In December of 1928, Southern novelist Ellen Glasgow explained the American South’s origin of gothic preoccupations. She said, “After the Civil War, pursued by the dark furies of Reconstruction, the mind of the South was afflicted with a bitter nostalgia. From this homesickness for the past flowered...a mournful literature of commemoration.” William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor are often looked to as the bastions of the Southern Gothic. Their work comprises a look at an historical moment that haunts their present as well as ours, as their work grapples with the complexities of identity and inclusion in history. The grotesqueries and “mournful” nature of their prose places them in the Southern Gothic genre, but their specific stories and anxieties permeate time and inundate present popular culture, at once creating a Southern Gothic that never ended, or, conversely, widening the genre so that contemporary American literature and entertainment is now overrun by those peculiar Southern concerns of Yoknapatwhpa County and Milledgeville, Georgia.
Since September 11, American pop culture has seen a steady rise of supernatural-centric movies and television with a heavy concentration in zombie and vampire fictions, and, more specifically, supernatural fiction set in the South. This paper will explore AMC’s The Walking Dead, HBO’s True Blood, and the CW’s Vampire Diaries in light of Faulkner and O’Connor and in a context of abjection, which Julia Kristeva describes as something that is exactly you and simultaneously your opposite. The monsters and characters of these shows manifest hyperbolic bastardizations (or cyclical ends) of the anxieties over history, identity, and abjection of Faulkner and O’Connor. To begin my examination, I will address a bit of the origin of the zombie and some history on the vampire as they exemplify an abject and Southern history.
The zombie began as zombi, a specifically African-American spirit that helped white people and others of African descent alike, originating from Haitian Voodoo practices in Haiti and New Orleans. Nonfiction travel-writer William Seabrook reported on these “real” zombies in the eighteenth century when he traveled to Haiti, testifying that they were created by and under the total control of witch doctors, and that they were used for cheap labor. After the abolition of slavery, the docile and mindless workers of Seabrook’s stories became attractive replacements for the slave labor lost to emancipation. Eventually, the zombie became the embodiment of a fear of retribution. In "New South, New Immigrants, New Women, New Zombies,” Ann Kordas points out that while the black zombie may seem like the true terror, it was in fact the white majority themselves, explaining, “the zombie master evoked fear not by making zombies of people of African descent but by using his ability to control these creatures to harm whites.” For example, the 1932 movie White Zombie, widely considered the first film featuring a zombie who acts like the zombie of contemporary understanding, inspired fear because of its name: evoking a zombie that is white, not black. As Becki A. Graham explains in “Post 9/11 Anxieties,” “the notion of a ‘white zombie’ was thus doubly monstrous: an undead being posing a threat to others in the environment and existing outside of the racial conventions established for such creatures.” Consequently, a zombie show in the American South evokes more than just horror; it also performs a regional history of racism.
The vampire is far less specific to the South, but classic images are seen in both canonical Gothic literature and contemporary Southern vampire television shows. Sheridan de LeFanu’s 1872 novella Carmilla embodies both the vampire and the doppelganger in its titular character. As the protagonist, Laura, and Carmilla grow closer and Laura has frequent dreams of her, the reader learns that Carmilla looks identical to an ancestor of Laura. As Laura realizes Carmilla is a vampire, it becomes apparent that she is that ancestor, and not simply a doppelganger. The true terror of the vampire is that it can pass for human, as Carmilla passes for an innocent woman for the majority of the novella. It is an immortal and abject entity that simultaneously acts as a historical reliquary.
Moving into the twentieth century, Michelle E. Moore discusses the vampire in direct relation to William Faulkner in her essay “The Unsleeping Cabal: Faulkner’s Fevered Vampires and the Other South.” She views the development of the vampire as a reaction to affliction, beginning with Bram Stoker’s Dracula. She suggests that the vampire is “a monster created to explain what happens when the body becomes consumed by disease and feverish nightmares…the vampire may also be seen as metaphor that explains a particular relationship of the past to the present and how the dead can come to consume the living, feasting on their blood and causing the living to languish and finally die.” She also explains the twentieth century’s specific attention to the vampire, that “beliefs and tales about vampires comprise an early-twentieth-century master narrative, a Foucauldian discursive apparatus that causes what Judith Halberstam has labeled ‘a disruption in form and content’ through which new discussions of inheritance and disease, violence and monstrosity, colonialism and sexuality take place. Vampires would not seem to have a place in the modern world, and their presence indicates the power of the past to contaminate contemporary modernity.”
