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Monsters of the new millennium

In her 1995 study of the vampire in European and American fiction, Our Vampires, Ourselves, Nina Auerbach made the bold and, as it turns out, rather premature claim that, ‘at the end of the twentieth century, vampirism is wearing down.

1018 Monsters of the new millenium

Modernising the vampire

The vampire, she surmised, might need a ‘long restorative sleep’ to re-generate its cultural power. The new millennium has not borne this out at all. The first decade of the 2000s saw the phenomenal success of Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer; Charlaine Harris began to publish the best-selling Southern Vampire Mysteries that was eventually adapted for TV as the serialised drama True Blood (running very successfully for eight seasons from 2008).

Then, of course, in 2005 the first in Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight Saga appeared. The saga ran to four volumes (Twilight, New Moon, Eclipse, Breaking Dawn) and the films based on them are amongst the highest grossing films of all time. Far from winding down, as Auerbach predicted, vampirism has in fact generated some of the most culturally influential narratives of the last two decades and, in tandem with this, we see that the cultural meanings of vampirism have shifted and diversified enormously. From the predatory monsters that run from John Polidori’s 1816 short story ‘The Vampyre’, through to Stephen King’s 1975 Salem’s Lot, the vampire has become in recent decades less of a monster and more like ‘one of us’ – a sympathetic, humanised and sometimes highly romanticised figure.

The zombification of modern horror

The same can be said increasingly of the vampire’s close cousin in Gothic literature and popular culture – the zombie. The zombie has changed in nature to a remarkable degree since George Romero’s shambling, mindless monsters of Night of the Living Dead (1968).

Whilst zombies in the Romero mould continue to fascinate (witness the immense success of Frank Darabont’s series The Walking Dead, currently in its ninth season), zombies, too, have tended to become more like ‘one of us’. In many narratives of the new millennium, the zombie, like the vampire, emerges as a subject, a ‘person’, facing the challenges of the ‘undead’ state as many other human subjects face disability, disease and various forms of political and cultural oppression.

The zombie, like the vampire, has come to be humanised, even romanticised, in narratives such as Warm Bodies, Generation Dead and iZombie. Whilst still ‘othered’, this ‘othering’ itself is subjected to critique as the vampire or zombie is posited as belonging to an oppressed minority with which the sympathies of viewer or reader generally lie.

Monsters in the postmillenium

At the same time, though, these postmillennial monster narratives often represent and interrogate deeply troubling aspects of our postmillennial world.

The rise of religious fundamentalism worldwide, and the often violent and authoritarian responses of national governments to this phenomenon, is narrated in both True Blood and iZombie (where certain factions of the vampire and zombie communities rise up to proclaim a new religion and, in accordance with it, a God-given right to govern in the name of their communities). Implicated in these power struggles are multi-national companies which often manipulate these struggles for their own ends – the company that produces the blood substitute drink in True Blood, for example, or the company that harvests and distributes brains in iZombie.

In so far as this is the case, these postmillennial monster narratives follow a long tradition whereby the Gothic mode from which they arise contests, subverts and monstrously ‘others’ familiar structures of political, economic and religious authority. My recent research (including the 2017 book, The Postmillennial Vampire: Power, Sacrifice and Simulation) explores the ways in which the Gothic mode functions anew, through the monsters of the new millennium, to disrupt power, to subvert its tight intersections of privilege, and to question even what it means to be ‘human’ in the twenty-first century.

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Dr Susan Chaplin

Sue is a senior lecturer in Romanticism with a particular interest in Gothic literature from the Romantic period to the present day.

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