Culture Shock: How the undead have moved from macabre to mainstream

Half a century before Dracula, vampires featured heavily in Irish political discourse, as avatars for English rule or the depredations of the landlord class

Walking undead: Ciaran, Grainne and Eoin Meghen from Killiney taking part in the Dublin Zombie Walk,  in aid of the Irish Cancer Society and Barnardos, in August 2012. Photograph: Alan Betson/THE IRISH TIMES

Walking undead: Ciaran, Grainne and Eoin Meghen from Killiney taking part in the Dublin Zombie Walk, in aid of the Irish Cancer Society and Barnardos, in August 2012. Photograph: Alan Betson/THE IRISH TIMES

Sat, May 10, 2014, 01:00

You can’t move in contemporary pop culture without being accosted by a zombie or sucked by a vampire. The Walking Dead is among the most popular shows on US television. (Useless information: the phrase “the walking dead” seems to have been invented by John Synge in The Playboy of the Western World.) At some point when I was asleep, pretty-boy vampires came in the night and stole the hearts (and the brains) of teenage girls. The undead are arguably more alive now in western culture than at any time since the spread of Christianity.

But they’re also more harmless. Vampires and zombies used to be images of exploitation, inventions that told a truth about the nature of the capitalist and imperial economies. But the vampires have been defanged and the zombies have become creatures of consumerist desire.

There is now a strange gulf between the way vampires and zombies live in economics and the role they play in culture. In the first arena they retain some critical power. When the western banking systems went into crisis in 2007 the metaphor of choice was “zombie bank”. Protesters outside the old Anglo Irish Bank headquarters on St Stephen’s Green in Dublin had themselves made up as zombies. The message was clear: this is a dead bank, still moving only through transfusions of public money. Even the Economist ran headlines on bank stories such as “Blight of the living dead”.

Equally, one of the most memorable journalistic phrases of the crisis was Matt Taibbi’s brilliant description of Goldman Sachs, in Rolling Stone magazine, as “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money”.

Taibbi’s metaphor was in a long tradition, some of it Irish. Half a century before Dracula, vampires featured heavily in Irish political discourse, as avatars for English rule or the depredations of the landlord class. Unsurprisingly, the metaphor took root during the Famine. John Mitchel denounced the British government’s official day for raising charitable aid: “We spit upon the benevolence that robs us of a pound and flings back a penny in charity; and if the English cared to show their compassion for the Irish, let them take their fangs from our throat.”

The Dublin Review in 1847 urged the removal of indebted landlords: “The pauper proprietor must be allowed to sell his estate and pay his debts, instead of living like a vampire upon the blood of the people.” In 1850, at a Tenant Right League meeting in Ballybay, Rev David Bell, a Presbyterian minister, denounced rack-renting: “This ferocious monster, which for ages has fattened like a vampire upon the lifeblood of the people of this land, must be caged and chained.” Michael Davitt later spoke of landlords as “the brood of cormorant vampires that has sucked the life blood out of the country”.

This became common left-wing rhetoric. Karl Marx’s Capital (in many ways one of the great 19th-century Gothic texts) brilliantly describes capital itself as “dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks”. Conservatives could counter with their own vampire images: there’s a famous John Tenniel cartoon from Punch in 1885 of Charles Stewart Parnell as an enormous vampire bat about to ravish a defenceless Hibernia. But the vampire was largely an image of the exploitation of the poor by the rich.

So too was the zombie. In its original form the zombie is a metaphor for slavery and forced labour. It is not accidental that the zombie myth comes into western culture from the sugar plantations of Haiti: zombies are labourers stripped of every last vestige of human agency. David McNally, in his excellent book Monsters of the Market, points out that the resurgence of zombie stories in the 20th century began with the US occupation of Haiti of 1915-34, when Haitians were forced to work for the occupiers.

But these images of zombies as the exploited and vampires as the exploiters have been largely stripped away in contemporary culture. McNally writes that “the idea of the zombie as a living-dead labourer was displaced in American cultural production in the late 1960s by that of the ghoulish consumer”. Today’s commercial zombies are defined by their hunger to consume human flesh, not by the forced labour that turns them into automatons. The link with slavery has been broken.

Vampires, meanwhile, have become harmless, even cuddly. At the most extreme end of the process they have been neutered as well as defanged: in the Twilight saga, vampires open a safe zone for adolescent fantasy. The gorgeous vampire Edward and his family have voluntarily given up sucking human blood and get their sustenance from animals instead. (Garth Ennis prefigures this with much more humour in his Preacher comics, where the Irish vampire, Prionsias Cassidy, gets his blood from lamb chops.)

Contemporary pop culture has reconfigured the vampire as, at worst, a romantic outsider, a version of the 19th-century poète maudit. Not a landlord, colonial overlord or capitalist exploiter in sight. It’s enough to make Michael Davitt rise from his grave.

fotoole@irishtimes.com

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