Reading Lights

Late one night in Wisconsin—I had just come off the train from Champaign-Urbana—one of the students from Nashotah House was driving me to my spooky apartment on campus as part of his work-study job.  He mentioned what seemed an obscure topic to me, and I asked him why he liked it.  “Who can say,” he responded, “why they like anything?”  He had a point.  Work on Nightmares requires reading current studies of horror, and one that came out just before Halloween was Darryl Jones’ Sleeping with the Lights on: The Unsettling Story of Horror.  I don’t know why I like such things, but when the book was first announced I knew I’d need to read it, and soon.  It had to wait until the Warren books were finished, however.

This little gift book (with a novelty cover, even) contains quite a bit of insight.  In fact, while reading it I discerned that Jones had spotted something that I’d begun to write down independently.  Horror does that to people.  The book is divided up into chapters addressing different genres of monsters and analyzing why they have proven so popular with both horror authors and auteurs.  The discussion is lively and even witty at times, as befits a topic that most people really misunderstand.  I myself used to misunderstand it—I went through a terrible period of repudiating the things I liked when growing up (who could say why?).  I jettisoned my interest in the Gothic even as I visited ruined castles in the Scottish highlands, and thought that horror was something best left to the uneducated.

One of the realities of my own life—perhaps some of my readers will find it true as well—is that once you’ve been put through the mill once or twice your mind starts going back to childhood in what may be a vain effort to start all over again.  The likes of your youth come flooding back—this is why I began reacquiring Dark Shadows novels.  They aren’t fine literature, but they were one of the guilty pleasures with which I grew up.  As Jones notes, vampires are one of the most enduring of monsters.  He suggests that Bram Stoker’s Dracula was among the notably influential books of Victorian English literature.  As Jones points out, there are people who back away from him when he tells them he studies horror.  He also makes a clear case for its enduring connection with religion.  I might add as a coda here, that telling people you study religion often gets the same response as telling them you study horror.

The Nature of Evidence

Home alone on a Friday night, I turned to Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu. Not a typical horror film, this art house production is an updating and remaking of F. W. Murnau’s technically illegal 1922 adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It has been a few years since I’ve watched it, but the beauty of the cinematography kept coming back to me at unexpected times. Klaus Kinski is an unforgettable Count Dracula, hideous and compelling simultaneously. He draws pity and revulsion. When he’s not on camera you can’t wait for him to appear. There’s not much new in the story, of course, as it follows Murnau pretty closely, with some shots being nearly identical. One exception to this is the plague. Wherever Dracula appears the Black Death accompanies him. This leads to one of the most unusual twists of this retelling—the role of Dr. Van Helsing.

Instead of being the authority on vampires and leader of the attack, Van Helsing is here a reluctant rationalist who doesn’t accept superstition. He encourages the town elders to respond calmly to an outbreak of the plague. When Lucy Harker insists that Jonathan has been the victim of a vampire (which he has) the professor again urges caution. He insists that this must be approached scientifically, empirically. You don’t pull up wheat to see if it’s growing, he notes philosophically. Take time, trust science, and all will be well. Meanwhile the audience knows the reality of the vampire. There is a supernatural threat and it is moving fast. Lucy knows they must strike against Dracula before the vampire destroys the whole town. Despite the mounting number of deaths by plague, Van Helsing still clings to slow and steady evidence, only realizing after Lucy’s death that she had been right all along.

There’s quite a bit to unpack in this retelling after all. A female takes the lead. Lucy is the one determined to stop the vampire. She does so out of belief. Van Helsing rightly points out that this is a dangerous way to approach a problem. One ponders what might’ve happened had science been allowed to run its course. Van Helsing, if science be science, would’ve had to at last come to the same conclusion that Lucy had experientially. She’d read Jonathan’s diary and she had a late night conversation with Dracula where he did not appear in her mirror and did shy away from her crucifix. She too is evaluating evidence, only she has to allow for the reality of the supernatural. Since the story is old and the production artistic, this is no bloodbath horror spectacle. It is a thoughtful, almost quiet reflection on how we perceive reality. Even among the many vampire films it remains a thing of beauty.

