Heading just finished Richelle Mead’s Vampire Academy, I found myself wondering, not for the first time, why vampires, zombies and werewolves make for such popular subjects. Even accounting for boom-and-bust periods, they still dominate in comparison to stories about other kinds of semi-human mythological creatures. Fairies, angels, demons, witches and succubi all have strong followings, but what is it about shapeshifters, bloodsuckers and the undead that we just can’t get enough of? Why are nagas, centaurs, sylphs, dryads, ifrit, djin and selkies (to name but a few) so comparatively underrepresented?
There’s no one aswer to that question, but as I was mulling things over, it occurred to me that, unlike any of the other creatures listed above, vampires, zombies and werewolves exist outside of any specific religious context. Historically speaking, they are creatures of folklore more than creatures of myth, and while many cultures have stories about shape-shifters, the concept is strong enough to stand apart. By contrast, succubi, incubi, angels and demons are all heavily embedded in the Judeo-Christian tradition; witches have been demonised by and therefore incorporated into many religions, but are also associated with a variety of pagan and neopagan traditions in their own right. Nagas hail from the Vedic/Hindu tradition; centaurs, sylphs, dryads, hamadryads, oceanids and nereids are part of Greek mythology; fairies and selkies are from Celtic and Irish mythology; and djinn and ifrit are from the magic of old Arabia.
While religious and mythological origins are hardly a barrier to the reimagining of fantastic creatures for new stories – indeed, they frequently contribute to a rich sense of worldbuilding – perhaps there’s an argument to be made that this selfsame quality also forces writers to address the traditional context of (say) angels before a new schema can be introduced. Which isn’t to say that vampire (or zombie, or werewolf) stories don’t have to tackle existing preconceptions of their main species, so to speak – rather, it’s a question of associated beliefs. Zombies, vampires and werewolves don’t exist as part of any religious or mythological canon. Mentioning a vampire protagonist does not infer the existence of old gods in the way that dryads or demons might, and while there’s certainly a strong tradition of involving Christianity in vampire, zombie and werewolf narratives, the fact remains that neither species is an intrinsic part of Christianity or the Christian mythos. Instead, their ungodliness has been extrapolated in retrospect, making it comparatively easy to remove. Challenging the ungodliness of demons, however, or questioning the saintliness of angels, requires a much more determined assault on established cannon.
Put simply, it is easy to turn vampires, werewolves and zombies into secular protagonists – and therefore to adapt them to modern scenarios – precisely because they lack concrete allegience to established mythological frameworks. Other creatures and species, of necessity, bring more baggage with them: there are stronger assumptions to be overwritten, and especially when the existence of one race (say dryads) goes hand in hand with the existence of another (say centaurs), it is less common to try and recreate dryads as the sole magical species of a given story. Which isn’t a bad thing in the slightest – but it might go some way towards explaining why vampires, weres and zombies are constantly being reinvented, and why their mythological bretheren tend to dwell in bigger, more magical worlds.
What does everyone else think?