We need to talk about the undead for a second, because they're getting to be kind of a problem. It would be one thing if they were openly invading, because then at least we could bust out some chainsaws and makeshift flamethrowers. Shit could, as they say, get real. Sadly, there is no such invasion. Not that I know of, anyway. No, this is an invasion of love, a war to win hearts and minds — and it's targeting specific people. Certain combinations of demographic and undeath go together like wine paired with artisanal cheese. It goes like this: Teenagers love their vampires, and twenty-somethings love their zombies.
Vampire fascination is not exactly new. Portraits of the fang-bearer as a debonair seducer trace their roots to the 1819 short story "The Vampyre," and from there travel a road marked with familiar sign posts: Bram Stoker --> Nosferatu --> Bela Lugosi --> Blacula --> Ann Rice. The past few years have been different, though. Something has changed. Very quietly, the vampire story became the de facto genre that all people between the ages of fourteen and twenty must read. Maybe there was a piece of legislation, a rider tacked on to some low-profile appropriations bill for re-paving prison parking lots, that became a law without anyone noticing. Basically, I woke up one day and 35% of every bookstore was vampire novels aimed at readers who only recently traded their braces for retainers. Shelf after shelf of gaunt, angst-tacular faces compete for the mall paychecks of passing teens, beneath titles like "Vampire Academy" and "The Vampire Diaries." And I know what you're thinking — there's an elephant in the room, one whose name rhymes with "Shmilight." But there's no way we can pin this entire thing on Stephanie Meyer, regardless of how many books she sells, or how many acting careers she helps launch. J.K. Rowling is the first person to become a billionaire writing books, and I don't see Barnes & Noble teeming with Dickensian tales of orphans discovering magic powers.
(Spoiler alert, the true magic power is friendship.)
(Also, speaking of Ann Rice, has anyone seen her lately? If we sent a sheriff to check Stephanie Meyer's basement, would he get a shotgun in the back like Richard Farnsworth in "Misery?")
The zombie thing, on the other hand, is a bit more puzzling. The modern shambling corpse, as sculpted in the 1960s by George Romero, is hardly something one aspires to become. Rise from the dirt, lumber relentlessly towards the living, eat said living, and then ... well, that's pretty much the whole gig. It's not supposed to sound like fun, it's supposed to sound like target practice for a grenade launcher. Who the hell would want to be a zombie? No one, of course, and that's the thing — while the youngsters want to be vampires, their older siblings want to dress up as zombies. And holy shit on a pointed stick, do they ever dress up as zombies. Twenty-somethings (and yes, early thirty-somethings like myself) have figured out more ways to express their zombiephilia than Google can keep up with. Zombie parades. Zombie kickball. Zombie bowling. Zombie karaoke. Zombie survival guides. And "Thriller" reenactments, sweet mercy, so many "Thriller" reenactments. YouTube groans under the weight of those videos. Curiously, none of these folks seem too concerned about the fact that, historically speaking, people react to zombies by setting them on fire. Try listening to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs now, burning zombie hipster genius.
So where is all this coming from? Teens will always love vampires, I get that. Secret societies that imbue acolytes with power are undeniably appealing, particularly for those pushed to the margins by their peers. There's also, you know, the sex. But why so popular now? Is it because they live in a far more advanced sexual culture than we did growing up in the 90s, and are looking for ways to parse that information? I've never read "Twilight," but I'm told that there's a great deal of will-they-won't-they tension surrounding the blood/sex consummation, but they never do, then they go to the prom or something. (Listen, Angel may have shown up at Buffy's prom, but at least he traded his soul for one torrid night with her. And then had his soul re-restored. Mere seconds before Buffy killed him to undo the evil he wrought while his soul was at the pawnbroker. Okay so I have a slight Whedon fixation, what's your point?) As for the zombies, I think it says something that we celebrate the mindless dead with a sense of ironic detachment. Like it or not, we're grown-ups who are about to inherit a fairly messed-up planet. We need to be able to laugh at the Apocalypse, because it might actually happen on our watch. This might also help explain why I know so many people who are genuinely terrified of zombies.
Then again, it could just be that the lens of popular culture is pointed at the undead right now, and will drift away to a new target, without warning, without explanation.
Hopefully the new target will be aliens. Or samurai. Fingers crossed.