How do we deal with fears that we cannot quite look in the face? Sometimes we make the fears incarnate as monsters in fairy tales or horror films. Along these lines, the Oxford English Dictionary traces the etymology of the word “monster” to the Latin monēre, to warn. Monsters are warning signs, portents of what we fear may be or of what we wish to avoid.
In previous essays, I have argued, with Zygmunt Bauman, that we live in an age of liquidity and empty selves. Does this era of liquid modernity and widespread narcissism bring with it distinctive fears and hence distinctive monsters? In what follows I will argue that the explosion of vampire stories (both fictional and purportedly real) in the eighteenth century follows logically upon the publication of William Harvey’s research on the heart and the circulatory system in 1628. The growing loss of a sense of self, which came with the newfound fluidity of the body and with modernity’s social and intellectual dislocations, expressed itself in new fears. What if our selfhood could be drained out of us? And what if we are left as dry husks of men, as the living dead?
Vampires: Blood as Transferable and Intransferable
In the nineteenth century, novels such as Frankenstein and Dracula grappled with the challenges born from the rise of scientific materialism and its seeming obverse, Romantic expressionism. But the obsession with vampires began earlier, and it figures as an especially modern example of the ways in which blood, William Harvey’s research topic, served as a multivalent sign.
Blood was from ancient times regarded as the confluence of two necessary elements for life, fire and water, and the use of blood (human as well as animal) in medicine is well-testified by Marsilio Ficino in the sixteenth century, who continued rather than invented a therapeutic tradition. But the new rationality of the mechanistic circulatory system proposed by Harvey was shadowed by an increasingly occult use of blood, sometimes combined with semen (believed to be the distilled essence of blood). For example, in the last half of the seventeenth century, some alchemists proposed the use of a mixture of blood and semen, both obtained clandestinely in a church to aid their magical powers, as an elixir of youth. In a similar way, vampires functioned as the shadow cast by the clarity of Enlightenment science, in which the self-constituting life that is blood was drained and repurposed in orphic ways.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) is especially important for our analysis because of its blood-symbolism. The novel meditates on the strange mobility of our literal life-blood and its vulnerability to loss through the violation of our seemingly solid contours. Further, the modern context, evoked memorably a few decades before by Charles Dickens, of anonymity amidst industrialization made for new horrors; Stoker acknowledged that Jack the Ripper was a source for the novel. In grappling with such new realities, the book also casts a glance backward at a vanishing age in which blood meant solid class boundaries. The novel, therefore, presents blood as straddling solid and liquid modernity.
The solid force of modern scientific progress is presented by the author as both powerful and helpless. The vampire-fighting professor Abraham Van Helsing is introduced with all his degrees, “MD, D.Ph., D.Lit., etc., etc.” One of the “etc.” must be a J.D. or an LL.B., given that Van Helsing tells a friend, “You forget that I am a lawyer as well as a doctor” (182). Professor-doctor-lawyer-philosopher Van Helsing combines rationalistic omniscience with supernatural faith: “He is a philosopher and a metaphysician and one of the most advanced scientists of his day,” a colleague describes him, “and he has, I believe, an absolutely open mind” (126).
Van Helsing is the cause of many of the novel’s moments of inadvertent hilarity. When Van Helsing creates a seal around the newly vampiric Lucy’s tomb using a consecrated Host, his companions express shock. He reassures them by saying solemnly, “I have an Indulgence” (233). Irish Anglican Stoker must have thought indulgences meant that the Catholic hierarchy would indulge the (mis-)use of the Eucharist for good causes. But Stoker, perhaps unintentionally, highlights the contrast between the vampire and the consumption of the Eucharist: the former, who drinks blood to dominate and to survive bodily, versus the latter, which is the reception of a divine self-gift for eternal life.
In any case, Van Helsing’s religiosity combined with his scientific omniscience is necessary for a plot in which evil is defeated not only through consecrated hosts and crucifixes but also through such up-to-date tech as shorthand and steam engines. The character of Van Helsing personifies the meeting of Enlightenment science with Eastern European myth that Nick Groom has argued is the “strikingly modern” context of the European fascination with the vampire, beginning about 150 years before Stoker’s novel. As Groom puts it in The Vampire: A New History, “In the early eighteenth century, the traditional bloodsuckers of Eastern European folklore came face to face with empirical science and became vampires” (4).
