Abi Southerland on the current popularity of Zombies:

I mentioned this puzzle to my better half, who happens to be in the middle of a reread of World War Z. His answer? … You can have a fascinating story about a single zombie in a world of humans or the last human in a world of zombies. You can do one on one human-zombie interactions, or set entire armies against each other. They work differently as individuals (stupid and clumsy) and in crowds (lucky by means of what sheer numbers can do with probability theory). A group of them is as impersonal as a natural disaster; a single one is as intimate as death or betrayal.

Um. Maybe.

I suspect that, like most social phenomena, we’re in the realm of complex causation. There isn’t one reason for the popularity of the Zombie Apocalypse. Instead, we have a convergence of many reinforcing factors.

1. Over the last 10-15 years we’ve seen a number of different, but independently successful, Zombie-themed cultural artifacts. Just take two examples: we’ve had a generation (at least) of gamers cut their teeth on the Resident Evil franchise. 28 Days Later made a lot of money–and significant cultural impact–back in 2002. Both of these saw success for qualities not at all intrinsic to their Zombie elements, but related to their quality as games or as film.

2. Note I say “Zombie-esque.” Neither Resident Evil nor 28 Days Later dealt with “traditional” Zombies. The Zombies in both are the consequences of contagion unleashed by biomedical experiments. In fact, most contemporary Zombie fare–going back at least to George Romero’s genre-defining work–takes a similar line. While there have been attempts to update Vampire mythology the same way–with Vampyrism as a virus–I don’t think such attempts have really worked. The nature of the transformation seems less plausible; the contrast with fears of mass contagion and biotechnological catastrophe somewhat shallow.

3. Indeed, Zombies aren’t scalable so much in size but in terms of representation. Vampires are basically about sex, sex, and sex: “scary” female sexuality, “scary” eastern sexuality, coming of age, defilement and corruption, etc. Even the “good vampire” genre is basically about sex. You know: some powerful guy proving his love by restraining his natural urges and refusing to take the heroine’s virginity blood, even when the heroine has no such self control and would willingly surrender to him. I’m surprised Twilight didn’t get an grant from the Bush Administration.

Now, Barbara Hambly did once try to use vampirism to riff on nationalism and World War I, but Zombies will always beat Vampires as metaphors for nationalism. Indeed, as Romero himself proved, one can represent anything involving contagion (natural or mimetic), loss of individuality, or consumption with Zombies. And that covers a lot of ground.

4. Zombies are meta. Yes, of course, we all know about Shaun of the Dead, but Zombies have been ironic ever since they first appeared in US popular culture. Vampires just don’t work as objects of the funny-but-still-kinda-scary sort (except, perhaps, in Joss Weedon’s hands). Subject the Vampire mythology to too much scrutiny, however, and collapses under its own quasi-pornographic weight.

[update: I neglected vampirism as “drug abuse,” but I suspect that the The Lost Boys probably proves my point about the limited ways one can successfully use vampires as allegory]

Think of Bill in Left4Dead (“You call this a zombie apocalypse? This ain’t nothin’ compared to the zombie attacks of 1954!”) or Alyx Vance in Half-Life 2, Episode 1 (“A Combine zombie. Zombie Combine. That’s, that’s like a… ah… a Zombine! Right? Heh”).

Ultimately, though, the real issue isn’t “Vampires versus Zombies” (although I think I smell a… oh wait, google says it’s been done) but why we’re seeing a wave of interest in metaphorically-laden supernatural thingies.

I would have attributed to the economy–kinda like punk’s big breakout in the US during the early 1990s–but it started before then. 9/11? Harry Potter as gateway drug? What do you think?