Today we will wrap up our “Thoroughly Modern Monster” mini-series (you can find the previous installments here, here, and here) with a monster that’s gained a significant (shuffling and moaning) following: the zombie. Zombies are big right now, and I won’t bore you by naming all the zombie movies, tv shows, comics, books, and video games that have come out recently. They (along with vampires) have been the hot monster a la mode for some time now.
But where did zombies come from? Folks, I’m not going to beat around the bush here. If you’ve read my other monster history posts you may have noticed a pattern: there are some legends that have almost nothing to do with our modern conception of the monster, then someone makes a movie or writes a book about them where the monster is similar to the original in name only, and the movie monster gives us the modern conception. It happened with werewolves in early Hollywood. It happened to vampires in popular 19th century literature (and was then cemented in the public consciousness forever by, yes, early Hollywood). So the question that might be on our mind is “Are modern zombies also based almost entirely off of 1920s Hollywood monster movies?” To which I can confidently answer, no.
They’re based almost entirely off of 1960s Hollywood. With a dash of 30s Hollywood sprinkled on top, for flavor.
“But Mark,” you might object (I can tell you’re the contrary type) “don’t zombies come from voodoo or something? I’m sure I heard that once from a made for TV documentary/book of fun monster facts/back of a cereal box.” To which I can only reply with a sincere “Kinda.” The word zombie does come from Haitian voodoo. And Haitian voodoo does have legends (mostly small and unimportant legends, compared to the rest of the religion) about certain dark voodoo magics that can bring dead bodies to life to serve their masters. But these zombies have nothing to do with modern zombies. Just for starters, voodoo zombies:
-Aren’t rotting corpses
-Don’t feed on human flesh
-Can’t turn other people into zombies
-Can perform complicated tasks
-Arguably aren’t even dead! Not in the way modern zombies are anyway! If you cut one of their heads off it wouldn’t still be moving around, snapping at you!
Voodoo zombies are just creepy slaves. It’s like “Hey, you know how we are all taken from Africa and made into slaves to work the fields till we die? Can you imagine if someone dug up our dead bodies and made them keep working forever? That would suck!” That’s the basic idea behind Haitian voodoo zombies. They aren’t like modern zombies at all.
The modern zombie can be traced back to one film: George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, released in 1968. Now there are a few obvious differences between Romero’s zombies and the modern conception, namely that the zombies were created by radiation from Venus (it makes sense in context) instead of a virus, but almost everything else is the same. Romero’s zombies can only be killed by destroying the brain, they shuffle and moan and stagger about, they hunger for human flesh, and if they kill you then you become one too. It is here, from this movie, that all future modern zombie media takes its source. This is the Ur-Zombie, and it’s only 46 years old.
So why do we call them zombies if they don’t have anything to do with Haitian zombies? Well Romero never actually calls the monsters in his movie zombies. At no point in the film is that name used, and Romero wasn’t thinking about Haitian zombies when he was developing the plot (instead drawing influence from the book I am Legend). It was only after the movie came out that fans started calling the monsters from the movie “zombies,” and the name stuck.
Remember when I said that 1930s Hollywood was also involved somehow? That’s because in the 20s and 30s Hollywood made several horror movies about zombies. And I mean real zombies this time, good and proper Haitian zombies with none of this “brains” business. Movies like White Zombie featured innocent whites being menaced by frightening black people and their voodoo magic. These zombies behave as they should: working hard in a sugar plantation, staring blankly into space, and doing whatever their master commands. It was movies like these that put the word “zombie” in the national consciousness, and why fans of Night of the Living Dead even thought to use the term in regards to Romero’s shuffling horrors.
So, as we can see, modern zombies are terribly, terribly young. But in some ways they are also terribly old. Romero said in interviews later that the idea for his monsters came when he asked himself the question: “what if the dead stopped staying dead?” This idea isn’t new; it harkens back to an ancient fear that seems essential to the make-up of humanity as a whole: the fear of dead bodies. People have been telling stories about revenants for as long as we’ve existed. Dead bodies are frightening, unnatural things.
The only thing that would make them scarier…is if they got up.
