What does liminal mean?

Charles Harold Davis - Outside the Village 1883

Liminal is all about the concepts of transition and shifting ambiguities, categorised by disorientation and a loss of belonging. You might be in a liminal space right now.

Key questions:

  1. Do you feel a sense of belonging?
  2. Are you uncomfortable? Anxious? Feel a sense of dread?
  3. Did you choose to be here?

If you answered ‘no’ to all of these, you’re probably not doing the liminal thing.

Liminality is all about between-ness. If you find yourself anxiously on the threshold of something, you may be in a liminal space.

If you’re on one side of a boundary, you could be in a liminal space. You might even be straddling it. Not just boundaries, either: borders, frontiers, no-man’s-land, the out-of-bounds area of the school playground.

Perhaps it’s dawn or dusk — on the border between night and day.

You’re crossing a river by bridge or by boat.

John Clayton Adams - The reed cutter's family
John Clayton Adams – The reed cutter’s family

You’re in some kind of transition. You’re between schools, between jobs, between friendships. You’re engaged to be married but haven’t set a date. You have a new partner but haven’t changed your socials status. Doubly liminal if you’re both sitting where land meets sea, contemplating ‘he loves me, he loves me not’ with a flower.

Young Dreams 1887 James Clarke Hook 1819-1907
Young Dreams 1887 James Clarke Hook 1819-1907

You’re waiting for what’s to come.

You’re where land meets water. Dark water. You don’t know what’s down there. You almost feel you’re a part of it.

Jules-Alexis Muenier - The Vagabonds 1896
Jules-Alexis Muenier — The Vagabonds 1896

You live on a docked house boat.

You’re climbing a fence. Or thinking about climbing a fence — in the preliminal phase of climbing a fence. You don’t know what’s in that thicket of trees on the other side.

Henry Towneley Green - A Sussex Glade
Henry Towneley Green – A Sussex Glade

You’re on the edge of a village, trees are getting thicker. You’re about to enter the forest… or your dark subconscious.

You live in outer suburbia, betwixt urban and rural worlds. Shaun Tan made a picture book compilation about that particular liminal space. “‘It opened into another room altogether… an impossible room somewhere between the others.”

by Shaun Tan

You live between cultures — one subculture at home, another at school.

You’re no longer a kid but haven’t yet launched as an adult. You have your learner’s permit but can’t yet drive on your own. You’ve outgrown the little chairs but you sit at the kids’ table over Christmas dinner.

You’re moving to a new house — a popular way to open a children’s book. Perhaps you live in a caravan park, and have this deep-seated feeling you’re living situation is something between permanent and temporary.

You’ve done something wrong, the community is throwing you out. You’re becoming an outcast. Your deputy principal is filling in the paperwork and you’re about to get expelled. You’re the black sheep of your family.

You’re not rich enough to afford a skiing holiday most of your friends are going on. But the poor kids think you’re rich.

You’re too beautiful to be human yet not quite a goddess. (Psyche had this same issue.)

You’re emigrating. This ship is your temporary home. (You’ve even brought your bird, with the birdcage functioning as symbol of a fully-contained house, in which you imagine you have all you could ever need.)

John Charles Dollman - The Immigrant's Ship
John Charles Dollman – The Immigrant’s Ship

You’re having a rough time lately, alternating between hope and hopelessness.

You’re trying to read something interesting, but your mind keeps wandering as the text makes you think of related and tangential things. Things that upset you a little, or a lot.

You’re pregnant with your first baby. People are treating you like a mother but you’re not a mother yet. You actually have no idea how that’s going to feel.

You’re walking through fog.

You’re on an international flight and you haven’t readjusted your circadian rhythms yet and lunch arrives at a weird time. Between time zones, you’re neither here nor there. Doubly liminal if the world below is about to collapse due to an eco-crisis, as in this Helen Simpson short story.

You’re in the bathroom, standing in front of a mirror. You’ll never be able to touch one half of that space between you and your mirror-self. It creeps you out. Perhaps you’re a character in a horror movie.

You’re somewhere between wake and sleep, between consciousness and unconsciousness, fantasy and reality, or slipping from consensus reality to non-consensus reality. (You’re losing your grip.)

You’re flying high in the sky, where Heaven meets Earth. Perhaps you’re An Enormous Man With Enormous Wings in a magical realist short story by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

You exist between the sacred realm and the profane (non-sacred). Tricksters exist here, as mythic projections of the magician archetype.

You’re transgender, gender fluid, in a quasi-romantic relationship, intersex, gender non-binary, queer, androgynous or somehow betwixt and between.

You’re a character in a portal fantasy, going through the portal (which is a liminal space).

RELATED WORDS

  • Liminoid — Another similar adjective to liminal. The liminoid has the characteristics of the liminal. But liminoid experiences are optional and don’t involve some kind of personal crisis. Graduation ceremony: liminal. Rock concert: liminoid.
  • Preliminal, liminal, postliminal — the stages of transition
  • Limen — a threshold below which a stimulus is not perceived or is not distinguished from another e.g. existing in the limen between X and Y
  • Double liminality — Purgatory is a liminal space in its own right, but many people don’t believe in it, making it doubly liminal.
  • Paracosmic realm — that space behind the big red curtain where you like to read. (Your name is Jane Eyre.)

WHY DO WE NEED THE WORD ‘LIMINAL’?

Why not just say ‘between’ or ‘border’ or any number of similar words plucked out of a thesaurus?

For starters, liminality contains layers, e.g. the doubly liminal concept of Purgatory. It’s hard to convey this layered-ness using other, more concrete words.

The painting below might depict a doubly liminal space — a train transports passengers from one side to another and it is also sunset.

