Raising the Dead: Vampires, Zombies, and Witches—Oh My!
By Sarah Glenn Marsh
Nosferatu. Dracula. Lestat. Spike and Angel. Selene. Edward Cullen. Love them or hate them, you know their names. But have you ever thought about why? What is it about vampires that’s so fascinating and enduring that they’ve been winding up in our stories since ancient times, thrilling some and horrifying others—often lurking in the shadows, but always present?
It’s definitely not their sparkling good looks (okay, for some people, that must be part of it!).
But mostly, it’s the same thing that draws us to shows like The Walking Dead, to the White Walkers on Game of Thrones, and to those movies, too many to name, with titles ending in “Of the Dead.” Undead armies march across fantasy books, from Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles to Garth Nix’s Abhorsen series to Max Brooks’s World War Z. Sometimes, the people controlling the undead are heroes. Sometimes they’re the villains. The bottom line is, from the big screen to books, video games, and music, we might as well face it: the living dead are everywhere. And if you peer into the past, you’ll find that’s always been the case.
The idea of cheating death, either by becoming a bloodsucker or other sort of wraith (hello, Lord Voldemort) or by dying and returning to life through magical means has long persisted across many cultures. The term ‘zombie,’ for instance, comes from Haitian folklore, where zombies are dead bodies reanimated through magic. In Western pop culture, zombies tend to originate from some sort of virus, like on the CW show iZombie, but the result is the same: the reanimated dead walking among the living.
Vampires, zombies, and other forms of the undead have many things in common besides their ghastly eating habits: They’re dangerous, they’re often focused on revenge, and most importantly, they shouldn’t be here. We come from a culture that largely avoids death at every turn through practices like sending dead bodies of loved ones to funeral homes for preparation (a male-dominated industry that deserves its own lengthy post). We mourn our dead, but that period of mourning is expected, by and large, to be brief. People don’t want to share in others’ grief, particularly not for months on end. It makes them uncomfortable, because our culture as a whole isn’t comfortable with death. For many, the thought of their final moments makes them downright terrified. After all, death is a mystery. It’s the great unknown.
So when we hear tales of creatures like vampires and zombies, who have found a way around the final mystery—sometimes with the help of a necromancer or witch, someone who raises the dead through magical means—we might then wonder: What if death wasn’t permanent? What would someone’s new life be like as one of the undead? Would their second life, so to speak, be worth it? And in the case of the violent undead—what would we, the living, be willing to do in order to survive?
We know the undead aren’t real, but that’s precisely what’s so compelling about them: they give us the safe haven of a fictional narrative in which to emotionally cope with the possibility of our own deaths, to examine what’s important about life, and to explore how far we would be willing to go to protect our precious lives. As long as what happens after death remains a mystery, tales of the undead will continue to invade (couldn’t resist) our popular culture. The undead emphasize just how much we value life, and speak to humans’ innate desire to survive against all odds. They show our wish to improve the world even when it seems impossible, by defeating death, the ultimate cause of so much pain and sorrow.
And, you know, they give us an excuse to brush up on our plans for the apocalypse. Never hurts to be prepared!
Need more of Sarah Glenn Marsh’s knowledge of the undead? You’re in luck. SONG OF THE DEAD comes out January 22nd!
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