Saturday, 21 May 2011

Can Zombies Be Gothic?

Two things have inspired tonight's post. Firstly, I have just returned from an international conference on the Gothic in Warsaw. Secondly, I read Rachel Caine's Kiss of Death - the eighth Morganville Vampires book - today. I'm a huge fan of the Morganville books, and my paper at the Warsaw conference was on YA vampire fiction, so I was very interested to see the change in direction the eighth book took. I'll give a brief summary (spoiler warning) first, and the reasoning behind this post should become a bit clearer.

Caine's young adult vampire series is set in the Texas town of Morganville. The series follows the adventures of Claire Danvers, who is a 16/17-year-old student at Texas Prairie University. After being bullied in her college dorm, Claire takes up residence at the Glass House with a group of slightly older teens. It is here that she learns the truth about Morganville - it is run by vampires, who 'protect' (own) the humans and demand 'taxes' (blood) from them. The series continues with Claire negotiating the town's rules, forming alliances with the 'old' vampires, working for the somewhat crazy vampire Myrnin and getting into a relationship with human teen Shane. As I argued in my paper at the Warsaw conference, the series draws on a number of tropes of the Gothic - particularly the invocation of an imagined past, with its concomitant morality and societal regulation.

Kiss of Death, however, offers something different. When new-vampire and aspiring musician Michael Glass (one of Claire's housemates) is offered the chance to record a demo CD in Dallas, the protagonists are given passes to leave Morganville. They have not travelled far before they arrive in the town of Durram. Here, they enter a diner replete with threatening "redneck" locals (who take an immediate dislike to the group of friends), stay at an abandoned motel (run by a shotgun-toting old lady) and are arrested by the town's sheriff on trumped up charges. They eventually escape, and arrive at Blacke - an even more deserted backwater town under siege from a group of 'vampires' that are suffering from a vampire 'disease' that had previously been eradicated in Morganville. (Claire and Myrnin's work to find a cure for this disease is the subject of the earlier books in the series.)

Even before the 'sick' vampires are described, horror-canny readers will notice that the tropes being utilized here are not those of vampire fiction, but those of the horror (specifically zombie) film. Sure enough, when the first of the Blacke vampires makes an appearance, it is clear that this is not the same sort of creature as has featured in the previous Morganville books: the most important difference, perhaps, is that he smells of death. Another Blacke vampire is described thus: "a shuffling, twisted old man with crazy eyes and drifting white hair". As these undead creatures approach, the heroes take a course of action that should be obvious to anyone familiar with zombie films - they run into a room, slam the door against the creatures and barricade themselves in. Near the end of the book, there is an acknowledgement that the teens have, indeed, been fighting a "vampire zombie army".

The departure that this book takes has prompted me to question: what exactly is the difference between a vampire and a zombie? And if we can say that vampire fiction belongs to the Gothic, can we say the same about zombie narratives? If zombies aren't Gothic, why are they not? What is that sets them apart from the Gothic sensibility?

In folkloric terms, the differentiation between the two types of undead is blurred, but in contemporary cinema, literature and art, there is a world of difference. Somewhere along the way, our revenants diverged. Though there is a huge amount of interesting material on folk beliefs in vampires and zombies, I'm not going to talk about that today. My interest is in popular culture, so I'm purely focusing on recent film, TV and literary representations in this post.

To start with, I'll offer a quick definition of the Gothic - though this is by no means absolutely definitive and I'm aware that I'm hurrying over some key points here. I agree with Catherine Spooner, who suggests (in Contemporary Gothic) that one of the clearest definitions of Gothic is to be found in Chris Baldick's introduction to The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales: Gothic texts should encompass "a fearful sense of inheritance in time with a claustrophobic sense of enclosure in space". Spooner elaborates on Baldick's definition by adding, "the dead rise from the grave or lay their cold hands upon the shoulders of the living".

Vampires and zombies are both forms of revenants - they are the walking dead (or undead) - and frequently "lay their cold hands upon the shoulders of the living". Moreover, they share a predilection for anthropophagic eating habits, feasting on the blood and brains of their victims. Being the walking dead, the two creatures occupy a liminal space between life and death, transgressing the boundaries and breaking taboos. This cannibalism and transgression seems to point directly to the Gothic, a genre (or perhaps, more accurately, mode) that often explores and revels in such liminality. It is not, therefore, here that the difference between the two creatures can be found.