John Osborn Brown - Belah Viaduct
John Osborn Brown – Belah Viaduct

Not everything that seems liminal is necessarily so. In a story, a beach may be depicted as a liminal space or, in contrast, it might be a place where the characters have fun and feel a sense of belonging. In that case, the beach is not being used in a liminal way.

Liminal space is special.

Liminality is all about ambiguity, discomfort, anxiety.

Liminal situations are fluid, malleable and multi-layered.

  1. Social hierarchies can reverse, as in a carnivalesque story.
  2. Something feels weird here, but it’s never seen, never named and never known. People wouldn’t believe you if you told them about it. This is the epitome of ‘liminal’.
  3. If you’re in a liminal space you’re basically facing a moral dilemma. Your circumstance allows you to question social constructs. Which world do you want to be a part of? Once you’re in that liminal space you can choose to progress or retract, to take hold of freedom or remain in a state of metaphorical slavery.
  4. In stories, this is the bit where the main character has a Self-revelation, or makes a moral decision.

FURTHER READING

liminal deity is a god or goddess in mythology who presides over thresholds, gates, or doorways; “a crosser of boundaries”, from Wikipedia

Header painting: Charles Harold Davis – Outside the Village 1883

Writing Without Backstory: In statu nascendi

Walter Langley - The New Arrival

In statu nascendi is a Latin phrase and means “in a state of being born”.

When a story begins in medias res (in the middle of things) and the character is given no backstory, we may say the character is presented to us in statu nascendi.

Modernist writers started this trend. You’ll see it in Katherine Mansfield’s short stories. A character’s backstory is kept right off the page. To the reader, it seems as if they have just been born. 

Even more significantly, it seems this way to the narrator, as well. All our impressions of this character come from these particular events in the limited time scale of this particular story, with no flash backs, no flash forwards, and with no commentary about how they got here, or how everything turned out 20 years later.

In statu nascendi characterisation is the preferred mode for the contemporary short story reader, who expects brevity and conciseness. This zero-backstory mode of characterisation is best explained if we look at what stories typically came before.

A good example is the fairy tale “Rapunzel”, as the Grimm brothers wrote it. Before the story gets to the story of Rapunzel herself, the reader is given numerous paragraphs of back story. Before we can understand Rapunzel as a character, storytellers of the 1700s and 1800s believed narratees would need to know all about the girl’s parents and how they met.

There’s a not-so-hidden ideology in stories that begin with a character’s ancestry: The importance of bloodline. Modern storytellers don’t necessarily believe a character’s bloodline says anything useful about them. A modern view: people are products of our environment. Paint the environment and you’ve painted a person.

There are other advantages to this form of characterisation.

ADVANTAGES TO WRITING WITHOUT BACKSTORY

  1. Brevity
  2. A mood of spontaneity
  3. If a character has little backstory, they become more universal. The character could be almost anyone, including you, the reader. 
  4. Backstory always slows down narrative drive. Leaving it out avoids that pitfall, opening an aperture for more imagery and symbolism. 

SEE HOW IT’S DONE IN THE LYRICAL SHORT STORY

Header painting: Walter Langley – The New Arrival

A Glossary Of Vampire Words

Jules Adler - Transfusion of Goat Blood 1892
40 daysSome vampires only live for 40 days. Others are immortal.
AristocracyVampires tend to be of the aristocracy, though every now and then you’ll find one from an uncouth/peasant background e.g. the vampire in “The Vampire” by Basil Tozer (1902).
BatsBats are the only mammals that can fly, but vampire bats are the only mammals that feed entirely on blood. sleep during the day in total darkness, suspended upside down from the roofs of caves. They typically gather in colonies of about 100 animals, but sometimes live in groups of 1,000 or more. The supernatural horror character clearly takes details from this animal. In some cases, vampire bats feature in the stories as bats e.g. “The Vampire Nemesis” by someone called Dolly (1905) is about a suicide victim reincarnated as a vampire bat. (It’s not a good story.)

Vampire bats are indirectly terrifying to human communities because they suck the blood out of precious horses and livestock.
Baudelaire, Charles-PierreA French poet who wrote a notorious book of poems called Flowers of Evil. These poems inspired many literary works for years after. They were flamboyant and depraved. He was ordered to remove six of the most offensive poems from his book. Two of these were about vampires: “The Vampire” and “Metamorphoses of the Vampire”.
BloodlustAn obsessive desire for blood (probably human)
Body partsSevered body parts are a horror trope, used equally in vampire horror. “The Blood Fetish” by Morley Roberts (1909) features a severed hand which takes on a life of its own, absorbing blood. “A Dead Finger” by S. Baring Gould is about a man haunted by an animated finger. He is attacked vampirically after the rest of the finger’s body materialises.
Body snatchingBody snatching is the secret removal of corpses from burial sites, though bodies usually weren’t dug up out of graves. In Britain, bodies used to be kept in mort houses until the ground warmed up and could be more easily dug up. (They had no back hoes back then.)

A common purpose of body snatching, especially in the 19th century, was to sell the corpses to medical schools.

