One City

One City

Vampires, Zombies, Buddhism and the Undead

by Ellen Scordato

Pop culture thermometer: Cold. Deathly cold. Cold and dead is hot.
 Zombieland was the top-grossing movie this past weekend. 200px-Zombieland-poster.jpg.
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
was one of the near-moribund book publishing industry’s few runaway success stories last year. HBO’s True Blood and its star Anna Paquin are very hot topics around the water cooler and chat rooms. The beautiful adolescents of the Twilight books and movies, in their perpetual teen sex/death swoon, are everywhere from People magazine to the London Review of Books.


Wow, do we love the undead. Over the past two years, if not longer, pop
culture been full of animated corpse tales that are animating the bank
accounts of creative folk of all kinds, from movie studios to
publishers to gamemakers. What gives?

What does a curious Buddhist practitioner think about all this?

First off, fantasy is fun. As a voracious fiction reader and long-time
science fiction fan, I would not deny anyone their time in the creative
playground, either as maker or consumer. I don’t believe that art and
fantasy need to be controlled or censored for moralistic reasons, and I tend not to draw dire conclusions about the popularity of violent video games, or even the popularity of zombies and vampires.


it sure is interesting to think about.

Buddhism’s message that after birth, old age, sickness, and death are
inevitable is perhaps not so loud and clear to our ears anymore.

Jenny Turner, in that London Review of Books piece on Twilight,
make the very observant point that the great popularity of the Twilight
books–and, I would add, vampires in general–among middle-aged women
is not due so much to the lure of forbidden sex as the lure of eternal
youth. Vampires never become “cougars.” Vampires don’t have to eat.
Vampires never have to worry about buying wrinkle cream. Impossibly
thin and eternally unwrinkled — isn’t that pretty much ideal?


Death is such an attractant/repellent for us. On the one hand, Americans hate to deal with death, real death. Few of us see people actually die. Funerals are managed, corpses are hidden or made up like mannequins. Billions are made
and spent to erase even the appearance of age, the harbinger of our encroaching end. Age-defying plastic surgery, injectable fillers, teeth
whitening, nutraceuticals, human growth hormone, Viagra — every kind
of potion that could possibly stave off, if not the inevitable, at least the
appearance of the inevitable (age) is what our society spends its energy making, advertising, and consuming.

At the same time, what we also spend time imagining, visualizing, lavishing creativity on, making, advertising, and consuming is a bizarre fantasy death world in which the dead talk, walk, fall in love, make money, buy wonderful clothes (Twilight!), look fabulous and have hot sex (True Blood!), act goofy (Zombieland), and are, in fact, anything but dead. 


There is a story about the Buddha and a young mother who was impossibly distraught over the death of her infant son. She went from one person to another, crazy, asking if anyone had medicine to cure death. Finally, she asked the Buddha, who told her to find a home where no one knew anyone who had died. As she went from house to house, reality began to dawn on her, and she returned to the Buddha, and became a practitioner, cognizant of the truth.

The consensual hallucination that is our 20th c. world of stories–our TV, our novels, our video games, our movies– doesn’t include tales like that, does it? Somehow, no matter how horrifying and scary, our dead walk and talk and screw and look absolutely smashing.

Maybe that’s why I like Dexter better than True Blood. The dead on that show are dead. Anyone care to weigh in? 


Comments read comments(15)
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Marion Holland

posted October 5, 2009 at 4:16 pm

i totally agree.
I just wrote a bitchy name calling passive aggressive blog about it.
I think it is a bit of pornification of suffering. I was just reading
” True Blood” and never has so many people dying been so sexy,
and what is more distrubing pleasurable. I don’t want or expect my
death to be pleasurable. Rather I would like the freedom to fight to
the death.
I like Tarantino better too, for the same reasons. I am also sorry that in someways
Buffy lost the cultural battle.

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Marion Holland

posted October 5, 2009 at 4:18 pm

Here is the post.

