Where the hell did all the zombies come from all of a sudden? And the vampires? And the wizards and werewolves and fairies and the generally undead and unreal? They used to be relegated to the shameful corners of the bookstores. In the video stores their covers were obscure, sun-faded and dusty. Dorky stuff. Consumed by few. Something to grow out of. A sign of arrested development.
Now they're everywhere. They haven't taken over the mainstream, but they've staked significant turf. True Blood. Harry Potter. The Walking Dead. Twilight. Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Zombieland. 28 Days Later. World War Z. The Lord of the Rings movies. Shaun of the Dead. Resident Evil. Zombies and Pride and Prejudice. I Am Legend. Game of Thrones.
I'm probably the four and a half billionth person to put forward a theory as to why this might be, but here it is. We're evolving as a people. Greater numbers of consumers of realistic, literary prize winning, smarty-pants fiction are regularly putting on the "I Love Fantasy" hat, and doing so without irony or condescension. And this is an indication that we're slowly, gingerly climbing the ladder of development.
Allow me to extrapolate.
Individuals go through defined, sequential stages of development, which have been extensively mapped by developmental psychologists such as Carol Gilligan, Lawrence Kohlberg, Clare Graves and Abraham Maslow. We're born at square one and develop psychologically and morally, moving from a primitive understanding of how the world works ("I control the world!") to a more advanced understanding ("God controls the world!") to more advanced still ("the laws of physics control the world") to an even more nuanced take on things ("everyone is equal, all points of view are valid"). This last stage is called Postmodern. And what comes after that? The Post-postmodern stage, also known as the Integral Stage. People at this stage of consciousness look back on the entire sequence, and see that it is good, that all stages are necessary, stage-appropriate and they all build on each other. The earlier stages are not to be despised. Each has valuable stuff to offer.
Let me quickly stick labels on those stages, to help make the rest of this article easier to follow.
"I control the world!" - the Magic Stage.
"God controls the world!" - the Mythic/Membership Stage
"The laws of physics control the world" - the Rational Stage
"Everyone is equal, all points of view are valid" - the Postmodern Stage
"I see this entire developmental sequence, and each stage is necessary, stage-appropriate and has valuable stuff to offer." - the Post-postmodern or Integral Stage
So let's quickly revisit how vampires and zombies and werewolves and wizards used to be enjoyed. By the socially marginalized. The socially dysfunctional. By people who were only into those kinds of movies, books and TV shows, and didn't have lives, sexual experience, or social skills of any kind. Whether this was actually the case with the majority of genre fans is up for debate - certainly some were and some weren't. But I'm saying that that was the general perception. Which influenced how people viewed those kinds of movies and literature. Namely, it kept them in the artistic ghetto. Most of the time. This impression lingers with the ubiquity of the term "geek," usually self-applied, with sheepish pride and shame and defiance.
There was the occasional exception that found mainstream popularity. Interview with a Vampire. The Lord of the Rings books. The Star Wars trilogy (wizards aplenty there, by a different name). But Star Wars didn't open the floodgates for a popular embrace of science fiction - or to properly name its genre: space fantasy, or space opera. And it wasn't until Harry Potter that fantasy novels sold in mass numbers and got referenced in popular culture comparable to The Lord of the Rings. Most vampire movies were obscure, low budget and low quality. Francis Ford Coppola's stab at big movie popularity with Bram Stoker's Dracula died with a painful stake in its critical and box office chest. Legendarily popular fantasy writers were utterly unknown to the vast majority of general readers and to people who don't read regularly.
Let's take a quick look back at those stages of development. Right near the beginning is the Magic Stage: "I control the world!" Kids believe that if you step on a crack, you'll break your mother's back. I believed I could change traffic lights by concentrating on them. A friend of mine believed she could make her family's car start (as her father turned the key in the ignition repeatedly)(her will would make the engine finally catch). This is an early stage, completely normal to go through. You believe your ego can bend the laws of physics to your will. In his book One Taste, Integral philosopher Ken Wilber likens this stage to the characters frequently seen in Saturday morning cartoons. Warner Brothers characters have sticks of TNT go off in their hand and recover pretty much immediately. The laws of physics don't interfere with them, or rather, they're as rubbery and stretchable as the characters themselves. Superman flies simply by wanting to. He doesn't leap off the ground and propel himself in a given direction. He just levitates, moving any direction he wants, as fast as he wants. He doesn't lose his breath while flying at high speeds - he doesn't breathe anyway - or feel cold when he goes into the Arctic or into space. He does what he wants. He can set things on fire or see through women's clothes just by looking at them. He doesn't need to eat - although he can (does he excrete?). He doesn't age, after having reached adulthood. To someone at the Magic Stage, this is how things are. Or at least how they should be. When you really absorb the fact that this consistently fails to work, you tend to progress to the next stage.