This crime fed vampire mythology of the day and was clearly on everyone’s mind. People worried about their bodies being dug up could order an iron structure in the shape of a coffin. This was called a mortsafe. The family might also hire guards, though guards could be bribed.
Bram StokerStoker wrote Dracula as well as several other crappier stories. He was stage manager for famous Shakespearean actor Henry Irving in the 1870s.
Byronic vampireHe is tall and gaunt, bordering on emaciated. He has a pale, spectral face. His demoniac eyes show he understands sin and passion. Those eyes seem to penetrate into the heart of his victim. He can read her thoughts. He has a wide mouth with thin, cruel lips. The lips are a brilliant red because he’s been sucking blood. They curl back in anger to reveal long, sharp teeth. He wears funereal black. His long black coat flaps about him like bat wings. In other words, he is irresistible. He has a magnetic personality and is sexually fascinating. He approaches his victims as a lover rather than as a predator. He lulls her into a false sense of security.
CampSome vampires are camp, which basically means a preference for reversal and a preference for artifice over nature.
CannibalismVampires (and also zombies) are supernatural creatures with cannibalistic tendencies, though as Anne Rice’s vampire points out, at least vampires only take your blood (and, okay, maybe your ‘vitality’). They don’t butcher you dead for your meat and leather.
CarmillaConsidered the greatest vampire story prior to Bram Stoker’s Dracula. This novella was written by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, published 1871. Carmilla revolves around a beautiful female vampire’s attempts to seduce a frail young girl. It’s a lesbian love story. The vampire part only comes in at the end. Psychologically, the story was ahead of its time. (Historically there are very few gay vampire stories featuring two male characters.)
ChupacabraSpanish for ‘goat sucker’, a mythological creature which kills livestock. The legend went viral in the 1990s after hundreds of dead farm animals were found in Puerto Rico, drained of their blood. Chupacabra tales soon spread around the world. People think they’ve seen the chupacabra but they’re probably seeing mangy dogs or coyotes.
CloakModern vampires often wear normal clothes but last century vampires were associated with a cloak. That cloak with the high collar was a workaround by playwright Hamilton Dean whose stage adaptation of Dracula meant he had to create some way of making it looked like the count vanished into thin air in front of a live audience.
CryptobotanyLong before Day of the Triffids, carnivorous plants existed in
Gothic horror, including in vampire stories. This subgenre was pioneered by Phil Robinson who wrote “The Man Eating Tree” (1881). In “The Story of the Grey House” guests stay at a secluded country mansion but are strangled and drained of blood by a demoniacal creeper growing among the shrubbery. Another is “The Purple Terror” (1899) by Fred M. White.
CurseSome vampires became this way because of a supernatural curse. Others became vampires via a disease route, perhaps inherited. Sometimes they become a vampire because they’ve been bittern by another vampire (similar to an infectious disease).
DawnSome vampires must return to their graves at dawn.
DaylightNoserferatu was the first vampire to be killed by daylight.
Dead wizardsDead wizards are vampires.
Decadent MovementThis movement was an influential force in European literature in the late 1850s. Its heyday was the 1880s. Vampire stories escaped straight Gothicism but became more sadist. Horror stories of this movement are obsessed with death and corruption and exploring abnormalities of sexuality. If Victorian society considered something taboo, you could probably read all about it in Decadent horror. The Decadents were morally influenced by Sade. They were thematically influenced by Poe.
DiseaseIn some vampire stories they spread disease. Vampire mythology is itself sometimes an allegory for the spread of disease. Diseases spread by blood are especially prone to this treatment.
DraculaA classic novel by Bram Stoker, epitomal vampire story and a best seller since it was first published in 1897. Associates an undead lord with a harem of female vampires. Count Dracula is a homicidal lunatic and human bloodsucker. This is the story that systematised the rules for vampire stories. This book is out of copyright and can be read freely online.
EmbraceSometimes this verb is used to mean the process of transformation into a vampire.
Erotic symbolismIn the repressive Victorian era censorship and strict moral codes prevented authors from writing erotic vampires (as the Romantics had done previously) so writers had to rely on a complex set of symbols to convey the same ideas.
FangsBlood-sucking vampires need to somehow puncture the skin so often have fangs. Fangs are the sexiest kind of teeth. Sometimes those are retractable or extend when feeding. Less attractive vampires might have shark or rodent teeth, or teeth like the inside of a leech’s mouth. The vampires in Twilight don’t have fangs but their teeth are sharp and coated in venom.
Fatal ManThe Fatal Man is a male anti-hero archetype created by the founders of the Romantic school of literature.
Fatal WomanThe Fatal Woman is a female anti-hero archetype created by the founders of the Romantic school of literature. She is more of a stock character than her male counterpart, because she’s the female equivalent of the Byronic vampire. She is an insatiable nymphomaniac even after she’s dead. She can be described in absolutes: absolutely beautiful, absolutely perverse, absolutely seductive. She is the quintessence of glamour.

Like the male Byronic vampire her mouth is slightly too large. She loves the smell of rot. She inhales it like it’s an expensive perfume. She’ll have long red hair, either groomed in an irredescent coiffure or worn loose, in curls like snakes.

When she drops her mask she is revealed to have the hungry visage of a praying mantis.

Of all the Fatal Woman characters, the female vampire is the most deadly. After Baudelaire wrote his infamous vampire poems, the Fatal Woman dominated the scene. In one of the poems, the narrator imagines himself surrendering masochistically to the kisses of a fierce female vampire. The Fatal Woman dominated vampire stories until Bram Stoker came along.
Female vampiresAt first, female vampires were rare. But as vampires became sexualised female vampires became popular. (All female monsters are at some point sexualised because sexualising a female monster is one way to subdue her. It happened to sirens, witches and so on.)
Femme fataleThe female Byronic vampire is your classic femme fatale, but femmes fatales go back way further than that. Cruel, sensuous women who like to destroy their lovers can be found in the literature of Antiquity and the Renaissance. But it was the Decadents (and later the Symbolists) who made her into an established type. By 1900, the ‘vamp’ had become a cliche.
Fledglinga newly spawned vampire (a word from Anne Rice novels)
Free willUnlike zombies, modern vampires have free will. They get to choose whether they are good or evil, depending on their individual choices. Some vampires are able to achieve a mutually symbiotic relationship with regular humans.
Ghoulin vampire subculture, a ghoul is a servant under a vampire’s supernatural influence or control
GlamourThe female Byronic vampire is the quintessence of glamour.
Golden Age of Supernatural FictionBy the start of the 1910s the golden age of supernatural fiction was drawing to a close. This subgenre of fantasy had been going strong since 1887.