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Jon Rubinstein

posted October 5, 2009 at 4:35 pm

While it may seem rare that film and tv deal with death honestly, it does happen. Impermanence is a pretty common theme in serious film and tv (and theater of course). And there’s so much we can learn even from a shallow, surface treatment of it. By watching a character die in a film, we become more aware of our own impending death, and the deaths of our loved ones. In turn, we become more aware of the need to treasure every precious moment we have with them.
As Thich Nhat Hanh said, “When we know that the person we love is impermanent, we will cherish our beloved all the more. Impermanence teaches us to respect and value every moment and all the precious things around us and inside of us.”
The obsession with vampire and zombie flicks probably has something to do with our categorical fear of death, and we could easily dismiss a vampire movie as a desperate wish. But with a little effort, we can also see within these films and shows the goodness that impermanence brings; Thich Nhat Hanh talks about how wonderful impermanence can be, how it allows a seed to grow into a tree, a child to grow up into an adult or how it assures us that a dictator will fall. True Blood may be popcorn, but there’s still something we can take away from it. We just need to note our desperate wish to live forever, to indulge our cravings, and to look fabulous, and these can give us a great starting point for meditation. Will any of these things really make us happy?
Anyway, I like Dexter better too. I have a business connection to the show, but I also like the fact that it teaches constantly. Dexter’s code is pretty specific, and he is very careful not to break it. He won’t kill just to kill; rarely has he killed someone who isn’t themselves a killer (i.e. Doakes in season 2) just to protect himself. But Dexter himself is forced to reckon with the karma he creates every day. He can’t just kill someone and move on, it makes the rest of his life a delicate balancing act. Not that different from someone who, perhaps, practices “wrong action” or “wrong livelihood,” damaging the environment or hurting others to make a living. Dexter teaches us that there’s no escape. As Lama Marut says, “The Karma Cam is Always On,” because we are the Karma Cam. We know when we’ve done wrong, even when we pretend it’s not so. And we can’t ever get away from it. Just like Dexter.
In some ways, that lesson also exists in popular vampire lit. To live from the blood of others causes one to have a tortured existence, constantly craving, punctuated by brief respites of relief which lead to more craving and suffering. How different is that from the need for more money for the sake of more money? “When I get x million dollars, I’ll finally be happy…, I’ll hurt others, forgo love and compassion, and I’ll believe there’s no other option.” How often does that work out? The difference for us is that for us, the road ultimately ends, and we usually don’t know when it’s coming.

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posted October 5, 2009 at 4:58 pm

Marion! thanks for that link.
And Jon, I’m very happy to know someone who works on Dexter. Very happy indeed. Let’s talk about the whole “new baby” story arc. . . .

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Have you received free good karma from zombies?

posted October 5, 2009 at 5:15 pm

If you did receive free good karma you might need to disclose it…

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Jack Daw

posted October 5, 2009 at 5:22 pm

Even within Buddhist circles, the inevitability of death is often glossed over with a insistance on the living of life. The insistance on living is fine but taken out of the context of eventual death and decay, it loses much (if not all) of it strength.
The fantasy of everlasting life is fine (Christianity is included in this statement). I enjoy a good yarn as much as the next person but I think, in the long run, it is simple escapism. Or at least has that potential.

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posted October 5, 2009 at 5:40 pm

@free good karma
I have received no monetary compensation from zombies for the this post.
The karmic implications are another matter.
The FTC can go suck eggs.
(folks, you gotta click on that link to follow this argument.)

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sol leibowitz

posted October 6, 2009 at 12:18 am

Coincidentally enough, Michael C. Hall, who plays Dexter, previously played an undertaker on SIX FEET UNDER whose family regularly talked to corpses, so once again death did not seem to be the final destination or accepted as “the end” but merely another step in one’s “life.”