The foundations of the Southern Gothic are found in Glasgow’s lost glorious past, as is the origination of the zombie in the South’s abject relationship to the legacy of slavery. Teresa Goddu begins her book Gothic America with an look at slavery in revolutionary America. She discusses slavery as an abjection of the dominant white community and that the gothic portrays slavery as the “unnamed foundation of American culture,” seeing it as an abject to the American object: the shameful other that Goddu reminds us, “must be repressed in order for a seamless national narrative to continue.” The South, and arguably the country, was built on slave labor, but slavery was such a scourge on the history of the South, that the facts are often glossed over in an attempt to, as Goddu says, preserve the “dream of the American innocence and the nightmare of American history.” Of course, the abject can never be expelled, and Goddu insists that “the gothic warns that America’s national narratives will remain haunted by history” precisely because we have tried in vain to repress them. Faulkner’s novel The Sound and the Fury takes place in once-was-rural Yoknapatwhpa County in Mississippi only a few decades into the twentieth century. It is haunted by that abject history of Civil War fallout and is an essentially American - not simply Southern - narrative. The characters are haunted by the legacy of the Civil War, and consequently the legacy of slavery as well, for “if the frontier represents America’s impure past and the middle and northern colonies its virtuous, industrious present, the South signifies America’s degenerate future.”
The Sound and the Fury is often discussed as a novel in which Faulkner looks towards the past with mournful longing. A more accurate statement, however, would be that the past haunts the characters as they become increasingly aware of their shifts and decay. The Compsons, once an apparently wealthy and well-known family, are depicted in the last stages of complete disarray: the patriarch is dead, the matriarch is an invalid, the children have all either died, run off, or are mentally handicapped, and the man of the house by novel’s end is bitter and vitriolic. Additionally, the family’s obsession with and different understandings of time create grotesque monsters mirrored in the vampires and zombies of current television. One of The Sound and the Fury’s narrators, Quentin Compson, for example, is preoccupied by time and that “glorious” past of his family and their problematic triumphant Civil War lore. Every contemporary event is compared to and haunted by an event in the past. He is haunted so completely, in fact, that he takes his own life in order to get closer to the time of the dead, to cease the forward movement away from that thing that won’t let him go, that thing that is entirely him but repulsive because it is incorporeal and thus not him. The past is his abject self.
Though in the novel he appears to have always been haunted, it is his own grotesque deformity that makes his death inevitable. Quentin’s obsession with the past is indicative of his stilted concept of time in a sense of absurd and meaningless, “profane time,” which Arthur Geffen defines in his critical essay, “Profane Time, Sacred Time, and Confederate Time in The Sound and the Fury” as “evanescent temporal duration which leads irremediably to death.” Profane time is the misconception that there exists in reality chronological temporal harmony. This understanding can only lead to death because it corrupts the mind as the victims are bound by expectations from a past that will never leave their consciousness and taunted by a future they feel is unattainable, unreachable. It is a relentless, merciless ghost that haunts Quentin, the Compsons, and the South, and as Quentin is fatally haunted by it, we see the South’s, and by extension, the nation’s fate to repeat the past as it so long attempted to repress it.
Under this lens of profane time, the zombies in The Walking Dead become Quentin’s contemporary fictional progression as they encounter the evolution of profane time as what Datta and Macdonald discuss in their essay "Time for Zombies” as “chronic time,” which never ceases but also remains static. The zombies are stuck in a stasis of being, of mindlessness that disintegrates their identity into nothing more than a timeless abjection of humanity. Though Quentin is haunted by an immaterial past, the zombies plague the tangible. As Datta and Macdonald note, “Crucially, zombies are ‘once-were-humans’ - human existence in the past tense,” and they are also, therefore, embodiments of fear of an inescapable past that weighs so heavy that it disintegrates the body and mind. They are us in the past, our possible outcomes and decay, as well as a monster who wants to eat our brains and make us one of them.
