Our fascination with horror films reflects the anxiety of the middle classes—caught between proletariat zombies and vampire toffsby Sam Leith / November 18, 2009 / Leave a comment
Published in December 2009 issue of Prospect Magazine
Zombieland: the prole undead have strength in numbers
Which would you rather be bitten by: a vampire or a zombie? I only ask because we are up to our necks in the undead these days and both fates seem preferable to reading a column on—or, worse, watching—Strictly Come Dancing or the The X-Factor.
Zombieland is triumphing (deservedly) at the box office. Not far into the past lurk the films I Am Legend, 28 Weeks Later and Dawn of the Dead. With Queen Victoria: Demon Hunter and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the undead are colonising literary history. Charlie Higson’s new book The Enemy is about zombies. Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series has filled bookshops with vampires; HBO’s True Blood has done the same to television schedules. You can’t move for the undead blighters. But why now?
Being a Marxist for a minute, you notice that both vampires and zombies embody profound bourgeois anxieties—as you’d expect given their origins in the novel and orientalist travelogues, and their blossoming in mid 20th-century cinema.
Jocular variants have always been with us. The regrettably forgotten film Hysterical (1983) gave us zombies who wore turtlenecks and moaned “what difference does it make?” In The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) a bloodsucker is confronted with a crucifix, and exclaims: “Oy vey, did you ever get the wrong vampire…” But the mainstream of horror film-making has always been poised somewhere between a fright and a giggle. Freddy from Nightmare On Elm Street was as camp as he was scary.
Yet spoofs have not laid to rest the idea of vampires or zombies as scary. That’s because the anxieties they embody are the Scylla and Charybdis of middle-class life: exploitation from above, and overthrow from below.
Vampires are monsters of the right; zombies are monsters of the left. Vampires are toffs; zombies are proles. Vampires are individualists; zombies are the mindless, nameless, faceless mob.Vampires are about hierarchies, tradition, bloodlines. They have mittel-European honorifics, live in castles, dress up and have manners. Vampires are the blood-and-soil nationalists of the undead world. Literally. Kipping in the soil of their native land is, in most versions of the myth, vital to vampiric survival.
The excitement of the vampire story is that the girl half-wants to be bitten. Buried in there is a highly suspect rape fantasy—but the myth also encodes the envy and fascination of the bourgeoisie for the aristocracy. It fears the lord of the manor descending on its women, but it is also slightly titillated by what he gets up to in that castle with those hot dead chicks.
Vampires are sexy. Zombies are not; they have poor personal hygiene. The vampire’s bite is voluptuous and penetrative; the zombie just chomps down on foot, leg, hand, bum, nose… whatever comes within range, like a drunk teenager at a disco. Vampires are clever. Zombies are not. They want to eat your brains—but not to make themselves brainier; just to make you stupider. They want to bring you down to their level. Braaaaiiiinnnsss!
Vampires use guile and concealment—they are vulnerable while sleeping, and rely on stooges to keep mobs of peasants at bay during daylight. They know that they lack democratic legitimacy. Zombies, on the other hand, are legion. Knock one off and ten take his place. Until 28 Days Later turbo-charged them, a zombie could be outpaced by a brisk amble. They have strength in numbers; they know about historical immanence and the inevitable triumph of the revolution. They’re in no hurry.
And how perfect that the great primal fear of the property-owning cinemagoer—probed in both myths—is home invasion. Once you’ve invited the vampire across your threshold, your house is no longer secure: an image of the ritualised, semi-consensual landlord/tenant relationship. Zombies, fired with revolutionary fervour, will simply smash their way in through the windows. Get some planks and nails and get hammering!
Once inside, the vampires, like the boss class, bleed you dry slowly and over the course of time. Once the zombies are inside, it’s all over: think guillotines and a new order. Vampires represent social climbing—you’ll join the aristocracy after you’re bitten. The zombie is a leveller. No more is an Englishman’s home his castle: private property has been abolished and you, citoyen, will lurch through the streets with the rest of us.
That, I reckon, is why you seldom if ever see vampires and zombies in the same film. They represent two opposite and incompatible social crises. It’s a sign of how anxious the culture is at the moment that we are fixated simultaneously by both.
Oh, and the answer to the question? You’d much rather a vampire, obviously—class traitor that you are. That’s why the great socialist experiment failed. Too many bloodsucking kulaks.