During this period: the first volumes of M. R. James’s ghost stories, Algernon Blackwood masterpieces like “The Wendigo”, Stoker’s Dracula, Arthur Machen’s “White People” and Henry James’s novella The Turn of the Screw.

This period has been hugely influential on later cosmic horror e.g. Lovecraft said he was influenced by James, Machen and Blackwood.
GothicAgainst what we might think, the vampire was almost entirely absent from fiction written in the high Gothic style. An exception is “Wake Not the Dead” by Johann Ludwig Tieck (c. 1800).
Grave robbingThe crime of stealing valuables which have been buried with the dead. This fed vampire mythology. Grave robbery is far more common than we might expect. Archeologists have been regularly disappointed to find historically significant graves which have been previously done over by robbers.
KnotsApparently, vampires are supposed to be able to unravel any knot they come across.
Horla, TheA short story by Guy de Maupassant about an invisible vampire (1887).
Incarnateembodied in human form, especially when it refers to a deity or spirit
InsectsVampires aren’t always human. “The Feather Pillow” by Horacio Quiroga (1907) is about a young woman whose blood is gradually sucked out of her body by a monstrous insect hiding in her pillow. “The Electric Vampire” by H. Power (1910) is about a mad scientist who creates a giant electrically charged insect who feeds vampirically on human blood.
JiangshiA Chinese vampire, also known as a Chinese hopping vampire or hopping zombie. It is a stiff corpse dressed in traditional clothing. It moves by hopping about with its arms outstretched. Unlike Dracula inspired vampires they can see their own reflections but are terrified of them.
La Morte AmoureuseThe most famous vampire tale of its era (published 1836) written by Theophile Gautier.
LeechMore animals than you think might suck on your blood, though the leech is one of the best known. And like vampires leeches have a ‘dual nature’ in relation to humans — enough leeches could kills us, but they’ve also been used medically. Today they are still used in many parts of the world to help heal wounds and restore circulation in blocked blood veins. Fleas, female mosquitoes, ticks and lice also consume blood from living beings — less commonly known is a bird known as the vampire finch. There’s also a vampire squid. Mosquitoes kill the most people worldwide but the candirú is perhaps the scariest. It swims up your urethra. Then there’s the lamprey. Lampreys latch onto a host with hook-like teeth and gulp down its blood as it swims. Fish don’t have arms and have no way of getting a lamprey off.
Life forceIn some stories, vampires drain life-force. Commonly this is by drinking blood, but they might take some other bodily fluid or by frightening victims to death.
Lord RuthvenThe prototypal vampire, based on a real-life nobleman Lord Byron, created by Dr. John William Polidori, 1819, in a story called The Vampyre. Polidori was Lord Byron’s secretary and traveling companion. Lord Byron was flamboyant. The fictional creation Lord Ruthven was considered shocking in its day because writers didn’t normally write noblemen as monsters.
Mental vampirismThis is a type of vampirism where the villain gets into a victim’s head and steals their ideas e.g. The House of the Vampire by George Sylvester Viereck (1907). This novel is probably a satirical dig at Oscar Wilde.
NaturalistIn the 1700 and 1800s vampire stories got the high Gothic treatment. But in the early 1900s, on the European Continent, Gothic stories were looking outdated. Vampire stories were getting a more naturalistic treatment. A good example of this shift is “A Vampire” by Luigi Capuana (Italy, 1907). This story doesn’t feel at all like a tale of terror — it is more like a case study.
NosferatuA 1922 German silent film, which first brought Count Dracula to the big screen. (It was followed in 1931 by another Dracula film, this time starring Béla Lugosi.
PallorVampires are often portrayed as pale in an unhealthy kind of way. But in European folktales vampires had dark or ruddy skin. Parodies of vampires can be any colour (lavender if you’re on Sesame Street, green if you’re Count Duckula). Ordinary to pale skin is more common. Stephenie Mayer came up with the invention of skin that sparkles under sunlight.
PlotA traditional Gothic thriller vampire plot goes like this: Guests stay overnight at an abbey, formerly the bedchamber of notorious X (e.g. a knight). They wake in the morning exhausted with red marks on their skin. The hero discovers a secret entrance to an underground burial vault containing the coffin of the undead X. “The Stone Chamber” (1899) is a good example of this.
PoeEdgar Allen Poe explored the darker side of the human psyche with his subtle vampire tales. Meanwhile, other vampire writers were relying heavily on Gothic effects which were becoming outdated (thanks to Poe).
PregnancyAs if pregnant people don’t have enough rules to worry about, if a vampire looks at you in your sixth month, the baby inside will turn into one as well.
Psychic vampirePsychic characters are common in vampire stories — either the vampires themselves or the detectives might have psychic abilities.
Psycho sexual vampirePsycho sexual stories are about the psychological aspects of sex. A Nazi sympathiser was one of the first writers to create the vampire as a symbol of the psycho sexual impulse (Hanns Heinz Ewers). Partly for this reason, his work isn’t very popular today. Check out Alraune (1911) if you’d like to go there. For a less confronting insight into this archetype, check out the character of Raoul Duquette from “Je ne parle pas francais” by Katherine Mansfield.
ReflectionIn many older stories, e.g. Dracula, vampires have no reflection (nor cast any shadow). This trait is still sometimes used by modern storytellers e.g. Being Human, The Lost Boys, Van Helsing, but perhaps more often in vampire parodies e.g. Sesame Street, Count Duckula. Traditionally, vampires are transparent. Light passes through them. (They’re related to the concept of a ghost.) Vampires can magically make themselves visible to humans, but this ability doesn’t extend to reflections.