It's worth also considering the question of the 'uncanny', a concept which is deeply connected to the Gothic. In the introduction to his The Uncanny, Nicholas Royle describes the concept thus: "it is a peculiar commingling of the familiar and unfamiliar", adding that it can take the form of "something strange and unfamiliar unexpectedly arising in a familiar context". The walking dead are a good example of this. The faces of these entities are familiar (indeed, they are often the 'family' of the human protagonists in zombie and vampire fiction), but the fact that dead do not stay buried, do not behave as they did when living, is 'unfamiliar'.

Theoretically, then, there is nothing to preclude zombies from the Gothic. They are liminal, taboo-breaking, uncanny creatures. And yet, contemporary representations of zombies are seldom read as 'Gothic'. I'd like, then, to suggest a few reasons why this might be.

1. Gothic Aesthetic

However we might theorize the Gothic, it must be noted that the mode is characterized by a certain aesthetic. When I did a quick Twitter poll this evening, people were quick to suggest that zombies cannot be considered Gothic because they are not "beautiful" enough. A brief survey of recent pop culture representations should be enough to reveal the difference between presentations of the vampire (pale, sparkly and Byronic) and presentations of the zombie (grey, flaky and shambolic). The fact that a zombie decays, while a vampire does not is perhaps of paramount importance here: grotesque and repugnant bodies stand in sharp opposition to the Gothic aesthetic.

This clip from the BBC's Being Human (Series 3, Episode 3) illustrates this perfectly. Here, the regular characters (one vampire, two werewolves and a ghost) encounter a zombie. Note the difference between the vampire Mitchell (physically very much the 'Byronic' type) and the zombie Sasha:

While the Gothic does not preclude the grotesque per se, there is something about the repulsiveness of the zombie body that stands at odds with the dominant romantic understanding of the genre. Furthermore, as the clip from Being Human attests, the decaying and putrifying body of the zombie lends itself to humour as often as horror, which again distances it from the overall aesthetic of the Gothic.

2. Rationality and Madness

The origins of the Gothic are closely intertwined with the Enlightenment, and with ideas of rationality and reason. Often in 'classic' or 'High' Gothic texts, we see the rational and enlightened world pitted against the forces of an irrational and benighted past (usually medieval and Catholic). By the time we reach the end of the 19th-century, we see this conflict reach possibly its most fully-developed form; in Bram Stoker's Dracula, the modern heroes battle against the ancient count with the aid of education, medical knowledge, typewriters and train timetables.

It goes without saying, I think, that zombies are not rational creatures; however, they are not strictly irrational either - at least not by the standards used in the Gothic. They do not adhere to 'older' ways of thinking; they do not think at all. The unrelenting mindlessness of the zombie sets it apart from both the traditional villain and the traditional hero of Gothic fiction.

Vampires, of course, do 'lose their minds'. Drusilla from Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a case in point, as is Rachel Caine's Myrnin. They are also prone to a certain type of melancholy, characterized by excessive guilt and self-reflection. Without wanting to open too many cans of worms, Stephenie Meyer's Edward Cullen might be considered as an example of this melancholic vampire.

And now the caveat: some texts do present beautiful or melancholy zombies. Some do allow for an exploration of the irrationality and passion of the zombie. And, conversely, one need only look to F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu for an example of a vampire who does not fit the model suggested above. This brings me to my third, and perhaps most important, distinction between the vampire and the zombie.

3. Place and Time

If we look again at Baldick's theorization of the Gothic, we see that it is characterized by "inheritance in time" and "enclosure in space", and it is in this that the zombie most clearly defies the generic conventions, and the vampire most clearly confirms them. Even a grotesque, irrational creature like Murnau's Count Orlok has a fundamental presence in 'time' and 'place'. His very name implies "inheritance in time", and the staging of the film in the Count's castle evokes the Gothic "enclosure in space". It is the combination of these that creates the claustrophobic terror of Murnau's film.

The zombie does not have this sense of inheritance. While vampires are creatures imbued to their very core with the past, zombies belong wholly in the present. Usually devoid of memory (note that in the Being Human clip, the otherwise fairly coherent Sasha has no memory of her own death), and with few (if any) links to their human lives, zombies exist in a temporal vacuum. That is not to say that the zombie is not a product of its time - this has been demonstrated by a number of scholars working on horror fiction - but rather that the individual zombie should be read as a creature devoid of past or future.

