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In Defence of a Zombie-Free Apocalypse – Part One: Vampires, Werewolves, and Ghosts

Zombies are awful.

They look disgusting and they smell worse. Their eating habits are appalling. Their conversational skills leave a lot to be desired. People keep trying to explain them through science when they’re clearly beings of magic.

Darkness fear by Langewong

(Note how they keep on walking around endlessly even though their metabolism has clearly stopped working and they have no way of turning the flesh they eat into energy.)

And

they’re

just

so

brain-meltingly

boring.

Sure, there have been writers and directors that have used zombie stories to make hard-hitting commentary about the dehumanising effects of modern society and explore the darkest and most agonising depths of the human condition.

But haven’t all those points been made well enough by now?

Zombie Attack by namesjamesZombies are done. They’ve got very little new to say (apart from graagh and hssss), and have been reduced to infecting other aspects of modern culture in a weird parallel to the way a zombie virus spreads through a living population. They dance in our music videos. They shamble endlessly through our video games, even the ones like Red Dead Redemption that aren’t otherwise SFF games. Thanks to Seth Grahame-Smith we have zombies stinking up our classic literature. Warm Bodies and Life After Beth have given us romantic zombies. Netflix has brought us suburban soccer-mum zombies in the form of the Santa Clarita Diet.

The ongoing TV adaptation of iZombie has even given us perfectly preserved and extremely attractive zombies who crave chili peppers and solve crimes by eating brains. (I remember when the only question with TV stars was ‘snog-marry-avoid’. Now you have to decide whether you’d kick them out of bed for not flossing the human remains out of their teeth. This is not progress.)

I’m not saying that we should clean the zombies out of popular culture entirely (I quite like iZombie, even if I do have to close my eyes during the brain eating parts). But since they’re all off getting office jobs and record contracts now, couldn’t we take the opportunity to let some other mythical creatures have a go at an apocalypse or two?

Why don’t we have a look at three very popular monsters and how they’d handle the end of the world?

The Vampire Apocalypse

This is a no-brainer really, (sorry). If zombies aren’t ending the world in one way or another then vampires are probably doing it for them. Stakeland, Van Helsing, most series of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, you get the idea.

Vampires by Tyler JacobsonAnd why not? Modern vampires might spend a lot of time dressing well, moping around in the shadows, and seducing the living, but back in 18th Century Europe they were livid walking corpses supposedly responsible for the plague deaths of dozens of villagers, while over in the US they were repeatedly blamed for outbreaks of tuberculosis. Even today they’re still undead beings with an infectious bite. The main difference between vampires and zombies is that the bloodsuckers usually have better table manners, actually better manners in general. (I don’t see pictures of zombies nibbling seductively on their lovers’ cerebellums overtaking the popularity of that one vampire dark romance novel cover any time soon. You know the one; the human woman is looking attractively dazed while the male vampire leans in for a bite or just broods handsomely in the background.)

The vampire apocalypse in fiction goes all the way back to Richard Matheson’s seminal I Am Legend (the book not the film, don’t look at the film, don’t acknowledge it, don’t think about it; maybe it’ll go away). In the book the remaining human survivor comes to the realisation that the world has moved on from humanity and he’s become a bogeyman out of folklore. The crucial difference between that book and a lot of zombie fiction is that the monsters are still characters with thoughts and feelings. Standard zombies could be replaced with an infectious disease or a flood and a lot of the overarching plots of stories like The Walking Dead wouldn’t actually have to change that much.

Cartographer by Gal OrBut vampires are clever. Vampires have a plan. Imagine the creatures from 30 Days of Night taking over the world! Or don’t bother, just go and watch or read The Strain, which chronicles the frighteningly believable collapse of human society in the face of vampiric conquest. And those vampires, pale parasite-riddled monstrosities that feed using tentacle-like tongues, are every bit as nasty as zombie hordes if gross-out horror is what you’re after.

And yet they have goals and ambitions; there’s even infighting between the different strains of vampire because they disagree about how the world should be run. When did your average zombie horde ever disagree about anything? (And how come their brains have rotted to the point that all they feel is hunger, but they can still tell the difference between live humans and other zombies? And why do they even care? Why don’t they try to eat mice or dirt or tables or literally anything that they can cram into their putrid mouths?)