In modern stories, the ancient trait can be modified for modern technology — the vampire does not appear on film.
RomanticsThe Romantics were interested in the connection between love and death, and the way pain is sometimes linked with pleasure. They portrayed the vampire as an irresistible seducer. The vampire personified darkness and forbidden pleasures. He was a man and chose innocent young women as victims. He takes delight in corrupting them. He robbed them of their blood and their virtue.
Seed scatteringIf your vampire has to return to their grave before dawn, you can trap them above ground by scattering seeds. The vampire will feel compelled to count them and forget that the sun is coming up. This trait dropped out of fashion when vampires became sexy. This is not a very sexy thing to do.
SekhmetBlood sucking creatures exist in ancient myth. Sekhmet from Egyptian myth might one of earliest known vampires. She is a god with the face of a cat/lion who drank a lot of blood. In most depictions she is colored red. She was also a sun deity and had a dual nature — both good and bad. Apart from drinking blood she was also the goddess of healing. This is in line with much more modern vampiric creation in which a man doesn’t know if a femme fatale is going to seduce him or kill him.
Seventh sonSeventh sons are vampires.
ShapeshifterThe vampire is the ultimate shapeshifter. Versions of vampires are found in folklore from all over the world, making the vampire ‘the monster with 1000 faces’.
SilverSilver was traditionally seen as a ‘pure’ metal. Purity is abhorrent to supernatural creatures. Originally mirrors were made by laying a sheet of glass over silver. This perhaps accounts for why vampires are unable to magically make themselves visible in mirrors, even though they do have the magical ability to appear to humans ‘in person’, despite the fact that light passes right through them.
SireIn common vampire usage, the sire is the the vampire who transforms another person into one of the undead
SoulVampires are members of the undead so they have no souls. Back in the day, it was thought that mirrors reflected souls. Creatures without souls can’t be reflected in a mirror, which may account for why vampires can’t see themselves in a mirror.
SubmissionDecadent vampire novels are full of effeminate, submissive male heroes who enjoy being the plaything of a cruel, dominant woman.
ToleranceChildren’s authors tend to use vampires in stories to promote tolerance towards people from other cultures, or anyone different from the norm.
Topographical vampireWhen the setting behaves like a human-shaped vampire, sucking the life out of the human characters in some way e.g. the “Forbidden Corner” in “The Transfer” (1912) or the nature spirit of a snow-clad mountain/river/forest e.g. “A Descent Into Egypt” (1914), both by Algernon Blackwood.
TransubstantiationThis is a Christian concept. Eucharistic elements become the body and blood of Christ while keeping only the appearances of bread and wine. Vampire lore uses this symbolism.
TransgressionVampire stories are transgressive. They are about pushing boundaries.
TransylvaniaVampires became associated with Transylvania because of Count Dracula. Vlad the Impaler (Stoker’s inspiration) was born in Sighisoara, a Transylvanian town. Today the region makes use of this association in its tourism. Visitors can visit Bran Castle, which is kind of ‘Dracular-y’ but doesn’t have any direct connection to the book.
TwilightTwilight is a young adult series of novels by Stephenie Meyer, later adapted for film. This series was the beginning of a new resurgence in vampire enthusiasts in the early 2000s. Commentators draw parallels between Twilight and Pride and Prejudice.
VampireThe word ‘vampire’ has French, Hungarian and Turkish origins, perhaps starting with Turkish ‘uber’, meaning ‘witch’. These days we associate the look and feel of a vampire with Count Dracula. Bram Stoker cemented the vampire’s details with his super popular book. But in earlier times, ‘vampire’ meant pretty much any form of non-ethereal (corporeal) undead. For instance, Balkan werewolves were considered a subcategory of vampire.
Vampire animeJapanese vampire animation as developed a large fan base among English speaking audiences. e.g. Vampire Hunter D (1985).
Vampire poetryThe first vampire literature was poetry e.g. A Vampyre of the Fens (beginning of the 1000s) then Le Morte D’Arthur in the 1400s. (A lot of literature got lost in between)
Vampire romanceA subgenre of romance which is about intimacy rather than a disconnection between human and nonhuman. Obsession by Lori Herter in 1991 was the first vampire novel to be marketed as a romance rather than shelved with horror or fantasy.
VitalityIf you go to the doctor today she’s unlikely to ask you about your vitality, though medicine does talk about ‘vital statistics’ and so on. ‘Vitality’ once meant ‘life spirit’, ‘energy’, ‘general health levels’. Vitality is the mysterious life force that separated the living from the dead. Vitality could be sucked out of you by a supernatural creature.

A malevolent elemental might become palpable after absorbing an invalid’s ‘vitality’ e.g. “The Story of the Moor Road”. The Light of the Eye (1897) by H. Chaytor is about a man whose eyes have the power to suck out other people’s vitality, so the magic isn’t necessarily blood related..
Vlad the ImpalerCinema vampires tend towards good-looking these days but ‘good-looking’ wasn’t always the aim. Here is Stoker’s original description of Count Dracula, which is based on the story of Vlad the Impaler: ‘His face was a strong—a very strong—aquiline, with high bridge of the thin nose and peculiarly arched nostrils; with lofty domed forehead, and hair growing scantily round the temples but profusely elsewhere. His eyebrows were very massive, almost meeting over the nose, and with bushy hair that seemed to curl in its own profusion. The mouth, so far as I could see it under the heavy moustache, was fixed and rather cruel-looking, with peculiarly sharp white teeth; these protruded over the lips, whose remarkable ruddiness showed astonishing vitality in a man of his years. For the rest, his ears were pale, and at the tops extremely pointed; the chin was broad and strong, and the cheeks firm though thin. The general effect was one of extraordinary pallor.’
VrykolakasThis is the undead vampire equivalent from Greek mythology. Drinking blood isn’t one of its main features. They don’t decay after death. If you ate the meat of a werewolf you might become a vampire. You wouldn’t have wanted to have red hair and grey eyes at this point in history either, because people would’ve assumed you were a vrykolakas. (In the West, red hair was more associated with witches.)
Weird Tales: The unique magazineWeird Tales was an American pulp magazine with higher than usual production values. The publication lasted 30 years from 1923. It was hugely influential and pioneered the development of the weird-fantasy story as a specialised form of popular fiction. It was the first all-fantasy magazine in the world. Vampires were a popular theme. The author most closely associated with Weird Tales was H. P. Lovecraft.

