Vampires, Zombies & Horror Stories: Why We Love Them, How to Create Them

Credit: Amy Scott; CC-BY

The skeleton of a 30 to 39 year old female suspected of being a vampire
was buried with a sickle placed across her neck, a practice used in the
17th and 18th centuries to avert evil and bad luck.
Any author or screenwriter might think that vampires, zombies, ghosts, werewolves and other horrors have been done to death, that any new story twists or cliffhangers aren’t to be found since all have been done, some to the point of exhaustion.  Our exhaustion.

But look at today’s offerings.  Books, films and TV programs about almost every imaginable type of supernatural being are as popular as ever if not more.  Vampires are back big time from Stephanie Meyer's "Twilight" series to HBO's "True Blood."  Zombies as in Zach Synder's 2004 remake of "Dawn of the Dead," Danny Boyle's "28 Days Later" and Edgar Wright's "Shaun of the Dead" or AMC's "The Walking Dead", all big money makers for writers, actors, publishers and studios.

What is it about these characters and these story lines that attract so many readers and viewers?

The Graves of Six Vampires Exhumed in Poland
What got me thinking about this is the release of a study on November 26th, 2014, detailing research into vampire burials as pictured above dating from between 1600 and 1799 found in a cemetery in Northwest Poland.  These six men and women were found with sickles and rocks across their bodies, a sign of what scientists call an apotropaic funerary rite.  Aportropaic rites are a traditional practice that many felt had the power to avert evil influences or bad luck.

There were hundreds of burials in the cemetery the researchers explored, but only six were buried in this way, indicating that these dead were considered at risk for becoming vampires for a variety of reasons, and were given this specific treatment.

Is this burial practice a result of reading fiction?  Or of superstition?  These six people were buried up to 200 years before the first modern vampire appeared in western literature in the 1819 novella "The Vampyre" by John Polidori, so having a literary origin is not likely.

"People of the post-medieval period did not understand how disease was spread," says Lesley Gregoricka from University of South Alabama who announced the discovery of these graves, "and rather than a scientific explanation for these epidemics, cholera and the deaths that resulted from it were explained by the supernatural -- in this case, vampires."

As part of their research, the authors found that those in deviant burials seemed to be predominantly local individuals whose social identity or manner of death likely marked them with suspicion in some way.  They went on to suggest that these six were early victims of the cholera epidemics that spread across Eastern Europe during the 17th century, and as the first person to die from an infectious disease outbreak was presumed likely to return from the dead as a vampire, they received the treatment.

If Vampires Had Appeared in 1600, Europe Would Have Been De-populated by 1603
Several years ago University of Central Florida (UCF) physics professor Costas Efthimiou working with Sohang Gandhi, a UCF graduate, applied the laws of physics and math to debunk popular myths about vampires. Movies such as "Blade," featuring Wesley Snipes, suggest that vampires feed on human blood and that once a human has been bitten, he or she turns into a vampire and begins feeding on other humans.

Efthimiou supposed that if the first vampire arrived Jan. 1, 1600, when the human population was 536,870,911, and assuming that the vampire fed once a month and the victim turned into a vampire, there would be two vampires and 536,870,910 humans on Feb. 1. There would be four vampires on March 1 and eight on April 1. If this trend continued, all of the original humans would become vampires within two and a half years and the vampires' food source would disappear.

While I’m not sure how this math progression disproves the existence of vampires, it does demonstrate how a virulent disease can start with one person and decimate a population in a short time, in this case, 500+ million people turned into vampires in 30 months.

For a writer, this progression is useful in creating tension in a story line such as seen in many disaster books, programs and movies. It wouldn’t be surprising that the success of many stories is based on an awareness that we are as a species walking a tightrope between today’s world and extinction.

How Writers Create Vampires and Wizards in Real Life
According to University at Buffalo, SUNY psychologist Shira Gabriel, when we read, we become part of the community described in the story, whether wizards or vampires. This is due to a psychological mechanism that satisfies a “deeply-human, evolutionarily-crucial, need for belonging.”
"Obviously, you can't hold a book's hand, and a book isn't going to dry your tears when you're sad," says Gabriel. “Yet we feel human connection, without real relationships, through reading."

When we read, we psychologically become part of the community described in the narrative -- be they wizards or vampires. That mechanism satisfies the deeply human, evolutionarily crucial, need for belonging.
About This Study
This phenomena is important for any author to understand as it is a common psychological occurrence. This is something we want our readers or viewers to do: to identify with our characters and the world in which they live.

