Universals

It was on television that I met them.  The Universal monsters.  The entire run of films from Dracula to The Creature Walks among Us had been shot, printed, and screened before I was born.  In other words, I’m a late monster boomer.  By the time I was old enough to handle monster movies, they were on television and my early memories of them are tinged with the nostalgia that accompanies what seemed like better times, although each era is about equally difficult.  When I saw James L. Neibaur’s The Monster Movies of Universal Studios I knew I had to read it.  Neibaur goes through all the films in the series, chronologically, encapsulating the Draculas, Frankenstein’s monsters, mummies, invisible men and women, wolf-men, and the gill-man.  As I child I never watched them systematically, being subject to television schedules, among other things.

Not understanding studios or business, and certainly not copyright, I never understood why other favorites such as Jekyll and Hyde, the phantom of the opera, and various assorted ghosts and ghouls weren’t part of the collection.  Nevertheless, this study in discrete, brief chapters, treats the official canon reasonably well.  The line between religion and monsters is sometimes crossed in these movies, which gets at an underlying theme of my own interest—how horror and religion interact—but that’s not Neibaur’s purpose.  That dynamic is, however, the driving force behind my two most recent books.  A tie-in to the paranormal may also be found there.

As I dropped off some promotional material for Holy Horror at an area bookstore recently, the events manager revealed her interest in the paranormal.  In my mental schematic, it’s wedged in there between monsters—which are fictional—and religion, the antithesis of fiction for most people.  What do we do with ghosts and others that don’t fit into the neat lines of a theology that draw a stark line between the supernatural and human?  Universal’s monsters sometimes ran into problems with the Production Code for stepping over that line.  Of course, the Universal monsters are pretty tame in comparison with today’s fare.  Still, they were the monsters who showed, in many ways, what it was to be human.  Neibaur isn’t going for an in-depth analysis here, and his treatment is readily readable by anyone interested in revisiting the monsters of yesteryear.  Some of the descriptions reminded me of movies from my childhood that I’d forgotten.  It is pleasant to relive them for a few moments while the real monsters in the real world lurk not far from my door.

Frankly

Even in the 1960s, if I recall, Dracula and Frankenstein really weren’t that scary.  I mean this in the sense of the 1931 Universal movies that began the entire trend of “horror” films.  They were, nevertheless, monarchs among those of us who claim the sobriquet “monster boomers.”  (I’ve never considered myself as part of any generation, but there’s so many people that you’ve got to sort us somehow.)  Recently I talked my wife into watching/re-watching these two films with me.   The pacing makes it seem like everything in the 1930s was stuck in slow motion.  The frights are difficult to feel, given what we’ve seen in movies since then.  And they are both, it occurs upon reflection, movies in which religion is the norm against which we measure monsters.  God is assumed.

Dracula, of course, fears the crucifix.  His chosen home in England is a ruined abbey.  Although the source of his monstrosity is never discussed, he is intended to be an embodiment of evil, draining the life of innocents.  Renfield craves flies and spiders in order to ingest their life.  Christianity can’t tolerate such evil and Dracula must be staked (off screen).  Frankenstein’s monster is much more obviously theological.  Opening with a warning to the audience that the film may shock due not only to its frights, but also because of Henry’s desire to create life, the film has philosophical discussions between Henry and his associates, and ends with the moral dilemma of what to do with an evil created by human hands, yet clearly alive like other people.

Metaphorically speaking, these first two horror films set the stage for later developments in the genre.  It isn’t so much fear and startles that define the genre as it is a deep dread of offending the powers that be.  Childhood was so long ago that I can no longer recall just which movies I saw on Saturday afternoons, but these two were among them.  Even as I was beginning the spiritual journey that would assure my job was never far from the Bible, I recalled with fondness the frissons of watching Dracula and Frankenstein—and then the host of other Universal monsters such as The Wolf-Man, The Invisible Man, and The Creature from the Black Lagoon (the last being scary in the classical sense).  The world in which they operated was deeply religious, for even the gill-man was an implicit condemnation of evolution.  These monsters were informing a religious outlook that would last a lifetime.  Going back to Dracula and Frankenstein is like turning back to the first page of Genesis and beginning again.

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.

Theoretical Monsters

We’ve had a lot of rain lately. One rainy night over this past weekend I talked my wife into watching Dracula with me. It’s been a few years since I’ve seen this classic myself. Difficult to believe that it was ever scary. This is the film that launched the horror genre that has become such a major part of the entertainment industry. It has the right mood for a rainy night. Movies were paced much more slowly in the 1930s, and viewers are given ample time to drink in what’s happening. In some current day films the cross-cutting in action scenes is so rapid that I really have no idea what took place. Dracula is slow, stately even. Thinking back, I believe this was the first monster movie I ever saw, so it has a resonance with me. When Renfield balks at the huge spider web in Dracula’s castle, the vampire quotes from Leviticus—“the life is in the blood.” Monsters are religious creatures.

