romance · urban fantasy · vampires · zombies

Why we love vampires, zombies and werewolves

OK, I’m going to make a terrible admission.  I’m not actually that keen on vampires, zombies and werewolves in books.  It’s not that I dislike them, as such, it’s just if you asked me to take them or leave them I could pretty well leave them much of the time.

helena fairfax, margaret atwood, vampires, zombiesStrangely, in films or television it’s a different matter.  Shaun of the Dead is one of my favourite films, as is A Werewolf in London.  I watched Let the Right One In last year, and much enjoyed it.  I’ve never been tempted to read Frankenstein but I saw Benedict Cumberbatch in the play a couple of years back and thought it was brilliant.  When it comes to books, though, for some reason these creatures leave me pretty bored.

So when I went to a talk by novelist Margaret Atwood on monsters in literature, I was interested in what she might have to say, and why she finds the subject so fascinating.

Anyone who reads romance novels will know there is a whole subgenre called paranormal romance, which includes all sorts of vampires, werewolves and general shape-shifters.  The Twilight series of books and films is the most famous of the genre.  According to Margaret Atwood, vampires used to be ‘evil and smelly’; small creatures of the night who were more bat-like than hunk-like.  Nowadays we’re seeing a twist on this type of monster, and it’s become desirable to be a vampire.  Vampires are cool, attractive and aristocratic.  They are still the outsiders in society, but in Twilight , as Margaret Atwood says with typical humour, they’ve actually started to form ‘cosy domestic units’.

What are these monsters metaphors for?

helena fairfax, margaret atwood, vampires
Poster for Swedish film Let the Right One In

Children love toy dinosaurs for a reason.  A dinosaur is a monster, but it’s a monster who is on the child’s side, and is big enough to protect them if they are being given a hard time in the playground.

And children love stories about monsters because they are vulnerable themselves, and subject to the whims of adults.  Reading about monsters is a way of helping children to confront their fears in a safe environment.  Vampires hold a particular appeal for teenagers because they represent outsiders, on the edge of society.  They also represent sexuality, which is a whole discussion on its own, as in this Huffington Post article.

Zombies are a modern monster, and appear to increase in popularity during an economic downturn.  When we read about a zombie apocalypse, we’re rehearsing for a world meltdown.  Margaret Atwood also posed a couple more interesting theories about zombies: that they represent our fear of the unemployed working-class, and that one day the poor will rise up against the rest of the world.  They could also represent our fear of a crowded planet: – maybe we secretly wish that 80% of the population were dead.  (I must admit, for anyone travelling on a crowded tube or train to work every day, this one must strike a chord.  Check out the poster for Shaun of the Dead, pictured above!)

But in recent times there has been a shift in our portrayal even of zombies.  Those pathetic, shuffling creatures are becoming handsome and sympathetic, as in the character R in Isaac Marion’s Warm Bodies.

margaret atwood, helena fairfax, zombiesWhat Margaret Atwood was basically asking at the end of this talk was, if we’ve “cleaned up” our monsters in literature, and if vampires, werewolves and zombies are more or less accepted amongst us, then ‘what carries the darkness that monsters used to carry?‘  What scares us now, in stories and films?  Who are the marginalised characters who strike real terror?

The question was left open ended at the end of the talk.  If you are looking for an answer from me as to who the new monsters are in literature, then I’m afraid I’m the last person to give one.  I have never, ever in my life watched a horror film, and, as I mentioned at the start of the post, I don’t read books featuring monsters.  As far as I’m concerned, there are enough terrifying things in real life, without going out of my way to look for more!

Although now I have a confession to make.  After listening to Margaret Atwood’s talk, I bought and read my first zombie book ever: Warm Bodies.  Guess what?  I thought it was excellent, and I really enjoyed it! :)  It’s an apocalytic story, a metaphor for the world’s ills, where the zombies are revealed as the good guys, and the bad guys are the humans still left in charge.  The characters were warm and funny, and it’s also a gentle love story – and that can’t be bad!

And if I’ve taken one tip away from Margaret Atwood, it’s this:  zombies can’t skate on ice.

Do you enjoy paranormal literature?  And do you agree with Margaret Atwood that vampires, werewolves and zombies have been “cleaned up”?  If so, what do you think has replaced them to terrify us?  Any comments, please let me know – I’d love to hear from you!

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16 thoughts on “Why we love vampires, zombies and werewolves

    1. Hi Suzanne, yes she does, doesn’t she? And she was really funny to listen to. I wish I could have conveyed her sense of humour. Thanks for your comment – and if you read a vampire novel you enjoy, please let me know!

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  1. Wow, great article, Helena! I must admit, I love vampires, werewolves, and zombies. I do agree that they’ve become more glamorous and less scary, overall (The Walking Dead, which I love, is an exception). I don’t know what’s replaced them in literature. I can tell you what scares me, though: reality TV stars. :)

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    1. Haha! You’re right about the reality stars :) Who needs zombies?
      I wish I could watch The Walking Dead but if you say it’s scary, it’s probably not for me. Maybe someone could just tell me what happens – then I don’t have to actually watch it!