The researchers recruited 140 undergraduates for the study. First the participants were assessed on the extent to which they meet their needs for connection by identifying with groups. Then some read a passage from the novel Twilight in which the undead Edward describes what it feels like to be a vampire `to his romantic interest Bella. Others read a passage from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone in which the Hogwarts students are separated into "houses" and Harry meets potions professor Severus Snape. Participants were given 30 minutes to read the passage and were instructed to simply read for their own pleasure.

Then, two measures gauged the participants' psychological affiliation with vampires or wizards. In the first, the students were instructed to categorize -- as quickly and accurately as possible -- "me" words (myself, mine) and "wizard" words (broomstick, spell, wand, potions) by pressing the same key when any of those words flashed on the screen; they pressed another key for "not-me" words (they, theirs) and "vampire" words (blood, fangs, bitten, undead). Then the pairs were reversed. Gabriel and Young expected participants to respond more quickly when "me" words were linked with a group to which "me" belonged, depending on which book they read.

Next the researchers administered what they called the Twilight/Harry Potter Narrative Collective Assimilation Scale, consisting of questions indicating identification with wizards or vampires. Examples: 
  • "Do you think you might be able to make yourself disappear and reappear somewhere else?" and 
  • "How sharp are your teeth?"
Finally, short questionnaires assessed participants' life satisfaction and mood.

Harry Potter readers became wizards, Twilight readers became vampires
As predicted, on both measures, Harry Potter readers "became" wizards and the Twilight readers "became" vampires. In addition, participants who were more group-oriented in life showed the largest assimilation effects. Finally, "belonging" to these fictional communities delivered the same mood and life satisfaction people get from affiliation with real-life groups.

"The study explains how reading works not just for escape or education, but as something that fulfills a deep psychological need," says Young. And we don't have to slay any boggarts or get bitten to feel it.

Why do horror themes gain popularity in the first place?
"I would argue that monsters in literature, in general, are almost always indicative of things we fear in a sort of collective sense," says Cajsa Baldini, a senior lecturer in the English Department of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, citing her research for her course on 19th century fiction, which covers monstrous tales such as Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" and "The Island of Doctor Moreau" by H.G. Wells, novels steeped in themes of technology out of control and the ethical implications of science.

"Jurassic Park" is a great example of the "technology out of control" trope. It's a modern-day Frankenstein story, says principal lecturer Paul Cook, who teaches and writes science fiction in the English Department.

In the original "Frankenstein," after Victor Frankenstein creates his monster, he abandons it to be persecuted and ostracized. Once the monster understands what his creator did to him, he seeks out the doctor.

"I think that's what it's about -- to be confronted with our creations," says Baldini of the novel. "What responsibilities do we have to what we create? It essentially posits the question, do scientists have ethical responsibilities, or is the only responsibility towards further discovery? And I think that's the reason we read that novel today."

Baldini points to Ridley Scott's "Blade Runner," in which one man hunts down rogue human-looking androids, as a more modern interpretation of these ideas. "The android turns around and says: 'Hey, I know you built a flaw into me, I'm going to die, I need to know when' -- a question most of us ask, as does Victor Frankenstein in Shelley's novel," says Baldini.

Just as 19th century fiction reflected common fears and anxieties, science fiction in the 1950s served the same purpose. Films such as "The Day the Earth Stood Still" or "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" reflected Americans' fear of communism.

"Science fiction of the 50s not only reflected the culture, but criticized it as well," says Cook.
Cook believes that some monsters in fiction are simply manifestations of the worst parts of us, or a trait that is out of control. "When ideas get out of control, you get monsters," says Cook. "Monsters, as an archetype, are simply a reflection of some aspect of our human nature greatly magnified to the level of destruction. That is where you get the werewolf, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, or the Hulk -- something that's inside of us that comes out."

Baldini thinks that the theme of the embattled force within us points to humanity's desire to rise above the forces of nature. "I think the werewolf is more of a psychological monster," she says. "Like any monster, it has to be reflective of us to be interesting. I think it's about the animal within, the aspects of us we think we've grown away from or that we don't want to acknowledge we ever had. We're not in control of nature, even if we like to think we are. Just look at an Ebola outbreak, or tsunamis. We think we can control nature, but we don't. We're subject to it like any other species on Earth."