Plot aside, vampire wars are just cooler than zombie wars, if only because you usually get some super-powered monsters on the good-guys’ side to even things out a bit. It’s the Dhampir Principle: get enough bloodsuckers and humans together and you’ll eventually end up with badass half-vampires like Blade from Marvel comics and some films, Vampire Hunter D from manga and anime or Magiere from the Saga of the Noble Dead series. These characters are always fun, they have all the moves and they offer a great chance to see a protagonist teetering on the edge of monstrousness without quite falling off it. (Actually iZombie captures that fairly well, never mind, bad example, let’s move on.)

Aristocrat by IgorKierylukNow, once vampires have taken over the world you can create a bunch of new narratives. The 2009 film Daybreakers explores a Matheson style post-human world which is slowly falling apart due to the increasing scarcity of blood; an idea that’s eerily reminiscent of the current news stories predicting issues with overpopulation and dwindling global food supplies. That’s without even getting into the drug addiction angle.

Vampire Hunter D is set in a time when the vampire civilisation has ruled for so long that it’s started to fall apart under the sheer weight of its own narcissism and decadence. The cult hit video game Soul Reaver does a similar thing and creates an absolutely fascinating world to explore. Now, hands up how many people want to see the world of The Walking Dead in 500 years’ time? (What do you mean all of you? Okay, never mind.)

Fantasy, horror, and RPG writers from Brian Lumley to the creators of Rifts have had tremendous fun creating societies full of downtrodden humans and lordly vampires. It’s a great way to make the class divide more visceral and blatant or to imagine a world ruled by creatures like, yet not like, us. Thinking about hordes of zombies wandering around aimlessly until they rot down into skeletons is not fun.

bat vampire by Marek MadejEven if vampires themselves aren’t the focus the vampire apocalypse is tailor-made for epic storylines. For those with more patience than me there’s Justin Cronin’s The Passage Trilogy; an epic series about a superhuman girl with a mysterious quest, hard-bitten survivors who spout weirdly specific post-apocalyptic terminology, and a whole lot of bat-like tree-dwelling vampires. There are undreamt secrets here to be uncovered and new shapes for your nightmares to take and all without losing the chance to explore a post-civilisation human culture or the stark moral choices faced by its members. Also, it’s apparently going to be adapted for TV so watch out for that, especially if you’re already missing The Strain.

While Vampires can be gnarly monsters, they don’t have to be. They can be beautiful and seductive and transgressive, and still sympathetic. They can even make the apocalypse fun. Check out Carmilla, a Buffyesque lesbian vampire romance and mystery series available for free on the KindaTV channel on YouTube, if you don’t believe me!

And of course, The Girl With All the Gifts, which is arguably the most interesting and critically acclaimed zombie novel of recent years; is most likely inspired by I Am Legend so that’s a win for vampires in my book.

Face it, the best way to make zombies more interesting as characters is to make them more like vampires, i.e. sentient beings with thoughts and motivations. So, let’s just stick with vampires and be done with it.

The Werewolf Apocalypse

This has happened a lot less than it has with vampires.

Silverpelt Werewolf by Matthew StewartYes, White Wolf did release a tabletop RPG called Werewolf: The Apocalypse back in the day. But that game’s really about an apocalypse happening to werewolves rather than because of them.

I swear the awesome library-themed webcomic Unshelved predicted that werewolf apocalypse stories would eventually become a thing, but I couldn’t find the page in time for this article. Still, if you’ve ever worked in a library, a bookshop, or any customer service environment then you might enjoy digging through all 3000+ pages of Unshelved to see if I’m right.

Anyway, what Unshelved may have ordered, From Software decisively delivered in a gothically grand and gorgeously gory package called Bloodborne. The beast-plague in this acclaimed video game isn’t transferred by bite. It’s far more insidious than that. And like a garden full of mutated and unspeakably violent flowers, it has many different fates in store for those it catches. You get the infected townsfolk with their elongated limbs and hairy faces, so far gone into madness that they can’t see the difference between ordinary humans and true ‘Beasts’ and hunt both indiscriminately. But you also have giant shrieking Cleric-Beasts with antlers on their heads, inexplicably lightning-infused Dark-Beasts, ancient yeti-like monsters with sideways mouths and even oddly vampiric gargoyle-like predators. In this world every new room or fetid alleyway might contain a new abomination.

Vicar Amelia by AtenebrisBasically, Bloodborne is vicious, gut-wrenching, full of strange lore, and, above all, not boring. Because werewolves are much harder to make boring than zombies are.

