Samuel Galizzi da Luz Moreira
Why They Look Like Us.
Why do our monsters look like us? Ghosts, werewolves, vampires, and zombies are considered to be the most common monsters from our collective imagination, being in books, plays, movies, and more. Yet, these creatures often could be mistaken for people. The ghost in Toni Morrison’s Beloved is mistaken for a little girl, werewolves are described as regular men who transform into wolves, Count Dracula is widely recognized as a human by most characters in Bram Stoker’s book, and zombies are human bodies that have died and come back to motion. This is all obvious to us, but what is the deeper reason for this familiarity between monsters and human beings? I believe these creatures are meant to represent things we fear in ourselves. I have to be clear to the readers of this essay that while I understand there are people who believe in the existence of some of these creatures, I am not referring to real life. What I’ve been analyzing is exclusively fictional representations of these monsters and their symbolism.
Let’s begin with the most well known and common of these figures; the Ghost. Because the concept of ghosts has been around for so long, ghosts have been portrayed in many different ways. However, they usually follow a common thread: being associated with unfinished business involving people who have died. We can see ghosts as semi-transparent intangible human-like shapes of people who have passed, such as in the play Hamlet “in which the ghost of Hamlet’s father, the former king, returns to seek retribution for the ‘Unfinished Business of his murder’” (Erickson 2). Ghosts may also appear as invisible forces, such as in Wuthering Heights. The ghost in Wuthering Heights appeared as echoes of things people said in the house in the past. In Beloved, the ghost Beloved moved objects around and messed with the house, and at first it does remain invisible. But there are ghosts that appear exactly as we do, and later in Beloved, as well as in M. Night Shyamalan’s film Sixth Sense, in which the young boy Cole Spear sees the dead all around him as exactly as they were right before dying. What do all these different apparitions known as ghosts have in common?
Ghosts represent people who died in a situation that left them with unfinished business among the living. There is a desire to find a resolution after death that connects all these stories. The ghost of Hamlet’s father was murdered by his brother and wife to be overthrown. Beloved was killed as a two year-old child and taken from her mother. The ghost Cole helps in Sixth Sense had been poisoned by her own mother. Catherine Linton in Wuthering Heights died torn between two different lovers.
Ghosts are manifestations of someone (and something) that cannot quite return but remains around us. They symbolize something nagging away, a representation of a past we try but fail to ignore. They represent some kind of past we get dragged down into, in the (sometimes vain) hope to change it or simply forget it. A physical manifestation of remorse, the “the ghost is a metaphor for the perception of emotion as seemingly external to the mind, it is clear that it is depicted as a real, existent phenomena”(Erickson 18).
Werewolves is the second oldest monster in this selection. Like ghosts, the concept of men turning into wolves has been around us for thousands of years. Lycanthropy had its “earliest recorded appearance in fiction … in The Epic of Gilgamesh, written in the second millennium BC. The werewolf has been appearing in myth and stories ever since” (Crossen 2). It has later appeared in Greek myth known as Lycaon, a king who was punished by Zeus for feeding the god with human flesh (in order to find out if Zeus was actually all-knowing). Because of that Lycaon is turned into a wolf. Since these early examples, this imaginary being has appeared in several stories such as Bisclavret by Marie de France, Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse, and even Dracula! While ghosts were portrayed in a myriad of manifestations, werewolves keep a constant: they are always humans who turn into wolves.
But what could a man that becomes an animal-like being possibly represent? In order to answer that perhaps we should take a deeper look into Hesse’s Steppenwolf, “which never actually features the protagonist’s transformation into a wolf, yet focuses on a man who feels so strongly he is part wolf that the book takes its title from his dual nature” (Crossen 4). The hard truth is that at the end of the day, we humans too are animals. The fear that our deepest and strongest desires may lead to a lack of civility and the collapse of civilization manifests itself in the frightening figure of the werewolf, representing our unwillingness (and attraction) to revert to our basest instincts: “There are always a few such people who demand the utmost of life and yet cannot come to terms with its stupidity and crudeness” (Hesse 61).
A new perspective is added to the ancient human fear in more modern adaptations such as the TV show Teen Wolf directed by Jeff Davis and the Twilight series written by Stephenie Meyer and adapted to cinema. “Increasingly the werewolf in literature embodies the struggle in establishing an identity”(Crossen 6). Instead of taking our animalistic roots with fear, they are seen as traits we should come to terms with and even accept. In these newer versions of the werewolf, those who fear the werewolf and wish to destroy it are the true villains.
Vampires are a modern classic, and they have grown to be extremely popular through recent titles such as, again, Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight, the novel series Vampire Diaries written by LJ Smith, and the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer by Joss Whedon. They are all reinterpretations of the original Vampire story, Dracula, written by British author Bram Stoker. Dracula is a Romanian Count who, after beginning to drink the blood of other people to extend his life, decides to go to London to find more victims. This idea of an exotic, mysterious foreigner coming into England to suck the life out of a civilized, weakened England seems to me to be a short of reverse-colonialism driven by the fear that eighteenth and nineteenth centuries upper class British felt that their intimacy with the colonized might change them into something too similar to the peoples they deemed inferior. In The Evolution of the Vampire from Stoker’s Dracula to Meyer’s Twilight Saga, Dijana Vučković and Ljiljana Pajović Dujović emphasize the continuity between them:
For the English reader of the time, Transylvania was a mysterious place where anything is possible… The later literary vampires will also be based on East European vampire myths, so many vampires of modern literature were born or created in the region” (Vučković 3).