Joban Vampires

Interview VampireThe first vampire novel I ever read, I remember correctly, was one of the Dark Shadows series written by Marilyn Ross. I don’t recall which one, since I had to buy my books from Goodwill or some such vender utilized by the poor. Now, I’m really a squeamish guy and the sight of blood bothers me. Barnabas Collins, however, was a compelling character—deeply conflicted and a reluctant vampire. The combination of his sadness and the setting in coastal Maine kept me looking for Dark Shadows books every time we went shopping. It surprised me, given all that, that I had such difficulty getting into Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire. I started reading it years ago (it was also a second-hand copy, and, interestingly, the color scheme of the cover nearly matched Dark Shadows novels) and some eighty pages in put it down only to forget about it. Starting from the beginning a few weeks ago, I gave it another try. Although Louis is a conflicted vampire, the pace is languid and it was almost as if the self-pity was overdone. I was determined this time, however, to see it through.

One of the recurring themes of the book, and I presume the Vampire Chronicles series, is that vampires are not evil because of the Devil. In fact, there is nothing Satanic about them. Blame tends to fall on God for their state. The more I thought about it, the more the theodicy of the vampire began to resemble that of Job. Like Job, death for a vampire takes a long time. There is much suffering along the way. Louis can love, in a measure, and can loath himself. He never really understands what it is to be a vampire. The other undead he meets help to define him, but he can’t get too close. His life is a kind of Hell without Satan.

Rice’s vampires don’t fear crucifixes or shun churches. In fact, Louis takes a priest as one of his victims, sacramentally near an altar in a church. Religious imagery and discussion abound in the book. It truly is a vampire theodicy. Perhaps, for its day, it was the next step in vampire evolution. Bram Stoker, while the most famous contributor to the modern vampire myth, didn’t corner the market on defining the undead. When Louis meets vampires of the old world, they are mindless, plodding killing machines that even other vampires avoid. Rice’s vampires feel, think, and yes, theologize. I feel strangely satisfied now that I’ve finally finished the Interview. It was a vampire at my bedside for so long that it feels like an accomplishment to have finally laid it to rest.

Summer of Frankenstein

Two centuries can make an enormous difference. Just two-hundred years ago Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo was merely one year in the past. North America and parts of Europe were experiencing “the year without a summer.” Perhaps due to that cool and rainy summer, when Mary Godwin and Percy Bysshe Shelley called on their friend Lord Byron, their thoughts turned to ghosts. According to the legend, together with Byron’s personal physician John Polidori, the friends spent a night writing scary stories. Polidori, although not widely remembered today, invented the vampire that would, in Bram Stoker’s hands, become the aristocratic Dracula, and eventually, with Anne Rice’s influence, Lestat, Louis, and Armand. Mary Godwin, soon to be Shelley, gave birth to perhaps the most successful of new monsters ever created—that of Victor Frankenstein’s construction. Many have claimed the monster’s pedigree to have been that of the golem, but Shelley’s creativity went beyond this forebear into the sympathetic misfit who, like all of us, never asked to be born. The two centuries since that summer have been haunted.

477px-Frankenstein's_monster_(Boris_Karloff)

Quite apart from the monster tale, Frankenstein is also about building that which we, in our hubris, can’t understand. Progress without forethought, as Epimetheus could never learn, housed immediate and very real dangers. The two centuries since Frankenstein have proven Mary Shelley a prophet. An early supporter of women’s equality, she profited from her novel, but never managed to thrive. Just six years later her famous future husband would die tragically in the Romantic genre of a shipwreck. Even with important friends, Mary found it difficult to capitalize on her success. The monster was real enough.

