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.

Vampires, Mummies and the Holy Ghost

One of the many quirky things I experienced in my teaching days at Nashotah House was the fascination of theological students with the (then current) Jimmy Buffett hit “Vampires, Mummies and the Holy Ghost.” Not really a Buffett fan (I must confess, however, to being strangely touched by “Margaritaville” although I’ve never had a margarita and I’ve never been to Mexico) I was nevertheless intrigued by this juxtaposition. One student confessed to being a vampire-novelist wannabe. The vampiristic connection with the Eucharist was kindergarten, but there was a more ancient tale hidden here.

With a career crashing down around me, I found myself habitually watching horror movies — something I hadn’t done since my own seminary days. One bleary-eyed morning it struck me how our nightmare-zone creatures are religious in origin. Vampires can be traced back to ancient Sumerian mythology. Mummies? Ancient Egyptian burial practice to preserve a body for the afterlife. Ghosts, apart from finding a feared spot in most cultures, are attested in the Hebrew Bible and even earlier. They are, of course, from the supernatural realm. Werewolves are a branch of the lunar worship tree, again an ancient form of religion. Even Frankenstein’s monster toys with the account of Adam’s creation, although Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley associated him with the Greek mythological figure of Prometheus. While Godzilla (apart from his apparently theophoric name) may fall outside this scheme, most of our nightmare creatures are ancient kin of the gods.

My favorite vampire

My favorite vampire

At a professional conference last year I found and purchased a book entitled Sacred Terror: Religion and Horror on the Silver Screen, by Douglas Cowan (Baylor, 2008). Given my renewed penchant for fright flicks, I was intrigued by Cowan’s contention that religion lies at the heart of horror. Indeed, one may think of them as fellow ventricles in the anatomy of fear. Perhaps ancient religionists were on to something when one of them penned “the Lord taketh pleasure in them that fear him” (Ps 147.11). Religion may be a response to fear, or to a world that for us has become natural and upon which we wish to project a human (or divine) face.