How different are zombies, vampires and Dracula

Understand zombies

Richard Greene shows what philosophy can learn from the undead

By Matthias Bickenbach

Discussed books / references

Beginning of August 2010 in Cologne. The "internationally renowned zombie hunters" Frank Hartmann and Till Rigmor give a seminar on defensive measures against the undead. At the end the participants receive a certificate and have learned that zombies neither think nor feel, are infectious by a virus called "Asura" and can only be stopped by destroying the brain. The choice of weapons is free (Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger, August 10, 2010).

Since Max Brooks “The Zombie Survival Guide. Complete Protection from the Living Dead “(New York 2003; German translation Munich 2004) there is such a thing. The topoi of the horror fiction spread by George A. Romero's classics and his successors have become the subject of serious debate. Serious argument? What happens in such books and seminars is of course not really meant seriously. But irony or even satire can hardly be spoken of either. Rather, such behavior flirts with a literal reading of fiction by taking its “as if” seriously. Such behavior is itself fictional in that it playfully adopts the assumption that living dead really do exist.

The approach of the anthology "The Undead and Philosophy" from the USA is very similar. He takes popular fictions seriously in order to pursue central questions of philosophy through them and with them. The surprise was a success. Far from criticizing the entertainment industry for its triviality (or even the audience), the book of obviously open-minded and even enthusiastic young American philosophers takes up the subject of the undead for both vampires and zombies with questions of the philosophy of consciousness, ethics, ontology and political philosophy. The company shows that humor is not excluded here as it is part of an Anglo-Saxon tradition that may seem strange to us Germans, precisely because the joke here in no way detracts from seriousness. Beyond the possible irritation that a popular and often considered trivial fantasy is being translated into real life, there is the assumption that one can learn something from the fiction of the undead.

Live undead?

Indeed, since Romero and his successors, zombies have not only become global film hits and the Hollywood genre, but have also become the subject of academic reflection. In the last few years, especially in film and cultural studies, there has been an increasing number of analyzes and reflections on the genre in the broad context between Gothic and horror films. The online magazine offers an overview. (For the discourse, see for example Arno Meteling: Monster: On physicality and mediality in modern horror films. Bielefeld 2006. For zombie films, compare Michael Fürst, Florian Krautkrämer, Serjoscha Wierner (ed.): Untot - Zombies in den Medien. Munich 2010 and Georg Seeßlen: Georg A. Romero and his films. Bellheim 2010.)

The volume edited by Richard Greene and K. Silem Mohammad enriches this spectrum with a number of perspectives by using the means and arguments of philosophy to focus on fundamental questions. The Klett-Cotta Verlag deserves praise for the fact that this volume with the bold cover picture (Kant as a bloody vampire, Nietzsche as a decomposing zombie) was published in German, albeit slightly shortened. The book, which promises a “smarter with zombies, werewolves and vampires”, is characterized by a mixture of seriousness and humor that is hardly possible in Germany. The list of authors, for example, annotates the vitae of the contributors throughout in the diction of the topic ("teaches hordes of zombies at university xy"; "is an undead himself").

Such self-irony is alien to German academic anthologies. Nevertheless, the volume is not about irony, but about asking central questions of philosophy to the undead: What is a “living undead”? Fiction poses the question of nothing less than the distinction between life and death. Do zombies live because they show physical reactions even though they are brain dead? Then they would be comparable to coma patients. Fortunately, in the person who is in a coma, we still see the same person they once were. That seems to be different with zombies. Here you can or must butcher your relatives, who were recently loved. But this raises all questions that are connected with personality and identity, taken seriously. Is it the same person when they become a zombie? Are zombies lawless? Especially since Romero's most recent contribution, “Land of the Living Dead”, in which zombies learn to use tools, even questions about the upbringing and culture of the undead have become possible. As the critical boundary between the categories of life and death, of psyche and person, the undead unsettle not only the cinema audience, but also philosophical traditions. The seemingly mindless genre turns out to be a critical instrument of philosophical reflection. Not only are current ethical questions or newer approaches to the philosophy of consciousness introduced to the genre, but at least set pieces of philosophical reflection within the fictions are highlighted.

