operations, and ingenuity. But modern work poses no challenge to the innate abilities of our bodies. The 8 hours or so that we spend staring at a screen is an insult to the true beauty of our most primitive faculties. And so, we dream. We dream of ways to light up those parts of our brains that have lain dormant for so long. A zombie apocalypse and running from vampires that may end our lives at any moment, provide a treasure trove of exciting experiences that challenge our more basic animal instincts. Deep down, we need these fantasies in order to challenge our inherent drive for survival, because, as it stands now, there isn’t much we have to do nowadays to keep on living.
Okay, so we love danger. That makes sense. And what? Well really, I don’t think that answer satisfies very well. In order to truly understand the appeal of these dangerous fantasies that are virtually ubiquitous throughout or culture, I think we need to ask: What exactly does danger do for us that’s really so appealing? This is an important question because I think, honestly, anyone who reads this would agree that we don’t REALLY want to be in danger. In reality, most people faced with an apocalyptic scenario that involved being eaten by a horde of zombies would more likely turn the gun on themselves before they believed they could fight their way through it. So, that being said, I’ve extracted the two basic features of danger that I think make up its appeal to modern humankind.
DANGER: THERE’S NOT MUCH TO IT
Being a sucker for psychology and cultural studies, I read a book a few years back called “The Paradox of Choice: Why Less is More” by Barry Schwartz. This book provides example after example of psychological studies and real world data that implicate the principal: MORE choice is BAD. Surprisingly, the book went a step further to support the notion that, actually, the MORE choice people have, the LESS happy they are. (This idea is groundbreaking as it shatters everything the Western world and capitalism has come to embrace in terms of ideals like infinite freedom equating to happiness, and more choices always being better). What the book actually proved was that we find more happiness with some restrictions and that infinite choice actually leads to greater dissatisfaction.
So…keeping those things in mind, we can see that real danger provides us with an intense focus on our lives and humanity that’s difficult to simulate by any other means. And, it’s through this focus that we find freedom in the most subtle of ways. Now, I know what your thinking. A danger scenario that threatens our lives provides us freedom? Ya right buddy…… nice try…
Well…it’s true. Both apocalyptic zombies and blood lusting vampires provide a uniquely appealing freedom from the choices and ambiguity that plague our civilized existence. The trick though is that their effect is much stronger when paired together. Let me explain what I mean.
On any given day we are bombarded with countless choices about clothing, food, work, and entertainment—many of which are quite superfluous in the grande scheme of things. Trying to figure out which movie to rent, and whether or not to buy nacho cheese or cool ranch Doritos, isn’t really a life threatening decision. Additionally, if one were to remove all of the choices we make towards the goal of having sex or finding a partner, you’d knock out nearly 80% of the average man’s decisions. In the words of Dave Chapel, “If a man could fuck a woman in cardboard box, he wouldn’t buy a house”. While we might argue about how important such choices are in the minds of men vs women, the truth is, a good portion of our decisions are based on attracting others (in a romantic context or not), and having sex. Now think about all the stress and effort that people put forth in order to build a life that would make them appear both successful to society and a potential partner. Think of all the tears, all the worry, all the painful rejection and disappointments. Got that?
Now imagine 20,000 zombies or vampires trying to kill you while you hide out in a port-o-potty, trying to figure out how you’re going to fend them off with only 5 shotgun shells left. A zombie apocalypse completely removes any thought expenditures towards goals previously encouraged by society, because society no longer exists at that point. In an doom scenario which carries the potential to end your life at any moment, the only choice you have to make is based on one piece of criteria: Does this help me live, or die? Deep down, we love simplicity.
Ambiguity is a big problem in the realm of civilized satisfaction, confidence, and motivation. Throughout most of our lives, under the utopian shade of modern civilization, the many little choices we make are difficult to evaluate in terms of their outcome. At any given time we have countless examples of success in love, work, and money to which we compare ourselves. And, because of this, it’s difficult for us to definitely understand the true value of our choices; we can only obsess over the details of whether we are “winning” or “losing”, but in most cases, cannot find ultimate confirmation. However, danger scenario solves this dilemma pretty easily by injecting some resolve into our lives. Suddenly our choices are much fewer and the results are much easier to evaluate after the fact, because suddenly, everything is black and white: either you’ve survived, or you’re dead.
THE BOTTOM LINE
By its own making, humankind has domesticated itself to the point where we have deprived ourselves of that which has always been crucial to our sense of happiness: surviving the moment. Surviving the moment prompts (the now scarce) feelings of gratitude, humility, and meaningful purpose. No longer having access to the effortlessly efficient faculty of our survival instincts, we have become bored in a world of protective shoes, sunscreen, desk-jobs, and microwavable dinners. It seems now that the only realities we can truly find happiness in, are the ones we make up to fill the empty darkness of our big screen TVs, computer monitors, and the chasms of dissonance within our minds.