Tall, dark, and decaying? Yeah, that’s not my type. In the post-Twilight era, after the vampire genre had been worked almost to death, there was a rush to find the next hot creature for supernatural romance. A few years ago, zombies made a pretty serious bid for that prestigious position. Leading the way was Daniel Waters’ Generation Dead, published back in 2008, which quite cleverly presented zombies as the next marginalized group in our society—second-class citizens who are not protected by the law and who are feared and hated by the dominant group. When goth girl Phoebe falls in love with a zombie, she discovers social awareness along with the thrills of infatuation. Another popular one was Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion (2010) which was made into a rather successful movie in 2013. This book is told from the perspective of a zombie named R who bites off more than he can chew when he begins to fall for a human girl. Other books followed, including Lia Habel’s Victorian spin on the zombie romance genre, Dearly, Departed. But while I thoroughly enjoyed reading some of these books, the genre as a whole still squicks me.
I’m not prepared to accept zombies as the successors to vampires for my fictional romantic affections for a number of reasons. One common complaint against the both genres by those who aren’t fans is that the love stories are creepy and gross because generally one of the participants in the featured romantic relationship is living, while the other is dead (or rather, undead). Personally, however, I find that this distinction plays out differently depending on whether the undead lover is a vampire or a zombie. First of all, there’s the simple physical matter of decay. We can get tied up in metaphysical discussions about whether vampires are or are not technically “corpses,” but essentially, vampires by definition are immortal and don’t decay. Zombies, on the other hand, are usually unambiguous rotting, disintegrating corpses. Writers of zombie romance tend to try to work around this fact or play it down in some way, but at the end of the day making out with someone whose skin is sloughing off is probably the least romantic thing imaginable.
But I’ve got deeper reasons for why vampires are more appropriate objects of desire than zombies are, apart from the physical ick factor. One reason why we desire vampires is because we desire what they represent. Both vampires and zombies tend to serve as metaphors in their respective stories and myths. Vampires represent the ideal of immortality—eternal life and the successful avoidance of death, perhaps even with a certain amount of indestructability. We also tend to project other ideals onto them like wealth, beauty, and physical strength. Early works of vampire literature, including John Polidori’s “The Vampyre” and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, tended to stress matters of social class by presenting vampires as members of the aristocracy. I’ve noticed newer works like Twilight and A Discovery of Witches adding the ideal of education and knowledge into the mix by portraying vampires with advanced degrees who have used their excess time in life to improve their minds. When these creatures embody all that humans desire in their own lives, it would be hard not to fall for them. Falling in love with a vampire is in some sense falling in love with strength, beauty, wealth, power, knowledge and immortality. Zombies, on the other hand, tend to represent our fears about spreading illnesses and epidemics. Rather than providing immortality as an escape from death, they are merely moving, ever-pursuing embodiments of death. Falling in love with that is not quite as poetic.
Finally, my last reason is simply … tradition. Vampires have been associated with sex and desire since the beginnings of vampire literature, and in many of their folk belief origins as well. It’s nearly impossible to disentangle vampires from these concepts. Apart from all that vampires represent as discussed in the previous paragraph, they also represent forbidden desire. The earliest literary vampires were known for exhibiting taboo sexual behavior. Polidori’s vampire was not so subtly based on the controversial—but undeniably alluring—amorous young poet, Lord Byron. Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla is best remembered for its strong overtones of lesbianism, and even Dracula contains three transgressively sexual female vampires. A vampire’s bite is often treated in literature as a sexual experience, whether through metaphors of penetration or romantic notions about the mingling of blood. The eating of brains doesn’t have quite the same effect.… Early zombie literature, from Lovecraft’s “Herbert West—Reanimator” to Max Brooks’s Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z tend to present zombies as mindless killers whose only relationship to humans is eating the ones they can catch. The concept of a zombie capable of forming romantic attachments with a human is a rather recent development and fits awkwardly into the established zombie mythos.
So, no, zombies are not the new vampires. At least not in the paranormal romance department. What do you think? Do you agree? Disagree? What creature would you like to see replace vampires as the next teenage heartthrob? Let me know your thoughts in the comments!