Vampires as Aristocrats
Even though not all modern interpretations of vampires pose them as aristocrats, Baldini sees these creatures as always being the elite. "If you look at Polidori and Stoker's vampires, they are aristocratic and evil," says Baldini. "They are themselves special and set apart -- not everyone can be them. And also whoever they seek out as their victim, even though it's violent and it's deadly, there's a sense of being the elect -- vampires don't just go for anyone. I think this is part of the attraction, the erotic appeal of the vampire."

Baldini cites that attraction to the elite nature of the vampire as part of their popularity in the 1980s, when Anne Rice's novels and films like "The Lost Boys" portrayed vampires as evil but also glamorous and cool.

"That was the time period of glam and the early yuppies and Gordon Gekko saying 'greed is good.' It was okay to be selfish, to prioritize number one, to strive toward an elite status," says Baldini.
Popular vampires today still have that elitism and admiration, but they are also tragic figures.

"It's okay to want to be elite to the point where we start valorizing such characters, such as Edward Cullen," says Baldini. "It's actually a good thing to want to be like them and to be elected by them, and now there's a humility trope in there too."

While vampires represent the upper crust, a monster that is anything but has recently become incredibly popular: the zombie.

The Zombie: A Blue Collar Monster
"The zombie is the underdog of the monsters, sort of the underachiever of monsters as well," Baldini says of the stumbling, rotting creatures. "You don't have to do much to become a zombie. You're bitten by one and you become one. There's minimal grooming involved. It's the blue-collar monster."
Being a zombie today is cool. Hundreds, sometimes thousands of people turn out for zombie walks or zombie pub crawls. Hordes of people dress up as the living dead and shuffle through cities across the world, sometimes to promote a cause, give to charity or just for fun. But what does the popularity of zombies say about society today?

"We're looking at a monster that's a collective body that consumes everything," says Baldini. "That's western culture, that's what we are. We have over-consumed throughout the 1990s. We over-borrowed on credit, we took all the equity out of our homes and then some, we consumed indiscriminately, we didn't think, because like zombies, we don't think. We just followed the herd in consumption. I don't think people sit around and think about this, but I think on some level, the zombie is relatable in this particular time in history."

As Baldini points out, the cultural significance of monsters probably isn't something most people consider on a conscious level. But that doesn't make the themes embedded in monster stories any less important.

"We all recognize certain monstrosity in life itself, and so when we recognize it in a very old text like 'Dracula' or 'The Vampyre,' we can accept ourselves more. This is not new, it's not just me. It's there, and it's worth acknowledging," says Baldini.

"I think it's most interesting in the way it serves to critique society in a way that seems perhaps innocuous -- 'Oh, it's just horror' -- but which in fact is incredibly subversive and critical," she adds.

How to Make a Zombie
Efthimiou's article also provided a practical explanation for "voodoo zombiefication," which suggests that zombies "come about by a voodoo hex being placed by a sorcerer on one of his enemies."

The toxin, tetrodotoxin, kills in four to six
hours after the toxin eaten, inhaled or comes
in contact with abraded skin.  Tetrodotoxin
is produced by a bacteria, pseudoalteromonas

tetraodonis, which lives on the skin of the fish. 
He reviewed the case of a Haitian adolescent who was pronounced dead by a local doctor after a week of dramatic convulsions. After the boy was buried, he returned in an incoherent state, and Haitians pronounced that a sorcerer had raised him from the dead in the state of a zombie.

Science, however, has a less-supernatural explanation. A highly-toxic substance called tetrodotoxin is found in a breed of puffer fish native to Haitian waters. Contact with this substance generally results in a rapid death. However, in some cases, the right dose of the toxin will result in a state that mimics death and slows vital signs to a level that is unable to be measured. Eventually, the victim snaps out of the death-like coma and returns to his or her regular condition.

Scientific analysis has shown that oxygen deprivation is consistent with the boy's brain damage and his incoherent state. "It would seem that zombiefication is nothing more than a skillful act of poisoning," Efthimiou said.

There you go, writers.  A simple, scientific explanation of how to create a zombie.  Deprive someone of oxygen so that the higher functions of the brain are killed, leaving just the core functions of the brain stem intact.  So, zombies aren’t dead.  In either sense of the word.

Facing Our Fears: How Horror Helps
"The horror genre addresses our archetypal fears," says Paul J. Patterson, Ph.D., assistant professor of English and co-director of Medieval, Renaissance and Reformation Studies at Saint Joseph's University. "You can see throughout history how each generation has defined 'horror,' and it turns largely on the idea of something outside of our understanding threatening us."

