Zombies vs. Vampires: Battle of the Sexiest Dead Guys

Tess Hedlund

Written for the Gawker

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The Selection: Genre Stew-Tasty but Tiring

Get your girl hormones ready for the book of a lifetime. Meet Kiera Cass’s The Selection, a book that combines The Bachelor, Cinderella, and The Hunger Games effectively enough to set every stereotypically female desire on fire, but not well enough to do justice to the many genres it is trying to reflect. America Singer, a girl low in the social hierarchy, gets chosen to compete against 35 other girls for the hand of the Prince of Illea. America, in love with a boy from an even lower caste, then must navigate the competition she is unwillingly placed into so that she can gain the money and status necessary for her family to live without the threat of starvation.

Basically this book is a young girl’s dream come true. All the necessary elements are firmly in place: girl fights and friendship, a love triangle with two men, a prince, and a main female character appreciated for her refusal to “change everything about [herself] to cater to some guy”. Moreover, the story has some elements beyond its surface that can appeal to an audience. The book presents an interesting take on social injustices by creating a caste system that is rigidly adhered to and referenced throughout the novel. Additionally, the process of the selection being televised also brings to mind an effective critique of the reality TV culture we ascribe to and what it means for us as a people.

But the book endeavors to accomplish too many things at once. The world of The Selection ends up falling out of time and space because of its attempt to become the biggest genre melting pot ever. The unfair caste system, which leads to extreme poverty and starvation, along with the idea of monetary gain for entering the selection, likens The Hunger Games. As such, the realm is set in a semi-dystopic domain, after a supposed Third and Fourth World War. But the dystopic world building crumbles when juxtaposed with the Cinderella aspect of the story. The girls are competing for the hand of the prince who, of course, lives in a castle, interacts with other monarchies, etc. Thus, the world seems to be set in a version of 16th century court life, while simultaneously being placed in the future. As you can imagine, once you add in The Bachelor element we have a technological nightmare. The book exists in a world where television is common but mobile phones are relatively nonexistent. World War Three and Four were devastating but no advanced weaponry is present, indeed rebel attacks often consist of throwing small items at the castle walls and tying up guards. On top of this, there are some 1984 aspects to the government. The intimate practices of the people are strictly controlled and certain information is kept from the public. For example, teachers believe “history isn’t something you study. It’s something you should just know.” These references pop up randomly and can lead a reader to distraction when trying to really imagine the setting. As such, this may be a book you wish to avoid if you are a person that is nit picky about inconsistencies in world building; or if you are male, in that case the book will fail to appeal to you on a multitude of levels. However, in defense of the all over the place genre conventions and very confusing setting, this book is the first in a series. So while Cass creates a mess of unfinished and unfounded details in this story, the sequel may clean these issues up.

As far as characterization goes, there isn’t too much to complain about. The characters, though they play into some very over used roles, don’t read unrealistically. America has the right amount of indignation at the situation, so that she doesn’t become the useless female lead, constantly swept away against her knowledge or will. She questions the fictional world in a reasonable manner and, with the exception of one incident of dramatic hyperventilation, never comes off as a hysterical heroine. America also has some fairly strong agency. Her decisions actually affect the world around her, which is refreshing to see when so many YA novels fail to do so. That being said, this agency allows for America to make mistakes, which causes the “what have I done?”/ “will I be sent home?” thought process to be repeated constantly. Furthermore, the male characters are slightly one-dimensional. They desire America and that’s about all we get from their emotional sphere. But since the book is told from America’s perspective and she actually spends very little time with either of the men in the story, the lack of development for either leading males is neither surprising nor disruptive to the storyline.

All criticisms aside though, the book is impossible to put down. Confusing at times, annoying at others, and so obviously aimed at stimulating the little girl inside us that dreams of being famous/a princess/the winner of everything love and money related, that it makes you want to tear your hair out. But nonetheless, The Selection is utterly addicting. The pace is fast, the prose is easy to read but not glaringly or insultingly simple, and the main characters are believable enough to satisfy. Not to mention the book ends on a cliffhanger that will make you want to seriously stalk Kiera Cass for the next installment.