When people ask what my doctoral dissertation was on, I hesitate to tell them. The problem is that most dissertations are so obscure and so complex that by the time you have explained it, the listener’s eyes have glazed over and you realize that they have heard little of what you have said and understood even less.
Suffice it to say that my dissertation was about the World Wide Web in the 90s, and how mythology played a part on how we perceive it. Mythology is another one of those hot buttons for some people, especially when I talk about the Bible stories as “myths.” For most people, the term myth means something that didn’t happen, and Christians do believe that the stories in the Bible are true. But for those of us doing sociological research, a myth means much more than that. It means larger than life stories that have an impact on how we end up believing.
Action is based on belief. Belief is based on mythology. And mythology is based on stories. That’s why the Bible is so full of stories. What people don’t realize–especially those who have issues with some stories, such as stories with monsters–is that the story is not really about the monster. The same goes for stories with demons, vampires or zombies. Adolescents and young people are attracted to these stories for a very good reason. It’s because these monsters assume the role of overwhelming challenge. Monsters are crises and conflicts embodied. And when a young person is faced with growing up and confronting the world, it’s a lot easier to fantasize about confronting a very concrete monster than it is an insubstantial credit card bill or an F on an algebra test.
It’s the same with video games. Video games offer a concrete challenge, and an immediate reward. This is a lot easier for some people–specifically young men and boys–to face than the abstract.
Once again, a story about zombies is not about zombies. It’s about how people face the threat of zombies. The TV series got this right when they focused on developing relationships with the human characters in the story, then promptly started killing them off. Joss Whedon, in his many TV series and movies, does the same thing. We need to identify with the characters, living vicariously in their challenging lives. But if the challenge become manageable, then it’s time to kill someone off, just to get the story exciting again.
What it comes down to is that the monsters in zombie, vampire or demon stories could be interchangeable on a basic level. They all, after all, represent something else.
Take a look at your favorite monster story and see if you agree–or disagree–with what I’m saying. Then let me know.