October 29, 2012 Halloween Special: Zombies vs. Werewolves
What we fear demonstrates a lot about ourselves. Literally. The word “monster” comes from “monstrum,” an omen, and “monēre,” to warn. The same roots as “demonstrate.” Monsters literally demonstrate. We invent them to show what we are. Or, more exactly, what we fear we are. And zombies and werewolves speak the same root fear.
They are both soulless monsters.
Neither is very talkative. Neither a zombie nor a werewolf is going to discuss the reasons behind its hunger as it tears into you. Strip away our human surface, literally rip off the skin, and what’s underneath? Blood and meat and bone. And what’s underneath that? Nothing. There’s our biggest nightmare, the ur-fear, the thing that goes bump in the abyss. That when we die, we’ll be nothing but our corpses. And, just as monstrous, that while we’re still alive, we are nothing but animals. We are afraid we are bodies. We are afraid that we are our bodies and only our bodies.
Ever been to an open casket funeral? I was around twelve when I went to my first, my grandmother’s. There she was, painted and drained and stitched to look exactly like she might yawn and blink and sit up any second. It’s no coincidence that the first zombie, the first gray-faced ghoul in Night of the Living Dead, appears in a cemetery. Not a gothic, middle-of-a-moonlit-night graveyard. Just an average, grade A, visit-the-dead-relatives, broad daylight cemetery. Nothing scary about it. Except the horror of the burial custom itself. Which is only our attempt to paint over the deeper horror, the absurdity that one moment a body can be a breathing living loved one, and the next, nothing. A corpse. Not the person at all. Except that it’s exactly the same body. What twelve-year-old can ever make sense of that?
So George Romero, in his sloppy B-movie genius, invented the modern zombie. A corpse that dares to move, to parody life, while eradicating the fact of the human being who once lived there. Those aren’t your lost loved ones. They’re just their bodies. It’s a fact so horrific we’d rather their soulless cadavers tried to devour us. Because then we can smash in their skulls with baseball bats. Destroy what most upsets us. No more mortician tricks. Show us what a body looks like when it rots.
A werewolf wants to eat you too. It can’t help it. It’s all id. All body. The blood is pumping, but not because something divine is animating it. Predators eat prey. There’s nothing moral or immoral about an animal acting on its inevitable instincts. But human beings need to believe they’re above the rest of the animal kingdom. In evolutionary terms, we’re a subset of apes, a rung or two up the ladder from gorillas. We share 90% of our DNA with dogs. What if that’s all we are? What if deep inside, under all the social trappings, under all the intellect and philosophizing, we are the product of the same blood cravings as any other predator? And, God forbid, what if that’s fun?
For me, the most haunting moment from Night of the Living Dead is the newly animated child zombie cornering her mother in the basement. Surely, there should be a flicker of recognition? A distant echo of love? The tiniest fragment of human connection left between them? Nope. The little girl guts mom. Or the little girl’s body does. The innocent she was before she died, there’s nothing left of her.
Same scene plays out in werewolf tales. I read it mostly recently in Glen Duncan’s The Last Werewolf. The newly transformed werehusband tracks his wife to their bedroom. This isn’t some random victim. This is the woman he loves, the human being he cherishes above all others, above himself, his one reason for living. Surely, the remains of his humanity, that shadow of a soul still somewhere inside him won’t let him kill her, right? You’ll have to read Duncan to get the gory details, but let’s just say, the animal wins.
The only thing scarier than being hunted is being the hunter. We are afraid that all we are, dead or alive, is bodily hunger. It’s only our souls, that intangible shred of wished-for divinity, that keeps us human. Without it, we are monstrous. Without love, we are irredeemable. Zombies and werewolves are just ourselves reflected in the black of the abyss.