The first part of the volume introduces ontological and ethical questions posed by zombies in particular, but also by vampires. Richard Greene explores the question of why it should be bad to be undead. After all, we are all "undead". To live on and on without feelings, that could also be an ideal. But one possible answer to the obvious, that nobody wants to become a zombie, is that zombies have no or at least very little pleasure. In this state of "eternal life", wish fulfillment would therefore be excluded from the start. This explains why in almost every zombie film the scene appears in which a protagonist asks his friend to shoot him if “they” should catch him.

The question of wish fulfillment looks different with vampires, however. Vampires have and can have everything and, above all, enjoy their luxury, wine and (young) blood. But all these pleasures are devalued in the face of an eternal life. The vampire is the nihilist par excellence. For him there is no longer any value because life without death levels out all values ​​- this is what Adam Barrows explains with reference to Martin Heidegger's fundamental ontology in “Being and Time” in the second part of the volume. A third answer to the question of why being undead is not good is the assumption that as zombies we are no longer ourselves. The questions of ethics, that is, whether “being a zombie” is good or bad in itself, brings up the questions of identity concepts.

William S. Larkin pursues these by confronting the two central concepts of identity in the history of philosophy. His essay “Res corporalis - Bodies, Zombies and People” puts the focus of identity on the psyche, which has become common since Descartes, to the test with the help of zombies. If the seat of our "I" is thinking and therefore the brain, then zombies are undead because they move and act, but dead as people they were before. The consequence is serious: they can be slaughtered without hesitation. In other words: I don't have to divorce a zombie who was my wife before.

However, Larkin's clever paper advocates a different approach. He believes, he asserts again and again, without giving a final reason, that we “actually” believe that it is not the mind but the body that makes up our person and identity. So zombies would be the same people they were before. According to Larkin, this assumption explains the deeper horror and fascination of zombie films. If in "Shaun of the Dead" the best friend is domesticated at the end and continues to enjoy video games, the question of memory and psychological continuity arises, as Hamish Thompson explains in his article. What do zombies remember? Can you learn Already in Romero's genre-defining classic "Night of the living dead" the undead show learning behavior. Larry Hauser raises a completely different problem, namely that of the possible indistinguishability of zombies and people, more precisely of so-called "philosophical zombies", using the Nexus 6 robots from "Blade Runner". Because robots (in the film) are also variants of the undead with or without a brain that move like humans. The subject of the undead is therefore not limited to the Caribbean myth and its mutations in the film, which mostly assume a virus as the reason.

At the end of the first part, the reader can be convinced that the popular entertainment phenomena actually not only address fundamental philosophical questions, but also put them to the test. The strength of this band is already indicated. The popular phenomenon of an entertainment industry is by no means “mindless”, but rather asks serious questions about us, our philosophical traditions and our assumptions about who we are ourselves. This is a potential that the enduring appeal of such horror fictions owes. As is well known, before the films that are popular today there were the early classics (F. W. Murnau's “Nosferatu”), before them Bram Stoker's “Dracula”, among others, but before Stoker's new version of the vampire saga, at the end of the 19th century, was a whole century on Gothic novels and German horror novels entered the country. ETA Hoffmann's so-called "vampyrism" story in the "Serapion Brothers" cites not only Lord Byron, but also Michael Ranfft's Leipzig dissertation from 1727, "On the smacking and chewing of the dead in their graves", an early enlightenment text that contains all the news about vampires gathered and tried to explain the phenomena of muscle contractions for "natural" reasons. Heinrich August Ossenfelder's first German vampire poem from 1748 already introduced the eroticism of vampirism, which allows bites and kisses to rhyme. It seems that the themes of the revenants for the philosophical age of the Enlightenment have always been an occasion to reflect on the limits of life and the power of horror. Mary Shelley's “Frankenstein” already puts the Prometheus motif in the - now forgotten - subtitle of her novel and thus evokes all questions of artificial humans.

However, the volume is mainly not dedicated to the history of horror literature, but to the current figurations of the genre, which is characterized by films such as “Interview with a Vampire” and of course Francis Ford Coppola's “Bram Stoker's Dracula” or George A. Romero's Zombie -Classics and their successors. The profit here is all the greater because the contributors also go into detail on the individual templates of the films (and, more rarely, books) and thus use the material to show that philosophical questions are not brought up from the outside, but are already thematized within the genre.