Header painting: Jules Adler – Transfusion of Goat Blood 1892

A Glossary of Zombie Words

Fight The Dead Fear The Living image from the zombie series The Walking Dead
1697The word ‘zombi’ first appeared in Le Zombi du grand Perou by Corneille Blessebois. A woman is tricked into thinking she’s an invisible spirit called a zombi. Back then, zombis were spirits or ghosts, not the walking dead as we know them today.
1726The word ‘zumbi’ appears with a meaning closer to how we use it today in A History of the Voyages and Travels of Capt. Nathaniel Uring. The word ‘zumbi’ refers to the apparition of the dead person, but they walk around and torment the living, much like contemporary zombies.
1819Robert Southey publishes History of Brazil, in which ‘zombi’ refers to the elected chief of the maroons in Pernambuco. Southey means the guy behaves like he doesn’t have any free will.
1838The word zombie first appeared in print in an American newspaper in a reprinted short story called “The Unknown Painter” in 1838.
1928The word zombie became mainstream in English after W. B. Seabrook published The Magic Island.
28 Days LaterDanny Boyle’s modern version of Romero’s films. But these zombies are neither bewitched nor reanimated dead. Instead, they’re infected with a virus known as ‘rage’. Docile humans transform into terrifying red-eyed shells of their former selves. The virus has a magical quality.
Astral zombiesAstral zombies are individuals who still walk among the living but have either sold their souls or had them stolen by a houngan. Astral zombies derive from Haitian folklore. But as you can probaly see, they also share similarities with Deal With The Devil stories. Young adult novel The Boy Who Couldn’t Die by William Sleator (2004) is an astral zombie story.
AutomatonSimilar to zombies in that they have no free will, but unlike zombies they didn’t start from a living being.
ApocalypseThere are many references in the Bible about the resurrection of saints and sinners in the end times. Zombies are thereby associated with apocalypse. Why We’re Obsessed With The Zombie Apocalypse from Live Science
BokorMany people who follow the voodoo religion today believe zombies are myths, but some believe zombies are people revived by a voodoo practitioner known as a bokor.
CannibalA cannibal eats other humans. Throughout human history, cannibalism has sometimes been acceptable practice, involving ceremonial consumption of flesh from diseased relatives or, more often, from captives of war.

Zombies are commonly cannibals and have a craving for human flesh.
BrainsThese days, zombies are commonly thought to eat brains. A lot of our modern conception of what zombies are like comes from George Romero’s film franchise, but Romero himself did not create zombies who ate brains (they ate living flesh in general).

The idea that zombies eat brains may come from an episode of The Simpsons Dial Z For Zombies. This is a spoof of Return of the Living Dead. A generation of kids saw this episode before they were old enough to see a real zombie film.
Comics Code AuthorityIn the 1930s and 1940s plenty of zombie tales appeared in pulp magazines like Weird Tales and Strange Tales.

In the 1950s, zombie tales alarmed child development experts. In America, their activism led to the formation of the Comics Code Authority. For the two decades after 1953, this authority prohibited ‘scenes dealing with, or instruments associated with walking dead, torture vampirism, ghouls, cannibalism, and werewolfism’ and this put some horror comics out of business. However, some comic publishers refused to abide by the rules and zombie stories continued to find an audience.
CryptA crypt is a stone chamber beneath the floor of a church or other building. It typically contains coffins, sarcophagi (coffins) or religious relics.
DecayZombie bodies are often decaying. This emphasises the horror of death itself.
DreadDread is anticipatory anxiety. The fear of encroaching zombies is as bad as actually facing them head on, if not worse. Hence, they often walk slowly, allowing more time for audience (and character) dread.
DraugarMalevolent corpses from the Norse sagas. These creatures take the offensive by attacking and eating anyone who invades their burial barrows. The wonderful gothic subject matter of these sagas became popular outside Scandinavia in the second half of the 1700s. Draug Asuidus and Thorolf Baegifot are examples.
Exhumeto dig out (something buried, especially a corpse) from the ground
EzekielThere aren’t exactly any zombies in the Bible, but there are many references to bodies being reanimated or resurrected. The book of Ezekiel describes a vision where Ezekiel is dropped in a boneyard and prophesies to the bones. The bones start to shake and become covered with muscle and flesh until they’re reanimated yet “there was no breath in them.”
Féile na MarbhIrish Feast of the Dead. On this night, spirits of the departed rise up, seeking the warmth of the fireside and communion with their living kind. Irish families are supposed to light a candle and leave it in the window, or leave an empty chair by the fire to guide wandering wraiths back home, where the wraiths will receive their blessing for the coming year.
Flat characterZombies in stories will always be flat characters because of their lack of free will. Their desires are basic (not tiered), they can’t make plans and they are indistinguishable from one another, or from any number of other horror monster creations which simply won’t quit. They don’t understand the wretchedness of their condition.
FrankensteinFrankenstein’s monster is a bit like a zombie because he has no free will but he is not made from a reanimated human or animal and therefore does not qualify as a zombie.
Free willTo qualify as a zombie, a creature must have no free will. Mummies and vampires are also renanimated corpses but are not zombies because they have free will. Zombies must be completely subordinate to the will of someone else or to some monomaniacal drive. The drive might be for human flesh, violence, revenge or perhaps resistance of the tyranny of entropy itself. Zombies are therefore a parody of slavery. (The other critieria is that a zombie must be reanimated from a human or animal.)
Golemin Jewish folklore, a golem is an image (typically made from clay or mud) brought to life by magic. Golem in the Bible and in Talmudic literature refers to an embryonic or incomplete substance. Golems are not zombies but instead corporeal beings created from other forms of matter. Zombies have to come from humans or animals to qualify as zombies.
GothicModern zombie stories are commonly set in the 1700s especially if they’re comic e.g. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. This was the century that invented the gothic novel. We think of Enlightenment and Regency England as a time of rigid, stable and elaborate social codes. Whether this is true or not, this era makes a good setting, ripe for disruption. Also, characters in powdered wigs contrast comically with decayed bodies wearing them.

