Halloween is fast approaching, and with it all of our favorite standby nightmares; ghosts, werewolves, witches, vampires, and zombies lurk around the corner, waiting to thrill us with their wickedness. When I was little, I used to regard Halloween with a mixture of apprehension and excitement− apprehension for the inevitable ghost stories that would keep me up at night, and excitement for the candy I could binge eat to pass the sleepless hours. Halloween holds less anticipation for me now. This may be partially because of my increased cynicism and decreased sweet tooth, but is also due in no small part to the fact that those familiar Halloween monsters no longer belong solely to that one October night.
Of course, America has had a long love affair with monsters, and I do not mean to imply that we have only just discovered a penchant for the macabre. But our relationship with the creatures that go bump in the night seems to have developed beyond what it once was. The horror stories of the past have often been limited by their genre. Elvira’s Movie Macabre may have had its fans, but the fact cannot be avoided that it was considered gimmicky and enjoyed only a niche audience.
Blockbusters like the Twilight franchise and 2009’s horror-comedy film Zombieland have proven that monster movies can be more commercially successful than ever before. Furthermore, Twilight’s choice to portray a vampire as its dreamy love interest indicates a new attitude toward the old, recognizable ghouls. Novel-turned-Hollywood film Warm Bodies goes so far as to cast a rotting zombie as its romantic protagonist. It’s almost as if our childhood nightmares are the new “cool kids”.
Besides garnering the commercial success that goes hand in hand with their new popularity, monsters are also breaking through previously strict barriers of genre, attaining in some cases critical acclaim; television shows such as The Walking Dead and American Horror Story, which can only be classified as monster stories, have received many accolades, including nominations for various Golden Globe Awards. Even more remarkable than this is the appearance of well-regarded and literarily relevant works of fiction dealing with the monstrous and fantastical.
We have been discussing this trend in my 21st Century North American Fiction class, and recently read an article by Joe Fassler published in The Atlantic, entitled “How Zombies and Superheroes Conquered Highbrow Fiction”. In it, Fassler writes:
Discounting a few notable (and unclassifiable) isoladoes like Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood, and Don Delillo, our literature unfolded in diners, standard issue automobiles, and the living room […] But now, only eleven years into a new century, American literary culture has undergone a sea change. A group of high-profile literary writers have fled what we call “real-life”− and their numbers are growing. Literature shelves now commonly feature Halloween party staples: Zombies, werewolves, and vampires […]
Fassler’s chosen example of this change in American literature is Colson Whitehead’s Zone One, a novel following a survivor of the zombie apocalypse as he and his fellow humans attempt to rebuild. The novel’s status as a piece of literature rather than a piece of valueless entertainment is indicative of our shift in attitude toward monsters.
Fassler seems to believe that our new fondness for “Halloween party staples” is not merely a fad, but promises to be a lasting trend in New American Fiction. Undoubtedly, their popularity has already lasted longer than expected. This leads us to wonder why monsters and their like found their way into the limelight in the first place. What is it about them that fascinates and attracts us?
Perhaps it is has something to do with Fassler’s assertion that literary writers are rejecting “real-life” in favor of the fantastic. Doing so certainly leaves them the possibility of representing the issues they deal with in a more metaphorical way. For example, in his collection entitled Thinking Dead: What the Zombie Apocalypse Means, Murali Balaji compiled a series of essays speculating on the reason for our obsession with zombies. His introduction says of zombie apocalypses:
There are social and psychological ramifications as well, particularly as they relate to our fear of Others, insecurities over self-reflection and the deep-seated paranoia over the possibility of an apocalyptic event.
According to Balaji and many of his essayists, the zombie apocalypse becomes something of a metaphor, representing anything from the fright of the destruction of the traditional American family, to tensions felt toward and by the gay community, to fear of the usefulness of a white-collar workforce in the face of economic turmoil. Some of these connections may be a little tenuous, but the general message remains that one can use the fantastic to more creatively address otherwise difficult themes. At the end of his “How Zombies…” article, Fassler articulates a series of points, collected with the help of several fantasy writers, detailing some reasons why what he calls “genre fiction” has gained popularity in recent years. They are as follows:
- Our day-to-day lives becoming more science-fictional.
- For writers, pop-culture influences are now as important as literary influences.
- Literary tastes are increasingly global.
- Stories with mythic dimensions are timeless.
- Financially− and aesthetically− genre pays.
Michael Chabon, in the introduction to his essay collection, Maps and Legends, argues that the fantastic−monsters, magic and science fiction− is the direction in which American fiction must head. He proffers that this new writing, “haunts the boundary lines, the margins, the secret shelves between the sections in the bookstore. And that is where, if it wants to renew itself in the way the novel has done so often in its long history, the short story must, inevitably go”.
What do you think? What is the reason for our newfound fondness of the fantastic and morbid? Will it really last, or has the monster (and particularly the zombie) fad already played itself out? Is Chabon correct about the next phase of American Literature?