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U Is for Undead

Frankenstein2b3002bx2b1741 What does it mean to be undead? That you’re dead? That you’re alive?

Both at once, of course — and for horror movie viewers, that’s an extremely attractive way to be.

For the undead themselves, though, that feeling isn’t always shared. The original dead-yet-alive monsters are Dracula (who never entirely died) and Frankenstein’s Monster (an assemblage of multiple dead people, sewn together and zapped back to life). Dracula is – foolishly or not – happy, even ecstatic, about being undead. But Frankenstein isn’t so sure it’s such a good thing. In fact, it doesn’t take him much time at all, once back in the world of the living, to become thoroughly miserable about his condition. And when Elsa Lanchester finally arrives to give the Monster a little company, she immediately becomes so unhappy with her own undead status that it throws the Monster back into a deeper funk than ever.

Zombies, typically, don’t feel one way or another about being undead, because they don’t have enough capacity for reflection on the matter. But when they do start to thinking on their condition – as they do in George Romero’s Day of the Dead – it turns out they’re not all that happy about it either.

How about ghosts? Again, they’re mostly unhappy about being dead-alive – though in their case the chief reason for their unhappiness tends to center around their unconsciousness. They don’t know who, what, or where they really are, and it’s that ignorance more than anything else that causes them torment. (See The Sixth Sense and The Others for the best semi-recent examples of Confused Ghost Syndrome.)

To be undead is to be between states – to be neither this nor that. And from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to Re-Animator, horror movies drive home the fact that this is no place you’d want to be.

So why, again, do we love to see depictions of this state so much? Why does the sight of a (supposedly) dead person’s eyes suddenly popping open deliver such a visceral and ancient thrill? Why are horror movie fans, un-sensible as it may be, fascinated with the undead to the point of jealousy?

I suspect we’ll arrive at the answer with the letter V.

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