An example of European science is Count de Cabreras, who in 1730 slayed no fewer than three vampires, whose corpses flowed with fresh blood as he alternately beheaded, cremated, or nailed the skull of each. According to Groom, the Emperor Charles VI did not simply dismiss de Cabreras’s actions but instead sent a retinue of “officers, lawyers, physicians, chirurgeons, and some divines” to investigate, according to a contemporary clergyman, Dom Augustin Calmet (29-30). A scholarly French Benedictine, Calmet wavered in his judgment whether vampires were an example of God’s posthumous punishment of the dead or a mere fantasy. The latter judgment was rendered during Calmet’s lifetime by Pope Benedict XIV in 1757, who argued his point in a document on canonization, in a section entitled De vanitate Vampyrorum (“On the Vanity of Vampires” [V 76-81]). It appears that Benedict XIV would not have indulged Van Helsing’s extra-ecclesial appropriation of sacraments and sacramentals.
Around the same time, military surgeon Johann Flückinger investigated a vampiric outbreak in Serbia, performing an autopsy on one victim, whose body Flückinger stated had fresh blood and growing nailbeds. He wrote a report that was read across Europe, and medical journals and dissertations were dedicated to the topic of vampirism, although a healthy contingent of skeptics emerged in reaction.
Vampires were everywhere; Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, in their psychedelic concoction of philosophy, history, and science, A Thousand Plateaus, accurately state of 1730: “From 1730 to 1735, all we hear about are vampires.” Perhaps singularly in his lifetime, on this matter Voltaire showed himself on the side of the pope, expostulating, “What! is it in our eighteenth century that vampires exist? Is it after the reigns of Locke, Shaftesbury, Trenchard, and Collins? Is it under those of D’Alembert, Diderot, St. Lambert, and Duclos, that we believe in vampires?” Nevertheless, Groom recounts how accounts of bloodsucking revenants were treated seriously and methodologically, with permissions being needed to exhume corpses (and presumably frequently denied, when sought at all). Prescribed courses of action were offered in manuals. Thus did the realm of the vampiric dead bleed into that of science.
According to Dracula, all this scientific advantage was necessary but not sufficient to combat the supernatural evil of the vampire. In many ways, the novel seems to fly in the face of the nineteenth century’s atheist humanism, given how often the characters invoke God and his omnipotent providence. Yet the ambient skepticism comes through in the religiosity that the novel portrays, a religiosity that is quite literally other-worldly. In ordinary situations, the novel implies, modern science has everything under control.
The vampire and his minions are not ordinary, of course, and their very extraordinariness aligns with the purely fantastic nature of the religious talismans combating them. The perhaps unintended result is that Dracula portrays religion, and Catholicism in particular, as operating at the level of the grotesque but otherwise wholly irrelevant to everyday life. God is exoticized and hence made optional (until, at least, you have a vampire or two to dispose of), despite the religious nostalgia that saturates the book.
Science is the occasion for other moments of the novel’s unintended comedy. Van Helsing repeatedly transfuses blood (an operation not yet safe in 1897) by grabbing any available donor and hooking him up to vampire-victim Lucy Westenra, as she is dying from blood-loss. This happens not once but four times. Apparently, Lucy’s blood was type AB, or else she would have quickly perished from the adverse results of receiving repeatedly the wrong blood antigens. Blood types were not known yet but would be discovered only three years after the publication of Dracula.
Thus, blood transfusions, however fancifully portrayed in the book, were about to become practicable. They had been attempted centuries before. In the mid-1600s, shortly after the publication of Harvey’s book on the heart, architect Christopher Wren, among others, experimented with blood transfusions on dogs. Trans-species blood infusions into humans killed at least three people until the procedure was halted in the late-1600s (in part because of the pope’s condemnation in 1678 according to Nick Groom [19-20]). Blood transfusions raise important questions about the fluidity of the self, as Antón Barba-Kay explains:
Blood, as has been subsequently discovered, is physiologically unusual: It is transferable because blood cells lack a nucleus. It is also (by virtue of being liquid) homogeneous and continuous. One might say that it is, in this sense, naturally promiscuous, and that these attributes are in evident contrast with our view of each person as a unique, inviolable integer.