I Walked with a Zombie (1943) owes a lot to Gothic stories from the 1800s, and is very loosely based on Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bornte. The story is set in the Caribbean. Also typically, the dark-skinned natives use voodoo for good (improved health and well-being) but the whites appropriate native practices for their own evil ends.
GrendelGrendel is a character in the poem Beowulf. HE and his mother exhibit some qualities of the modern zombie — they can’t speak, eat human flesh and just keep coming after the Danes for no reason. They are also strangely human. Metaphorically, they represent the Danes’ failings: pillaging vengeance and pride.
Grotesquecomically or repulsively ugly or distorted
Haitian RevolutionImportant to understand: In the late 1700s, enslaved Haitians successfully threw off their oppressors. There was a massive bloody struggle. The number of British and French soldiers was far higher but slaves still managed a revolution.

It was two decades after this revolution that the word ‘zombie’ first appeared in English. In 1819 a poet called Robert Southey used it as a metaphor for imperialism in the Americas, meaning that colonised people had been robbed of their free will.
HamletShakespeare may have made reference to zombies in Hamlet:

A mote it is to trouble the mind’s eye.
In the most high and palmy state of Rome
A little ere the mightiest Julius fell,
The graves stood tenantless and the sheeted dead
Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets
HounganZombies have Haitian roots. A houngan is a type of voodoo priest. If you want to take revenge on someone, you can pay this houngan to give your victim a deadly neurotoxin out of a pufferfish. This toxin convincingly simulates death. The victims’s family thinks they’re dead and buries them. However, the houngan digs them back up and revives them, sort of. This newly minted ‘zombie’ is kept ‘in thrall’ and used as a slave. The zombie is not properly fed – they must be kept in a malnourished state. In fact, feeding zombies salt or meat may be enough to rouse them from their stupor. At this point they’ll either kill their master, kill themselves or go running back to their grave.
When the houngan dies, the zombie person is meant to be free. But sometimes that just means jumping to their death.
Italian zombie filmZombie (1979) by Lucio Fulci is a typical example of the Italian zombie film – a category in its own right. Similar to serial killers in American slasher films, Italian zombie films are shot from the heterosexual male gaze, and the audience is expected to become complicit in feasting upon naked women, or preying on couples having sex. Laura Mulvey has said that the image of a naked young woman often juxtaposes against an image of a disgusting, decaying zombie. In the Italian zombie films this takes on a more literal layer – the zombie is shown to eat the naked woman’s body. These are women who receive abuse from both humans and zombies. The women exist to absorb violence.
Lunacythe state of being a lunatic; insanity (not in technical use). The word comes from ‘moonstruck’. It used to be thought that the moon causes madness.
MacabreThis word describes something disturbing because of its connection with death.
Male gazeIn early 20th century zombie films, time and again villains learn that to possess the woman’s mindless body is unsatisfying. (A guy called Dendle said that.) White Zombie is a classic example, and so is Plague.
Malevolenthaving or showing a wish to do evil to others. This is the zombie’s only desire.
Maraudto go about in search of things to steal or people to attack.
Marbh bheoIrish night walkers
Memento MoriThe zombie is quite literally a memento mori, and serves to remind us that if we think we can cheat death, we are only fooling ourselves.
Night of the Living Dead
MisogynyZombie stories are typically about keeping women in traditional subordinate position.

Does The Walking Dead Still Have A Woman Problem? (Season 3 update from Pajiba) See also: Walking Dead Writers — Don’t Ruin Carol, from Persephone Magazine. See also Thoughts On Andrea from My Friend Amy.
MummyMummies share the shambling gait of the zombie but are generally covered in bandages. Generally mummies aren’t considered zombies because they not entirely without their own will, or completely controlled by one basic drive.
Night of the Living DeadNight of the Living Dead by Romero (1968) is a watershed zombie film series. Romero took various aspects of earlier zombies and crystalised them into an iconic creature we recognise today — the slow, inarticulate, shambling, undead thing motivated only by a desire to eat human flesh. They have no master and are horribly persistent.

George Romero’s zombies are created by a vague technology run amok. We are never told what brings the recently dead back to life, but it’s thought to be radiation leaking to earth from a satellite. This was a typically Cold War fear, reminiscent of a whole lot of 1950s films in which radiation causes men to shrink and women to grow massive. In this film there is an indistinct boundary between monster and victim, and the audience questions how monsters are essentially different from humans. (Maybe not so different after all.)
OgreUnlike giants (more generally), ogres have a massive appetite. Zombies and ogres are therefore related.
OutcastOn the island of Haiti, it’s not unheard of for family members to actually see their dead alive, walking in a state of zombification. But no one wants to reclaim them. They are seen as irredeemably unclean and are now outcasts forever. They’re not figures of terror, though. They’re not capable of harming anyone. Instead, they are a creature hovering between life and death – it has no will to kill, or any will at all – and is simply a scary symbol of human bondage.
OutbreakIn stories, zombies often come about due to some sort of outbreak.