We’ve become accustomed to making things we can’t control. When’s the last time you were able to fix a car broken down by the road, apart from the occasional flat tire? Can you really stop your job from becoming completely different from what you signed up to do? What about when that bully wanders from the playground into the political field? Once you’ve figured out how to split an atom, you never forget. It may have been Napoleon still recently in the news, or the fact that 1816 failed to warm up like it was expected after the solstice. Perhaps it was the fact that Mary Godwin was a liberated woman in a world still utterly determined by men. We can’t know her intimate and ultimate reasons for creating a monster, but we do know that once the monster is unleashed we can never bind it again.

Teaching Vampires

VampireLecturesWhat do you get when you cross German literature, psychology, and the undead? The Vampire Lectures, of course. Laurence A. Rickels, one gets the feeling, must be one interesting guy in the classroom. When I was a student the thought that anyone would take vampires seriously enough to offer college credit to study them was, well, a foreign concept. We all know that there’s no such thing as vampires, or werewolves, or Frankenstein’s monsters, or mummies—wait, mummies are real, but just not animated. In the reigning cultural paradigm, if something’s not real, it’s a waste of time. The human psyche, however, disagrees. The fact is there’s an awful lot of mental baggage that the vampire addresses. So much so that the University of California at Santa Barbara can offer a twenty-six lecture course on the topic. The results are what we have in this unusual book.

Rickels has read widely in the literature of the undead. The vampire’s share of the material goes to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the novel that defined, in many ways, the modern concept of vampires. The lectures do cover earlier and later literary representations, but when movies began to be made, they started with Stoker. One of the most interesting aspects of the lectures is the utter breadth of movies Rickels addresses. Movies that I’d never heard anyone else mention, let alone analyze, are here, alongside the more famous examples. It becomes clear that vampires have been a favorite of film-makers as well as readers. Culturally they are omnipresent. One gets the impression that Rickels might have an inkling of why we have this fascination, although his analysis is often Freudian, he does come back to the concept of mourning. Vampires (who would’ve guessed?) mask our unresolved sense of loss.

The style of The Vampire Lectures reflects the kind of literary criticism that isn’t always easy to follow. The book has more puns per hour than any other academic title I’ve ever read. Perhaps such serious topics as loss, parental relationships, and sexuality require a good dose of humor to make them less overwhelming. Still, the puns show the shifting nature of the ground beneath your feet when you try to take a topic like this seriously. Not surprisingly, Rickels does spent some time reflecting on the religious nature of vampires. There’s no question that monsters trespass on—or maybe even arise from—sacred precincts. They also occupy similar mental spaces. Perhaps it’s no surprise that as the number of nones grows so do the fans of monsterdom. We need an outlet for our surfeit of fear and loss. Come to think of it, perhaps I need to take a class in this as well.

Once Bitten

TheologyOfDraculaOnce vampires sink their fangs into you, it’s hard to shake them. I’m referring to an intellectual connection here, instead of a physical one. M. Jess Peacock’s book on theological vampires spurred me to read Noël Montague-Étienne Rarignac’s The Theology of Dracula: Reading the Book of Stoker as Sacred Text. It has been on my “to read” list for some time, and since I finished re-reading Dracula recently, I felt the canonical text was still fresh enough in my mind to take on an analysis. I have to confess that even though I grew up as a religious kid, and I loved monsters, I had no idea that the two were connected. Strangely, religion tended to elicit a fearful response while monsters gave me a kind of comfort. Of course, I always supposed that was normal. Then I learned that mature adults didn’t talk about, or even think about, monsters. I had to try to find solace in religion instead. Rarignac clearly figured out, however, that Dracula was a sacred text long before I came along.

What exactly does it mean to treat a book as a sacred text? Before anyone gets any funny notions, I need to say that Rarignac is not suggesting vampirism is, or should be a religion. That hasn’t prevented other people from seeing it that way, but that’s not what this book is about. It is about Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Devoting the kind of attention to detail that is often reserved for biblical texts, The Theology of Dracula examines the many religious traditions (not all of them Christian) that lie behind the novel. Stoker drew on many “pagan” traditions, including those of ancient Egypt and of Nordic mythology. Clearly Dracula responds to Christian symbols pretty violently, but he isn’t a classic Catholic. In fact, he seems to shy from Catholicism while admitting that its symbols work.