As I mentioned two weeks ago, there is a fairly solid dividing line in history that separates the werewolves we have today (those that change under the full moon, can only be killed by silver, take a half-man half-wolf form, and spread their curse through bites) and the werewolves of the past (change whenever they want, can be killed in the normal ways, take the form of a wolf, become a werewolf through magic ceremonies, etc). That dividing line was the wolfman horror movies of early Hollywood. Before Hollywood we have the old kind of werewolf, after Hollywood we have the modern beast, and the differences between the two are so great that you can argue that they share nothing except the name. Vampires have an extremely similar story, only their dividing line comes in 1819 with the publishing of the short novel The Vampyre by John William Polidori. Polidori’s book is the first place where we see a high society, handsome, rich, and suave vampire who masquerades as a human and sucks the blood of beautiful maidens all over Europe. The book, and a popular play based off of it, sparked a vampire craze in Europe that we could emphasize with today. Just as our current vampire craze has spawned off numerous book series, tv shows, and movies about vampires Polidori’s book inspired numerous plays and novels that expanded on his original vampire, the dashing and dangerous Lord Ruthven. Most of us think of writing from previous centuries of consisting solely of stuffy old “classics” or great works of literature that are far more serious and sophisticated than the commercial trash that is printed today. The truth is that previous centuries had just as much commercial fluff and sensational pop works as we do today. One such work from the 1840s was Varney the Vampire, a serialized story telling the tale of a vampire from week to week. Varney was roughly equivalent to what we might consider comic books today, as it consisted of short stories that emphasized action, horror, and suspense.
Being a work of popular fiction that was written by multiple authors over its run, Varney wasn’t particularly consistent in regards to its vampire lore. The creation of Varney himself is muddled, with several competing origin stories that appear throughout the series. In one account we learn that Varney became a vampire when he betrayed a friend and then killed his own son in a fit of rage, which harkens back to the old vampire legends about great sinners rising from their graves to feed on the living. Another edition has Varney being created by a scientist using electricity a la Frankenstein. Varney often had conflicting abilities and motivations, but from that mess of a work many of the modern vampire tropes were born. Varney has two fangs, leaves two puncture marks on the necks of his victims, has super strength, can hypnotize people, and can turn others into vampires. Perhaps most notably Varney is the first sympathetic vampire in the world; we see the stories through his point of view, and he regularly regrets what he has become. He even attempts to cure his “condition” and eventually commits suicide by throwing himself into a volcano. This is an incredible breakthrough; before this point all vampires, even the Polidori’s, were viewed as either mindless monsters or incomprehensible creatures of pure evil. Varney turns all that upside down by asking what it would like to be a vampire and still retain your human mind, your human memories, and your human outlook.
In other words, Varney brought angst to the vampire mythos. So, The Vampyre made vampires suave and sophisticated, and Varney added angst. That leaves one primarily modern character trait of vampires to go: sexuality. In 1871 a slightly more sophisticated vampire serial appears, titled Carmilla. This story itself is pretty long and suspenseful and full of foreshadowing and all that, but for our purposes it can be easily summarized: a young woman becomes friends with another young woman and then later they discover that one of the young women is a vampire and along the way it’s highly implied that she’s a lesbian as well. This story is notable on two points: introducing the idea of vampires who are hundreds of years old but appear to be children (because they died young) and vampires as sexual creatures. The vampires of the old legends, being revenants, are certainly nothing you could easily think about sexually, and though the vampire in The Vampyre woos women it is only for the purpose of devouring their blood. This is the first story where we get the strong impression that vampires carnal desires could extend to more than just hemoglobin. This 19th century vampire progression finally culminates in what we now consider the crown jewel of vampire lore: Bran Stoker’s Dracula. Written in 1897, Dracula gives us the first appearance of arch-vampire Count Dracula himself, and pulls together all the scattered vampire tropes the past century had been throwing out there. Dracula is a suave and sophisticated aristocrat, who not only hungers from blood but also possesses several vampire wives, bringing female vampires and sexuality back into play. True, there is little angst seen from Dracula over being a vampire, but there is certainly a lot of angst among the main characters after Dracula turns Lucy into a vampire of her own. Here we are also supplied with the now traditional modes of hunting vampires: garlic, staking through the heart, holy water, the whole nine yards.