Robert Kirkman, creator of the immensely popular Walking Dead series, has said he will never reveal how the original zombie outbreak started or how the zombies infect through biting because that detail is “unimportant” to the story.
PowdersBokors have a tradition of using herbs, shells, fish, animal parts, bones and other objects to create concoctions including “zombie powders,” which contain tetrodotoxin, a deadly neurotoxin found in pufferfish and some other marine species.
RacismWhite film makers of the 20th century tended to appropriate from other cultures and centre white people and white people’s fears. The white male nature of zombie stories itself is a zombie that just won’t die.
The Walking Dead Has Become A White Patriarchy, so I have been going elsewhere for my zombie stories.
ReanimationZombies have two basic criteria: It must be the reanimated corpse or possessed living body of one person (or animal). (The other is it must have no free will.)
Ring of Salt
Robert SoutheyIn the early 1800s poet Robert Southey used the term ‘zombie’ as a metaphor for someone who has no will. This is how we tend to use zombie today.
Samhainn Irish culture, Samhain is a major Druidic festival marking the boundary between the living and the spirit world. This is the last festival of the harvest year, so pagan Ireland decreed that fruit and nuts (especially apples) would be eaten on the night of Samhain.
SlavesIn a Haitian community Zombies make excellent slaves because their memory and intellect is disabled by the toxin but the lower brain functions still work, allowing the body to move. Obviously, keeping someone as a zombie slave requires complicity from an entire community. Generally, no one in the community likes the victim so they don’t bother checking they’re actually properly dead before burying them. (Means of checking might include cutting off their head or driving a dagger through the heart.) Some people might want to intervene, but they’re afraid the same thing will happen to them.
SoulZombies don’t have souls.
SpiritsZombies appeared in literature as far back as 1697 and were described as spirits or ghosts, not cannibalistic fiends.
Survival of the FittestThis is a Darwinian term meaning harsh conditions weed out weaker members of a species. Survival of the Fittest a common theme among zombie narratives. Zombie narratives tend to have a resurgence after a big, scary world event such as the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War 2.
SymbolThe zombie is a malleable symbol. Storytellers can use zombies as they see fit. Zombies have been used to represent the horrors of slavery, white xenophobia, Cold War angst, the fear of death, apprehensions about consumer culture.

Zombie films are quite often about the specific anxieties of white men, and the perceived threat to the white male ability to control the sexuality of white women. Zombies Are All About The Heteronormative Power Struggle from Science 2.0

When zombies were about slavery, stories were concerned about how slavery transplanted to the USA something malignant, but for the masters more than the slaves. These stories were for white audiences terrified of voodoo. The House In The Magnolias (1932) and Song of the Slaves (1940) are two examples of that.
TetrodotoxinUsed carefully at sub-lethal doses, the tetrodotoxin combination may cause zombie-like symptoms such as difficulty walking, mental confusion and respiratory problems.
High doses of tetrodotoxin can lead to paralysis and coma. This could cause someone to appear dead and be buried alive – then later revived.
UndeadThe Ancient Greeks may have been the first civilisation terrorised by a fear of the undead. Archaeologists have unearthed many ancient graves which contained skeletons pinned down by rocks and other heavy objects, assumedly to prevent the dead bodies from reanimating.
VirusZombie outbreaks can be caused by a virus, which makes the story an allegory for our human fear of viruses. The Bestial Virus: The Infectious Origins of Werewolves, Zombies & Vampires from Discover Magazine
VoodooVoodoo (sometimes spelled vodou or vodun) is a religion based in West Africa and practiced throughout Haiti and the Caribbean, Brazil, the American South and other places with an African heritage.
Walking CorpseIn earlier English, corpse referred simply to ‘the body’. Only later did it refer to ‘the dead body’. Romeo’s zombies walk slowly, but Danny Boyle’s Zombies in 28 Days Later are really fast.
WeaknessIn any good zombie story, the zombies represent the Weakness of a society or community of people they come after. Zombie films are therefore allegories. In Night of the Living Dead, the zombies tape into anxieties of the late 1960s — the dehumanising violence of the Vietnam War, uneasy reactions to the Civil Rights movement and a human tendency to become as monstrous as any monster who attacks us. With each subsequent film, the allegory gets updated. The next film is about brain-dead consumerism and after that the sexism turns into feminism.
White ZombieThe first zombie film. Frankenstein and Dracula also appeared on film at this time (1932).

In early zombie films, villains learn that to possess a woman’s mindless body is unsatisfying. White Zombie started that.
W. B. SeabrookThe word zombie was used intermittently throughout the 1800s but wasn’t a well-known word until 1929, when W. B. Seabrook published a travelogue called The Magic Island. Seabrook was an American journalist and adventurer who traveled to Haiti and lived there with his family. (Um, he was also a cannibal.) Seabrook collected stories about zombies and voodoo and he even thought he saw a dead man resurrected once. Readers in the West were intrigued by these stories, especially Protestant readers, perhaps, because free will is held very dear to the Protestant’s heart – thought to be humanity’s main virtue.
ZeitgeistIn 28 Days Later, the virus called ‘rage’ is the Zeitgeist of the modern era, where everything is so impersonalised and moves so rapidly that everyone is consumed by fury and can do nothing about it.
ZombieAn Enlightenment zombie meant someone who has no free will, and could refer to a high-level administator.

Zombie can now mean that, but also a supernatural creature who has been renanimated from the dead and walks (or runs) around trying to eat the living, or infect them with a virus.

More recently, zombie describes a computer that’s been taken over by a remote host.

Zombies are generally stupid but recent zombies are able to learn quickly, sort of like artificial intelligence. This says something about our collective fear of computers taking over.

For years zombi was spelt without an ‘e’ at the end.
Zombie litA whole literary subgenre featuring zombies