Rarignac, however, suggests more than this. He suggests that Dracula was written intended to be a sacred text. Not a Bible—we already have one of those, thank you—but a text that has its own mythology and symbols. Dracula‘s characters are not always what they seem. Careful scrutiny reveals that they often have celestial connections that tie them to ancient mythologies long forgotten by most modern people. We read the book expecting it to be about a vampire. Well, clearly it is. But not only a vampire. There is a much larger story at work in Dracula, and Rarignac has done an admirable job tracing its Vorlage (if I may step into jargon for a moment) and its wider context in the world of literary creations that specialize in our nightmares. There is much at which to marvel in this little book. I’m not convinced that Stoker intended his book to be read this way, but it is nonetheless a richer experience for it. Rarignac gives a simple monster tale real teeth.

War in Heaven

Van_Helsing_poster

Van Helsing, about which I’ve posted before, is not a great film, but it is perhaps the closest that modern cinema has to offer for my childhood Saturday afternoon viewing. Vampires, werewolves, and Frankenstein’s monster all appear together in a ménage à trois that Universal would’ve been proud to own in the 1960s. With lines cribbed from some of the Universal originals, plus some less believable chatter from Steven Sommers, the campy film is unrelentingly in dialogue with religion and its monsters. Indeed, the plot revolves around the church’s plan to save humanity from monsters by the employment of the eponymous van Helsing. I’ve probably seen the movie half a dozen times, and I’m a bit embarrassed to admit the this is the first time I’ve stopped to wonder at why, unlike Bram Stoker’s van Helsing, the one in the movie is named “Gabriel.”

It should’ve been obvious at the first viewing, but this time I was watching the movie with the intention of parsing its theology. In medieval Roman Catholic angelology, there are seven archangels. Two of them (or three, depending on whose Bible you are reading) are named in Holy Writ. Gabriel is, of course, one of them. The movie also shifts Dracula from being son of a Wallachian nobleman to being the “son of the Devil” (clearly by adoption). The Devil’s gift of resurrection (with which the movie is rife) comes with the vampiristic curse. And the climax of the film has the leader of God’s army (“the left hand of God”), Gabriel, battling the son of Satan. This is none other than the war in Heaven of which the Bible speaks. The leader of the archangelic army is actually Michael, but having “Mike van Helsing” as your lead just doesn’t carry the gravitas of Gabriel.

The movie opens with Dracula claiming that science has triumphed over God, and yet the mythology of monsters prevails. Frankenstein’s creation is morally pure, being a loving child of science, and the church declares him anathema. Throughout the movie all the monsters claim to want is to live, to survive. In fact, they are already resurrected. The werewolves get the dog’s share of the theology, however. They are infected or cursed rather than reborn. The war in Heaven has come to earth as angels and demons battle for supremacy. In the end, it is the human family chosen by God that goes extinct. I’m not sure all the theology adds up at the end of the film, but again, that is the very nature of mythology. And a film that can bring back a careless Saturday afternoon really doesn’t need to make sense at all.

History Bites

historian-elizabeth-kostovaAfter reading a post I’d written about Dracula last year, a friend recommended that I look at Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian. This novel is very easy for a vampire fan to lose oneself in, taking a sweeping scope of the Balkans and western Turkey, and adding enticing bits of northern Europe as well. Although it is a novel, it is also a history lesson in international relations and in the costs that accompany clashing religious empires. Christendom and Ottoman powers frequently exchanged hostilities long before the Bush presidency, and it was in this milieu that Vlad Tepes, the Dracula of history, emerged. Interestingly, although vampires had been part of religious folklore since the earliest civilizations, it took Bram Stoker to make Dracula into one. It is difficult to believe that, with the household name-recognition of Vlad III’s epithet, Dracula would’ve likely remained one of history’s more gruesome footnotes without Stoker’s undead imagination. Vampires would’ve survived, I’m sure, but Dracula might not have come back to life.

