This week, true to my word, I’ll be discussing the origins and philosophy behind two classic movie monsters that share two things in common: They’re undead, and they feast on the living. I am of course talking about Lindsey Lohan and Tara Reid.
Well, actually Vampires and Zombies. But close enough.
Believe it or not, this was really tricky to decipher. Vampires have a wide variety of lore and incarnations, ranging from the uber-scientific virus of the book form of I am Legend to the rage and aneurysm inducing “vampires” from the Twilight series. And most folklorists/historians can’t pin down really any specific origins of Vampires. IT’S ALMOST LIKE THEY CAME OUT OF NOWHERE. Not really, most folklorists point to one English Historian named William or Walter of Newburgh who lived in the 12th century. He tells a tale in one of his books about royalty and politics about a man who killed himself after finding his wife in bed with another man. But then, everybody who turned up at his funeral slowly starts dying from suspicious attacks by what looks to be an animal–including the father of two unnamed brothers, whom we’ll call Mark and Donny Wahlberg.
So Marky Mark and Donny D decide to slay this monster to stop its terrible reign. Whilst venturing to the graveyard where this dude is buried, they spy him rising from his grave! They hide out until the creature returns to it’s coffin and sleeps, then they go up to the body and stab it in the neck. Blood comes pouring out “that it was understood that he had been the bloodsucker of many.” The brothers then decide that this beast cannot be killed by normal means and so (and this is actually in the original Latin text) they grab a spade, bash open his rib-cage, and tear out his goddamn heart.
Political treatises were much more hard-core back then.
The creature is never really referred to as a vampire, but it does have a lot of familiar elements. Prior to this, there were some references to blood or life-sucking creatures (including Odysseus’s own mama in The Odyssey), but this is the earliest mention of something that we’d really call a Vampire.
So, what fears inspired Vampires? Well, it’s important to note that classic Vampires from the medieval times (including our boy Willie of Newburgh) were always described as looking bloated and pus-filled. It’s not surprising to people who have seen a cadaver to know that this is indeed what a dead body looks like not too long after death. Though the body is dead, the bacteria in it don’t immediately die, they still go on and mostly produce gas after the body dies. Now, this also happens when you are alive, but usually you pass it out–when you’re dead, it just builds up. Morticians call this “postmortem bloat.” Medieval Europeans who dug up recently deceased bodies would have stumbled upon this grotesque and horrific sight and might have concluded that because of the swollen belly (where most of the gas is made), the creature had freshly eaten.
But there’s stranger things to the Vampire myth. Vampires typically have three weaknesses: a stake through the heart, garlic, and sunlight. Now, destroying the heart has pretty much been there throughout all of the myths including William of Newburgh’s (except in the original Dracula, where decapitation was necessary). Interestingly enough, aversion to sunlight was not in classic vampire myths–but garlic was. So what’s up with the Garlic? Well, Garlic has actually been thought to ward off evil for a very, very long time. Egyptians thought it staved off curses. Chinese thought it prevented curses, witchcraft, and spells and used to smear it on dead bodies.
Oddly enough, Garlic does have some relatively potent anti-bacterial properties and does a decent job of fighting off infections and boosting the immune system (it also wards off everybody around you with a nose). The smell was also used sometimes to cover up the stench of rotting flesh, so you know, there’s that to stave off the undead (or at least make them smell like pizza, which is just as good).
Curiously enough, it was Dracula that codified Vampire lore and actually invented the sunlight weakness of Vampires. Light has pretty much always been seen as a purifying power that purged evil. And a lot of monsters share (or originally shared) that same weakness, so Vampires really just boarded that Bandwagon.
The other common Undead monster: Zombies, the Living Dead. Now, first I want to start out by discussing the origins of the word. Zombies originally come from Voodoo. Voodoo priests could sometimes reanimate the dead or enthrall the living–they’re put into a trance. Oddly enough, when people refer to couch potatoes who stare at the TV as “Zombies,” they’re getting pretty close to the original definition. Zombies did what the priest told them to–they never really ate flesh or spread infection through biting. So why do they bother us? Well, there are the obvious fears: fear of death, fear of the grotesque, fear of disease and blood. But Psychologist Stephanie Lay proposed something she calls the “Uncanny Valley” theory, and it has to do with a part of the brain called the Fusiform Face Area (FFA).
The FFA is a holistic processing area that analyzes things we have a lot of experience with, it processes the whole thing and not the component parts. We call it the Fusiform Face Area because in everybody, no matter their experience, it processes faces. It’s why I can recognize my brother without having to analyze his individual features. Humans are inherently social creatures. We had to be–the lone wolf never survived in cavemen times. So we are naturally predisposed to like human faces. But Lay found out that something happens when you distort that face to unusual dimensions. The FFA’s holisitic processing immediately recognizes it as a human face, but other parts of the brain’s visual cortex are screaming at us that something’s messed up about it. It produces discomfort to see something so familiar and usually pleasant distorted like that. It doesn’t have to be zombies that produces this effect. It’s actually been demonstrated that we really don’t like faces with impossible dimensions (eyes too far apart, mouth too low, etc.). And studies consistently show that people find human-like monsters such as Zombies, Vampires, and Freddy Kruegar scarier than other monsters.
Carl, get back in the house.
Human features that are not quite normal weird us out; it’s why almost-human dolls and robots give us the creeps too. We perceive them as human-like, but something is off.
Next week, I’m going to finish up my series with some contemporary monsters: specifically human-created monsters. Robots, computers, and I’ll throw in Alien for good measure. Join me then!
And be sure to check out my other column, where I review action films every Monday: Mindless Action Mondays
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If I don’t know the answer, I’ll find someone who does.