Nerdish Musings

Zombies vs. Vampires: A Scholarly Discussion

Every lover of monster tales has pondered this question at some point: which is better, zombies or vampires?

The reason for comparison is obvious–I mean, they’re both undead creatures that feed on the living and turn their victims into monsters. They both originated in folktales and legends, and were incorporated into Western culture through a single, definitive story (Dracula for vamps; Night of the Living Dead for zombies), and have been popping up in every corner of the entertainment industry ever since.

The answer to the dilemma is also obvious: ZOMBIES, duh! This is not just my opinion. It is a fact. Allow me to explain.

The thing is, vampires stopped being scary about a century ago. Seriously, when was the last time you saw a story even try to paint a vampire as something that could keep you awake at night? They can be slightly creepy when played well, but nightmare-inducing? Nah.

This is because the fears Bram Stoker was playing on in his original novel–which was intended to be scary, and still is when it’s not busy putting the reader to sleep–are no longer relevant. He was writing at a time when British people were worried about immigrants and progressive women taking over their country, and Dracula is all about bringing those fears to life. In the shape of a blood-sucking guy from a foreign land who’s here to turn all your women against you. Granted, lots of people are still worried about immigrants and women today, but it’s not as cool to admit it–or for an author to admit he’s pandering to that audience.

So nowadays, when vampires aren’t a complete joke, they’re portrayed as cool, bad-boy (or bad-girl) heartthrobs with fantastic dress sense. And since their standard method of attack is so overtly sexual, there is really only one story a modern writer can tell about vampires: a really messed-up romance.

Now, messed-up romances can be good, if the author acknowledges how messed-up they are (see Wuthering Heights for a helpful guide) and shows some realistic consequences (vampires make great metaphors for STDs, for example). But even good ones can get old really fast, and it’s almost impossible to make them scary in the way you expect from a good monster tale.

Zombies, on the other hand, have never lost their ability to be terrifying. This is partly because they are freaking walking corpses that mindlessly eat people without even trying to make it look classy. They’re also better than any monster I’ve ever seen at being funny and scary at the same time.

But zombies don’t even have to be frightening in and of themselves–especially in recent years, they’re basically a stand-in for every real-life catastrophe we’re afraid of. Environmental catastrophe? Creates zombies. Evil scientist/magician/alien? Zombies. Nuclear holocaust? Comes with a side of zombies.

And they’re enormously flexible. Once upon a time, a zombie was just a magically reanimated corpse that had to obey its re-animator’s every wish. There was already plenty of scope for horror, but then Night of the Living Dead happened, and now zombies come in decomposing, flesh-eating hordes. So film-makers and book writers like to use them to create all kinds of realistic disaster scenarios without letting things get too real.

And herein lies the true beauty of zombies: they are never the primary threat. Sure, they’re scary and make for a few good knife fights, but the real monsters in every zombie story are the humans. Even if humans aren’t directly responsible for the zombie virus–which they are in many stories–their bad decisions and inability to work together always cause 90 percent of the conflict. Watch any episode of The Walking Dead and you’ll see what I’m talking about.

No, those shuffling, moaning corpses aren’t all that dangerous by themselves; they’re just a catalyst for making stories about the monsters all humans, of every age and culture, fear most: other humans.

Plus, when was the last time a zombie bored you with his evil monologuing?



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