The vampiric blood-sucker embodies this “natural promiscuity,” which is one reason why sexual overtones—especially with female vampires—are so noticeable in vampire literature. Mark Neocleous states, “As a form of monster, the vampire disrupts the usual rules of interaction, occupying an essentially fluid site where despite its otherness it cannot be entirely separated from nature and man.”
Indeed, in Dracula, this fluidity is expressed dramatically when Lucy feels mystically married to her fiancée after receiving his blood, although Van Helsing is privately convulsed with laughter at the idea of Lucy’s mystical marriage to all four of her blood-donors. But the larger point is the fact of the permeability of the body, both through violence and malice (in the case of the vampires) and through science, all symbolized by blood. And this fact raises the question of the permeability of the person.
Blood is, as I have argued elsewhere, evidence of the body’s streaming nature. Harvey’s work brought the word “circulation” into vogue, beginning in seventeenth-century literature and extending to economics (the circulation of credit), botany (the circulation of sap), and intellectual fashions. Groom notes that “liquidity,” “fluid,” and “lubricate” began to be used commonly in intellectual contexts by the 1700s. He concludes:
Circulation was then a defining and ubiquitous symbol, and so blood was, in a sense, the medium of thought, with appealingly sanguine associations of vitality and flow. Vampires thus emerged in a context in which both tangible objects and intangible concepts were imagined to ooze and seep and stir, much as bodily fluids did in the cardiovascular system. Circulatory networks are the very media of vampirism: they roam, feed and infect through the circulation of blood (16).
At the same time, as the vampire arose in the social imaginary, political and economic systems were critiqued in terms of “blood-sucking” and “vampirism.” Marx was especially adept at using the metaphor, as in Capital: “Capital is dead labor which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks.” Aside from revealing his personal taste for Gothic fiction, Marx’s repeated use of the image emphasized his conviction that capital sucked the life out of labor and left it dead.
Yet Harvey’s circulatory image required a self-enclosed mechanical system. By the time we get to the end of the nineteenth century, faith in the absolute reliability of “solid” and absolute systems—whether mechanical or theological—had waned, and the incipient liquidity of modernity is about to break the dam of culture. “Like vampires themselves, interest in blood was hardly likely to fall away in the nineteenth century,” Groom comments in The Vampire, “If anything, its status as a fundamental image of life and wellbeing was intensified” (147).
The newer and more scientific sense of blood as transferable contrasts and yet lives symbiotically with blood’s older and intransferable significance, as expressed in the importance of aristocratic bloodlines. “Blood stands at once for a permanent distinction of family that our egalitarianism prides itself on having abolished,” Barba-Kay notes, “and for our continued attraction to fixed ties of family, race, and place that, loosened by social mobility, still promise us the possibility of ‘belonging.’” Simultaneously with the development of blood transfusions in the nineteenth century came the rise of eugenics, with its obsessions over “bloodlines” and heredity.
This bivalence of “blood” as both transferable and intransferable is at play in vampire myths—including the Twilight books and movies—which emphasize the aristocracy of vampires. In contrast, the vampire’s victims are often commoners. “They are ourselves—sometimes very studiedly so, as in the case of Twilight’s Bella, who is notoriously written in such a way as to be a blank cipher, an everywoman,” Barba-Kay writes. “The vampire’s aristocracy is alluring because he stands out as someone whose place, unlike ours, is permanently recognized and guaranteed.” Barba-Kay proposes that modern egalitarian societies such as ours are so besotted with royals because aristocrats represent a solidity of identity that endures beyond all the vicissitudes of fortune and fame.