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  2. I wasn’t a fan of werewolves, zombies, vampires, until a gal in our crit group wrote a series about werewolves–Trajectories, The Kitty Irish series by Tess Grant. This YA thriller was filled with suspense and teen angst and a great story line and I couldn’t wait to read her next chapter. With your blog, I may just be brave enough to try a “cute” zombie story!

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    1. That sounds a great series JQ. I’ll check it out – thanks! I think you might like Warm Bodies. There’s a great vein of humour runs through it. When I found out the Undead all inhabited an airport terminal I knew I was going to like this book. I’m glad I gave it a try – it was a great read!

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  3. What a great post, Helena. I went through a period of reading lots of shape-shifter/vampire books. Frankly, the sex is usually pretty steamy! :) But then I just got over them. With limited time, I usually read romantic suspense and an occasional book by a friend or fellow MIU writer to be supportive, you know.

    “Margaret Atwood also posed a couple more interesting theories about zombies: that they represent our fear of the unemployed working-class, and that one day the poor will rise up against the rest of the world.” Wow! Boy is that powerful! She just might be right.

    I had to laugh at the idea that reality TV had taken the place of scary things.
    My vote is with all the murder/mayhem, serial killers we have here in the states. We have some mean human beings in the world. I read on another blog somewhere that the US has more of these bad dudes than any other country. I can’t tell you how happy that makes me! Be glad you live in Britain!
    Lovely post, Helena.

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  4. A fascinating post Helena. I do love reading paranormal romance, amongst most romance sub genres, as you know and do adore vampires and werewolves, especially vampires! It is true to say that generally they have become less horrific, although their are still some exceptions in the literature – Naima Haviland’s Bloodroom and The Bad Death being a good example of a Gothic type romance meets horror. I usually shy away from pure horror though as I find it scares me too much and I generally prefer a happy ending.

    I have never read a novel focusing solely on zombies though, although the one you have read does sound like a great introduction. I too thought that the comment regarding our fear of zombies being linked to our fear of an underclass taking over the world was very insightful.

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    1. Hi Tina, I think it’s true there are still “evil” vampires about. I haven’t read the two books you mention, but evil vampires feature in Twilight, so it’s not entirely true that they’ve all been “cleaned up”. I suppose it’s true that vampires as a whole are definitely more desirable as monsters.
      I really enjoyed Warm Bodies. It was a story in which the humans proved to be the real monsters, which is becoming a theme.
      Thanks for your comment and the mention of those two novels. I’ll add them to my TBR list!

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      1. I’ve just ordered Warm Bodies from Amazon Helena in paperback – I thought that I would enjoy my very first Zombie read this way rather than in digital format. It had excellent reviews but I would not have heard of it unless I had read your post. I will let you know via our blog what I think of it and hope to read it soon. :)

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      2. Oh that’s great Tina! I think you’ll like it. You know more about this type of genre than I do, so I’d be interested to know what you think. I really enjoyed it. Hope you do too!

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  5. I certainly cleaned up (or rather redeemed) Drusilla in my four tales, but redemption was one of Joss Whedon’s themes and Dru a perfect candidate for it. Those were highly specific stories, but I was careful (based on comments in an author’s preface to a BUFFY novel) not to make her too cuddly or, in a funny old way, emasculated. She was still a vampire. She killed people (in this last instalment, half the Taliban) and a theme I was rather proud of turned up in the second Dru tale – perhaps an answer – which was Dru’s admission that she was scared of humans. Vampires killed, tortured and feasted but had no souls and could not feel guilt or remorse for their actions. Humans, however, did just the same things (swap feasting for cannibalism…) but had souls, and the idea that a creature which such finely-attuned feelings could still commit such atrocities scared the living daylights out of her.

    As vampires were never mindless, it was probably only a matter of time before they became more three-dimensional characters, but perhaps the answer to Attwood’s question is that humans are the real monsters.

    To blend and paraphrase a film quote and a fact:

    “Beware the beast man, for he kills for pleasure.”

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    1. Hi James, I think you’ve summed it up quite succinctly in that last comment and quotation. Humans themselves quite often feature as the monsters now in fiction. I think you would have enjoyed Margaret Atwood’s talk.
      Thanks for coming by and adding to the discussion!

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  6. Very interesting post Helena. I don’t particularly like vampires or zombies and must confess that I haven’t even seen any of the Twilight films or read the books. I can’t do horror films. I find them just so stressful I don’t get any pleasure from watching them at all. I do agree though that there is something romantic about the idea of ‘taming’ a monster – of having him (it?) on your side to protect you, like you said. In romances, heroins are almost always attracted to seemingly harsh, unsympathetic men who reveal their softer side and vulnerability only to them. Maybe that’s why some vampire or paranormal romances have been so popular? (Then again, I don’t read them so I can’t comment!)

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    1. Hi Marie, that’s a really good point you made about the heroine “taming” the hero. You’re right, maybe that’s part of the reason paranormal romances are popular. It’s a familiar trope, but this time vampires take the place of the usual alpha heroes. Like you I haven’t read enough of them to comment, but it seems to make sense.
      And I’m totally with you regarding horror films. There’s no way I would pay good money to sit in a cinema and be tortured in this way! My children think it’s funny that I find them terrifying, but they’re just not for me!

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