Moore makes an argument similar to that of profane and chronic time; however, in her interpretation, Quentin is vampire, not zombie. Moore’s analysis deals with Absalom! Absalom!, in which the same Quentin Compson of The Sound and the Fury learns of his family’s implications in the Civil War and in slavery itself. Using the theory that vampirism was not just a curse, but born of contagion, Moore illustrates Quentin’s vampire nature explicit in a feverish sickness, explaining that Quentin views his realization as a contamination. Since he is now aware of the problematic history of the region and just how implicit his family was in it, he immediately takes on the burdens of history on his conscience. Moore explains that “he thinks that ‘It was part of his twenty years' heritage of breathing the same air and hearing his father talk about the man’; and through exposure to the miasmal air, he is now 'a barracks filled with stubborn back looking ghosts still recovering, even forty-three years afterward, from the fever which had cured the disease.’” He takes in the contaminated past and becomes it, like a vampire is contaminated by an undead part of the past.
If Quentin’s historical trauma is representative of history’s power over the present, The Sound and the Fury’s first narrator, Benjy, works as a litmus test for trauma and decay. Benjy is a grown man with a child’s mind, and he experiences contemporary events simultaneously with memories, a view of reality that Geffen says “anchors him in a perpetual present” and inverse of profane time: “sacred time” or an awareness of time on a continuum, and one seen in many of Faulkner’s characters, who, to the “conventional” characters, appear mad. Benjy’s ramblings and inability to separate events is reminiscent of Darl’s theoretical preoccupations in As I Lay Dying. A character’s ability to see time on a continuum - that moments are fluid, and not stuck in space - gives them the ability to withstand any potential oppression that past may seem capable of. This alternate mode of perception - both physical and linguistic - characterizes as something monstrous for the rest of the family because of his volatile temperament. He needs constant supervision and will fly into a fit of tears at so much as the mention of a word that resembles his sister’s name, “Caddy.”
Faulkner places Benjy next to more conventional characters to expose how they confront or shirk a reality that is out of their control, a rhetoric seen in the human response to zombies in The Walking Dead. David Beisecker explains in "Nothing but Meat? Philosophical Zombies and their Cinematic Counterparts” that zombies “voice a fear and loathing of humanity as a whole that rivals any similar attitudes we might have towards a zombie horde. The outbreak has released the id in all of us, living and dead alike.”
In The Walking Dead, the characters must kill the once-were-human zombies and kill current humans as well. Roles people had before society fell apart become mere monikers, and decisions must be made based solely upon survival. Morality is a luxury, and only available when convenient. In fact, the rational human becomes the thing to fear. Though they are direct and abjective threats to literal human life and the more metaphysical sense of self, the zombies are predictable monsters, while the humans become the true, uncontrollable thing as the apocalypse releases the self-interested monster in us all. Viewers want to know what the characters will do under emotional duress, whether it is the literal collapse of society in a zombie apocalypse or the slow death of a falsely genuine Southern culture.
Twenty years after the publication of The Sound and the Fury, Flannery O’Connor builds upon the Compsons’ anxieties of temporality, liminality, and historical identity with specifically mid-century attention to materialism and commercialized identity. As Ralph C. Wood points out in Flannery O’Connor and the Christ-Haunted South, O’Connor “feared that the South would be homogenized into another bland, secular region - a country-wide Levittown...indistinguishable from all others.” O’Connor’s Wise Blood depicts this anxiety of homogeneity. In the novel, Hazel Motes settles in a town after serving in the military, and finds the bland town abhorrent. It is cultureless with nothing to call its own or mark it as Southern. The loss of regional articulation is O’Connor’s horror story, and one that developed into its own sub-genre, the Suburban Gothic, an expansion of the Southern Gothic as the country becomes that Levittown of O’Connor’s nightmares. A liminal space that much of the country now occupies, the suburbs are a post-apocalyptic expanse in their completely eradicated identity and constructed, artificial communities. The bereft town in Wise Blood is similar to the settings in the three shows I am discussing: the Vampire Diaries is on the edge of the South, in Virginia; True Blood in the liminal reality of the imaginary and isolated Bon Temps (like Yoknapatwpha County); and nearly all of The Walking Dead takes place on the road, not unlike Faulkner’s Bundren family of As I Lay Dying transporting their own living dead undead mother, Addie.
