Happy Halloween! In celebration of the thin veil between the realms, I’m offering a reflection on a few monster archetypes and the temporal nightmares they express.
Vampire: Arrow that Loops
Let’s start with what we know about the classic vampire as brought to us by Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (1872) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). This monster is immortal. Drinks blood. Seduces its victims. Can be perturbed by expressions of (Christian) faith: crucifix, holy water. For this monster, every drive converges into a thirst that short-circuits the natural cycle of birth, growth, procreation, and surrender to the death needed to nourish new life.
Jungian psychologist Marion Goodman links the vampire’s tight existential loop of feeding and desiccation to compulsive behavior in Addiction to Perfection: The Still Unravished Bride (1988). Starving for yet unable to participate in transcendent union with the divine that the soul requires—a union that demands surrender of ego—the addict is compelled to enact a profane shadow union instead. The ritual to experience this union, the cycle of addiction, provides a semblance of life without nourishing it: desire for just the object of addiction and brief reprieve when it is attained eclipses and constricts natural, mortal rhythms of exchange.
While Goodman focused on eating disorders, the psychological mechanisms she describes pertain to other compulsive behaviors too. Not coincidentally, the collective psyche latched onto vampires when rising secularism met heightened anxiety about getting carried away. Victorian preoccupations with “deviant” sex coincided with a sharp increase in mainstream use of opiates—another path to ruin by pleasure. In the 70s, Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire became erotically charged binge-reading fodder as Percocet and Vicodin hit the market in a trend that pathologized pain itself.
The recuperation of the parasitic monster into sexy rockstar Lestat then into romantic heroes Edward (who sparkles) and Matthew Clairmont (who definitely does not) hints at a reevaluation of addiction in Western culture. Twilight and A Discovery of Witches cast their lead vamps as protective lovers who shower the protagonists with enduring emotional and physical security and well as the surety of transcendent sex.
Might the vampire’s makeover clue us into a more subtle understanding of addiction and, more broadly, the border between pleasure and enslavement? The Puritanical fear that the slightest indulgence might result in a conflagration of vice reminds me of the assertion that one toke of marijuana would turn your child into a crack whore. We speak shamelessly of our Netflix binges and gaming benders, and (pre-COVID) plied all and sundry with candy and other treats. As a therapist once told me, “We all need a little oblivion from time to time.” Rituals revolving around relatively benign addictions can serve as pockets in which we hide from the world to catch our breath. The key to making them restorative and not destructive is in making sure we spend more time out of them than in.
When Frankenstein, or, the Modern Prometheus lurched onto the scene in 1818, it brought to us not one, but two monsters. The first is the creature stitched together of disparate parts of humans. His physical dis-integration makes him so repugnant, social integration is impossible. Without an acceptable past, the creature’s present is a misery and his future is pure blight. His only hope for change is in the prospect of the companion he demands his creator supply.
An ocean of ink has been poured into the relationship between Shelley’s book and the Industrial Age in which she wrote and twice revised it. Since this isn’t an academic essay, I won’t canvass the scholarship here, but it does bear pointing out that Industrialism’s obsessive devotion to Progress recalibrated the pace of life and emphatically positioned slow as inferior to fast. It also ripped large swaths of the workforce from agrarian lives ruled by natural rhythms. Dismembered from the scents, sounds, traditions, and habits of rural communities, these migrants mashed into crowded, dirty cities alongside others from culturally and geographically disparate places. Might they have appeared to Shelley’s readers to be not unlike the unfortunate creature, formed of mismatched features from incompatible timescapes?
The other monster Shelley gives us is the mad scientist, and this is the one that is more likely to haunt us today. Victor Frankenstein, with his idyllic past, loving family, and promising future, started out as an ordinary college student but takes a sharp, deviant turn when he encounters the course of study he thinks can give him the power to create life. Like a grad student racing burnout while chasing handfuls of Adderall with Red Bull, Frankenstein concentrates all his energy on his project, sacrificing the rhythms of a balanced life. As he neglects the rituals that tune his inner clock to healthful human life—failing to write home, sleep at bedtime, or attend classes—he breaks himself chronobiologically before he crosses the moral and scientific points of no return.