Werewolves don’t shuffle or stumble around like fools. Take the first generation Lycans in the Underworld film series; they’re superhumanly strong, they sprint at incredible speeds, they can spider-climb like a boss, and if you survive the first bite you’ll be joining their hirsute ranks in a matter of minutes. Don’t bother hiding out in a shopping mall to escape these guys and don’t expect to fight them off with just a baseball bat and a gritty attitude either.

The only reason that mindless werewolves don’t rule the Earth of Underworld is that an army of vampires got together and decided to put a stop to them. Because the apocalypse is the undead’s thing and no stupid shape-shifters were going to be allowed to ruin it with their dog-breath and fur shedding.

Of course, werewolves wouldn’t ruin the end of the world; in fact, they could add some whole new dimensions to it. Consider, one of the most disturbing yet fascinating aspects of monster fiction is the theme of transformation; the idea that it is possible for normal humans lose their humanity and become something altogether more horrible. Zombies do this as well but, crucially, they aren’t usually aware of the change once it’s done, which makes them pathetic rather than sympathetic. What werewolves add to that mix is the chance for the monster in question to spend some downtime in human form to really consider the horror of their fate.

Wolfcaller's Howl by RalphHorsley

Some changes are required for this to work well in an apocalypse story. If you used the classic werewolf formula and just had them transform into wolves at the full moon then society might carry on more or less as it did before, particularly if the werewolves left each other alone the way zombies do. Although if the transformed werewolves did fight each other, then you’d get a horrendous monthly Purge scenario which might make for a good splatterfest but not necessarily any great character arcs.

But what if the transformation was permanent, as with the creatures in Ginger Snaps or first generation Lycans? And what if certain individuals turned human again for a few days here and there?

Worgen Natharai by DumonchelleDrawsWhat would they do?

Search for a cure for their condition?

Seek out groups of uninfected survivors to infiltrate and destroy?

Try to protect the remaining humans in an effort to make up for all of those they’d killed?

Or just go on a nihilistic looting spree?

That’s enough plot seeds for a couple of films and a TV series right there.

But leaving aside the shapeshifting idea for now, let’s consider how the werewolf apocalypse would start. Science gone wrong is an obvious possibility. Zombies often happen like this; though everyone has seen enough zombie films by now that surely even amoral biotech companies and black-ops government departments must realise how bad an idea a zombie virus would be. But super-soldiers implanted with wolf or bear DNA? Maybe with a hyped-up healing factor as well? Sounds like a great recipe for making Wolverine, and who wouldn’t want an army of Wolverines? Then it all goes wrong and you have these pain-wracked, constantly mutating berserkers running around eating people. Suddenly the Apocalypse is fun again!

BLACK FENRIR by aogachouSupernatural explanations for the werewolf apocalypse are fun too. Maybe this is all part of Ragnarok, the Norse apocalypse, and a giant wolf-god is going to turn up to lead the werewolves to glorious victory. Maybe, as the French used to believe a few centuries back, the Devil is responsible for werewolves and this is actually the start of a good old timey biblical Apocalypse. Maybe civilisation has simply become too repressed and artificial and the werewolves are manifestations of humanity’s animal nature re-asserting itself.

There’s so many ways that werewolves could bring a fresh new take to the end-of-the-world; isn’t it time we gave them a chance?

(Though, can we also take a moment to appreciate the fact that the word ‘Lycan’ is pronounced exactly the same way as ‘lichen’, which is about as harmless a type of plant as it’s possible to find? Seriously, ‘Rise of the Lycans’ sounds like an overdramatised gardening programme.)

The Ghost Apocalypse

Doomed to Walk the Earth by amorphisssWhen it comes to ghosts trying to end the world there’s Ghostbusters and that’s about it. There was a recent TV series called Ghost Wars, but it focused on a single isolated town and wasn’t very well received anyway. The Netflix film Spectral has a similar theme but never gets to the point of threatening the whole world.

Not a great showing for ghosts, considering that they’re one of the oldest and most widespread myths known to humankind. Even mummies have had more goes at ending the world than ghosts have, and I could count the number of apocalyptic mummy films I know on the fingers of one hand.

Which is a shame really because that quote used at the beginning of Dawn of the Dead about there being no more room in Hell, so the dead have to walk the earth could just as easily be applied to ghosts as it could to zombies. We just need some forward-thinking writers to open the gates of the afterlife and unleash the spectral hordes upon us all.

It’s not like there’s a shortage of ghosts in popular culture. They’re all over the place, knocking vases over, crawling out of TVs, or driving people mad. Mr Hobbit himself, Martin Freeman, is going to be appearing in a ghost themed anthology later this year. Ghosts are everywhere; they just need to learn to work together and they’d be absolute world-beaters. Or world-eaters if you prefer.