But, as is the case with the figure of the werewolf, contemporary iterations of the vampire add new layers to those featured in the original Dracula: “Scholars agree that we have witnessed a boom of this literature, where the character of a vampire now contains a significantly altered connotational context in comparison to the circumstances of Victorian times” (Vučković 3).
What has changed? Vampires have become romanticized and as they are now spread in products aimed at younger audiences. Perhaps we are no longer in fear of this specific type of reverse colonization and East European ethnicities are no longer under the same amount of scrutiny. And, just as werewolves were perceived as the outsider that those who feel different may relate to, modern-day vampires also share this quality:
Children and teenagers themselves have difficulty finding their path to adulthood and they often experience so many horrors in their early childhood that their adult world is not appealing at all. They are lonely even when they are surrounded by a crowd, direct communication face to face scares them while much less anxiety is caused by social networks. Nowadays the vampire may also signify the difficult changes that every teenager experiences in their own bodies as they mature mentally and physically. Entering social life beyond their immediate families enhances even more this anxiety and that leads teenagers to identify with vampires and to emphasize the dangers of being rejected for being different from the majority. (Vučković 4)
Finally, we have the Zombie. At first sight, they might be seen as a different version of the vampire figure in the sense that zombies are also undead and also consume life from those still living (but flesh instead of blood). But there are a few decisive differences between zombies and vampires.
First, zombies typically appear completely mindless and therefore soulless since they first appeared in stories from Haitian folklore. Its contemporary iteration mostly left behind the idea of mind-control of the living and turned into the myth of the living-dead. They have no memory of who they were when they were living, which often leads to a typical traumatic encounter with their loved ones when the zombie tries to destroy their families, partners, and friends. Then, zombies are always associated with a particular setting: the zombie apocalypse. Environmental and social devastations on a global scale seem to have given new importance to this age-old human fear: that the end of the world (as we know it) is close.
Zombies had a boom through the nineteen-hundreds and early two-thousands with Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead directed by George A. Romero, the long-running TV series The Walking Dead by Robert Kirkman, and the movie World War Z by Marc Forster. I would also like to bring to light the excellent recent Korean film Train to Busan by Yeon Sang-ho, due to its quality and its clear ties with the classic Dawn of the Dead.
In addition to the fears of apocalyptic, massive environmental and social devastation, zombies came into such prominence because they are also excellent representations of consumerism in an overly capitalist society. Zombies are creatures that only consume and mindlessly wander, insatiable and unstoppable:
The image of the mindless drone resonated with audiences of the twentieth century… for viewers who ‘knew they were no longer completely in control of their lives’… The blank-eyed zombie served as a potent metaphor for ‘an economic zombification of terrifying proportions’ (Olney 49).
Through Dawn of the Dead we face a zombie apocalypse where our protagonists hide out in a suburban shopping mall, where they struggle to keep zombies outside through constant vigilance. Human survivors are brought into the mall by a delivery truck chased by zombies. In Train to Busan, the zombie apocalypse occurs throughout Korea because of industrial contamination, but our protagonists are alive because they were travelling on a train when the contamination began and quickly spread. We see rich CEOs, growing middle class families, and homeless people suddenly brought together through a shared desire to survive. We also witness the more cowardly or conniving members of society still trying to take advantage of the zombie hoards and even claiming people who disagree with them are infected to throw them off the train. Before the train as a whole collapses, the protagonists find themselves sandwiched between hungry, frantic zombies and a paranoid, fearful group of fellow passengers who refuse to let them share a safer space.
Midway through the movie it is hinted that it was the main protagonist and the corporation he serves that were responsible for the outbreak in the first place, and he grapples with whether or not he should hold himself responsible. Train to Busan shows how the consumer not only dominates all society, but how people take advantage of each other for their own desires.
Throughout the TV series The Walking Dead, we meet several people who form their own cliques based on fear and asserting power over those less able to defend themselves. For instance, the character Gregory lives in the largest house and has the highest status in the Hilltop Colony because he handles the whole colony so it serves exclusively to keep Negan in power, and Gregory does that even when it clearly means that his own fellow citizens were dying. Negan as leader of all these people is ruthless and enforces a sick worship for himself because he acts with no empathy and weaponizes his ability to go further than anyone else with brutal violence. A world that was taken by rampant consumerism now allows for completely heartless people to take all the power and abuse the vulnerable.
All these four types of fantastic monsters, ghosts, werewolves, vampires and zombies, represent very different things, but we can see among them the common theme. They are humanoid, they look and act like us without being fully as we are. That is because the fears they represent are all still within us. We fear our unresolved past, we fear our violent nature, we fear outsiders and/or being cast away as an outsider, and we fear the loss of self and the destruction of the world as we know it by mad consumerism and sheer social brutality. All of the allegories brought to life in our imagination by these monstrous figures teach different lessons, but at the end of the day they are lessons we can all take to heart.
Olney, Ian Zombie Cinema. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press
Arata, Stephen D. “The Occidental Tourist: Dracula and the Anxiety of Reverse Colonization”. Victorian studies, 1990-07-01, Vol.33 (4), p.621-645
Vučković, Dijana & Pajović Dujović, Ljiljana. “The Evolution of the Evolution of the Vampire from Stoker’s Dracula to Meyer’s Twilight Saga”. CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture, 2016-09-01, Vol.18 (3), p.1
Erickson, Daniel. Ghosts, metaphor, and history in Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Gabriel García Márquez’s One hundred years of solitude New York : Palgrave Macmillan
Gonzalez-Crussi, Frank. The Beast Within: A History of the Werewolf. Nature Publishing Group
Citation: Crossen, Carys The Nature of the Beast: Transformations of the Werewolf from the 1970s to the Twenty First Century. University of Wales Press