Death Challenged

Long before the Walking Dead, and even before Twilight or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, people took the undead seriously. Now, I know ratings are important (they attract advertisers and their money, after all), but when the fear is reality the stakes are upped a bit. Two readers sent me a Guardian story this past week of Yorkshire villagers mutilating the dead. In the Middle Ages, that is—it’s perfectly safe to die in Yorkshire now. The story by Maev Kennedy describes how archaeologists have been studying deliberately defiled corpses, well, actually the bones from those corpses to be precise, to solve a centuries-old mystery. Their conclusion? Medieval folk really did fear the dead coming back from the grave.

Now, Easter’s just around the corner and resurrection’s on a lot of minds. Outside the context of the Bible, however, resurrection of the dead is one of the most ancient and persistent of human fears. Nobody’s quite sure why. Dreams and visions of the recently departed are extremely common. Belief in ghosts is ancient and fairly universal. The destruction of the bodies of people already dead is not. We treat our gathered ones with respect. To me it seems to come down to the puzzle of consciousness. Call it a soul if you like, but I have a feeling things would be getting rather crowded in here if too many distinct entities claimed this body as home. Mind, soul, spirit, psyche, consciousness. We don’t know what it is because it can’t be studied empirically. We know that something like it exists and opinions of what happens to it after death vary. The body, we can all agree, has a more prosaic end.

That’s what makes fear of the undead so fascinating. They are only bodies. Bodies without souls. Rather like leaders of the Republican Party. We fear them because when we look into their unblinking eyes we see no vestige of human warmth or sympathy. Those who walk among us and who don’t care about those of us not yet undead remain a perennial fear. In the case of the Yorkshire corpses these were people already buried. Putting them back in their graves seemed kind of pointless when they would only climb out again. We don’t know what it was like on the ground in the Middle Ages. History, however, has an ironic way of repeating itself. We’re entering a new age when I suspect we’ll want to make sure the remains of some remain well and truly gone once they’ve finally given up the ghost.

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.

Secular Oaths

“I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States,” so begins the story. With President Obama’s second inauguration so fresh in the public mind, an article in the Sunday New Jersey Star-Ledger raised the question of using Bibles for taking this secular oath. As A. James Rudin points out, not every president has laid a hand on the Bible to take the oath—John Quincy Adams preferred a law book to do the job. Rudin points out that commentators have started to question the practice of using any religious book for taking a vow for a government position. As I read this article I had to pause for a thought. It was the particular turn of phrase “the Bible, and by implication all other religious writings,” that stopped me at this brain crossing.

Washington's_Inauguration

Anyone who has taken time to study the phenomenon of religion seriously (admittedly not a large cohort) has stumbled upon the blue whale in the room: what exactly is religion? We all know, but nobody really knows. Many scientists equate religion with superstition and claim that we are evolving out of it, but we still seem preternaturally powerfully attached to it, if that’s the case. While religious writings have been around for ages, the idea of a sacred book seems to have its origins in the societal reception of the Bible. There are older religious books, but the Bible seems to have defined the category. What’s running rampant in my mind is where the line is drawn between a religious and a secular book. For some, it would seem, Fifty Shades of Grey, or Twilight would fall into that category. Some thinner, more glossy and heavily illustrated literature favored by teenaged boys might also qualify. What makes a book religious?

In current understanding, religion is a matter of belief. Not all religions insist on belief, but in the United States, in any case, it’s not properly religion without it. In our secular society belief is atomized into millions of varieties, even within the same religious family. Step outside the church, synagogue, or mosque, and the sheer varieties of religious experience would make even William James blush. “All other religious writings.” Those might include just about every pen stroke on paper (or electron on whatever it is that I’m typing this into). Those of us who venture to write know that at some level it is a sacred activity. I would swear it with my hand on my dissertation. (At graduation at Nashotah House students are hit on the head with a Bible. Perhaps this might be more appropriate to swearings in?) We lay our hands on that which is sacred, otherwise there’s no vow involved. Whether it be Bible, law book, or saucy literature, we pledge on it because all books are religious, regardless of definition.