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posted October 6, 2009 at 11:25 am

Thanks for this piece Ellen. I liked it a lot. I’m not sure it the whole eternal youth theory works for the tweens who are into Twilight but I definitely agree with it for the middle-agers.
I’m reminded of a summer spent in Ithaca, NY where His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s North American seat resides. Oddly enough it resides in a tiny house where imported monks teach on very traditional topics to small crowds.
At one point a class was being taught on the eight worldly dharmas. The monk, clearly new to teaching in the West said, “When you give into praise and blame you become like a zombie!” As he paused for effect I anticipated him saying something about how we go through life not appreciating things but constantly clinging to fixed emotions in a crazed way. Instead he said, “You know, a zombie! A dead person who comes back to life to eat brains!” He was very proud of the reference. It made no sense though.

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posted October 6, 2009 at 11:43 am

I think “Zombies” are another way for most humans to cling to the falseity that their life will never end….it is simply too much for some people to deal with the concept of death and the finality of it all.

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Jon Rubinstein

posted October 6, 2009 at 12:02 pm

I was reading Reggie Ray’s Indestructible Truth last night and it occurred to me that there’s a connection between zombies and hungry ghosts. I remember reading somewhere that HG’s have tiny little mouths and giant stomachs and they’re always… hungry… for food, sex, possessions, drugs, whatever. Not that different from zombies chasing brains. Also I am reminded of the beginning of that amazing film Shaun of the Dead where we think we’re watching zombies but we’re actually just watching people shuffling through life… So there are amazing parallels here, how we are all zombies shuffling through life, not aware of the beauty and possibility of the present moment, and how there are so many hungry ghosts in our presence, desperately craving all those things above. Hungry ghosts are in samsara, but their craving is much greater than the ordinary samsaric craving. Anyone out there know their Tibetan stuff that can comment on this? I am only a quarter of the way through RR’s book, my knowledge in this area is pretty limited.

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posted October 6, 2009 at 3:26 pm

28 days later – now that was an awesome variation on the zombie theme. The first half, at least.

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Anan E. Maus

posted October 6, 2009 at 5:40 pm

I think fascination with the supernatural is a subconscious recognition of the reality of the universe. That, we are, in fact a “supernatural” consciousness, masked as this limited human animal.
The Sufi saint Hazrat Inayat Khan described meeting a vampire cult in India. They all sat at a table and the vampire cult proceeded to eat cantaloupe without ever touching it…just making it vanish.
Supernatural powers do exist, whether they are called so or not.
Whether it was the Buddha stopped a charging elephant with a glance, Christ walking on water or the 8 yogic powers of the Hindu scriptures, these powers and forces are part of the cosmos.
All major religious paths teach avoidance of attachment to these things. But they do act as harbingers of the path. They help us look for “something else,” “something more.” And I think they help us dream of what is possible.
Before I began to meditate, while in somewhat decent shape, I was able to run a quarter mile in 70 seconds and do 5 pull ups. After meditating, I was able to run a quarter mile in 58 seconds (during a mile race) and do pull ups with two fingers of one hand.
I have directly experienced the kind of enhancement of mental and physical abilities that can occur from meditative practice. And, yes, of course, that is not the point of meditation.
The inner experiences of vision and the hope of the supreme spiritual experiences of Enlightenment are aided by experience with these powers.
They are part of our birthright. It is cute or fun to see them expressed as an interest in witches and vampires and such. But the actual reality of the supernatural is the taste of the true Infinity that we all are within.
By a touch of a bit of the occult, an entire new world of spirituality can open to us. It is a kind of “can opener” to a new realm. As long as we don’t get overly fascinated with the tool, and just use it for a higher spiritual purpose.

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christmas shopping

posted November 2, 2009 at 2:01 am

Thanks for sharing this information Allen. I like this article a lot. I am sure that the external youth theory works for the tweens who are into Twilight but i definiatly agree with it.

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Joram Arentved, 'J.A.'

posted March 30, 2012 at 6:59 pm

Dracula, per se, doesn’t scare me, so I see no idea, whatsoever that I can fail to exist
as whatever true optimist, forever to be. Despite whyever God & that money ideal e.g.
exists, mine own & good news is still a symbol & a repetition of my fact that I always feel against my disturbed one’s behavior being any case of mine, so I can find out & so on, greetings, a Dane, Stgo.,
Chile,, there to be continued.

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