The dead used to be a world away, far beyond the realm of mortal existence. If they walked the Earth at all, they inhabited the night.
But the coffins and long black capes are gone. The destructive haunting is over. And forget about menacing the living — these days, the dead are just like us.
Hollywood's dead, circa 2008, wear jeans, type obsessively on their BlackBerries and fret over relationship woes. They solve crimes, they give advice. Edward, the Volvo-driving vampire at the heart of the best-selling novel and soon-to-be-released film "Twilight," even slogs through the tedium of high-school biology class.
That's something Anne Rice's regal, imperious Vampire Lestat wouldn't be caught, well, dead doing.
Dead-but-still-talking characters are all over popular culture these days. From TV shows like "True Blood," "Pushing Daisies," "Desperate Housewives," "The Ghost Whisperer" and "Reaper" to movies like "Twilight," "Ghost Town," "Over Her Dead Body" and the film version of the novel "The Lovely Bones" (due out next year), the dead are getting a stunning amount of face time.
Yet Buffy the Vampire Slayer wouldn't have much work to do in the current climate. Like Edward and his "Twilight" kin, the vampires of HBO's "True Blood" avoid biting human necks. These guys sip synthetic blood, bought in six-packs at the convenience store.
The brooding vampire at the heart of the series isn't called Armand, Vladimir or even Angel. His name is Bill. And he's all about getting along with his mortal neighbors.
Across the pop culture landscape, we're seeing "an attempt to really start domesticating the notion of death," says Syracuse University television professor Robert Thompson. Science has answered many of our questions, he says, but "Hamlet's `undiscovered country' is just as undiscovered as it was when Hamlet first made that soliloquy."
Death as a gated suburb
So we're turning that scary place into a nice, gated suburb we can recognize.
On the Emmy-winning series "Pushing Daisies," the talkative dead seem irritated, rather than horrified, at having been murdered. Most are too wrapped up in their former lives to notice they're in a morgue. Even on generally Earth-bound "Grey's Anatomy," the late Denny Duquette still strolls the halls, looking healthier than he ever did while breathing.
Meanwhile, Mary Alice Young, the dead narrator of "Desperate Housewives," still watches over the luncheons and poker games of Wisteria Lane long after the mystery surrounding her death has been solved.
"I can't imagine doing an episode of DH without Mary Alice, Wisteria Lane's resident ghost," says executive producer Bob Daily, via e-mail. "Like a good friend, she's never judgmental about what her old neighbors are up to. Just a little... nosy, in an undead sort of way."
In times of anxiety, society has always turned to expressions of the occult. The golden age of horror movies coincided with the Great Depression. Our atomic-age fears and Communist worries were visible in the B-movie horror and sci-fi of the 1950s and early 1960s.
But the monsters and undead of those stories were otherworldly and unfamiliar. Dracula, even as recently as Gary Oldman's 1992 portrayal, never owned an iPod or sat in the high-school cafeteria.
So why are we so focused now on making the supernatural seem mundane?
Perhaps, says author Stewart O'Nan, it's because we're facing death on so many different fronts — climate change and natural disasters, multiple wars and terrorism, even our aging population.
We need now, more than ever, to make death seem as manageable as a trip to Home Depot. And on the CW series "Reaper," it is — the protagonist, Sam, sometimes wrangles escaped souls from hell at a DIY superstore.
The dead and the living hang out
In all of these stories, the dead get to stick around and have plenty of contact with the living.
"No one wants to leave and be gone forever," says O'Nan, whose 2003 novel "The Night Country" featured a group of dead teens still hanging out.
Charlaine Harris, author of the best-selling novels upon which "True Blood" is based, says it's about more than just fear. There's also been a blending of traditional fiction genres, with readers embracing stories that mix a dash of horror with, say, modern romance.
Joss Whedon's TV version of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" is widely credited with starting the crossover trend. "Buffy" attracted non-horror fans in droves, proving that high school drama and the undead can mix just fine.
The supernatural is also being used as a metaphor for touchy, down-to-earth subjects. In the "Twilight" story, says the film's director, Catherine Hardwicke, "It's almost like an interracial relationship between Edward and Bella."
In a reality TV-saturated world, perhaps it's no surprise that this is not just about fear — it's also about us. At a time when we're more focused on ourselves than ever, we seem to want everyone to be just like us — the celebrities, the politicians and now even the dead.
Of course, even in a familiar sort of afterlife, there are glitches. The temporarily undead of "Pushing Daisies" all seem to have been on "pause" — they've experienced nothing since the moment each was murdered.
Once Ned, the crime-solving pie maker, renders them dead again, we can only assume they're trapped forever in that nothingness. In the end, that may be the scariest death of all.