by Marieka Arksey
The word monster, deriving from words meaning reveal or display, is appropriately chosen by David Castillo of SUNY Buffalo as a vector through which to explore the social, political, and economic contexts producing horror fiction throughout the past 400 years. In the 17th century, monsters were associated with aberrations of the natural order, health and the authority of rulership. Yet despite the fear they inspire, monsters are also the subject of curiosity; beings that embody the liminal spaces between certainty and doubt, apprehension and fascination. As this liminal entity and as a representation of the human body in an altered state, they are ideal forms through which to explore forbidden or taboo subjects, and for creating a mirror upon which the less desirable aspects of our selves are reflected.
Castillo argues at a recent Merced Seminar in the Humanities event that death, while a trans-historical source of anxiety, is reflected and reshaped in historically specific modes, providing revelations and warnings that are both enduring and are themselves historically specific. He proposes that social-historical and political readings, and feminist and psychoanalytic approaches are ultimately complementary.
Castillo frames his argument around two main categories of monsters: vampires and zombies – both of these requiring deaths as part of their transformations, embodying a loss of identity, engaging in mass human predation, and both being very much liminal beings in that they are ‘undead’. While other monsters surely exist which provide a lens into humanity, few contain the supernatural elements that make vampires and zombies as malleable in their role as horror fiction characters. He then focuses on the recent zombie phenomena in Spain as an example of this localized use of ‘monsters as display’. Using these examples, Castillo asks three main questions:
- What do monsters reveal about us?
- What do they warn us against?, and
- Why is it that people are naturally drawn to reading books about dystopian societies?
Striking similarities between the vampires and zombies who take humans en masse to be their sustenance slaves. Today, both vampire creation and zombie creation are often made possible by a viral infection, both feed off humans, and both require the death of the pre-vampire or pre-zombie for their transformation to occur. But where the two still differ is in that no one desires to become a zombie. As Castillo points out, zombies have no soul. Their rise to power is aimless. They have not been romanticized and made attractive in the way that vampires have. They are just a mass of decaying flesh. And yet, more people in America at least seem to be willing to consider the actual possibilities of zombies (in the way that they are portrayed in fiction) over that of vampires. The term “Zombie apocalypse” exists throughout our vernacular; “vampire apocalypse” does not. This distinction is worth exploring and goes some measure to explaining why in Spain, Castillo’s case study of the phenomena of the rise of monster fiction, zombies have become the monster of choice. It also leaves questions that may prove interesting to explore: Why aren’t vampires being popularized in Spain in the same way that zombies are? Zombies and vampires appear to be equally popular in North America right now, but this does not seem to be the case in Spain. Following that this speaks to different and very historically specific social and cultural conditions in Spain than in North America, what does this say about modern Spanish perspectives of the future? What does this say about modern American perspectives? Are we just dealing economic situations, or is there something else within our cultures that had led to the disparate uses of monsters as cultural mirrors?
The tension between fear and curiosity, constructions of identity and otherness and our exploitation of these groups, are, as Castillo discussed, justification for the mass murdering of groups that threaten our status quo, and the loss and attempted regain of control are recurrent themes. The numerous ways in which zombies can be created and can manifest appears to make them more ideally suited than other ‘undead’ monsters to revealing the changing anxieties we have and mean that they have been, and likely will be, an enduring form of monster across all genres. Fantasist thinking about ourselves and our survival skills is empowering to societies that are anxious about how disconnected we are despite (and because of) our dependence on technology and is argued to be one of the roots to movements such as the ‘tiny house movement’, ‘going off the grid’, and the ‘backyard’ or ‘urban farming movements’. His article leaves us asking ourselves: what would you do if you could start over, and, more importantly, would you be able to survive?