However, Dracula was not a commercial success in its own time. Stoker died in poverty, and arguably Varney or Carmilla were both far more popular during their respective runs. Why then is Dracula the most famous vampire book ever written? Why does its ideas and themes still run through the vampire mythos to this day? Why is Count Dracula more famous than Carmilla, or Varney, or even Lord Ruthven? The answer, as with werewolves, is movies. In 1922 the German film Nosferatu was released to the public. The movie itself was pretty much a take for take adaptation of Dracula but with names changed to avoid having to pay the Stoker estate. Now, the film is important on its own (as we shall see) but it is also responsible for inventing one of the most enduring features of the modern vampire mythos: the vampires vulnerability to sunlight. Before Nosferatu vampires had little trouble walking about during the day. Lord Ruthven wasn’t bothered by it, Carmilla merely disliked it, and all sunlight did to Count Dracula was weaken him slightly. However Nosferatu, deviating from the book, shows the vampire being defeated by the dawn of the sun, whose light causes him to burst into smoke. This weakness to sunlight would by picked up by the vampire stories to come, until we reach the modern day where you can find nerds everywhere complaining about how the sun doesn’t hurt Twilight vampires.
The film was a massive success, and Bram Stoker’s widow sued for copyright infringement. She won her case, and every copy of the film (except for one that survived to the modern day) was destroyed. However the film was so popular that it was soon followed by a stage version which toured Europe and spread vampire fever. (Fun fact: the stage play is where the Count Dracula started wearing that ridiculous black cape with the super high collar. The purpose of the collar was so that the actor playing Dracula could turn his back to the audience and seem to disappear against a black backdrop, creating a spooky effect. Somehow, the silly cape stuck with the character.)
Eventually the play toured the US where it caught the attention of Hollywood. Young producer Carl Laemmle Jr., after seeing Nosferatu’s initial success legally bought the movie rights from the Stoker estate. In 1931 the famous Universal movie Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi, was released to huge commercial success. Since that film was released the book Dracula has never gone out of print, and the legacy of Count Dracula was set in stone, along with the all the other “modern” vampires he had come to represent.
Today we’re going to look at vampires. Vampires are pretty popular right now. Just about anybody could tell you what a vampire is these days, even if they’re not a huge nerd or horror fan. Pale, beautiful, suave, mysterious, superpowered creatures of the night who are hurt by sunlight and drink the blood of the living. But as we saw with werewolves last week, monsters can change a lot over time. How old are vampires as we know them?
Like werewolves, the answer is complicated because it depends on what you define as a vampire. If you define a vampire as an undead monster who drinks human blood than vampires have been around since ancient times, and across most cultures. This is a fact you might find between the pages of a YA vampire series, or on a fun Halloween facts page, or even in the dialogue of a TV series. But are vampires really so old, and really spread over so many cultures? No. No, they really aren’t.
To be sure multiple ancient cultures across the globe have stories of blood drinking undead, but these monsters have almost nothing to do with vampires. They are far better defined as revenants. A revenant is a corpse that has left it’s place of burial and roams around performing various kinds of mischief, from slaughtering livestock and spreading plague, to drinking blood and devouring flesh. Revenants take many forms and have many names, but they all share the same basic idea: someone dies and for some reason or another their corpse does not remain at rest.
And when I say corpse, I really mean corpse. Revenants are shambling, bloated, rotting, stinking things. They are not sexy. They are not sauve. They have far more in common with modern zombies than modern vampires.
Now we have scattered stories of various revenants from ancient times up through the Middle Ages. However between the late Renaissance and the early Enlightenment periods we start to see a more specific type of revenant legend develop. In southeast Europe during this time period is where the vampire legend is actually born. It is during this time period that we begin to see vampire panics, vampire trials, and widespread anti-vampire burial practices (which we’ll get to later). But again, these vampires are far different from the ones we know today. Arguably they are far scarier as well.
It can be hard for modern readers, with their heads full of True Blood and Interview with a Vampire to really understand what these primal vampires were like. Let me try to explain with a short story:
It’s 1672. You are a Bulgarian peasant, living in a small village up in the hills. You know everybody in town and everybody knows you. One day your brother dies. Perhaps he got sick, or maybe it was an accident of some kind, but however it happened he’s dead and it’s time to consign his remains to the earth. The funeral procession brings his coffin up to the church graveyard on top of a hill overlooking the village, where he is given his last rites and buried beneath the earth.