This same negotiable relationship with the laws of physics appears in our breakthrough pop culture examples. Luke Skywalker wills his light sabre to leap into his hand, and it does. Gandalf doesn't age, nor does Elrond. With a flick of his wand, Dumbledore makes things come into existence out of nothing, and he takes immaterial things like memories, and stores them in a physical object. Zombies defy the body's post-mortem decay and keep on walking, grunting and trying to eat flesh until someone staves in their brain. Vampires turn into actual size bats, defying the impossibility of such a radical change in mass. They suck blood for sustenance, but they don't excrete. They speak but they don't breathe. They fuck but they don't reproduce. Do they ejaculate? I haven't delved deeply enough into the genre to know the answer to that. But if they do, what's coming out? Where does it come from? Does it matter? Of course not. People don't get into vampire stories because of their rock solid plausibility.
Vampires, wizards, zombies and werewolves emerged in the Magic Stage of consciousness. Equivalent supernatural characters can be found in mythology worldwide. And the blurry line between the stages becomes evident if we look at this closely - quite often mythological figures have their super-abilities because they're gods, or they have the favour of gods (gods are Mythic/Membership stage beings). These creatures don't actually exist, and never could, but try telling a little kid that. They haven't reached the Rational Stage ("the laws of physics rule the world"), or even the Mythic/Membership Stage ("God controls the world!"). They believe without verifiable evidence. Cultures where most people express this stage of development - even into adulthood - genuinely believe in the existence of these creatures.
A facet of the stages of development is that people at each stage hate and distrust people at the other stages. Mythic/Membership people ("God controls the world!") don't like people believing in vampires and wizards. Only God is powerful, only Jesus and various prophets and saints could bend the laws of physics, and only because God was doing it for them. People at the Rational Stage don't like people at the Magic or Mythic/Membership stages, because there's no evidence for wizards or zombies, the very notion of their existence is ridiculous, and a woman conceiving through the intervention of a ghost is just nonsense, as is a man parting the Red Sea or a person returning to life after having been dead for three days. The enmity is mutual, as Mythic/Membership people resent the dominance of rational thought, denying evolution because it contradicts their holy book. People expressing the Postmodern stage ("everyone is equal, all points of view are valid") betray their own stated beliefs by insisting that even though everyone is equal, racism is bad, sexism is bad (so these two points of view aren't equal or allowed to be valid), and you're not allowed to be a fundamentalist Christian, since that's an oppressive force with a history of dominating and subjugating other cultures. Science doesn't get off the hook either; it's only one way of looking at the world, and that doesn't mean it's right, say the Postmodernists. And once again, the enmity is mutual: Mythic/Membership people and Rational people hate Postmodernists for trying to level the playing field and not acknowledging the supremacy of God or Science.
Now consider this: The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Interview with a Vampire - these were surprise hits. Same with the original novel Dracula. And Frankenstein. They were works of inspiration, not calculated commercialism. Frankenstein was inspired by a dream. The Lord of the Rings novels were a decade-long labour of love by a gifted amateur. They hit on something in the human spirit, and people responded, in big numbers. But why didn't the mass audience stay on board for all of the genre stuff that tried to follow in these hits' footsteps? Because there was a jarring disconnection between the the sensibilities of people in our culture, which consists of an uneasy mix of Mythic/Membership (fundamentalist religious people), Rational (scientific materialists) and Postmodern (most university educated people, most intellectuals and most artists) sensibilities, all of which just ain't at ease with Magic stage stories (people and creatures who defy the laws of physics at will) most of the time.
True Blood and Game of Thrones aren't relegated to some greasy Science Fiction and Fantasy channel. They're on HBO, and mainstays of that critically lauded channel's roster, sitting comfortably amidst the ranks of The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Rome, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Sex and the City, Entourage, Boardwalk Empire, Deadwood and The Wire. And the cast isn't taken from the ranks of inexperienced actors you've never heard of who can't act that well but are willing to show their tits. True Blood's lead, Anna Paquin, is an Oscar winner. Each of the three Lord of the Rings movies was the top box office performer of its year, and The Return of the King won the Oscar for Best Picture - a first for a fantasy movie. The Harry Potter films have become the highest grossing movie series in history. The Harry Potter books, along with the Twilight books, have sold so phenomenally well as to be widely referenced in popular culture to the point that you don't have to have read them to know what they're about. Zombie movies, once the definition of low-budget genre stuff playing to cult audiences and no one else, now attract actors like Woody Harrelson (Oscar nominee for The People Vs. Larry Flynt), directors like Danny Boyle (Oscar winner for Slumdog Millionaire), and The Walking Dead boasted Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption) as creator and first season show-runner.
Why? What's going on with this?
Let's just jump back (quickly) to those levels of development. What comes after Postmodern? Post-postmodern. In this stage, the entire developmental sequence is recognized, understood, accepted and every level is celebrated. The other stages are not to be despised, says the person expressing Post-postmodern consciousness, they're to be valued for what they have to offer.
