Let the Undead In
Rachel Evan Wood as Sophie-Anne Leclerq, True Blood, HBO
by Caroline Walters
Zombies, Vampires, And Philosophy: New Life for the Undead,
by Richard Greene and K. Silem Mohammad,
ReadHowYouWant, 500 pp.
This book seems to tap into the trend that vampires are pervading contemporary popular culture: Let the Right One In (Låt den rätte komma in, Tomas Alfredson, 2008), the Twilight franchise (Catherine Hardwicke, 2008 – ) and the HBO series True Blood (Alan Ball, 2008 – ). The cover shows a sexy androgynous vampire with a trickle of blood coming out of its mouth mirroring the cover for the Series 1 DVD Box set of True Blood. On first impressions, it appears that the book was published at the ideal moment, yet only two out of twenty-two essays refer to contemporary vampires mentioned above. This is because the book is an expanded version of an earlier volume in the ‘Popular Culture and Philosophy’ series that was entitled The Undead and Philosophy: Chicken Soup for the Soulless (2006) that focused upon zombies. In the introduction entitled ‘A New Lease of Life for the Undead,’ the editors only discuss vampires in three paragraphs of a five page introduction, making the book feel as if it will fall short of its potential. Promise is all there is; it cannot deliver sufficient depth of ideas for many academic readers but it does provide an engaging way to introduce readers to philosophy or issues around the undead.
The way that the undead challenges the living’s boundaries provides the focus for several essays. Richard Greene uses a thought experiment to argue that undeath is considered worse than death because of its presumed relationship with evil. However, the state of being undead is not necessarily bad for the undead, but it is complicated for those that are still living. This is because it challenges the boundaries between life and death, making it difficult to find a place to exist. Greene leaves the argument here, yet in a latter essay in the collection, Phillip Cole expands upon these ideas. Cole explores how an understanding of Freud’s essay ‘The Uncanny’ that focuses upon a fear of the dead and not of death itself (186) can be useful when thinking about vampires. He argues that the ‘undead’ are not dead because they are able to perceive and be aware of their own undeath. Cole uses Kristeva’s theory of abjection to explain why the presence of a dead object is so disturbing for humans because the dead, in particular ‘the corpse, [is] the most sickening of wastes, [because it] is a border that has encroached upon everything’ (Kristeva, 1982, 3). He then states that the unifying factor between vampires, immigrants and penetration by an ‘other’ is that they all disrupt borders and boundaries. Cole argues that people must understand that boundaries are arbitrary and constructed, and that there is a need to recognise that boundaries are of political importance. Abjection occurs because the enemy – that is the source of the fear – is within the individual themselves and so cannot be controlled. He concludes by stating that this is why people displace their fears onto an external object.
William S. Larkin and Hamish Thompson use their respective chapters to explore the nature of personhood and the different ways that it can manifest itself. Larkin argues in favour of understanding personhood in relation to bodily continuity rather than psychological continuity. Larkin states that zombie films, particularly those of George A. Romero, appeal to people’s intuition and so explore ideas that are important on an intuitive and affective level, which can make them more convincing than an argument that appeals to reason. He suggests that bodily continuity is important because zombies are still recognisable as being the same person they were before their transition even though they do not have the same relationship with themselves; their personality but not their physical person has changed. By contrast, Thompson wishes to examine how zombies can inform an understanding of people with brain conditions. He expands upon complex ideas using Hume and Locke, which helps him to critique the kind of thought experiments that philosophers can use. Like Larkin, Thompson considers horror movies (and zombie movies in particular) to be useful because they raise questions about the purpose and state of brain death; they challenge the idea of where life begins and ends. This essay concludes by posing the question that if one dismisses zombies as limited due to an ‘absent mentality’ (27), what does this suggest about humans who are considered brain dead?