With the development and subsequent sprawl of the suburbs in the South, the identity and safety that people thought once went along with the historic communities of the South were replaced with the fear of the strangers we called neighbors. Discussing the Suburban Gothic, Bernice M. Murphy points out that, contrary to classic horror tales of the “other”’ in the Suburban Gothic, “it is one’s fellow suburbanites, family members and personal decisions which pose the most danger,” much like the human being - the true monster in the zombie apocalypse. And, as in the case of Wise Blood, the enemy is also the self. In Wise Blood, protagonist Hazel Motes’s nihilistic approach to religion creates grotesque monsters of consumerism. Motes loathes the tackiness and superficiality of his time and attempts to escape them through nihilism as he ventures to establish what he calls “The Church of God Without Christ.” In this attempt, he gets not one, but two, doppelgangers: the falsely blind preacher Asa Hawks and opportunistic street preacher Onnie Jay Holy’s false prophet. The false prophet is picked for his eerie resemblance to Motes, and through the novel, Motes becomes a double for Hawks, and he must destroy them both in order to exist, killing the prophet and driving Hawks away. Their respective destructions do not allow Motes to live, however, but merely to survive. By the novel’s end, the anxieties and outbursts he had over the ugliness of the people and the town are actualized in him physically. He doesn’t eat, he covers himself in barbed wire, and walks on rocks. He blinds himself with lye and is utterly secluded from the town, and thus his desire to escape a generic and poisoned consumerist life results in the complete erasure of his identity.
The doppelganger appears more literally in The Vampire Diaries, along with the fatal mutual necessity implicit in Hazel Motes’ fate. The heroine of the show, Elena Gilbert, is plagued by her doppelganger ancestor, Catherine. They are identical, and like in Carmilla, related. Elena and Catherine come from a long line of supernatural creatures, nicknamed the Patrova Dopplegangers. According to the vampire lore of the show, one of the “original” vampires is also part werewolf, and the blood (i.e. death) of the Patrova Doppelganger, when used in a ritual, will unlock his werewolf side and gives him the ability to make more “hybrids,” which the other vampires in the show, as well as the humans, do not want to happen. Her blood has a magical quality that the other vampires need, and thus she needs monstrous protection.
Almost identically, the heroine of True Blood, Sookie Stackhouse, has blood with magical properties to vampires as well. One major problem for the world of the show is the fact that vampire blood acts as a drug for humans, likened to the euphoria of ecstasy. For vampires, the same effect is felt when they drink fairy blood, with the added bonus of being able to walk in the sun without dying. Sookie Stackhouse is descended from fairies, and thus needs protection from her vampire protector and lovers, Bill Compton and Nordic Erik, as the other vampires of the world would otherwise ravage her. The abject and the subject join out of necessity and magnetism, and the present is dependent upon the past (its abject other) for its personality and culture, but is plagued by it for the very same reason. Elena is perhaps not destroyed (as of yet) because her abject is intact, whereas Motes has no abject by novel’s end. There is no balance.
Contemporary post-apocalyptic and supernatural fictions mutate Faulkner and O’Connor’s grotesque metaphors into actual monsters. The problems are no longer only specific to the South - the guilt of the Civil War, legacies of enslavement, loss of regional identity - but are now endemic to the entire country. These fictions are supernatural and fatalist because the fears are no longer locatable, no longer blamable. Beisecker reminds us of the zombie’s nature, that “zombies do not simply replace us…rather; they are whatever remains of us.” In her analysis of the post-9/11 rise in supernatural fictions, specifically zombie-centric, Becki A. Graham articulates what I assume many people have felt since that fateful day. The monster is a “meaning machine,” and post-9/11 America needed somewhere to locate its fears. Graham parallels language used for zombies and for terrorists, observing that the former are described as “completely devoid of emotion, rationality, or remorse, zombies’ sole ambition is to stalk and kill innocent victims, an apt allegory in a time in which mass media characterize terrorist in very similar terms.” What is perhaps most interesting about the post-9/11 parallel with the supernatural South is the fact that, as Graham points out, researchers “found that a significant portion of survey respondents (who lived outside the New York City Area) experienced 9/11-related posttraumatic stress.” Apparently highly localized terrorist acts - the twin towers, the pentagon, John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry - are crucibles for national grief. They are local, thus they are more relatable. Intense trauma permeates the entire population, and, consequently, a zombie outbreak that seems only to happen in the South, or a high concentration of anxiety Southern vampires, are echoes for national trauma. We localize our fears to understand them and fit them somewhere, but they are most definitely not only Southern. And, if the zombie reminds us of our own decay, the vampire haunts us with our past.