In Dracula, the aristocratic value of blood is brought up to the late-nineteenth-century eugenic speed. Count Dracula is a marked antiquarian elitist, expostulating about the superiority of his “blood” (36), but so too are all the others, albeit with an au courant symbolization of blood as racial purity. The medical doctor John Seward exclaims of one character that he is “a moral Viking. If America can go on breeding men like that, she will be a power in the world indeed” (194). The doctor-lawyer-metaphysician Van Helsing comments on the purity of the blood of each of the transfusion donors, while Mina Harker cites nineteenth-century eugenic criminologist and phrenologist Cesare Lombroso in diagnosing the Count (381). And yet Dracula’s aristocratic solidity is markedly anachronistic; the vampire is a man out of time. His age has past.
The vampire, then, in his thirst for blood is an apt transitional figure from the death-throes of solid modernity to the birth of liquid modernity. “The blood is life!” cries Dracula’s minion Renfield, quoting Deuteronomy 12:23 and Leviticus 17:14, but in a new, post-biblical way. Nostalgia for social solidity combines with an unavoidable liquidity, as social structures melt and the intransferability of blood gives way to an age of blood transfusions and selves defined apart from aristocratic bloodlines.
Zombies: We Hollow Men
Vampires continued in popularity through the 1980s with the Anne Rice books and films and then into the twenty-first century with the Twilight books and movies. Alongside the bloodsuckers, however, now too zombies have arisen—and arisen, and arisen—in various apocalyptic cultural forms throughout the twentieth and into the twenty-first centuries.
Barba-Kay sees the rise of the zombie (the “living dead”) as the natural supplement to the vampire in the twentieth century. Dead ideas, meanings, and structures exist as zombies for us, continuing to haunt the present in some way, but only as living but empty husks of the past. Given their undead status, such dead history function only as a threat to individuals hunkered down in defensive stances. One of these empty husks is the modern subject. One of the most unsettling questions that zombies pose to contemporary people is how much the zombie might resemble oneself: what if I am nothing more than a zombie, an animated corpse going through the motions?
This concern is closely connected to another one, namely, the alienating effects of modern society. We have seen Marx’s use of the image of vampiric capital. Terry Eagleton expounds,
Capital is a phantasmal body, a monstrous Doppelgänger which stalks abroad while its master sleeps, mechanically consuming the pleasures he austerely forgoes . . . Both capitalist and capital are images of the living dead, the one animate yet anaesthetized, the other inanimate yet active.
As the twentieth century progressed, a sense that modern people lived in a wasteland of death deepened.
T. S. Eliot explored—and often created—these images for a disillusioned post-war generation in his influential poems “The Waste Land” (1922) and “The Hollow Men” (1925). “The Waste Land” opens with an epigraph from the Satyricon by Gaius Petronius concerning the Sibyl at Cumae. The Sibyl was beloved by Apollo and granted to live as many years as there were grains in a handful of dust. But this undying state was really a form of death in life, as the years stretched on and she became older, yet undying. In his 1971 annotation to the poem, Eliot translated the epigraph: “I saw with my own eyes the Sibyl at Cumae hanging in a cage, and when the boys said to her: ‘Sibyl, what do you want?’ she answered: ‘I want to die.’” Later in the poem, Eliot returns obliquely to the Sibyl and the fearsomeness of a living death: “I will show you fear in a handful of dust” (line 30).
In the same section of “The Waste Land,” entitled “The Burial of the Dead,” Eliot circles repeatedly around the theme of the living dead. After the Hyacinth Girl’s appearance, the narrator laments: “—Yet when we came back, late, from the Hyacinth garden, / Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not / Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither / Living nor dead, and I knew nothing, / Looking into the heart of light, the silence. / Oed’ und leer das Meer” (lines 37-42). Eliot’s notes here refer the reader to later lines that quote The Tempest and stress the watery undertow of death: “I remember / Those are pearls that were his eyes. / ‘Are you alive or not? Is there nothing in your head?’” (lines 124-26). Here Eliot repeats what he had earlier presented in the fortune-telling of Madame Sosostris: “Here, said she / Is your card, the drowned Phoenician Sailor, / (Those are pearls that were his eyes. Look!) / . . . Fear death by water” (lines 46-48, 55). The prophecy is fulfilled in the fourth part, “Death by Water,” when the corpse of Phlebas the Phoenician, sunk under the waves, rises and falls in the currents of the sea.