The next two essays explore issues relating to the ontology of the undead. Manuel Vargas’s essay ‘Dead Serious: Evil and the Ontology of the Undead’ explores the philosophical concept of evil. Vargas argues that the undead lack the sufficient mental capacity to be evil; they do experience a need to hurt, which Vargas considers different from evil. He uses a graph to illustrate that the undead’s ontology exists upon a continuum between living and dead. This suggests that there are more complexities to the undead than arguing that they are all evil because there can be natural causes of undeath, e.g. a virus. Vargas uses this essay to unpack moral complexities of the relationship between the undead (what we do not understand) and evil. The following essay by Adam Barrows entitled ‘Heidegger the Vampire Slayer: The Undead and Fundamental Ontology’ focuses upon Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula (2004). Barrows claims that prior to Dracula’s publication in 1897, vampires lacked humanity and were depicted as evil creatures that wanted to destroy those around them for their own personal satisfaction. In turn, he argues that the vampire embodies Heidegger’s notion of the “inauthentic being” because they deny death and so live a false existence (73). Following from this idea, he concludes that killing vampires is a way of delivering them authenticity because they meet what Heidegger would understand as their true death (74).
Dawn of the Dead, United Film Distribution, 1978
The relationship between happiness, hedonism and consumption is another important aspect of the ‘undead’, for they have eternal life. Robert Arp’s essay focuses upon vampires and the hedonistic paradox, which is that that if one seeks pleasure it is either found or not found. Even if pleasure is found one still has its absence after it has gone, which results in a state of pain. The vampires’ continually reoccurring thirst for blood exemplifies the hedonistic paradox. Both pleasure and hedonism are not interested in the goal of the act but the process of striving for something. Arp concludes that the challenging nature of happiness is the way that it focuses upon the developmental (the process) rather than happiness as a static state – automatic happiness. Walker mirrors Arp’s conclusions but focuses upon Dawn of the Dead (George A. Romero, 1978), where the characters can never escape the zombie invasion because they focus upon the mall; they are everywhere. Walker argues that Romero depicts ‘zombies as the ultimate consumers’ (81), as a way to satirise consumerism and the fleeting happiness that it brings. He uses this essay to explore Aristotle’s different conceptions of happiness that he introduces in Ethics. The term “pleonexia” means ‘to desire living without limit is to desire immortality’ (85), which brings us back to zombies as they have an insatiable desire to consume others that mirrors a modern consumerist understanding of happiness. Whereas Aristotle understands happiness as being a state that people are able to have a best possible life (“eudaimonia”), Walker concludes that ‘[a]cquistion that supports such a life [to be the best human and have all that is necessary] is beneficial; acquisition that hinders it [e.g. consumerism] is bad’ (88).
Several chapters explore how ethics can apply to vampires, which lead to some interesting but somewhat repetitive arguments. John Draeger argues that vampires such as Louis from Interview with the Vampire (Neil Jordan, 1994), can demonstrate a moral awareness because they can choose to eat animals rather than feed from humans. This level of reflexivity suggests that vampires ought to be held responsible for their own actions. Wayne Yuen also focuses upon Louis’s moral agency in his essay ‘The Bloody Connection between Vampires and Vegetarians’. Yuen argues that it is imperative to be consistent in one’s moral beliefs, which is why he argues that if vampires can survive from drinking animal blood rather than human blood, then a similar logic should be applied to humans being vegetarian. Vampires might prefer human blood because it gives them their maximum health and vitality but are able to survive adequately from animal blood. Vampires, such as Louis, make this choice because they want to avoid unnecessary suffering to humans. Yuen argues that humans could make a similar moral distinction to Louis and be vegetarian as animals experience unnecessary suffering at the expense of humans desire to eat meat. Whilst this essay followed an unusual line of argument, it was possible to see the logic in his position though it had more the tone of indoctrination than academic rhetoric.
Ted M. Preston’s essay mirrors Yuen’s chapter on vampiric ethics, yet uses his essay to perform a though experiment that wants people to enjoy life in the best way possible as they are mortal. Death serves as an interruption to the fundamental project for humans: to live. Most human activities exist within time; require planning and a sense of the future (finite time), whereas vampires defy death and so have a continuous future (infinite time). Preston argues that finite time is preferable because it augments the intensity of enjoyment that human’s experience because it constrains their activities, making them more manageable. Also, this motivational tool helps to ensure the completion of a project. Preston concludes by arguing that human’s mortality aides them with progress and to avoid stasis, thus although vampires are idealised for their eternal life, for Preston, human mortality triumphs.