Count the ways that ghosts are more interesting and more dangerous than zombies.

Nokken by Kim Myatt

They’re not stupid.
Angry, obsessive and suffering from an appalling case of bad-hair-day, sure, but they’re more likely to be manipulative than mindless. They’re experts at getting into your head, sometimes literally.

They can mess with your mind and warp your understanding of reality.
As if Armageddon wasn’t bad enough now you’re fleeing the monsters down an endless corridor or getting horribly murdered in your own dreams.

They can fly and pass through walls.
And you thought the werewolves were hard to get away from.

They’re so much more inventive in how they kill you.
They can steal your life-force, scare you to death, send your car off the road, slash you with phantasmal claws, drag you into Hell, or even turn into a giant marshmallow man and stomp you into the ground.

They don’t need to bite you to recruit you.
Doesn’t matter whether the ghosts get you or your fellow survivors shank you because you were hoarding the last tin of baked beans, you’re batting for the ethereal side now.

Ghastly Dance by ExphrasisThey have weird rules that change from story to story.
Everyone knows that you just have to destroy a zombie’s brain. But a ghost? Do you throw salt at them? Destroy the one item anchoring them to their mortal life? Help them finish their unfinished business? Exorcise them? Sleep with them? (That last one really was the answer in a 1988 comedy film called High Spirits featuring the inimitable Peter O’Toole.)

They actually make you think about life and death.
Ghosts have to have come from somewhere, they have to be going somewhere; which raises a lot of fascinating philosophical questions about life, death, consciousness and the nature of existence. Zombies might be going somewhere but it’s nowhere interesting and nowhere fast.

When ghosts get involved you have the chance to explore the landscapes of the afterlife and that’s where things get really intriguing. Don’t believe me? Go and read God’s Demon by Wayne D. Barlowe or Lost Gods by the artist currently known as Brom. Both are vast, epic, and unrelentingly grim while yet and at the same time being ferociously inventive and supremely well-researched; dark fantasy doesn’t get much better than that.

Chapel Geist by Peter Mohrbacher

And when ghosts are around you have the chance to ponder their motivations. Zombies typically have just three moods; hungry, angry, or fungal infection. But ghosts can manage the whole gamut of emotions, drives, and backstories, after all they’re really just post-body humans.

Perhaps ghosts murder the living, not because they hate them, but because they need someone to take their place in the afterlife, one in, one out. That way you’d get the ectoplasmic apocalypse unfolding in all its spectral glory in one storyline and a grand quest by the unjustly murdered human characters as they seek to escape the Underworld in the other storyline.

Anabelle the human by KyendoOr perhaps opposite is true; Hell or the Underworld or whatever you imagine is waiting for us all is getting too overcrowded, so the ghosts have been sent by mysterious and powerful beings to cull the living population back down to more manageable levels, this’ll create an influx of dead souls in the short term, but fewer people alive means fewer births which ultimately means less deaths going forward. It’s not even that implausible as supernatural plots go; the latest series of Preacher features a cramped and rundown Hell that simply wasn’t made for the sheer number of souls stuffed into it. And while the claim that more people are alive today than have ever died in the past has mostly been debunked the human population of Earth is now vastly higher than it’s ever been before and if there is an afterlife then that’s got to be putting some strain on it.

Or, if reincarnation is on the cards, then maybe people are now being born quicker than the souls of the dead are, say, getting dunked in the waters of Lethe or otherwise spiritually recycled and sent back to Earth. So, while the rampaging ghosts seem like the problem, the monsters that actually pose a threat to the world are the generation of soulless children that have just been born. Isn’t that a charmingly disturbing thought?

Moto Ming Gwok by JakeMurrayIn short, it’s time for equal representation for the bodiless undead in the hordes of the apocalypse. Okay, The Floating Dead doesn’t sound as impressive as The Walking Dead, but ghosts have so much potential and writers and creators need to recognise that fact and stop giving them dead-end jobs as camera-baiters and abusive house-guests, and give them a chance to go out there and get a life!

Or at least, to horribly and cruelly drain the life from someone else.

Well. That’s it for now. But tune in next time because with the more popular monsters out of the way things are going to get really weird in the second and final part of this article.

Title image by Darkcloud013.

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One Comment

  1. Tom Pleasant says:

    For a ghost apocalypse on film consider the Japanese horror Pulse: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pulse_(2001_film)

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