Kostova does an excellent job of blending fact and fiction in an epic vampire hunt. She also takes the somewhat unusual step of making the historical Vlad her actual vampire. A defender of the Christian faith against the Turks and their Muslim ways, Dracula did earn a reputation for cruelty (and unusual punishments) during his lifetime. Kostova keeps him alive through a kind of scavenger-hunt through history as his decapitated body must be brought back together with his head, and then through the wilds of Transylvania, Wallachia, Bulgaria, and even into the cosmopolitan streets of Constantinople. This is an intellectual’s vampire story if ever there was one.

Although Dracula’s association with the vampire mythos began with Bram Stoker, his role as a symbol of religious conflict boasts much older roots. Indeed, conflict over what is the “one true faith” has been a bloody avocation of humanity since universal claims of salvation began to be made. The conflict continues, in a somewhat more civil guise, as science flexes its considerable muscles over the less empirical realm of religious belief. No matter which strand of religion one believes, if any, faith has a strange ability to set people seeking one another’s blood. The symbol of the vampire does not seem to be departing any time soon, for vampirism is part of human nature. We may never shed the physical blood of another, but we continue to participate in cultures where the strong impose their wills on the weak. And that is a scene darker than even the scariest tomb painted in The Historian.

Before Twilight

Despite the summer with its long, languid days, The Telegraph reported on vampires last week. In an article entitled “Polish archaeologists unearth ‘vampire grave,’” Matthew Day narrates how archaeologists have uncovered skeletons buried with their heads—decapitated, obviously—on their legs. This was apparently a not uncommon medieval practice for ensuring that suspected vampires stayed safely in their graves. Interestingly enough, Day comments that the practice mainly began after the Christianization of the pagan cultures that had preceded them. Even pagans, he suggests, ran the risk of being accused of vampirism, a broadly defined threat in the Middle Ages. Of course, the Twilight series had not been written then so that the safe, Mormon cast of vampire was unknown.

Vampires represented a couple of concepts terrifying to people before the scientific revolution: they were a source of draining an individual of some life essence, and they were the problematic undead. The decapitation, in Tim Burton-Sleepy Hollow style, was intended to prevent the vampire from being able to locate its head after death. Unable to find the business end of its vampiristic corpus, the undead might remain just plain dead. Of course, staking works, if the tales of the Highgate vampire, near whose grave I recently stayed while in London, are to be believed.

The belief in vampires, or at least fascination with them, has been very hard to shake. One of the earliest horror films made was Nosferatu, a rip-off of Bram Stoker’s Dracula that was nearly obliterated because of copyright violations. Nosferatu continues to be ranked among the scariest of horror movies, and the Werner Herzog’s 1979 remake is a classic in its own right. The Shadow of the Vampire was an even more recent movie about the filming of the F. W. Murnau original. Among the earliest of the Universal monster movies was Tod Browning’s Dracula, which forever identified the face of Bela Lugosi with the infamous Count. No matter how deeply we bury them, the vampires keep coming back to stalk our nights and nightmares. When future archaeologists uncover the detritus of our civilization, no doubt they will conclude that we too, in a secularized world, feared the undead.

Bela_lugosi_dracula

November’s Vampires

It may have been the year without a Halloween here in the northeast coastal region of the United States, but it looks like some of the spirit has persisted into November. My daughter was disappointed when, due to storm damage, our local borough cancelled Trick-or-Treating for this year. So I was intrigued when I spotted a news story yesterday discussing Prince Charles’ relationship to Vlad the Impaler, the historical Dracula of yore. (And a good Christian by his own reckoning.) I wondered about the timing of the story until I noticed the gothic script on Google’s search page and realized that yesterday was Bram Stoker’s 165th birthday. Well, it would have been, supposing that he has remained dead since 1912. Completely unrelated to this anniversary, I read Dracula again in September through October and realized just how religiously charged a story it is. The Church of Ireland, to which Stoker’s family belonged, was Anglican in name and identified with both Catholic and Protestant traditions. In Dracula the more Catholic side seems to predominate.

