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Gregory Waller
Department of Communication and Culture

George Vlahakis
University Communications

Last modified: Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Vampire phenomenon feeds both on social change and tradition, says IU professor in book

June 23, 2010

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- With the upcoming release of the latest Twilight movie and the popularity of at least two current TV series dedicated to vampires, it would seem that interest in the horror genre is peaking.

However, a new edition of an Indiana University professor's book, The Living and the Undead: Slaying Vampires and Exterminating Zombies (University of Illinois Press), argues that each generation has reshaped the stories of vampires and other undead creatures to fit new times.

Author Gregory A. Waller, professor and chair of the IU Department of Communication and Culture, says that the changing meaning and scope of the violent confrontation between the living and the undead has often been at the heart of an ongoing story.

The Living and the Undead

"To some degree you can connect each version of this story to a particular historical moment," Waller said. "What interested me when I wrote that book was the variations and transformation of this story across media from the 19th century through the 1980s."

Waller examined a wide range of novels, stories, plays, films and TV movies, including Bram Stoker's 1897 book Dracula; several film adaptations of Stoker's novel; F. W. Murnau's 1922 silent film Nosferatu; Richard Matheson's 1954 novel I Am Legend; Stephen King's 1975 book Salem's Lot; Werner Herzog's 1979 film Nosferatu the Vampyre; and George Romero's movies Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Dawn of the Dead (1979).

The new edition of The Living and the Undead features a new preface in which Waller positions his analysis in relation to the explosion of vampire and zombie films, fiction, and criticism in the past 25 years.

Representations of vampires in the 1930s during the Depression often dramatized a threat on the modern world from an older civilization. Other versions, such as depicted in Richard Matheson's 1954 book I Am Legend, clearly are about genocide and only could have been written after World War II. Night of the Living Dead arguably is an allegory of American society during the Vietnam War.

Waller said that the vampire legend has migrated successfully from one form of media to another through its history -- from written fiction to theatrical plays to the screen to comic books and graphic novels to TV series and back to motion pictures.

"It more of a cumulative history, in that one version doesn't displace the previous one. The previous ones still sort of remain in play ... There are residues as those stories get recycled," he said. "That's the interesting thing -- how does a story that's about eternal life get an eternal life and how does knowledge get passed on in these stories as the living struggle against the undead?

"To some degree, the story of The Living and the Undead is a social fable -- what does this non-living force threaten, where does it come from, what are its aspirations ... and what does it take to counter and destroy it?" he said. "But I am wary about too tight a connection (to topical links), because one of the features of popular storytelling -- especially where it's a rich story -- is that it doesn't lose those earlier versions."

In the book, Waller focuses on how stories about vampires and zombies also are about the living beings in those stories -- "especially the ones who get to kill the undead in the name of self-defense and survival." The many books, plays and movies speak to our questions about violence, how we undertake it and who benefits from it and who pays the price.

"It is a story where the heroic act, in the older versions at least, was to find a comatose body, get this object that has no other use in the universe, a sharpened stake, and run it through the heart of that creature, who could often at times be a beautiful woman," he said. "I was fascinated by the fact that my students almost all knew how to kill a vampire -- utterly useless knowledge."

Some of the most recent retellings, such as the Twilight series of books and movies and the TV series "True Blood," are more ambiguous in terms of heroes and villains -- not only reflecting changes in social values, but also reflecting the way commercial media operates today.

"To some degree, Dracula from 1931 was shaped by what classic Hollywood was capable of making then," Waller said. "Now seriality is key component of contemporary media -- this idea that you tell ongoing stories through multiple iterations or even that you plan it as a franchise, which seems to be the case with Twilight.

"Powerful, hungry, commanding, the vampire has always been, potentially at least, an object of desire," he said. "The way the story is told now has something to do, not just with the pre-teen and teen market and the particular anxieties that seem most troubling today, but also with how stories now circulate globally through different media, including the Internet."

Waller doesn't see the popularity of vampire and zombie characters waning any time soon. "It's got amazing legs and durability as a popular phenomenon across media," he said.