Additionally, though the embattled opponents of the zombie often find themselves 'enclosed' in space, the zombie itself has no connection to a particular locality. Unlike other revenants, zombies do not haunt a specific place. They may attack a house, a mall, a pub or a diner, but these attacks are based on the proximity of human victims, rather than a pre-existing individualized connection to the location itself. In the majority of pop culture representations, zombies roam - this itinerant nature is a distinct contrast to the vampire's Gothic enclosure in a particular building or town.

As noted above, the Gothic is closely connected to the notion of the uncanny. In turn, the uncanny is aligned with the Freudian concept of the unheimlich (literally, the 'unhomely'). The unheimlich suggests foreignness, strangeness and the alien, but also relies on a comprehension of its inverse: the heimlich (the homely or familiar). Zombies explode these categorizations in their denial of the 'home'. In zombie narratives, spaces are consistently repurposed and distinctions between the 'home' and 'not home' are collapsed as territories are continually refigured.

The two ideas go hand-in-hand. It is in the zombie's denial of the past that the rejection of the concept of 'home' is seen most clearly. How can a creature that exists solely in the present be said to 'haunt' anything? And, as the Gothic frequently situates inheritance and past in a particular locality, the rejection of an individual place implies a concomitant rejection of time. If the Gothic requires a particular utilization of time and place, how can we describe something as 'Gothic' if it is based in a rejection of both concepts?

There are, of course, exceptions that prove every rule. There are also far more facets and implications to both the 'Gothic' and 'zombies' than I have had time to consider tonight. So rather than offer any definite conclusion to this post, I'd like to throw it open to discussion... do you agree? Have I missed something? Can you offer any examples of 'Gothic zombies'?

I'd love to hear your thoughts.


Baldick, Chris (ed.), The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992)

Caine, Rachel, Kiss of Death (London: Allison & Busby, 2010)

Royle, Nicholas, The Uncanny (Manchester & New York: Manchester University Press, 2003)

Spooner, Catherine, Contemporary Gothic (London: Reaktion Books, 2006)


  1. I can't think of a zombie that is Gothic. I can think of vampires that are not. For instance the vampires of the Black Court in the Harry Dresden novels by Jim Butcher are very unappealing, while the vampires of the White Court fit the gothic very well. Ilona Andrew's vampires are viciously ruthless zombies that are controlled by necromancers. This does not negate your argument, but provides examples that are outside the model.

  2. Fascinating stuff and very illuminating. I don't watch or read much zombie-related fiction (I'm rather gore averse) but I can think of one example of a more or less gothic zombie film. The 1966 Hammer film *The Plague of the Zombies*. The Zombies are locals and ideas of feudalism and capitalist exploitation are quite important - there's also some science verses tradition with an outsider doctor. I don't want to give away the plot, though, so I won't say more. But it is atypical, and it just about predates the modern conventions of zombie fiction.

    Another semi-example is the Lovecraft story *The Outsider*. The 'creature' in question might be a ghoul of some kind, but is very zombie like. The story has many classic features of the high gothic, including a crumbling castle. This story was/is pop culture; but it very definitely predates the more recent zombie genre.

    I wonder where more traditional zombie stories stand. I don't mean folk tales, but those that have more place for a person or people who raise the zombies, typically through voodoo-related magic. I think Anita Blake and the zombies on Buffy would fall into this category. Don't these stories often have a Souther Gothic feel to them? I'm sure I've seen an episdoe of *Bones* that played with this. Again, location was very important as were local politics.

    But perhaps voodoo zombies fall slightly outside of your target category.

    Anway, thanks for the great post; lots to think about.

    Brian Feltham

  3. I think there is something else that can be considered in a Gothic Zombie. That is of course relatability. Modern zombies do not have any relatable traits and are shown to familiar in that they were once people but the zombie has little in common with humanity.

    If you look at Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Lovecraft's The Outsider, however you get a monster who has risen from the dead but have very human traits. They may not be called zombie but from the way they are described I think you can call both of these monsters zombies.

    Frankenstein's monster just wants to be loved and understood. He has never experienced love because he is rejected at each turn and that is what causes him to be violent.This is a very human trait and I think we have all felt that at times.

    The Outsider also craves company and has had enough of living alone. This is why he is upset when he sees how others see him. Yet again this is very human and so he is a creature we can relate to.

    Both of these stories I have read in Gothic Studies and are considered to be Gothic. However I would say it is the human traits that make them Gothic and especially when you look at Freud's essay on The Uncanny.