You’re sad, of course. This is a real tragedy, and you’ll miss your brother terribly. However you have to get back to working the land, and you try to put the bad memories behind you. However, in the weeks after the burial, bad things start happening. A local farmer loses some of his sheep: one is found mutilated in the woods. Probably wolves. Then a local boy gets sick. He starts to waste away, turning weak and pale. Soon he can no longer get out of bed. Eventually he dies. They say it was consumption. Soon more people are getting sick. A few more animals have been lost. People are starting to talk. You try to ignore it. Then, one dark, cloudy night, you hear a scream outside your door. It’s one of your goats, and it’s crying bloody murder. You run outside and check the pen, but the goat is gone. The other animals are terrified. You try to calm them down, when suddenly you see him. Your farm is near the old woods, far from town. There isn’t anyone around for over a mile, but there in the trees is a figure is crouched over. It’s hard to see in the dark, but the figure is stooping over something, holding it to it’s mouth. As you watch it suddenly turns to look at you, slowly. It’s too far away to see clearly, but your blood goes cold in your veins. The figure drops it’s load, and begins to lumber over to you. It staggers as it walks, but it’s picking up speed. You quickly run back inside and bolt the door on your little shack. You peer through the crack around the doorframe, and watch as the figure comes closer. It’s a human alright, but not like any you’ve seen before. His body is bloated and his skin blotched with purple like fresh bruises. His clothes are tattered, barely hanging on to his swollen body. The air is filled with the smell of death, clogging your nostrils and almost sending you into a coughing fit. As it comes closer you see that blood is dripping from its mouth and nose, sending red rivulets over a doughy and mottled face. You put all your weight against the door as the creature comes up to it, pounding with its fists.
Suddenly your heart stops as you hear it speak, speak with a distorted and pleading voice. But even through the distortion you recognize it.
“Let me come in, brother. I’m so cold brother. Please. Please let me in.”
And that, my friends, is an old fashioned vampire. A corpse bloated and purple with blood and decay, the corpse of someone you likely knew and perhaps loved, walking about and devouring the living There are a few other noticeable differences between this “classic” vampire and the modern conception. For example, early vampires could come out in daylight just fine and were not hurt by the sun; it was merely that they were more active at night. Also there was no clear idea of how one became a vampire. Some people thought that vampires formed when evil spirits took control of recently killed corpses. This would lead some people to include holy objects such as crosses or communion wafers with the deceased in order to drive such evil spirits away. It’s also the origin of the idea that vampires will be repelled by crucifixes and harmed by holy water.
Another theory was that vampires were great sinners in life who had committed some terrible crime (perhaps killing a loved one, or cannibalism) and that whatever heinous acts they had committed would cause them to become a monster. Others didn’t know why vampires became vampires, but still believed that they could happen and that you had to be prepared. Though a variety of objects and plants (such as garlic and hawthorn, or crucibles and scattered rice) could help protect you from a vampire the creature would continue to terrorize the area until someone hunted it down and did something about it.
That’s why they can still find corpses from this period that have stakes driven through their hearts. However we’re liable to misunderstand this too. The purpose of the stakes wasn’t to kill the vampire: after all, how can you kill a corpse? How can you kill what is already dead? No, the purpose of the stake was to literally pin the creature to its grave, preventing it from physically rising to feast on the living. And stakes are just one of many ways to accomplish that goal. Corpses of suspected vampires had their heads chopped off, their leg tendons severed, their arms and legs bound in iron chains, or any other way they could think of to prevent them from escaping their coffins.
That’s the way it worked: if people started getting sick and dying, or animals disappeared, and people began to suspect a vampire, they would soon form a posse and start digging up recent burials. They would look for a corpse that didn’t seem to be decaying properly, or one that was swollen or showed signs of blood around the mouth. They would then take that corpse and do whatever they could to contain it, hoping to God that it wouldn’t “wake up” while they were doing the deed. Many villages had individuals who were given the particular responsibility of finding and binding vampires: some of these “vampire hunters” even persisted into the 1900s.