Think on that one the next time you’re tempted to work through family dinner.
Shuffling through an Endless Present
From the genetic nightmares of Jurassic Park to the terrors of climate change and AI (Skynet, anyone?), the insistence on doing a thing because you want to see if you can makes Frankenstein (Mad Scientist) and his compulsion toward a future that may foreclose all futures, truly a monster for our time. The grand prize for the 2020 monster, however, goes to the zombie.
Back when The Walking Dead was new, my husband and I discovered an irreparable fissure in our bliss: he enjoys zombie apocalypse stories and I cannot. Mainly, I object on aesthetic grounds. Vampires are at least elegant; some are even urbane. (Yes, some have gone the Nosferatu route, but…) Zombies, on the other hand, are a sloppy, slurpy mass. But they are also terrifying in a particular way that hits, just right now, way too close to home.
As established by George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), the nature of the zombie nightmare lies in the scope of their derangement and the inevitability of annihilation they present. Even if you somehow escape being consumed, zombies render the world uninhabitable. (Who wants to be the last guy alive in Legend?) Friends, neighbors, lovers, family—the social fabric is shredded as the rags of that animated corpse that wants to kill you. And the comforts and conveniences of a peopled world: from well-stocked grocery stores and gas stations to medical clinics and hot showers, what would you miss most?
(Answer: all of the above.)
Zombies dis-integrate their victims, whether by dismemberment or infection. Whatever’s left (if anything is left) joins the mindless horde of consumers, driven by one thing only: to consume. And, thanks to Return of the Living Dead (1985), to brainlessly consume brains.
Which is why zombies are the monster of the year.
A casual exchange with someone who seems perfectly sane can suddenly reveal they suffer from a brain-eating virus. Right this minute, across the world, two-thirds of all humans are asking their neighbors, “Are you out of your mind?”
The zombie apocalypse is real, and it’s happening right now. And it’s been going on a good long while.
Romero’s choice to cast Duane Jones as the lead in Night of the Living Dead magnetized racial themes in the genre-defining film. The recent explosion of #BlackLivesMatter worldwide has pierced the consciousness of many daft white people who now suddenly see horrors people of color have long perceived: a seemingly ordinary, perhaps even likable, person–a peer, a teacher, a peace officer sworn to serve and protect–may at any time reveal themselves to be monstrously compelled to threaten your very existence.
Another very 2020 confrontation with that which is zombie has been forced on us by COVID-19. My state is currently in a spike, and our governor has begged his constituents to follow the state epidemiologist’s advice as hospitals have reached max capacity. Still, many residents eschew masks and host parties, with some angry enough to stage protests outside the lead doctor’s residence.
This drama is replicating itself internationally. In Sweden, group of doctors who have disagreed with their national public health authority’s approach to the pandemic characterize the conflict as “surreal” in light of a staggering death toll. Never mind mandates for others: doctors who themselves chose to wear masks while treating patients have reported being reprimanded or even fired. How can it be possible for so many people to refuse the rational approach to curb a deadly disease?
Meanwhile, the opposing side argues that we cannot cave to fear. They shrug: “If I get it, I get it. If you get it, you get it. A collapsed economy would be worse for everyone.” How can the fearmongers fail to see that homelessness and famine are even greater threats than having some people (mostly old) kick the bucket?
Regardless of the issue–race, COVID, climate change, private shuttles to the moon, whether Halloween candy should ever include Milk Duds*–zombification traps you in a horizonless present. Without the capacity to remember the past or envision the future, the zombie is the reduction of human life and all its wondrous possibility for transcendence into putrid flesh and destructive appetite. And you, my friend, stand on a rapidly disintegrating island of sanity while the world boils down to chaos.
* Answer: It shouldn’t.