Fanpire Club

FanpireIt has become an odd world indeed when thousands of people look to vampires for family values. Although I’ve not read any of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight books, I have been curious at the reception they have received. A literary agent said, a few years back at an event I attended, that publishers want vampires. There is no end in sight. Perhaps it is my inherent trust of scholars that led me to read Tanya Erzen’s Fanpire: The Twilight Saga and the Women Who Love It. Why would a religious studies scholar write about Twilight? Because Erzen realizes, as many scholars are beginning to that: 1. vampires are very religious monsters, and 2. many more people care about books like Meyer’s than they ever will about scholarly minutiae. I, for one, learned that I’ve missed out on a huge part of pop culture by insisting that my fictional reading must have at least an attempt at depth. Erzen ably points out that there may be truths beneath the surface even here.

When I first became aware of the Twilight books, I was surprised that no one seemed to be making the connection with Dark Shadows. I grew up with the subtle, sensitive vampire who was deeply conflicted. The books that serialized the television series were not profound either, but they evoked an angst that bespeaks a religious need deeply buried. Erzen is able to dig some of this out of Twilight as well. By interviewing fans for whom Twilight has become an ersatz religion, Erzen can show that even squeaky clean Mormon men can’t possibly live up to the vampire standard. The fantasy that has engrossed so many is an image of selfless love. As if Edward Cullen were a less chaste, and more undead Jesus. After all, he gives Bella eternal life and his love never grows cold. The values fit rather well with Latter-Day Saint theology, and provide a model for mortal family values.

More striking is Erzen’s revelation that fandom does not equate to feminism. The women who are empowered to love in unorthodox ways are very much controlled by their men-folk in Meyer’s universe. As Erzen points out repeatedly the ideal lover here is an obsessive stalker with a penchant for abuse (although mostly unintentional). Freedom for women comes at a cost. They may be offered the best in some fields, but even today women do not find equal representations in positions of power in our society. CEOs? Evening news anchors on major networks? Senators? Presidents? Our society is one that talks the talk of equality, but stumbles when it attempts the walk. Vampires cannot exist without victims. Even in the most “advanced” societies in our world, women must struggle in a hierarchy for which the architects, contractors, and supervisors are mostly men. Perhaps women find vampires so fascinating because it matches their experience of a society that takes far more from them than it is ever willing to give back.

Dark Shadows Indeed

Part of my childhood died today. Like millions of others, I have been eagerly anticipating Tim Burton’s new Dark Shadows movie to wash the treacle of Twilight from the vampire’s mouth. Barnabas Collins was the epitome of the conflicted gentleman vampire, fully aware of and repulsed by his curse. After school I would religiously sit in front of the black-and-white television and watch the waves crashing into the cliffs of Maine as the moody story began to unfold in daily episodes. So when I read this morning that Jonathan Frid had died, I knew the vampire had found peace at last. And I was sad.

Although I’ve read scholarly analyses of monster fascination, nothing sets me back to childhood so directly as my beloved monsters. I don’t know why I feel a thrill in my chest and my pulse quickens when monsters appear before me. Perhaps it is a child’s way of coming to grips with a world beyond his or her control, or perhaps it was my way of dealing with a broken family. Lacking a father figure in life, I was fascinated by the gentle care and predatory nature of Barnabas Collins. He really did care, but he still had to bite you in the neck to survive. To my pre-adolescent mind, Jonathan Frid was Barnabas Collins. When I grew old enough for gothic novellettes, I consumed the serialized Dark Shadows books by Marilyn Ross, no matter how predictable or trite. I was reading about my heritage.

I have no doubts that Johnny Depp will portray a believable Barnabas Collins next month. Jonathan Frid, it is said, was consulted and was often present on the set of the new movie as it was being filmed. His turn to portray the tortured ancestor of the Collins family had lapsed, but he was the original. What is the draw of the vampire if not life after death? And although Jonathan Frid is gone, next month I will stand in line to see the resurrection of the vampire on the large screen.

