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Zombies, Vampires, Werewolves and Aliens: What Do Our Monsters Say About Us?

Monster movies come and go like fads – for a while it was vampires, then zombies, and now the killer alien flick is on the rise again. What do these different monsters say about us, and about what it is we really fear?

The Vampire:

Vampires are one of the few monsters that we consistently romanticize.  Even before Twilight and the current rush of more adult vampire-romance books and movies, the vampire has been treated as a sympathetic, fallen-angel character by shows like Buffy and the vampire books by Anne Rice.  Part of this can be explained by the vampire’s initial role as a victim – somebody had to bite the poor thing for him to become a vamp in the first place.  But more than this, the vampire is a romantic character because he is human (actually super-human) in some important ways.  First, sexuality: vampires are notorious seducers, and their ageless beauty is a defining feature in many iterations.  Also, vamps are defined by their weaknesses and fears – as iconic as the pointy fangs are the garlic, crosses and stakes that can do in a vampire, in addition to the biggie: daylight.  Although every monster has its weaknesses, none react with the kind of fear that a vamp is subject to just before sunrise.  This fear brings us to the basic truth of vampire: he is The Outsider.  He can’t come inside unless you invite him inside, which means that vampires spend most of their nights roaming, alone, uninvited and unwelcome.  A society that romanticizes the vampire is one that has already romanticized The Outsider – and we have.  We are in love with the weird, the awkward, the anything-but-mainstream.  Vampires were scarier years ago, and so were outsiders.  Antisocial teenagers were actively feared, conformity was treasured, and those who stepped outside of cultural norms were not just shunned but portrayed as monsters. It is our contemporary cult of the individual that has transformed the vampire from something to be feared into just another emo kid.

The Werewolf

If the vampire is The Outsider (feared or romanticized), then the werewolf is The Self.  Werewolves are not scary because of their animal ferocity: lions, tigers and bears are just as fierce.  Werewolves are scary because they look just like us almost all of the time.  They could be any one of us, they are us. Even the werewolf doesn’t know that he is a monster until he wakes up next to the bloody shreds of someone or something.  We are scared of werewolves because we are scared of ourselves, and the dark desires and capabilities that we hide almost all of the time. I really think that there would be more werewolf movies, if werewolves were easier to represent without kitschy Teen Wolf special effects.  Of course, there is the possibility for romanticization of the wolfman, too, as we see in the Twilight series.  The werewolf can be seen as a literal return to nature – a man who is at ease with his animal self is a man who understands the complicated reality of our world.  He is subject to less angst than the vampire, because he is not ruled by his limitations.  Instead, he can only succumb to his animal form under the full moon – he does not waste time fearing for himself, as a vampire might, and instead spends his human hours fearing for the safety of those around him.  

The Zombie

The recent zombie fad is probably on the way out for now, but the zombie as a monster is one that we have almost completely re-imagined to perfectly fit our society’s fears.  A zombie cannot be romanticized — those who do insist on attaching human characteristics to a zombie (say, your undead mother) almost always do so at their mortal peril.  Zombies are The Masses.  The mindless, shuffling masses that we as a society have spawned.  But the original zombie – the product of a magic rite that brings a body back from the dead to serve a master – was more like a helpful, if creepy, robot.  In the last few decades, we turned a single zombie slave into a moaning mass of decaying humanity, vilifying the whole of society, in a way.  In the zombie movie, only the outsiders can survive, because the people who interact regularly with society are the first to die.  So, while the zombie itself cannot be romanticized, we see in the masses/survivors split the idea that the individual who stands by himself (or who has been shunned by society ) is in the right.

The Alien

There are a handful of alien invasion movies and TV shows coming up, which is a theme that had stayed dormant for a while.  The Alien flips back and forth between ruthless invader and peaceful explorer – signifying both our hope that we are not alone, and our fear of the same thing.  Perhaps, though, the current reinvigoration of the genre has more to say about our political mindset.  The Alien is the ultimate Other – The Other that is unknowable and uncontrollable.  The Other is always our enemy because we cannot be sure that he is not.  For years, we could make war movies portraying Nazis as the Other, or Communists as the Other.  Now, in a society that for the most part frowns upon vilifying people for their beliefs, we turn to space aliens as a source of guilt-free enemies.  We can make big-budget films with tanks and explosions and kill them by the thousands, without fear of being called out for a political misstep.  So, ultimately the alien invasion movie is not just about fearing the other, but fearing the repercussions of expressing those feelings in a modern society.

Monsters that may not come back…

The old monsters of the silver screen: giant bugs, gamma-radiated lizards and the like, may never truly come back.  They were the monsters of a different age – when the scientific advances of a time truly outstripped the understanding of all of their consequences.  Frankenstein’s monster was part of the same fears: that man’s reaching for scientific advancement was the same as reaching for godhood, and that we would be punished for our efforts.  We aren’t scared of our achievements in the same way anymore – we are more concerned with the after-effects that we can see: pollution, deforestation, etc. than with the possibilities of man-made monsters.  This focus on our destruction of the world, as opposed to unintended creation, has replaced the sci-fi monster movie with the post-apocalyptic wasteland that is revisited over and over in books and movies.  We can no longer romanticize the possibilities of what we might create, when the reality is that we have already destroyed more than we will ever know.

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