Actual belief in vampires peaked between the 17th and 18th centuries, before falling out of fashion during the enlightenment. After that something happened that would transform the vampire legend entirely. But that’s a story for next week. In the meantime, if you bemoan the newest vampire flick featuring hunky bloodsuckers that look like they came out of the pages of a fashion magazine; take heart, and remember a time when vampires were truly something to be feared! Something horrible, gross, unsettling, and terrible.
Next week we’ll find out how all that changed.
Given the magnificent Blood Moon that graced our skies early this morning, a post on werewolves seems appropriate. However, their history may surprise you. Werewolves are not as old as you might think, and the kind we’re familiar with today with bestial, half-human forms, who change at the full moon and can only be hurt by silver, is a thoroughly modern invention.
Let’s start from the beginning.
In ancient times there were some stories about men becoming wolves, but these fell almost entirely into two categories: curses and witchcraft. Ancient legends abound of men and women who were turned into wolves as a punishment by the gods for some slight or another. Other cultures have stories of witches and sorcerers who, among their many magic abilities, could take the form of an animal. However this is far from the werewolf as we understand it today. After all, Sirius Black from the Harry Potter books could turn himself into a wolf (well, a big dog) by magic yet we would not consider him a werewolf but merely a wizard with magic powers. And modern werewolves are not impious pagans who were cursed to take the form of a wolf because they cheesed off a deity, especially since the legends indicate that such punishments were permanent transformations, not temporary or reoccurring. With that in mind it’s safe to say that these ancient legends are only tangentially related to werewolves as we think of them.
The Middle Ages Of course after the pagans came the Catholics. What did Medieval peasants think about werewolves? You might think that here is where the werewolf legend began, among those superstitious, ignorant, and unscientific Medievals. However the truth is that your average Medieval peasant didn’t believe in werewolves. Heck, they didn’t even believe in witches! It was the official position of the Medieval Catholic church that witches, sorcerers, warlocks, and other supernatural types were pure pagan superstition. To be sure you could still find some of the old legends of witchcraft related wolf transformations, but only in the pagan pockets of northern and eastern Europe, places like Scandinavia or Lithuania where Christianity had yet to arrive in force. Stories of men transforming into wolves were for ignorant pagans: good Christians knew better than to believe such rot. “Now Mark,” you may be asking, “How can this be? After all, weren’t the Medievals notorious for burning witches at the stake? It’s in Monty Python and everything!” Well that brings us to the next stage of the history of werewolves, and were things really get started…
The Age of Superstition (Better known as the Renaissance)
Though we typically think of the Middle Ages as a time of ignorance and superstition that ended with the re-arrival of reason and logic with the onset of the Renaissance, the fact is that the Renaissance could be easily be renamed “The Age of Superstition.” The period between the 15th and early 18th centuries was characterized by a mania involving all things occult, magical, or supernatural. It was during this period that the famous witch burnings of Europe occurred, as well as the majority of the notable witch trials (including America’s most famous one in Salem). It was no coincidence the interest in Alchemy and Astrology had its height during this period as well. No longer were magic circles, curses, hexes, and animal transformations dismissed as superstition. Books were published about how to identify witches, and with them treatises on the nature of werewolves. It is during this period that we begin to see the beginnings of werewolves as we know them today. Many during this period seriously believed that some men could transform themselves into the form of a wolf, and would set themselves upon their fellow men, ripping and devouring. There were actual werewolf trials were individuals were convicted of being werewolves, but most of these convictions came down alongside general convictions of witchcraft. That’s because these werewolves were still not the ones we know today. While modern werewolves acquire their curse by being bit by another werewolf, the lycanthropy of this period had to be sought out. People supposedly had to actively try to become a werewolf, and there were a variety of possible methods: rubbing the body with magic ointments, making a belt or coat out of a wolves skin and putting it on, drinking water out of a wolf’s footprint, or making a pact with demons in exchange for power. Of course there were stories of people who became werewolves against their will, but not from being bitten. Instead it was said that if a child was too harshly abused by their parents they might run away to the woods and become wild werewolves, or that those who died in mortal sin might rise from their graves in the form of a wolf: a strange cross between a werewolf and a vampire, though we’ll get to the history of the latter another time. Werewolves were different from modern ones in a few other key aspects: for one, they all became wolves instead of half-wolf half men monstrosities like we see today, it was said you could tell a werewolf from a regular wolf because a werewolf had no tail, and some believed that if you cut a werewolf in his human form you would find fur poking out of the wound, as if the person’s skin was merely a covering for the wolf that lived within. However belief in werewolves began to die down by the onset of the 1700s, along with belief in witches, sorcerers, alchemy, and the rest of the baggage of the “Age of Superstition.” The Enlightenment was coming, and there would be little room for such silly beliefs in the years to come, though a few scattered werewolf trials continued in rural parts of Eastern Europe for some time. From there werewolves would be forgotten until the mid-19th century where they, like vampires, would start to feature vaguely in Victorian horror literature. Which brings us to the werewolf’s final chapter:
The Modern Period to Today
Most of what we know about modern werewolves comes from 20th century horror movies. Turns into a wolf under the full moon? Hollywood. Werewolves are half-man half-wolf creatures that walk on two legs? Made up so that makeup and special effects would be cheaper. Werewolves can only be killed by silver? Not seen in any account of werewolves before the 20th century. The curse being spread by bite? There may be some legends that had elements of this, but it didn’t become the primary method until quite recently.
