Written for the Gawker
With the popularity of Twilight and Vampire Diaries and the nation’s obsession with the apparently inevitable zombie apocalypse, it seems everywhere you look there is a new YA book published with a focus on the undead. But overall, people think the vamps are super-sexy while the zombies are relegated to the lunch table full of the creepy and gross kids. So what’s up? Both vampires and zombies are technically dead, have a nasty tendency to bite, and somehow infect and turn people, yet the public reaction to each is entirely different. People view vampires as handsome male love interests. The zombies, however, are villanized, given no soul/thoughts/ability to love, and consistently cast as the generic and nameless threat to the protagonist’s survival. So why are these mythical undead creatures treated so differently when they are in fact incredibly similar? The answer lies in how we view and interpret what desires these monsters represent.
Desire for Sex
The act of consuming involves the outside world directly with the inside world of the body, and what is put into the body is often considered to define who the consumer is. As such, eating and food are connected intimately with internal desires. Vampires drink blood and thus vampires partake in fluid transfers just like people do during sex. Blood is also life-giving substance, so the purpose of vampire feeding is to generate life in themselves instead of simply causing death for others. Plus, vampires bite with fangs and then suck the blood. The penetrative and oral aspect of these actions turns every vampire bite into an abstract sexual encounter. Alternatively, zombies eat brains, innards, flesh, etc. and this type of feeding draws images of cannibalism and gluttony instead of sex. Vampires cannot live without blood but often are depicted trying to abstain, while zombies apparently can live without eating indefinitely but do so anyway. Therefore, zombie feeding is an annihilation of one being for no purpose and not a transfer of any form. As such, zombies represent violent destructive desire instead of sexual desire–the difference is profound.
Desire for Beauty
Furthermore, a death by vampire is relatively clean; this is why all vamps are perfectly undamaged when they turn. Since our culture is obsessed with remaining young and beautiful, it stands to reason that we would be attracted to the vampire’s preservative immortality. But zombies possess chewed up, disfigured, and decaying bodies. Charlie Higson’s The Enemy makes this struggle between youth and decay a very literal one when everyone over the age of sixteen becomes a zombie. The concept of age, rot, and death is associated with zombies while vampires are considered youthful, preserved, and lively. The fact that we find vampires attractive only proves that the idea of forever is appealing to humans with the caveat that forever is spent being beautiful and not grotesque.
Desire for Normalcy
Additionally, zombies are attributed to medical change, while vampires are mythical in origin. The story behind the zombie apocalypse is usually some manmade disease or weapon or cure gone wrong, which makes zombies a manufactured monster. Susan Stryker presents in her essay “My Words to Victor Frankenstein”, that transsexual beings are considered monstrous because the medical involvement in their expression seems to make them “at war with nature”, and insults the vision of control people hold so dear by confronting their “status as ‘lords of creation’” (Monologue). Furthermore, just as the transsexual altered body “literalizes [an] abstract violence” (Theory), so too is the zombie’s altered and manufactured form symbolic of violent and unnatural desires in comparison with the vampire’s relatively normal ones.
Desire for Control
Famous vampires, like Edward Cullen, go against their natures and reign in their desires while the zombies indulge endlessly. In Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight, Edward denies his thirst for Bella and “[swears] not to hurt [her]” (264), even though she “is exactly [his] brand of heroin” (268), thus proving he both loves her and has an extreme control over himself. His ability to go against his nature even though he believed “the fragrance coming off [her] skin…would make [him] deranged” (270) equals an attractive element of restraint. People tend to fetishize the denial of things they want, imagining this denial makes a person stronger and more honorable. Not to mention, people also further fetishize that which they cannot or should not have. This leads Bella to develop an attraction for Edward that is equally overwhelming. On the other hand, people project zombies as evil because giving in to base desire is seen as sinful or weak.
Desire for Love
Nothing is sexier than someone who finds you irresistible. Edward is more attracted to Bella than anyone else because of her blood. This inherent specialness makes Edward consider her “the most important thing to [him] ever” (273), and gives him the strength to resist biting her. People want someone who will recognize their individuality immediately and fall in love with them for it. Unfortunately, not only do zombies generally not resist eating person, but they will also eat anyone. No one is different to a zombie, no brain smells better, no body is more appealing, and thus they cannot create a love-based relationship. But if we gave a zombie the ability to both find someone attractive and resist eating them, would they then be exempt from the ugly zombie hypothesis? Yes and No. For example, in Isaac Marion’s novel Warm Bodies, the main zombie character, “R”, eats a brain that has memories of love toward a girl, thus she becomes special and desirable. These feelings enable him to restrain from eating her and therefore a romantic relationship flourishes. But love eventually restarts R’s heart and makes him human again, which reinforces the idea that zombies are still unsexy, with the exception that reformed zombies are tolerable.
Thus while both zombie and vampire literature is likely to be as immortal as their characters, our judgments about the attractiveness of each is equally unlikely to change. Vampires are sexual, beautiful, natural, in control, and prone to falling obsessively in love for no good reason, whereas zombies are violent, deformed, manmade, unruly, and just as happy to feed on you as the next person with a heartbeat that comes by. In the end, vampires win the sexiness contest, but only because they are consistently imagined in a way that fulfills so many of our desires, whereas zombies are easier to leave as the ensemble cast of a horror film. And since accepting zombies as attractive means accepting the more monstrous side of ourselves and the reality of living in a world couched in medical change, death, greed, and indiscriminate pleasure seeking, it is quite likely zombies will never be allowed to play the leading role.