National Fear

Back in my full-time teaching days, the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting was an excuse to buy books. Not that we were flush with money, but the prices were so good (we’re talking academic books here) that they simply couldn’t be passed up. Those days are long gone. This year I limited myself to a single book: W. Scott Poole’s Monsters in America: Our Historical Obsession with the Hideous and the Haunting. I was not disappointed. Poole gives us a smart study with considerable insight into American culture. Not only that, but it also proved an excellent source of self-understanding. I had never come across the phrase “monster kids” for those of us born in the blue light of the television when the Universal monster movies were released for television viewing in the 1960s and 70s. Poole classifies himself in that camp, and it is clear that we share this “guilty pleasure.”

Categorizing our monsters into types that fit various aspects of the American self-image, we find our national phobias reflected in our fictional fears. Throughout the book the uneasy sense of uncertainty towards sexuality, science, and death, like the revenants described, keep arising from the ground. Although Poole is a historian, it very soon becomes clear that one of the main driving forces behind both identifying and challenging these monsters is religion. It is a view Poole shares with Douglas Cowan and Stephen Asma and other analysts who take seriously the origins of our fears. Monsters creep out of the same mental space as gods. That which is not real is no less scary for its non-existence.

Particularly insightful was Poole’s analysis of the subversive nature of monsters. They challenge convention, forcing a cultural catharsis. The notable exception, Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series, also has a religious rationale. Meyer, a conservative Mormon, effectively extracts the fangs of the vampire to make it a safe, if not Christian, monster. Monsters make establishment believers uncomfortable, for they remind us of the darkness that always follows the light. Humanity responds with efforts, religious and scientific, to banish the dark. But at the end of even the longest day, night will come. When it does, I would recommend curling up with Poole for an evening of cultural self-understanding. Followed by a bowl of popcorn and a movie from his filmography.

Jersey Vampires

Subscribers to the New Jersey Star-Ledger receive a periodic local-interest magazine called Inside Jersey. Since I’m already inside Jersey and have too much to read as it is, I generally ignore the freebie unless a story catches my eye. Anyone who has followed this blog for long knows of my contention that what truly frightens us is related to religion, or lack thereof, including fictional movie monsters such as vampires and werewolves. Despite the claims that such interests are juvenile and immature, this month’s Inside Jersey features a story reflecting just how serious such issues can be. When my wife showed me the cover, I knew it was blog-worthy.

VampireJ

There are vampires among us. Not Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee-type Draculas, but actual blood-imbibing vampires. Only those who have shunned bookstores like a crucifix will not be aware that the Twilight series of teen romances have dominated middle and high school female reading lists for the last few years. The vampires in this magazine story, however, are not conflicted teens, but conventional young adults. The story covers what religionists call a New Religious Movement, or NRM. It is a religion, growing in the larger New York City area (as well as in other parts of the country), where consenting adults don artificial fangs and sip blood from willing donors. According to the story these groups, which include professional people who join under pseudonyms, engage seriously in religious rituals not unlike traditional Christianity’s sacramental rites. Now before snatching up your holy water and fresh hawthorn stakes, consider for a moment that adherents to this sub-culture are actually exercising their religious freedom.

Older, established religions are often quick to judge newer religious rivals. The fact is, however, that every religion on the planet was once a new religion. Believers often attribute the origin of their species of religion to the divine: special revelation, enlightenment, or a growing-up of humanity. All other religions, therefore, must be false. The difficulty here is that there are no final arbiters who can stand outside human religious institutions to tell us which is the right one. Lessing’s three rings have reached mass production and still there is no Ragnarok so that one religion might brag “told you so” to all the others. While I’m no vampire — I’ve been a vegetarian for over a decade — I have to accept the claims of those who are that this is their religion. The article ends with a revealing quote from a member of a local Court, so I give the final say to an actual interview with a vampire: “So many people think being into a certain lifestyle, you cut yourself off from the divine. It’s quite the contrary. To me, when you become more attuned to yourself, who you are uniquely, it brings you closer to God.”