“The Burial of the Dead” ends with London as the “Unreal City” (line 60), a place of the living dead. “A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many, / I had not thought death had undone so many” (lines 62-63). He spots “one I knew,” his war-buddy Stetson, and cries out: “‘That corpse you planted last year in your garden, / Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?’” (lines 72-73) He wonders if dogs can be prevented from digging it up.
A few years later, “The Hollow Men” continued to explore death-in-life, now presented more explicitly as interior emptiness. The two epigraphs once more guide the reader to this theme. The first quotes Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: “Mistah Kurtz—he dead.” Conrad’s depiction of the depraved Kurtz as a man who is “hollow to the core” melds here with the second epigraph, the cry of English children raising money to buy fireworks on Guy Fawkes Day: “A penny for the Old Guy!” On that holiday, straw-filled effigies of the traitor Fawkes are burned. Together, the two images open the poem: “We are the hollow men / We are the stuffed men / Leaning together / Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!” (lines 1-4). They live in a land of death: “This is the dead land / This is cactus land” (lines 39-40), containing “This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms” (56, perhaps a reference to Judges 15:15-19). The poem ends with one of Eliot’s most quoted passages: “This is the way the world ends / This is the way the world ends / This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but a whimper” (lines 95-99, italics in the original).
Of course, most zombie literature is not interested in name-checking Tristan und Isolde or Shakespeare. While Eliot’s poems might be the uppermost echelon of living-dead lit, the teeming mass of it is resolutely pop-culture. Zombie literature, film, television, and video games form a burgeoning genre that extends into romantic comedy (“zom-rom-com”: “The Couple Who Slays Together Stays Together”) and classical-literature mashups (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies).
Indeed, fans of zombie-lit (and of Eliot) might object to his incorporation into the genre. Must not a zombie poem contain some specific difference to deserve the name “zombie,” perhaps contagion passed on through a bite? This objection is certainly fair, as far as it goes. Fair too is the post-colonial genealogy of zombie-culture, arising out of the conflict of Europeans with a rebellious mass of the dark and enslaved other in Haiti. But what these objections and genealogies miss—and why Eliot is useful for my purpose—is the degree to which Western culture in the early twentieth century already had an image of itself as zombified, apart from any racial conflict with the subaltern other.
This self-image comes through not just in Eliot but also in the more thoughtful of recent zombie artifacts. For example, the 1978 Dawn of the Dead film presents its four protagonists as taking refuge in the Monroeville Mall (the actual location of the film’s shooting). Barricaded from the revenants, the small group of the supposedly living indulges in a consumerist orgy, creating an epicurean paradise from the abandoned mall’s treasures. As Matthew Tan puts it, the film “blurs the mindless consumption of human flesh by the zombie with the mindless consumption of products in the mall.” The film pushes this point, as the protagonists’ protectiveness of their commodified domain leads them to do irrational and dangerous things. One character fights off other survivors who attempt to enter, while another almost loses his will to live. The film closes with the remaining two survivors departing by helicopter, as the mall is overtaken by zombies. Yet is it really a change from what came before, or merely more of the same?
Modernity’s monsters, as evoked by Stoker and Eliot, express quintessentially modern horrors. Is there no end to the fluidity of my self? Is there no eternity to my body beyond more of the same, its feeding and consuming? Is there any interior core to my person, or am I a walking stuffed effigy? These terrors can find no relief from scientific treatises on blood or even from the catharsis of a horror movie.
One of the horrors of the zombie apocalypse is its inevitability, given how easily zombies conquer. One bite, and a person is reduced to the basest instincts of mindless and destructive feeding: small wonder that many zombie works end on ambiguous or outright despairing notes, as the protagonist becomes the living dead. This new post-modern apocalyptic vision recasts the resurrection from the dead as a nightmarish scenario, in which we become the living dead. What hope can there be?
Yet, T. S. Eliot provides a glimpse of hope at the end of “The Waste Land.” In a few lines near the very end of the poem, London Bridge, that site of the zombie hordes of the Unreal City, returns in an ambiguous way. Eliot evokes a destruction that is perhaps a renewal providing relief: “London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down / Poi s’ascose nel foco che gli affina” (426-47). The line, Eliot’s later notes tell us, is from Dante’s Purgatorio: “Then he hid himself in the fire that refines him.”
