Since the very dawn of humanity we have shared tales and stories with the express purpose of scaring each other silly. Tales ranging from monster stories to more human horrors right down to the fear of the unknown - there are certain fears and concepts which seem to transcend time and cultural limitations and which can be found in every corner of the globe, in any time period.
Much has been written about horror movies and the villainous beasts found within, preying on poor co-eds or innocent families. Something which is largely ignored however is exactly why they scare us so much. So sit back and let me take you on a journey into the very psyche of mankind in order to unlock the secrets of why certain movie monsters resonate so much with countless audiences across the world.
As seen in: Interview with the Vampire, Dracula, Nosferatu, Underworld, Let The Right One In
The vampire as a source of fear is one that can be traced back quite literally to the dawn of the written word in ancient Babylon, circa 2000 years BCE. The evil Lilitu, ancient female demons who would come in the dead of night and suck the blood of babies. As a myth it has survived over 4000 years of human history, making resurgence after resurgence. The question remains then, why?
There are two main reasons why the vampire is such a terrifying and timeless villain: sexuality and politics.
Let's start with sexuality. A traditional vampire represents much of what a more conservative person would rally against. It is normally a strong, dominant male who swoops in and corrupts a cast of buxom young female virgins. In many cases the very act of the vampire sucking your blood is presented in a way that is comparable to a sexual act. In much of the folklore of vampirism we find the vampire returning from the grave to visit loved ones. Welsh psychoanalyst Ernest Jones likens this to the widow of the deceased yearning for a sexual reunion, only for the wish of this reunion to be replaced by anxiety and dread of it actually happening. Desire becomes fear and love becomes sadism - in other words the kiss of your loved one becomes the bite of the vampire. The vampire does not stop at just one person however, he sucks dry as many as he can before the 'pure' hero can stop him.
As Wes Craven said: "He (Dracula) embodies social ambivalence about sex and death. That's not only remained incredibly potent, it's remained relevant."
The second reason vampires have remained so culturally important and horrific is the ebb and flow of the economy and politics. In this explanation the vampire becomes symbolic of the 'ruling class' sucking society dry. David Glover in his book Vampires, Mummies and Liberals: Bram Stoker and the Politics of Popular Fiction, argues that Dracula, high in his castle is a symbol of the French Ancien Regime which 'fed' off the peasantry to keep itself wealthy and powerful. As society leveled itself out there was a marked decline in vampire fiction until the end of the 18th Century when the public began to perceive bankers and stock-brokers as 'vampires'. The Werner Herzog vampire film Nosferatu: The Vampyre is indicative of this line of thinking. The wealthy landowner 'vampire' Count Orlok is destroyed by the middle-class hero Johnathon Harker, only for Harker himself to become a vampire. The wealthy landowners sucked the peasantry dry, just as the Nouveau Riche became vampires too as they took the power for themselves.
Vampires therefore represent the fear of rampant sexuality, or even the fear of sexual repression and hidden urges as well as the fear of being 'sucked dry' by elements of society we cannot really fight against - the landowners and stock brokers and so on. In this sense we have two of the biggest fears of society as a whole - rampant, unchecked sexuality and economic uncertainty.
The vampire is a nocturnal predator - highly sexual in nature and almost unstoppable without the proper equipment and knowledge. They will either kill you, drain you or make you a night-dweller yourself.
As Seen In: The Howling, An American Werewolf in London, The Wolfman, Ginger Snaps, Dog Soldiers
I suspect many of you will question or disagree with my analysis of vampires, so it's always a safe bet to follow a risky analysis with a very clear cut one. In this case we have the curse of Lycanthropy. It's origins can be traced back to ancient Babylon (again!) and the Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the oldest known written works on the planet - some estimations put it nearly 5000 years ago, others closer to 4000 - either way it's ancient!
It takes only a cursory look at werewolf mythology to begin forming an understanding of what it is they embody and why they scare us so much. The werewolf embodies the animalistic, violent and brutal side of nature, the side we try so hard to forget that humans have too. This notion of "the beast within" has fueled the werewolf myth for thousands of years. A man, normally innocent or virginal, is bitten or cursed and transforms into a violent, monstrous beast unable to contain his urges. He succumbs to his beastly nature, savaging loved ones, community members and animals until finally he is killed by a silver bullet.
While many contemporary werewolf stories have it so the beast can be controlled, and even summoned almost at will, this is far from the original and traditional concept of lycanthropy. Traditionally we find the beast emerging once a month, at the height of the full moon. Much has been said about the significance of this, with some commentators and films drawing a link between this and female menstruation and fertility. Most likely, however, it draws back to the time of the Greeks and a bit of creative rewriting of ancient myths, with the Goddess Artemis/Diana cursing man. Because silver has been associated with the goddess it was only a silver weapon which could dispatch a werewolf. This conclusion, while being the basis for much of the information on the werewolf myth today, has little to no basis in historical fact.
Werewolves are the monster inside all of us - it represents the beast, the violent and impulsive urges. The werewolf is the unrepressed monster - humanity at it's most primal and uncivilised.
The werewolf cares not for family, friends or logic. It is a primal beast - tearing to shreds anything that gets in it's way.
As Seen In: Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, 28 Days Later, Dead Snow, Zombieland
Ah! The shambling, shuffling zombie! The mass, sprawling undead hordes have made a resurgence in recent years - taking off in popularity with movies such as Shaun of the Dead, Romero's latest zombie flicks, The Walking Dead bringing zombies to televisions the world over and even video games embracing the undead beasties as the villains of the day! The classic movie and gaming villain - the always evil Nazi even gets a shoe-in with the rapid rise in popularity of the "Nazi-Zombie" creating what is by far one of the most creative mash-ups of two villains in history.
So why is the zombie such a timeless and popular evil? Well, again it comes down to humanity and our incessant need to put ourselves into groups.
George A Romero's cult classic zombie film Night of the Living Dead has entered pop-culture as a brilliant and subversive film criticizing Cold War politics and racism in society. A horde of unthinking, brainless monsters and if we're not careful they will overcome us all and destroy our very society! Sounds awfully like the propaganda rife throughout the sixties doesn't it?
Then in Dawn of the Dead we find that the undead scourge has all but overcome society. The zombies who are no longer representing politics are now swarming towards the mall. No longer mindless communist drones they have embraced capitalism and have become mindless consumers!
But then something happened, something which took us all by surprise: zombies stopped being scary. The zombie has had to do something that very few other movie monsters have had to do - reverse itself completely. Before it could only stumble and shuffle, now a zombie can sprint and climb and run. Before it lacked intelligence or motive, now it can think and act and feel. The zombie has done a complete about turn, reversing all the things audiences once found terrifying and reinventing them for a new, modern audience.
No longer do zombies represent politics or consumerism or mindless, herd mentality - now they represent us. Now, a zombie is a person without the emotions, soul and aspects that makes them human. Humanity becomes the victim, the hero and the villain.
Zombies, in all their forms and countless incarnations have changed, to embrace the changing fears and trends in society. They are one of the most endearing and ever changing horror movie staples - encompassing many fears and cultural trends. Zombies by their very nature are pack beasts, and will hunt you in groups, cornering you and tearing you to shreds.
The most terrifying part of a zombie is it's capability to destroy your humanity without ever laying a finger on you. The notion of having to kill a family member, a lover or a friend because they have become something different is one of the most emotional and difficult choices one must face in a zombie apocalypse.