Prince Charles’ connection to Vlad Tepes suggests perhaps a deeper meaning. The short news clip I saw (I can’t recall which network it was on) noted that the connection is being promoted by Romanian tourist agencies. Nevertheless, Prince Charles appears in the material acknowledging his hereditary connection to Vlad III, and noting that Transylvania has much to teach us. (He goes on to explain that the people of Romania have a lot to teach other Europeans about sustainable practices.) I could not help but note the irony of a member of the royal family, however, inviting comparison with a character who came to be known as the drainer of other people’s blood. Taking that which by no rights belongs to them.

Perhaps it never occurs to those with great wealth that what they amass is absconded from others. In a world that holds to a social contract that values money—which is merely a symbol—for some to have excess means that others will have less than adequate amounts. I’ve always had trouble understanding such selfishness. Perhaps it was being raised in a Christian environment with siblings with whom I was expected to share. Maybe it was just a part of the sober assessment of the social injustice I began to notice when I was a teenager. Somehow I’ve never felt entitled to much, but I do wonder how others can justify taking more than they need while knowing that many others suffer from real want. It is a matter of degrees, I realize, and we all do it to some extent. I have never complained about taxes because I know that my eyes too may be blinded by the beguiling glitter of gold. When the very wealthy don’t pay taxes (not pointing any particular fingers here), they too, like Prince Charles, may claim to be true descendants of Dracula.

Just add vampire of choice

Psychotic Vampires

Over the past several months, and unrelated to the current vampire craze, I have re-watched some of the classic vampire movies: Dracula, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Nosferatu (both Murnau and Herzog), and even Shadow of the Vampire—a movie about making vampire movies. Although the prototype of the vampire goes far back in civilization, in some form back to even the earliest of civilizations, the modern rendition rests mostly on the imagination of Bram Stoker. I’ve been re-reading Dracula to recapture a sense of why this particular telling of the tale has become iconic. One suggestion that comes as I’m reading is that it presses the religious taboos of its Victorian era sensibilities. Indeed, Stoker consciously wrote religiously provocative elements into his story. Of course, in movie form the story is altered to fit the needs of both time and scope.

A character that transforms in these various films is Renfield, the lunatic. In Stoker’s original Renfield is the foil for Dracula himself, his devotion interpreted as insanity by the science of the day. At one point Dr. Seward, Van Helsing’s protege and the man in charge of Renfield, notes with clarion penetration, “for a strong man with homicidal and religious mania at once might be dangerous. The combination is a dreadful one.” Renfield is, as a servant of Dracula, complicit in both homicide and religious mania. He uses Christianesque language when referring to his master. In describing his devotion, Seward notes, “He thinks of the loaves and fishes even when he believes he is in a Real Presence.” To a generation raised without Bible, this confession makes little sense.

I have contended throughout this blog that religion and horror are intimate familiars. To understand the appeal of the vampire, one must explore the religious context. Surely the simple neck-biting and blood-sucking without religious underpinnings would soon grow tedious. It is the sense of mystery—most fully realized in religious thought—that brings the vampire to life in the imagination of a generation lacking traditional religion. Not to mix metaphors too intimately, but there is a dose of Melville to be mixed in as well. Renfield is the epitome of madness, blindly following where he believes he is called. But the reader knows how sadly mistaken he is. So it is that I return to Bram Stoker’s Dracula and in so doing find a form of true religion.