A year ago in January, with the help of two colleagues, I proposed a new unit for the American Academy of Religion annual meeting—Monsters and Monster Theory. After working on this proposal a couple of months (strictly off work time for me), the new unit was declined by the academy. We decided to try again. This year our exploratory session was approved. The idea had come to me when I noticed that papers on monsters and religion had been on the rise, but there was no central forum to discuss them. They were like zombies without a shepherd. Not being an academic, I couldn’t start the session by myself. Now the society agrees that we’re worth at least one meeting room and a couple of hours to see whether the topic might become a recurring one.

Some people, I’m well aware, find this combination odd. Religion, after all, is about sweetness and ethereal light. Being nice to one another. Things like that. Monsters, on the other hand, inhabit the dark. They’re creepy and unsettling. They’re also wonderful metaphors for so much of life. What some of my colleagues have come to realize, and the academy seems to be backing us up on this, is that if anyone can understand monsters, religion can. Psychology will continue to try. Literature will continue to create them. Scholars of religion, however, are those who would like to bring some order to a chaotic world. We study monsters to learn about what it means to be human. It has been raining quite a lot lately.

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.

A Lot of Salem

SalemsLotVampires may seem out of place late in December, but they never really go out of season. That will be my excuse, anyway, for writing about Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot, which I have just finished reading. Like many of King’s books, ‘Salem’s Lot takes a fair commitment of time to get through, and I actually started it back in November when it feels natural to have creepy thoughts. I suppose winter is more of a ghost season than a vampire season, but I have read what I have read. So, vampires.

The book is old enough now to have been a kind of prequel to the current vampire craze. Prior to picking up the tome, however, I didn’t know that it as a vampire story. I’m not sure it made as much of an impact as the shudder-inducing Twilight series (and that is a shudder of the most ironic kind). ‘Salem’s Lot is, after all, a fairly conventional vampire story—a Dracula reset in rural Maine. Instead of a Jonathan Harker we have a Ben Mears. Instead of Abraham van Helsing, we have Matt Burke. The plot is much the same, the end result is much the same. And vampires are banished by religious paraphernalia, as we’ve come to expect. For me the ultimate Maine vampire will always be Barnabas Collins (the kind fitting more the description of Jonathan Frith than Johnny Depp). Barlow, as a vampire, is entirely too self-serving. Barnabas is a deeply conflicted ghoul, a monster you can love. But not too much, because then we’d be left in the twilight. Mixing the vampire just right is tricky, and it seems that a soap opera was the place that got it right.

The movie Thirty Days of Night, based on the graphic novel, places vampires squarely in the middle of winter. In the thirty days of no sunshine in the Arctic Circle, the vampires of winter flood the town. Perhaps the idea relates to ‘Salem’s Lot for an entire town to come under siege. Or maybe not. When I read vampire stories I hope to come out transformed, I guess. Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian may have spoiled me in that regard. As with most King novels, however, ‘Salem’s Lot is artfully written and at least for the characters a new story with a small twist on the old ending. In at least one regard, it is true to life—although they learn that the church banishes vampires, nobody joins and they only pray as a last resort.

Fighting with Monsters

GothicThe Lady and Her Monsters reminded me of Gothic. A friend of mine in seminary showed me this “shocking” movie by Ken Russell just after it was released on VHS (I always was fond of ancient history). To my young eyes this was a challenging film, but it rated higher in moodiness than scariness. Roseanne Montillo’s book brought the movie to mind because, it turns out, several of the incidents in the movie were based on fact. Perhaps I need to take a step back because Gothic never made it big, and many may not realize that the movie is about the legendary night Mary Godwin (soon to be Shelley) came up with the idea for Frankenstein. In an early nineteenth-century walk of fame, Percy Shelley, Mary Godwin, Lord Byron, and John Polidori decided to write scary stories, as a kind of contest. Only two ever made it to print, Polidori’s The Vampyre, which inspired Bram Stoker’s Dracula many decades later, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The movie, with Ken Russell’s famous flamboyance, traced an unlikely story of the friends conjuring a ghost and then banishing it once again before the stormy night is over.

Ken Russell had the reputation for being obsessed with the church and sexuality. These interests are certainly well represented in Gothic, where Percy Shelley, famously an atheist and believer in the supernatural, struggles to make sense of it all. Polidori, Byron’s personal physician, is presented as a Catholic who admits, when each has to confess his or her deepest fears, that God terrifies him. The friends (perhaps in an unwitting prelude to a television series by that name) explore sexuality and the supernatural through the long night. Waking nightmares meet them at every turn. They even have a skull of “the black monk,” a character attested in all sincerity, at one time, at the most gothic seminary in the Wisconsin woods.