As Patterson's students explore in his class, Horror in Literature and Film, the definition of what the "something" is that people fear depends on the social constructs of the time. The class is analyzes works such as Homer's Odyssey (late eighth century B.C.E.), Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897), Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818), Alfred Hitchcock's canon (1940s -- 70s), the slasher films of the 1990s, and the post-9/11 movies of today.

Each generation's fears are embodied in these works, sometimes literally -- for example, in the form of zombies -- and other times invisibly, as unseen beings or unidentifiable people who can cause great harm. Post-9/11 films have seen a rise in torture-as-horror, likely because those who grew up around the rhetoric of the tragedy needed a way to comprehend it. Diseases and outbreaks that attack whole populations are also popular in the horror genre, and they mirror the occurrences of stronger strains of influenza and the threat of biological warfare.

"Much of what we ask in class is, 'what does it mean for something to be horrific,'" says Patterson. "Are we scared of death? Is it only death, or is it something else entirely?" Past texts have illustrated fears we now recognize as thematic: the rise of science versus religion; the recognition of sexual desire; and achieving immortality, Patterson adds.

Belief In Witchcraft, Magic Serves Basic Human Need
People believe in magic for all sorts of reasons, says Anne-Maria Makhulu, assistant professor of cultural anthropology who studies the practice of witchcraft in Africa. Though people today might view witchcraft as mere superstition, it’s evident from anthropological literature that, for some people, the practice has served a basic human need.

"We live in a bewildering world where we don’t have a lot of control. And we can imagine doing things through magic that we can’t do as ordinary human beings," says Makhulu. “People believe in magic for all sorts of reasons, including the desire to accrue wealth or advance in life, but the belief also says something about a deep-seated human desire for equality.

"When people say they believe in magical forces, they believe in magic that can make the world equal and just in circumstances where it’s not," Makhulu said. For some, "witchcraft is about recuperating what is ethical, just and moral."

"We need enchantment in our lives because our world has become disenchanted," Makhulu concluded. "We need faith that promises something bigger and better than what we have."

So what horror is in store for us next?
"We've seen the ascent of movies like Saw and Hostel, and zombies -- death personified -- are back. But it's hard to say just what today's generation fears or will fear," Patterson says. "It may be technology going too far and taking us over, or the anonymity that technology affords backfiring on us. But whatever it might be, these books and films allow us to imagine or experience our desire to defeat what is hunting and haunting us on a splashy canvas."

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What Happened to the Werewolf?
One of the classic tragic characters of early film was the Wolfman or werewolf as portrayed by Lon Chaney Jr. in 1941’s horror classic.  According to Brian Regal, assistant professor of the history of science at Kean University in Union, New Jersey, Darwin killed the werewolf.

Actually, what Professor Regal said is it was Darwinian Theory that did away with the werewolf. For much of recorded history, humans have reserved their greatest fears for dog-human hybrids like the werewolf. These beasts were once thought to be real, hiding behind every tree waiting for the unsuspecting traveler. But, argues Regal, the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species 150 years ago focused minds on a different kind of monster – ape-men such as the Yeti, Bigfoot and Sasquatch.

From the late 19th century on, stories of werewolf encounters tailed away significantly, says Regal. “The spread of the idea of evolution helped kill off the werewolf because a canine-human hybrid makes no sense from an evolutionary point of view,” he says. “The ape-human hybrid, however, is not only evolutionarily acceptable, it is the basis of human evolution.”

*  *  *  *  *
Story Sources:
  1. British Society for the History of Science. "DarwinKilled Off The Werewolf." ScienceDaily, 30 June 2009.
  2. Gregoricka LA, Betsinger TK, Scott AB, Polcyn M. ApotropaicPractices and the Undead: A Biogeochemical Assessment of Deviant Burials inPost-Medieval Poland. PLoS ONE, 2014.
  3. Association for Psychological Science. "Becoming avampire without being bitten: Reading expands our self-concepts, studyshows." ScienceDaily, 25 April 2011.
  4. Arizona State University College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. "The monsters among us." ScienceDaily, 30 October 2012.
  5. University of Central Florida. "Professor DrivesScientific Stake Into The Heart Of Ghost, Vampire Myths." ScienceDaily, 30 October 2006.
  6. Saint Joseph's University. "Facing our fears: Howhorror helps." ScienceDaily, 22 October 2013. 
  7. Duke University. "Belief In Witchcraft, Magic Serves'Basic Human Need,' Professor Says." ScienceDaily, 25 October 2007. 


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