Dark Light

It took a few weeks and five states, but I finally got to see Dark Shadows. Although I’d seen the trailers, there was quite a bit over which I remained in the dark. After all, the television series ran daily for several years and the story of Barnabas Collins was never really resolved, to the best of my knowledge. Trying to fit all of that into a couple hours of cost-intensive Hollywood showmanship would be a tall order. I have come to trust the Burton-Depp collaboration, however, and I had read some time ago that Johnny Depp had wanted to be Barnabas Collins when he was growing up. It is difficult nevertheless to resurrect a vampire after some three-and-a-half decades of slumber. Speaking with some friends after the movie I discovered that I was not the only child discouraged from watching Dark Shadows after school as a child. But watch I did.

Barnabas Collins became a monster as the result of a curse. The series—which I remember principally as a series of impressions and images—and the movie make that clear. The man who has lost control of his own fate is a reluctant monster. An aristocrat who lives by draining the blood of the common folk. Despite the humor and carnality of the movie, social commentary is there. Sometimes buried in an iron coffin, and sometimes in a vintage VW bus from the early ‘70’s. It may not appear full blown on the big screen but it pulses through the veins nevertheless. Barnabas Collins is a reluctant and conflicted vampire, but he does kill others to survive.

Why would a kid raised in a religious setting be so drawn to a creature of evil? Perhaps it was because Barnabas was the ultimate penitent. He had to victimize others, but he always regretted doing so. Like any living (or undead) creature, his nature compels him to survive. He is sad about his lot in the world, but is helpless to change it. Like many children of the monster generation I was nourished by a long series of movies featuring impossible creatures, including vampires. The earliest vampire I knew, however, was Barnabas Collins. Although Bram Stoker had set the type nearly a century earlier, my measure of the vampire was the reluctant denizen of Collinwood. Although I read my Bible dutifully, and never missed church, I still found the plight of this lonely monster compelling. The movie may not live up to the standard of all Dark Shadows aficionados, but if it brings a subtlety of moral ambiguity to a generation of absurdly self-assured modern-day fundamentalist children, the curse of Barnabas Collins may really be a blessing in disguise.

Staking a Claim

Okay, I confess. When I learned my recent host in London lived in Highgate, my thoughts immediately went to the Highgate Vampire. I first learned about the Highgate Vampire from Matthew Beresford’s From Demons to Dracula: The Creation of the Modern Vampire Myth, a book that spoke to me at some inexplicable level. Claims had been made that an actual vampire roamed the north of London in the 1970‘s. My first thought was utter skepticism—one of the reasons that I was never afraid of vampires is that I knew they couldn’t possibly be real. The mythical world of a fundamentalist allows deity, devil, angels, and demons. No more, no less. The vampire, as a supernatural creature largely dreamed up by John William Polidori and Bram Stoker, was a literary monster only. As a doctoral student in Ancient Near Eastern religions, I learned that the prototype of the vampire went back to Sumer, the earliest civilization known. Still, I wasn’t worried. The Sumerians also believed in night hags and dragons and had no crucifixes to keep the beasts down. Then I learned about the Highgate Vampire.

I have just finished reading Sean Manchester’s most recent iteration of his account of slaying the Highgate Vampire. Manchester, a bishop in the Old Catholic Church and a descendant of Lord Byron—Polidori’s close associate—claims to have staked the vampire in the backyard of a haunted mansion in Hornsey. This transpired in 1973. There’s one born every minute, right? But then, there are the claims of physical evidence: exsanguinated foxes, photographs of rapidly decomposing corpses, the obvious ardor of Manchester’s personal account. The mental jarring was extreme—surely a priest would never fabricate such a tale? Surely the vampire is a fictional creature with no place in a rational world? Why did Manchester’s account resemble Jonathan Harker’s diary so much?