In the two most popular vampire television shows, True Blood and The Vampire Diaries, the anxieties of Faulkner’s Civil War-haunted psyche are and are not just as the living. If the zombie is like Benjy and Quentin, the vampire is sacred time and generational pressure. It looms and is entirely not human, but looks and sounds and feels familiar, like a memory. And like so often with memories, they can turn into parasites that will not leave the mind or the body, as the immortal vampire. In both True Blood and The Vampire Diaries, the vampires who existed during the Civil War are able to control and implant thoughts into the humans around them, resulting in everything from spontaneous sexual encounters to spontaneous and public suicides.
Whereas with Quentin the past intangibly plagued his mind, the vampire is plagued by its own past. In the beginning of True Blood, the vampire aptly named Bill Compton echoes the Compsons not just in name, but in his ability to nostalgically haunt and be haunted. In one of the first episodes of the first season, he is asked by the grandmother of the show’s heroine, Sookie Stackhouse, to speak at the “Descendents of the Glorious Dead” meeting. Quentin kills himself because he is haunted by family memories of the Civil War, and Vampire Bill cannot escape his own past, but instead brings it to the present.
The Vampire Diaries, originally a teen book series by L.J. Smith, is based in the fictional town of Mystic Falls, Virginia. Mystic Falls is an ancient community, dating back 1,000 years to the time of the “original vampires,” created by their witch mother to be able to protect themselves from their warring, werewolf neighbors. Fast-forward 800 years to the Mystic Falls of the antebellum United States, and the story of current-day Mystic Falls begins. The town is a hotbed of supernatural activity (not unlike Sunnydale in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, sans hell mouth as of yet), and thus the prestigious “Founders Council” is not just the elite founding families, but the self-appointed Vampire Slayers of the town, and continue to be so to present day. 200 years later, the plot centers on Founding Family member Elena Gilbert who falls in love with another founding family member, Steffen Salvatore, who, along with his brother, happen to be vampires and actually present during the founding of the town.
The show is rife with cheesy love triangles and teenage angst, but is also filled with the anxieties of Faulkner and O’Connor. All three of these characters were “turned” during the Civil War, and all by a woman they all had intense sexual relationships with. As such, both shows feature intense fallout from the Civil War, like Faulkner and O’Connor after him. However, whereas both Faulkner and O’Connor address and deal with race insomuch as they attempt to tackle the abject haunting of the South - Joe Christmas in Light in August, the presence of black America in O’Connor’s “The Artificial Nigger” - the new supernatural deals with race in a specifically different, sometimes absent, way. In The Vampire Diaires, the only African-American character is a witch, descended from a long line of witches in the area. Most notably, she is descended from the witch and “servant” of Catherine, Emily. The scenes that take place during the Civil War are conspicuously devoid of people of color, and while Emily could very well have been a maid or servant and not a slave to Catherine, the absence of confrontation presents a problematic conversation. The only other characters of color are apparently Asian and ancient vampires who are killed off during the second season. True Blood has more characters of color, though practically all of them are solidly human, if not dabbling in witchcraft. They thus have a different access and understanding of the supernatural monsters. They are seldom in relationships with them, and thus the trend of othering is inverted. Two of the central characters, cousins Tara Thornton and Lafayette Reynolds are both African American, strong-willed, and, obviously, have names connected with the land, however problematic they are. Tara addresses this problem directly in the first season, saying “isn't that funny, a black girl being named after a plantation? No I don't think it's funny at all. In fact it really pisses me off that my momma was either stupid or just plain mean.”