Two chapters explore the differences within (American) political philosophy that occur between libertarianism and welfarism (also known as communitarianism). Libertarianism emphasises the importance of the individual and depends upon three key principles: consent, contracts and voluntary co-operation. By contrast, welfarism argues that a human’s basic needs for survival are the primary concern and often rejects individual rights (172). It understands that society has a duty to provide a reasonable standard of living for everyone, which mirrors a utilitarian model of the greatest good for the greatest number. Glen Whitman uses these different modes of political philosophy to explore the consequences of vampires having free will and how this affects the ethics of them drinking human blood. He concludes by arguing that the libertarian position enables people and vampires to adopt voluntarily a position of co-operation, which breeds sympathy and good will so both are moral equals. Whereas welfarism could result in resentment due to required force [for humans to offer themselves as willing to have their blood drunk], increased taxation [to cope with specialised blood banks for vampires] and a lack of autonomy. Leah Murray’s essay also explores a similar tension within American politics, but chooses to focus upon individualism and communitarianism. She suggests that democracy requires a community-focused ethic, whilst capitalism and consumerism focus upon the needs of the individual. According to Murray, Romero’s films suggest that the community-based social contract is the most viable way for a society to function, but this position is more nuanced in his later film Land of the Dead (2004). Although these two essays are similar, Whitman’s essay is one of the more effective in the collection because the thought experiment engages the reader and helps them to understand the nuances between the different schools of political philosophy.
Gary Oldman as Count Dracula and Winona Ryder as Mina Harker in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Colombia Pictures, 1992
A book on vampirism and philosophy would not be complete without a reflection upon the vampire aesthetic. John Grassbaugh Forry argues that the role of beauty has risen in importance in contemporary representations of vampires, such as the depiction of Dracula with his ‘stylized coif’ in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (Francis Ford Coppola, 1992) (238). This contrasts with early filmic depictions of the vampire, such as in Nosferatu (Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens, F.W. Murnau, 1922), where the figure of the vampire is terrifying and otherworldly. Forry uses this chapter to introduce to philosophical aesthetics from Aristotle to Foucault’s notion that environment disciplines the body. He concludes by stating that the vampire aesthetic both challenges and conforms to conventional ideals of beauty, femininity and masculinity (e.g. youthfulness, effortless beauty, elegant movements that help to seduce their victim; heavily sexualised). Although this essay was obligatory, it did not contribute significant additional knowledge to the field of vampire studies beyond using films as a basis of interpretation.
The final two essays are some of the most enjoyable, engaging and reference current concerns. Rachel Robison’s essay ‘True and Untrue Blood’ unsurprisingly focuses upon True Blood, providing an exploration into the signification of blood and its relationship with immortality. She discusses the Catholic motif of transfiguration of wine into Christ’s blood at communion, symbolising humans’ eternal life at the hands of Christ. However, she states that vampires also possess eternal life yet they acquire it through an act of violence, drinking blood for their own gratification. In True Blood, blood symbolises a union of closeness, family and an ability to sense whether or not they are in danger. This contrasts with other vampire stories, such as Dracula where there is a concern over infection and the spread of viruses. The final essay in the collection ‘The Twilight of Infinite Desire’ by Randall E. Auxier and Eileen Townsend follows the lives of two vampires and the way methods of communication have altered over the past three decades. Its form alters in turn from letters to e-mail to text messages. It also charts the changing treatment of the vampire by popular culture from Anne Rice to Twilight via Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Joss Whedon, 1997-2003). Philosophically it focuses upon Foucault and his posthumous works, suggesting that he too could be a vampire. It is one of the lightest and most fun to read essay in the book, yet does convey some key ideas of Aquinas’s Summae Theologica and Foucault’s The Use of Pleasure, which is a feat in itself.
Whilst the short essay format that this book uses – twenty-two essays in just 300 pages – makes it a quick fun read, the contributions often lack sufficient depth to be useful to many academics. Most of the authors are practising philosophers and position the philosophical ideas at the fore rather than the vampire or zombie texts. Also the majority of the essays focus upon the same few texts: Interview with a Vampire, Bram Stoker’s Dracula and the zombie films of George A. Romero. This makes the volume feel repetitive even with so many different authors. In conclusion, this book’s aim feels confused, as its audience seems to lie somewhere between the academic and the populist.
Piece originally published at Film-Philosophy |
Stoker, Bram (1897/2004), Dracula. London: Penguin Classics.
Kristeva, Julia (1982) Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. New York: Columbia University Press.
About the Author:
Caroline Walters is Associate Lecturer in Media and Communication Studies at Sheffield Hallam University.