So, we were staying in Highgate, London. The first morning as the sun rose, I dragged my family to Highgate Cemetery. I hadn’t read Manchester’s account yet, and Beresford’s book was almost three years back in my memory. Looking through our pictures, there I found it—the tomb in which Manchester claims to have originally discovered the black coffin with the actual vampire inside. Whether fictional or not, I was in the presence of the vampire. The overcast sky, ivy coated tombstones, the jet-lag—all combined to provide the atmosphere for the impossible. I have no idea what really happened in London when I was a child in school, but I have learned that many adults will gladly drain off the very lifeblood of others in order to attain their own benefit. From the days of Sumer to the present, growing in number there have been vampires among us. Our lives are much more comfortable if we simply refuse to believe.

Fearsome Fish

It must be October. As I was looking up a word on Dictionary.com, I noted one of their “the hot word” features entitled, “Scientists discover a fish they name ‘dracula.’” The fish, which is native to the eastern part of Asia, was discovered in 2009 but is just now starting to draw attention. The name apparently derives from its fangs. Vampires, however, have their ancient origins in creatures that draw the life force from humans. In the ancient world the “life force” could take different forms: blood, breath, and even semen. Soon a whole array of life snatchers populated the ancient mind – incubi, succubae, Lilith, demons, and any of a number of other contenders for the human essence. The fear of being drained is a very ancient one indeed.

While in my adjunct office at Montclair yesterday I met a colleague. We discussed the visit of the exorcist to campus that I missed but he attended, and while discussing the mythology class we both teach he mentioned how vampire movies make use of mythic themes. I have been using this information from the beginning for my class, but I was fascinated that another part-time instructor would latch onto the same film motif as I did to illustrate modern myth. The vampire is such a part of our culture that people often forget its religious origins.

I attended a public performance of a two-man play at a local library this week. The play was a conversation between Edgar Allan Poe and Bram Stoker. Naturally, vampirism played a strong element in the single-act show. While Poe and Stoker were not contemporaries, they did both share an awareness of how religion tied in with the macabre. The Frank Ford Coppola movie Bram Stoker’s Dracula makes this connection explicit as an enraged Vlad Tepes stabs a cross in his chapel with his sword, starting a flow of blood that he greedily drinks.

Vlad Tepes on a good day

We’ve just crossed into mid-October and I already find myself surrounded with vampires. It is characteristic of religion to deal with our deepest anxieties, and the more we reflect on vampires the deeper we find they reside in the religious sensibilities of both fish and phantom.

Dark Night of the Ark

Vampires continue to be the rage of the age. My own interest began back in the days of Bram Stoker, Bela Lugosi, and Barnabas Collins. Stoker’s Dracula is one of the earliest novels I remember reading. Dark Shadows was a regular, gloomy fixture of 1960s daytime programming, and black-and-white vampire movies were often available on Saturday afternoons on commercial television. I have not kept pace with the current fetishism surrounding our toothy friends, but I did read Justin Cronin’s new novel, The Passage. I didn’t know the book featured New Age viral vampires, but they do make for a compelling story.

What particularly captured my attention in Cronin’s work, however, was the crossover between religious and monstrous themes. I have mentioned this connection previously, so I was glad to see confirmation that religion still features in monster stories. The religious element comes in the form of a virus developed by the military to create super-soldiers (a theme X-File affectionados might find familiar) that ultimately goes awry. The result is a girl who is part of a project named Noah; she lives the tremendous lifespan of the biblical hero without the debilitating effects of old age. She is also the ark by means of which humanity might survive the ordeal. The novel is apocalyptic and yet vaguely hopeful. It is also very difficult to lay aside for too many minutes at a time.

The tie-in of Noah and vampires is a novel one. The point of comparison is longevity – those who imbibe the blood of others do not age and wither as mere mortals do. Noah’s survival is a matter of grace (or science in the case of the novel). The last mortal to breech the two-and-a-quarter century mark (thank you, Terah), Noah is symbolic of those who stand out as examples of righteousness in a wicked world. It was refreshing to see the theme so creatively rendered by Cronin. The biblical flood is a kind of prepocalypse, a foreshadowing of what might recur if evil prevails. The Passage has left me strangely sentimental for both vampires and ark-builders alike.