Pop Culture and Movie Monsters: Are We Facing Our Fears or Creating Them?
Lately, I have seen a fresh awakening of the movie monster. Now, we have always had our “stand-by” monsters: the vampire, the werewolf, assorted demonic creatures, and all the other entities that go bump in the night. Lately though, I have seen a resurgence in the “zombie” monster. I find this fascinating, unsettling, and a little confusing. Here’s why…
Starting with the most popular of the movie monsters–the vampire. This guy is immortal, usually young and beautiful (or appears to be until it’s too late), crafty, intelligent, sometimes amoral, and usually delightfully wicked. He’s terrifying, in that one would not like to meet him on a dark street, but he’s not exactly scary. Not anymore. That’s because we know him too well. We know what he can and cannot do, where he will go and will not go, and most importantly, we know what compels him. He wants blood. But when he has had his fill of blood, he seems to retire to whatever place he retires. Generally speaking, we know that to safeguard ourselves against a vampire, we just need to stay in the sunlight and carry a great big crucifix. We also know that we can kill the vampire if needs be. And there are several ways to do this. That vampire CAN be beaten and avoided. More than that, he’s also considered kind of cool now, and there is a section of the populace that wouldn’t mind at all if they happened to be bitten by a vampire and made into one. Now, rather than scare us, the vampire movie provokes us to thought. We wonder if he is evil, or if he is misunderstood. We feel for him in his loneliness. We are outraged by the horrors that brought him into being. Sometimes, we wonder if there is a way he can be saved.
The werewolf is truly frightening. He is a person until the full moon when he transforms into a mindless beast. He runs rampant during the night, killing on sight, and then at the first light of dawn, he transforms back into his human form. He is actually a pitiful creature, cursed normally through no fault of his own, and doomed to live out his feral bloodlust until he is destroyed as werewolves are destroyed–by a silver bullet. The difficulty lies in determining who is the werewolf. Sometimes the person does not recall his transformation, and tends to wake up in the morning, naked, and in a strange place. He retains no memory of having killed during the night. However, once identified, he is easily dispatched. Like the vampire, the werewolf can also be beaten. And we feel sorry for him because he did not choose to become a werewolf. The curse was passed to him when he was bitten by one. So, even though we accept that he must be destroyed, like the vampire, if we could save him from the curse, we would.
Ghosts. Well, I suppose it all depends on where a person stands on “lost or vengeful spirits.” Able to manipulate their environment, appear and disappear, walk through walls, and freak us out with creepy vocalizations, these entities are a bit harder to deal with. They can’t be killed because they are already, well, dead. They must either be placated in a way that is meaningful only to them, or they must be exorcised by a professional or religious leader. Mostly, ghosts all have a tale to tell, be it one of insanity, terrible violence, unrequited love, or deeds left unfinished. When the concern is answered, the ghost tends to move on and not bother the living anymore. Usually, but not always. Sometimes the ghost is insane with rage, and cannot be appeased. In this case, an exorcist is required to cast out the spirit. Sometimes it works and sometimes not. Sometimes the ghost cannot be sent away or overcome, and then it is up to the living to escape whatever place the ghost haunts. This is seen in the movie “The Amityville Horror.” Best just to leave well enough alone. So, sometimes just leaving the place that is haunted to the devices of the ghost suffices. The best ghost stories leave questions unanswered and the ghost still at large. The audience leaves looking over their shoulders. It’s scary fun, but it takes a really creepy ghost story, in my opinion anyway, to allow ghosts to count as “movie monsters.”
That brings me to evil Demons. Now these guys are truly frightening. Not only can they get you anywhere, except maybe on sacred ground, but they can inhabit your body and torment you for years. They cannot be reasoned with. They cannot be appeased. They cannot be bribed or offered anything of earthly value. They are powerful, intelligent, and ruthless. To defeat a demon, that is, cast him out, one needs an exorcist. And lots of holy water. The demon cannot be killed because he is truly immortal. He can only be banished, and is free to go on to his next victim.
There are many others, including the unkillable slasher and the wicked alien creature. All of these monsters have their powers and their weaknesses. And all of them reflect an aspect of our own humanity–the aspects that live in the corners of our dark side. Through these monsters’ eyes, we explore our lust, our greed, our rage, our need to control others and ourselves, and because we have these monsters, we can explore to our heart’s contend without feeling any need for accountability. We stay in the safety of our own minds. So, how do zombies fit into this paradigm?
So far, what I have gathered about the zombie monster is that it is not very “metaphorical.” I say “it” because the zombie, once human, has become a “thing.” Gratefully, the human being the “thing” once was has now totally vanished and with it any recognizable theory of mind. It’s not simply lacking in intelligence, it is utterly mindless. It cannot speak. It cannot reason. It has no fight or flight response. It is not afraid of anything, and this is both bad and good. It will tackle anyone, but it will also walk stupidly into a fire. Some are slow. Some are fast. But all of them want to eat your brain. Aside from the steadily decomposing body of the zombie, brain-eating is its most grotesque calling-card. They have absolutely no winning qualities whatsoever. So, why are they so popular?? What shadowy reaches of the human psyche do they represent?
Stay tuned folks, because my big project will be looking into movie monsters with a focus on the zombie. I will be asking questions like why does popular culture feel the need to present the masses with horrors that are compounded by mindless shadows of human corpses? What is the cultural impact of “created” symbols of fear that are “created” only for fear, and are not the by-product of anything fearful. That is, they are entities unto themselves with no purpose other than to scare the audience. They teach nothing. They provoke no thought.
I have many other similar questions that I will be developing. I will keep you posted.