The funny thing about all this is that most of us might assume that the werewolf is a very old monster, going back to ancient legends like the vampire. But we find that it isn’t so. For hundreds of years the werewolf was simply a particular kind of witchcraft, not a proper monster in its own right at all. In many ways the werewolf is a thoroughly modern monster, a horror that was invented in the last hundred years or so.
Still, the full moon can give you a bit of a chill when the night is right; and when the forest rings with the sound of howling, who am I to say that werewolves are too young to be real monsters?
Happy blood moon.
In honor of the spookiest month of the year, I thought I’d do a few posts on all things creepy and crawly. Let’s take a break from serious subjects and have some horror filled fun, starting with R. L. Stine’s famous horror series Goosebumps.
When I was a kid I wasn’t allowed to read Goosebumps. At least not until I was like, 10 or 11 or so I suppose. My older brother was allowed to read them, but I had to wait and that drove me crazy. I’d watch my brother read through a stack of books with the most fantastically creepy covers and I’d seethe with envy. If you ever read Goosebumps you know what I mean about the covers. Sometimes the covers were better than the story underneath! They had brightly colored monsters, haunted masks, BBQing skeletons, giant hamsters, werewolves, ghosts, ghouls, vampires, everything a kid could want! I’d see them sitting all in a row at the local library and look at each cover one by one. I may not have been allowed to read them, but who could stop me from looking? My parents didn’t want me reading them because they didn’t want me to have nightmares. My dad in particular was very protective of us when it came to anything scary and supernatural. Still, I can remember “borrowing” a Goosebumps book from my brother, crawling under my bed, and reading it by flashlight. When I was finally allowed to read them openly I devoured them. I read just about every Goosebumps that our local library had.
The first one I ever read, or at least the first that left any deep impression on me, was Goosebumps #2 Stay out of the Basement. I can still remember the story clearly: a scientist orders his two kids to stay out of the basement where he keeps his laboratory. He starts acting strangely, and when the kids finally do go down they discover…that he’s been slowly turning himself into a human/plant hybrid monster! I can’t quite remember what happened after that, but man did that book give me chills. The thought of human becoming something so inhuman as a plant was creepy enough, but that it was their own father took the cake. I didn’t know what I would do if my own father turned himself into a monster. And look at that cover (featured below)! I knew when I saw that cover that I was in for something great.
As I look back on Goosebumps I have a lot of good memories. The Haunted Mask, Don’t go to Sleep, Monster Blood, The Cuckoo Clock of Doom, Say Cheese and Die, Why I’m Afraid of Bees, How I Learned to Fly; these were some of my favorites. To be sure they were cheesy, silly, and as the series wore on (and the publishers goaded R. L. Stine to write them faster and faster) the quality did suffer. But I was too young to think that they were written badly. For me they were an outlet for my own love and fear of all things creepy, spooky, and monstrous. A safe outlet too, for no matter how badly the stories ended (and few ended happily for the protagonist) I knew that I was safe. This was fantasy, not reality; a parallel universe of exaggerated colors and shapes that I could peek in through the cover of a worn paperback.
Just for fun, here’s my favorite Goosebumps cover: the story was pretty mediocre, but that giant tongue still gets me every time!