Dante was an enormous influence on Eliot, even in his pre-conversion days when his poetry most meditated on the living dead. Eliot’s descent into the land of the dead and of monsters was in fact the occasion for a purgatorial return to the refining love of the Christian God. Modernity’s monstrosity is not past redemption: The life and selfhood it seeks can be found in the divine source of both. But waking up from a nightmare only happens when eyes open to the light, and the way down becomes the way up only when one turns around.
The hyacinths and refining fire of “The Waste Land” will become the refining and flaming roses (Dante again) of The Four Quartets: “If to be warmed, then I must freeze / And quake in frigid purgatorial fires / Of which the flame is roses, and the smoke is briars” (“East Coker,” lines 164-66). This, in turn, will become the beatific fiery rose of “Little Gidding”: “And all shall be well and / All manner of thing shall be well / When the tongues of flame are in-folded / Into the crowned knot of fire / And the fire and the rose are one” (lines 155-59).
The fire and water of the pre-modern vision of blood here return in Eliot’s baptismal purification, which also entails “The dripping blood our only drink, / The bloody flesh our only food / In spite of which we like to think / That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood—" (“East Coker,” lines 167-68). The hollow men of straw here find the bloody medicine for their insubstantiality. Modernity’s monstrosity has at least made the alternatives clear: a living death, or life beyond death.
 See Piero Camporesi, Juice of Life: The Symbolic and Magic Significance of Blood (New York: Continuum, 1995), 20 and 27-52.
 Ibid., 51-52.
 Nick Groom, The Vampire: A New History (New Haven, CT: Yale, 2018), 176.
 Bram Stoker, Dracula, in Frankenstein, Dracula, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (New York: Signet Classics, 1978), 126.
 Only Catholic sacraments and sacramentals completely repel the demonic undead in Dracula. Some authors have seen the novel as a pro-Catholic work, or at least promoting a syncretic Catholic-Protestant ecumenism; see the literature summarized in D. Bruno Starrs, “Keeping the Faith: Catholicism in Dracula and its Adaptations,” Journal of Dracula Studies 6 (2004), article 3.
 Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, vol. 2: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Minneapolis: Minnesota, 1987), 237.
 Voltaire, “Vampires,” in A Philosophical Dictionary, vi. 304–08, at 304, translating Questions sur L’Encyclopédie, distribuées en Forme de Dictionnaire, 2nd ed., 9 vols (London, 1772), ix. 129–35, quoted in Groom’s The Vampire, 86.
 Mark Neocleous, “The Political Economy of the Dead: Marx's Vampires,” History of Political Thought 24, no. 4 (Winter 2003): 668-684 at 673. Neocleous does not fully accept this reading of vampires, especially when it comes to Marx’s use of them.
 Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1 (New York: Penguin, 1976), 342.
 Susan Zieger treats the eugenic narratives of addiction in Dracula and other vampire tales in Inventing the Addict: Drugs, Race, and Sexuality in Nineteenth Century British and American Literature (Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press, 2008), 196-232.
 While zombies did not have as intense of a cultural moment as vampires did in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, they were not altogether absent. See the genealogy in Matthew John Paul Tan, Redeeming Flesh: The Way of the Cross with Zombie Jesus (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2016), 9-13, and, emphasizing the colonial and post-colonial history in Haiti, Sarah Juliet Lauro, The Transatlantic Zombie: Slavery, Rebellion, and Living Death (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2015).
 Terry Eagleton, Ideology of the Aesthetic (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), 201, quoted in V 157. See also Tan, Redeeming Flesh, 8-46.
 Quotations from T. S. Eliot’s poems will utilize line numbers in parenthetical references.
 “Empty and desolate is the sea,” from Wagner’s 1864 opera Tristan und Isolde (III, verse 24).
 See, e.g., Lauro, Transatlantic Zombie.
 Tan, Redeeming Flesh, 17.
 For this framework but with a different approach than mine, see John W. Morehead, “Zombie Walks, Zombie Jesus, and the Eschatology of Postmodern Flesh,” The Undead and Theology (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2012), 101-23.