Philosophical zombies

The second part of the volume introduces the subject of "undead white men". What sounds funny and post-colonial polemical is not. Here there are concrete references to the history of philosophy, which, so to speak, still live on in this topic. Adam Barrows explores Heidegger's concept and the necessity of death in life and depicts the horror of the vampires with him. Matthew Walker even goes back to Aristotle. His essay shows once again that the perspective here is actually not only funny, but illuminating. Using Aristotle's ethics and the question of possession, property and luxury, Walker focuses on the topic of consumption in Romero's “Dawn of the Dead”. As is well known, the group of survivors gathers there in a shopping center. So in the paradise of consumption. As is well known, however, the zombies are also drawn there. Romero seems to have created an allegory of the American and now global nightmare of happiness in consumption. Aristotle, who knows how to differentiate between measure and happiness, appears almost as a necessary commentary on the film. It is these surprises that the band offers again and again that make it more than just a “funny-weird” introduction to philosophy, as the German blurb recommends the band.

The total of five sections of the book follow different priorities, whereby this is done most consistently between the first and second part. With Dale Jacquette's manifesto about “Zombies as Gladiators”, Part III “Dreckskerle” seems to bring in a fiction itself, which pretends to be the manifesto of a zombie. Here the term “philosophical zombie” is introduced, which Larry Hauser had already used in his contribution. A philosophical zombie is not a fiction from a film - and not a polemical designation of a philosophy professor - but a consideration that was taken up in the context of the “Journal of Conscious Studies” (1995) and became an example for David J. Chalmers “The Conscious Mind : In Search for a Fundamental Theory ”(Oxford 1996). The philosophical zombie is indistinguishable from humans. He is exactly like him, he is just as intelligent as we are. He is - to speak with "Blade Runner" - at least the Nexus 6, if not Nexus 7 or 8. But the philosophical zombie has no emotions. He acts like us, he acts “normally”, but he doesn't feel anything. Could we still distinguish this philosophical zombie - or a robot - from ourselves? Could the philosophical zombie be different from us and from himself? If not, we might be philosophical zombies ourselves. Dale Jacquettes takes up this possibility - and only the last footnote of the text reveals his fictionality or double strategy, while the content is about the pros and cons of gladiator fights with zombies.

Further contributions deepen their observations on the material in the history of philosophy. K. Silem Mohammad's observation that the zombies in current films such as “28 Day later” are getting faster and faster, creates a reference to Spinoza's concept of movement or force and thus also reveals the inner logic of the increase in the genre. Wayne Yuen investigates the question of how vampires and vegetarians relate to one another. Another group of economists and political scientists is dedicated to questions of economics under the title “The Politics of Exhumation”. Douglas Glen Withman asks about "casual coexistence" with vampires, while Philip Cole calls on the political philosophy of the undead with Jean Jacques Rousseau. Cole's review of the history of the vampires as historical news, which circulated as factual reports between 1670 and 1770, i.e. up to Rousseau, connects the topic very successfully with the perspective of a political philosophy. Finally, Leah A. Murray relates the rioting of the zombies to the American social contract.

Of course, the eroticism and hedonism of vampires must also be dealt with in detail. Robert Arp highlights the hedonistic paradox of the vampire, who knows all pleasures but cannot tolerate sunlight, and combines this with a discussion of the traditions of “substance dualism” and “property dualism”, in which the crucial question of the connection between spirit and matter are assessed differently . Finally, Joan Grassbaugh Forry focuses on the male and female aesthetics of the vampires. In each case different aspects concern the “gendering” of the vampire, who today, not least because of Stephenie Meyer's world successes, is increasingly becoming a seducer on the one hand or a “femme fatale” on the other. So the band ends with a return to the current discourse about “Buffy” or “Twilight” very successfully.

Think with zombies

The overview may make the often surprising references clear. What is more decisive, however, is that the style of the individual articles predominantly brings with it a philosophical gesture that is more interested in the logic of the questions and arguments than in the film studies material or in cultural studies issues. That is strength and weakness at the same time. It makes the volume extraordinary and allows it to be recommended for students and interested parties as an introduction to philosophy. Horror film specialists, on the other hand, will be able to find important suggestions, but will miss references to the backgrounds of the filmmakers, to film or animation technology and, above all, to the social contexts of horror films (Vietnam!). Very good differentiations are also made within the genres again and again, but the discourse and history of horror fictions are not the guiding points of view in this volume. But this in no way diminishes the benefit of reading this book.It not only shows how to philosophize with zombies and vampires, but that it is worth thinking about questions that the popular entertainment and effects industry asks, with them and not without them.