And what does the Magic Stage have to offer? Fun. And lots of it. It's absolutely thrilling to allow yourself to believe that a person could fly just by wanting to. Same with the possibility of never aging. And shooting magic beams of pure energy out of the tips of your fingers or your wand, without draining whatever source that energy is feeding off of.
An adult who dominantly expresses the Magic Stage can't function in the present day Western world. The taxman won't be warded off by a spell. The landlord can't be cursed away. Magic words and the evil eye won't keep you safe from the eventual repercussions of your consistently lousy job performance, or fix the leaky sink.
But the Magic Stage is harmless and totally enlivening when taken in moderate doses. And that's what seems to be happening with all of these vampires and wizards and zombies and werewolves in popular culture. People aren't regressing en masse. Nor are they reading Harry Potter saying "Oh come on! That just wouldn't work! It defies the laws of physics!" Adults who read Harry Potter let themselves take a vacation into a time and mentality where the laws of physics are fluid and bendy. Because it's fun. Because it gives you a taste of what it was like to be a kid, when you genuinely believed you might acquire the powers of a superhero or a witch. The fact that the Harry Potter books and the Twilight books were written for young readers emphasizes this.
So that's my theory. This recent proliferation of fantastical fiction peacefully coexists with The Wire, The Kite Runner, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Da Vinci Code, The Departed, No Country For Old Men, Bridesmaids, The Help, The Office and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, as well as with The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, TED talks, Tina Fey, the books of Malcolm Gladwell, The Colbert Report, Sarah Silverman, Ricky Gervais, Ellen DeGeneres, Bill Maher, The Omnivore's Dilemma, Dan Savage, and the daily missives of Seth Godin. And this demonstrates that a great many people are able to live in the world, keep jobs, pay rent/mortgages, vote, renovate, educate children, occupy, buy local, organic produce, and now and then, swing into a realm populated by sexy vampires, marauding zombies and teenagers wielding wands. And there's no conflict between these seemingly incompatible worlds. There's no need to choose camps.
And does that mean our culture's centre of gravity is at a Post-postmodern level?
Well, first let me introduce this: there are multiple intelligences. A person can be really good at playing the clarinet and really bad at cooking. Someone can be incredibly astute with grafting different breeds of apple trees, and have no interpersonal skills at all. A brilliant scientist might have the morals of a rabid rat. In the world of Integral Philosophy this is referred to as lines of development. Levels and lines. You can be high in one line, medium in another and low in yet another. We're all developed to different degrees in different areas of life. Which is perfectly natural. A person who considers themselves at the highest level in every line is either a bodhisattva, or severely deluded about themselves, a la Dwight Schrute. The latter is far more likely.
I'm an arts guy. I pay attention to what's happening in the world of culture and entertainment, and what these trends reveal about us. I certainly don't feel qualified to put any sort of pin on the map of where we stand, as a culture, politically. Or morally. Or spiritually. Or interpersonally. Or cognitively. But if we're generally at a Post-postmodern level on any of those lines on any kind of widespread basis, I'd be surprised. If someone were to speculate that we are, I'd be very interested in reading their argument.
So if we are tip-toeing toward a Post-postmodern level of understanding in the appreciation of arts and entertainment, this could signify a first poke in that direction for us altogether. And since art does well up from some deep, mysterious spring, that could be the manifestation of something bigger we could all become, nudging us forward, as art has sought to do many times in the past, opening doors, letting light fall where it never has, encouraging us to see things in a way we never have before.
And you know what? All of this love and acceptance of fantastical fiction could just be a trend that'll disappear in a few years the way gross-out comedies did. I offer this theory with no certitude at all. This is just a possibility that occurred to me when I thought about how many of my friends are nuts about True Blood and Game of Thrones but aren't into that kind of thing otherwise. Same with Harry Potter. And The Walking Dead. And superheroes they're part of this pattern too. Mainstream bookstores sell graphic novels. They didn't twenty years ago. Comic book movies are bigger than ever now too. Batman and Iron Man are the two biggest box office draws - both heroes bound by the laws of physics, with no powers but their fists, feet, and the gadgets they've invented through their prowess with science and industry. And Spiderman got his powers from a genetically engineered spider. But the science that transferred the spider's abilities to Peter Parker's body is bogus, and may as well be magic. Same with Tony Stark's arc-reactor. And Iron Man is a principal character in The Avengers, whose villain is Loki - the Norse god of mischief, who can teleport at will and withstand a beating from The Hulk with only a few minor scrapes and bruises. One of the Avengers is his brother Thor, god of thunder. And as of this writing, the film's bounded to number three on the highest grossib movies ever list. And it's popular with pimply teenagers, office workers, artists, the night club crowd, and its cast and other creative personnel boast an astounding twelve Oscar winners and nominees.
And no one's leaving the theatre believing they'll stumble upon a magic hammer or invent a self-generating mini reactor that'll power a bad-ass iron fighting suit. It's just a great way to have fun for a while. It's a little bit of magic spice to liven up the curry of our lives.
Edited by Chris Dierkes