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Contemporary horrors

Comeback of the Zombies

Munich, 08/06/2013

Even scary monsters and their ilk have their seasons in the sun. Dr. Markus Wiefarn, critic and literary scholar at LMU, discusses the horrors that are currently en vogue on the big screen, and in the pages of our paperbacks and e-books.

Picture: Danomyte -
Picture: Danomyte -

Ghosts and goblins, monsters and mavens are the stars of LMU’s Summer School on “Representations of Horror in Contemporary Media and Culture”. Dr. Markus Wiefarn of LMU’s Graduate School Language & Literature Munich talks about what these depictions tell us about the times we live in.

Which of the classical horror archetypes are ‘in’ at the moment?
Markus Wiefarn: Zombies are making a comeback, as indicated by trendy metaphors like “zombie capitalism”. The same can be said for vampires, which have hit the big time again, in epics like the Twilight saga. Monsters are also back in vogue.

Why are zombies so popular just now?
The kind of horror character that reappears at any given time is largely determined by contemporary social and political concerns. At the present time – dominated as it is by political crises and wide-ranging cultural change – it’s little wonder that nightmare scenarios are on people’s minds, as a look back to earlier periods of crisis confirms. Take the silent movie “Nosferatu – A Symphony of Horror”, for instance. This was one of the very earliest horror films, whose title character is a vampire, and it was shot in the early days of the ill-fated Weimar Republic.

Zombies are the undead. They stand for the re-emergence of something that was assumed to be over and done with. So the zombie theme is an attractive angle to use if one wants to deal with the enduring relevance of issues that have been repressed rather than resolved. Zombies can serve as symbols of what a society has swept under the carpet, but they also reflect fears of imminent catastrophes.

And what is the return of the vampire telling us about our times?
Historically the vampire has often been invoked as a metaphor for a corrupt and decadent upper class, so it can play a role in the realm of social criticism. Vampires also have a pronounced erotic charge. But now the vampire has been resurrected in the context of a literary genre that is primarily addressed to teenagers and makes use of the clichés of romantic love. This is somewhat surprising – indeed it is downright confusing – because it turns the convention on its head. It is not much of an exaggeration to say that the vampire has now been sanitized for a specific target group and has been turned into a cuddly and consoling house pet.

But is horror not becoming ever more horrific?
The new digital techniques have certainly broadened the spectrum of visual effects available. And, of course, the range of terrifying figures in religion and folklore has always been very wide – extending from the spirits in the underworld of Greek mythology to the fabulous djinns of the Arabian tradition. So the new media have a vast reservoir to draw upon. And the new technical possibilities may well lead to further differentiation of such characters, with each new incarnation garnering its own swarm of devoted fans.

Why do readers and moviegoers freely choose the company of such frightening figures?
It’s certainly no accident that some of the biggest American blockbusters are horror films that include many very disturbing scenes. These exert a strong fascination on viewers. Their allure is primarily induced by their sheer visual impact, and is therefore a matter of esthetics. On the other hand, they also appeal to us because they have the power to stir our deepest emotions. Horror films demonstrate how a society finds ways to represent its fears.

Interview: nh

Dr. Markus Wiefarn is Coordinator of the Graduate School Language & Literature at LMU Munich. The International Summer School on Representations of Horror in Contemporary Media and Culture runs from 4.-10. August 2013.

Dr. Markus Wiefarn
Graduate School Language & Literature Munich
LMU Munich
Phone: +49 (0) 89 2180 6880


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