“He who fights with monsters,” Friedrich Nietzsche opined, “might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.” That which we worship is that which we fear. Certainly the Christianity of the Middle Ages had as much of Hell as of Heaven in it. Bursting out into the light of rationalism, it seems, did not banish the darkness after all. We still have many questions left unanswered, and many intelligent people have begun to question whether any one paradigm fits all of the evidence. I suspect not. Human experience goes in multiple directions at once. We have ladies, we have monsters, we have scientists, we have God. And on rainy nights we have movies that make us see that we have combined them all into a tale often repeated but never fully understood.

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.

Literate Monsters

Skin-ShowsLiterary criticism is not for the faint of heart. Biblical scholars long ago adopted the methodologies of literary criticism since it had become clear that an absolute meaning for any biblical text will always end up being a chimera. Many of us are versed in the techniques of structuralism, post-structuralism, deconstructionism, reader-response, post-colonialism, and any number of other means of parsing hidden truths from texts. Since it is October and monsters have a way of creeping into the psyche about now, I read Judith Halberstam’s Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters. Halberstam is using the word “technology” technically here, so this isn’t the easiest of texts to digest. Still, for those of us haunted by monsters this text does tap into one of the main connective tissue between monsters and religion: meaning. As Halberstam notes, the Gothic suffers from a surfeit of meaning. There is just too much meaning bursting out that we have no choice other than to analyze.

Beginning with Mary Wollstonecraft’s Frankenstein, and up through Bram Stoker’s Dracula into the modern horror film, Halberstam probes deeply into the layered meanings offered by the Gothic discourse. The monster is a transgressive creature, one with indistinct boundaries. I couldn’t help but to think how odd it is to suppose that we end at the limits of our bodies. The things that we do influence our environment, and we are capable (often through science) of a kind of spooky action at a distance (think of drones, HAARP, or fracking—I’m talking literally spooky here). As Halberstam points out more than once we don’t make monsters, monsters make us human.

Skin Shows is all about boundaries. Biological, psychological, sexual—we define ourselves by our boundaries. The monster is no respecter of such boundaries, forcing us to face our own definitions with a certain ambivalence. What do our monsters say about us? Do we really want to know? Monsters can be brutally honest. More honest, at times, than religions are willing to be. As views change over time, so do conceptions of the monster. Religions frequently attempt to hold out against inevitable change. Perhaps such stalwart bravado is admirable, at least until we experience a dark and stormy night of the soul. Here be monsters.

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.

Unholy Brides

Hollywood is seldom accused of being a religious venue. Indeed, carrying on from an earlier distrust of theater as idle entertainment, some Christian groups early on deemed movies as tools of the devil. (Some relaxed that harsh assessment when Cecil B. DeMille came on the scene and started offering biblically based epics.) Many directors and writers, to judge from recent vapid box office successes, consider action or titillation sufficient to draw in the dollars. Yet, movies have often proven to be an outlet for the intellect as well, with profound, intricate, and important themes unfolding against the silver screen. The movies we watch reveal much about who we are. A surprising number of them, despite early evangelical concerns, have decidedly religious themes or messages. My regular readers know of my confession to being one of the monster kid generation, and as an adult I re-watch those movies with senses attuned to their religiosity.

Last night, as I watched The Bride of Frankenstein, I was repeatedly reminded of the role religion plays throughout the film. From the opening lines of Lord Byron through to the monster’s moral judgment on humanity as he is about to pull the switch, religious language, symbols, and implications practically tumble over each other to get to the audience. The concept of life—the divine prerogative—being absconded by human scientists forms the skeleton of this story based on Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s original work. While Shelley can hardly be considered the poster-girl for religious scruples, her work, and its adaptation into this movie, bristle with the implications of usurping the divine. In the words of Dr. Pretorius, “To a new world of gods and monsters!”

The Bride of Frankenstein is not alone in this aspect of mixing religion and monstrosity. Hollywood of the 1930s was a money-hungry haven, but the classic monster tales that began to shape movie-watchers’ sensibilities often included religious themes. Dracula has his resurrection and aversion to crucifixes. The Mummy arises from ancient Egyptian ritual magic. The Wolfman suffers a gypsy curse. Frankenstein is the power of God incarnate. When the final reel is placed on the projector, we discover that God has rejected all these human attempts to ascend to the heavens. Hollywood gives us conventional religious endings. More recent and daring approaches have emerged, but seldom have they captured the American imagination like the creature features of the 1930s. The religious veneer may have been thicker in those days, but the underlying message could have chilled the blood of the finger-waving evangelists. Even the Bible, from the beginning, has its monsters.