A semi-recent phenomenon present in The Vampire Diaries, True Blood, and most vampire fictions since the early 1990’s (perhaps starting with Anne Rice’s Interview With a Vampire), is the emergence of the sympathetic, even pitiable vampire. Stefen and his brother, Damen, along with True Blood’s Bill Compton, do not want to kill humans (all the time), but want to connect with them. Instead of merely being able to appear human, they want to be human. None of their stories are exactly the same, but their absolute desire to connect with humanity renders them as compassionate, doomed souls, not simply monsters. Whereas the vampires may have once been and still can be grotesque, horrifying, fatal threats, they also can be like that past that drove Quentin to suicide. Each of the vampires has a violent, murderous past that they have either entirely reformed from or have tempered. Each of them is haunted by their own immortality. They are profane time incarnate, as immortal beings must be. In the supernatural being, the polarity of sacred time and chronic time switches as the anxieties of contemporary culture shift as well.
Faulkner was concerned with the grand and unattainable past, O’Connor with the loss of identity as commercialism corrupted America. In both of these anxieties, obsession over time is exemplified in our discussion of profane and sacred time. Quentin’s fatal, profane time is embodied in the vampires as a past they can never escape as they bear witness to the creation of history - they also find simultaneous superficiality and nostalgia in human turbulence. The zombies, on the other hand, are both cursed and blessed with their understanding of time. It is tragic that they have no awareness of self, but at least they are not plagued by an overabundance of awareness of their own decay and unnatural ability to harm and destroy as the vampires are. In some ways, the zombie becomes the monster we would choose to become, just as Quentin chooses death over the oppression and generational pressure of the evil that has stained his image of his family and his dying home.
As we enter the twenty-first century, we are at a critical, angst-ridden crossroads. Our enemies can be anyone, our economy is in disarray, and the rapid expansion of technology and entertainment, however progressive, means that there is no critical “American” culture anymore. We have become homogenous in a lot of ways because we are so scattered. The only thing that seems to bring our culture to the middle is our fear.
In the finale of the second season of The Vampire Diaries, suitably named “As I Lay Dying,” one of the vampires, Caroline Forbes, uses images of the old South to understand her present in a scene when the characters are watching Gone With the Wind, comparing their trials to those of Scarlett, that “Atlanta has burned and yet in spite of everything, we persevered.” Caroline is a new vampire, turned in the present and doomed to be seventeen forever. She has a human past burdened with an undead, immortal future. Later in the same episode, Caroline tells her mother “it’s me,” attempting to get her mother to view her as her former self and not simply as a vampire, as a monster. She embodies the immediate present becoming an eternal past, and in that moment viewers see the anxieties themselves complete the cycle of haunting. We are haunted by a past we did not create but cannot change, and the past is linked to us as the remnants of its creators, and thus we are each other. Our history and our decay are exposed alongside these seemingly supernatural monsters, and their absurd and haunted presence demands a world that is continually ending as culture and its modes are continually revolutionized - a world that we must fill with monsters and apocalypses so that we are forced to change the rules and find a new order of understanding.
In the third season of The Walking Dead, one of the characters is killed. At times, the show can feel like a waiting game for who will be bitten next, who will be ripped apart by the horde, who will be shot by a friend because there isn’t enough space in the escape car. However, in the third season, when renegade Shane is killed, he turns into a zombie without being bitten. The group is put into a tailspin. They cannot avoid becoming those tragic, mindless stewards of chronic time. They cannot avoid the possibility of killing their own children because they have been turned. Everyone and anyone could be a zombie. This is a sentiment echoed in post-9/11 America - the 9/11 Commission blatantly states: “The enemy is among us, and could be your best friend.” With 9/11, our terror came home and was no longer just an "other," but an "other" in our backyard - the ultimate Suburban Gothic monster.
Our culture’s fears are manifestations of the gothic - specifically Southern and recently suburban - genre. It is not a new set of anxieties or even a new expression of them, but another step in the cycle of a haunted past. Zombies and vampires will fade and perhaps the more elegant metaphors of Faulkner and O’Connor will return, but the anxieties will be the same. The past haunts and is filled with our abjections that are distant enough to seem like grotesqueries. Sometimes they emerge as a zombie, stuck in a chronic and tragic time of unawareness of self, and sometimes they are an image of a man blinding himself with lye while trying to abandon God.
From guest contributor Christen Marina Thompson