Zombies and Vampires: They’re Kinda The Same, But Not
Zombies and vampires. Both mainstays in the horror/fantasy genre, both cemented into popular culture by stories like The Vampire Chronicles, Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, iZombie, The Walking Dead and (as much as we sometimes wish otherwise) Twilight.
As I binge-watched the hilarious and refreshing series iZombie on Netflix, I came to a realization: Zombies and vampires are essentially the same thing. That is, reanimated corpses with the power to infect others with their affliction. But they are portrayed, for the most part, in vastly different ways—ways that I think speak to some of our greatest desires and fears as humans.
Vampires were not always historically portrayed with good looks, but that’s certainly become the norm in popular culture. Look at Buffy’s Spike and Angel, Anne Rice’s Lestat, The Vampire Diaries’ Damon and Stefan, The Dresden Files’ entire White Court, and Twilight’s…everyone.
Vampires are often described as beautiful and deadly predators, equally appealing for their good looks and the dangerous aura that surrounds them. Being bitten, too, is often represented as an act linked overtly to sexuality (I’m looking at you, Scene-Where-Angel-Bites-Buffy). Even though vampires are literally dead bodies, they are consistently portrayed as attractive and alluring beings.
There’s obviously a critique to be made about vampires who act as sexual predators, but for the purposes of this article: Vampires are apparently hella sexy. Right? And it’s my theory that they fulfill a sensual fantasy in which danger and sexuality blur together. Let’s call it the allure of the darkly passionate. Sometimes, there’s even romance wrapped around the idea of a vampire turning a human, usually because it leads to eternal love/companionship.
Zombies, on the other hand, are almost always portrayed the opposite way—rotting bodies with wide-open, moaning mouths and dead eyes. Even in kinder interpretations like iZombie and Warm Bodies, the main characters are still on the first stages of Zombie-ism—and they’re trying desperately to claw away from their ultimate fate. The characters are journeys to reclaim their humanity from Zombie-ism.
While vampires seem to represent sexual intrigue and dark fantasy, zombies sway much more into the territory of survival fears: that is, the fear of being overwhelmed by a horde of killer foes, or the fear of catching a pathogen that strips you of everything you are, until all that remains is a rotting body. There are two main character goals in stories like these: Escape the horde, and don’t get infected.
In tales like Walking, Dawn of the Dead, I, Legend (in which the main foes were interestingly changed from vampire-like creatures in the book to zombie-like beings in the movie) and others, the danger of zombies increases the more there are. At this point, the Walking characters don’t even react when they see just one zombie. They only really care when there are hordes of the things.
Vampires, ultimately, are given much more room for humanity and personality, while zombies have little-to-no personhood (unless, again, they’re characters who are actively fighting their zombie affliction). Instead, zombies act as a vehicle to express human fears about illness and being overwhelmed.
Allowing for humanity in vampires leads to another interesting take: Vampires as addicts. This metaphor branches away from the archetype of the mythical predator and moves more firmly in the direction of human fragility. Vampirism as addiction was compellingly portrayed in Being Human, and is usually at least touched upon in any series where the vampire abstains from human blood.
The addiction is heightened by the fact that vampires must drink blood to survive. The rules for vampires often change (usually for the convenience of the writer—let’s be real, here), but this one always remains the same.
It’s no wonder that beautiful, broken vampires are such common characters; there is something innately compelling about a being who must consume a substance he hates in order to survive, and who is doomed to fail any attempt at quitting. Again, there is a deep, abiding sense of humanity in this portrayal that zombies don’t often receive.
So despite the fact that they’re similar at the core, vampires and zombies have come to represent very different things in modern culture. What do you think about the comparisons? And which one is your favorite? Let me know!