Strange Ending

Perhaps it’s from growing up as a biblical literalist, but I’ll probably always have problems with post-modernism.  You see, when you’re taught as a kid that there is one absolute right and you already know it (it’s Genesis to Revelation, no Apocrypha, please), you kind of get the idea that things are just what they seem.  Po-mo teaches, among other things, that there’s no true objectivity—reality is subjective and there is no neutral ground upon which to stand.  I’m down with that, but the old ways of looking at things remain.  This is a long-winded way of saying I finished Kohta Hirano’s ten-volume manga, Hellsing.  Over the past year I’ve been reading for a friend of mine, but manga has never really been my thing.  I read The Watchmen as a graphic novel, but looking at pictures somehow feels like cheating.  It’s that literalist thing again.

I might be dropping some spoilers here, so if you’re even slower than me be warned.  There’s quite a bit of shape-shifting here and it’s not always easy to tell who’s who.  In a kind of homage to my childhood monsters there’s vampires, werewolves, and even a Frankenstein’s monster in the series.  All of them are engaged in a constant state of combat against which the Protestant Hellsing organization stands for a stable civilization.  The Catholics are associated with Nazis along the way.  It’s a fascinating look at how an eastern culture might view the religious wars of those in the west who all go by the name “Christian.”  I think this is the genius of the series.  The friend who lent me the volumes has no declared faith, but he finds the dynamic fascinating.  Real religious fighting has made it easy for him.

The story, however, falls clearly into the generation of those without absolutes.  For someone my age a plot clearly laid out is a thing of beauty.  In college we used to argue about how absolutes might exist.  Where did they come from, and which is the strongest?  Did God make them or does God have to conform to them?  Even without the answers, the fact that absolutes existed was assumed.  Argument-driven science tells us that a theory is never proven.  Science is the best explanation we have at the moment, based on the evidence amassed.  In its own way, it has become post-modern.  Hellsing is a kind of mind-blowing work.  It will likely be a long time before I attempt another manga series.  Although I accept the po-mo premise, I still find old-fashioned fiction my favorite.

October’s Monsters

Blood and vampires go together like October and, well, vampires.  Although I don’t understand manga, I do know it’s extremely popular, and a friend has been lending me the volumes of Hellsing by Kouta Hirano.  In the past couple of weeks I’ve read numbers 4 and 5.  Hellsing sets up a world where the Catholic church destroys vampires, as does the English, Protestant organization Hellsing Organization.  The latter, however, has as its secret weapon the vampire Alucard who, in nearly every number, gets dismembered in some bloody way before pulling himself back together to overcome the enemy.  In the latest issues I’ve read the Catholics and Protestants have to cooperate against the threat of neo-Nazis (and this was before Trump was elected), who also employ werewolves.  (It’s October, remember.)

Having been pondering the vampires of Maine, I decided to read the next in my own generation’s vampire hero, Barnabas Collins.  I’ve been reading the Dark Shadows series by Marilyn Ross to try to find a lost piece of my childhood.  There was a scene in one of these poorly written Gothic novels that made a strong impression on me that I finally re-encountered in Barnabas, Quentin and the Nightmare Assassin.  Interestingly, in this installment Barnabas, the gentleman vampire, is cured of his curse while traveling back in time with Carolyn Stoddard.  The story doesn’t explain how some of the characters from the twentieth century appear a hundred years earlier, but it does bring an early encounter of the vampire against the werewolf—an idea monster fans know from its many iterations such as Hellsing or, famously, Underworld.

You might think vampires and werewolves would get along.  In both the Dark Shadows and Hellsing universes the personalities of both come through clearly.  Both monsters have deep origins in folklore and people have believed in them since ancient times.  Just because they’re not human, however, is no reason to suppose they’ll get along with each other.  As soon as Universal discovered that monsters translated well to film the idea began to develop that monster versus monster would be a great spectacle.  We had vampires and werewolves clashing on cheap budgets with fog machines.  A new orthodoxy was created that the undead just don’t get along.  It’s a idea that continued into the relatively bloodless Dark Shadows series, and on into the violent and gleefully bespattered Hellsing.  And since it’s October nobody should be surprised.

Collinsport

Nothing is ever wasted.  That’s my economy of the soul.  I spent my tween years mooning about Maine.  I’d grown up watching Dark Shadows after school and I’d begun reading the pulp fiction based on the series by Marilyn Ross.  My mother wondered how I could waste my time on vampire nonsense when there was sun shining outside and other kids to play with.  Little did she know that I was learning valuable lessons for the future.  My fascination with Maine—still intact—led me to vacation there whenever possible and over my career I’d applied to more than one or two jobs there based primarily on the potential reward of living in the same state as Collinwood and its spooky mansion  atop the cliffs overlooking the stormy Atlantic.  Once some friends in Norwalk, Connecticut took us to see the  Lockwood–Mathews Mansion, used for Collinwood in the movie House of Dark Shadows.   Such is the draw of childhood imagination.

What were these lessons I’ve mentioned?  Well, Collinwood stands outside the quaint fishing village of Collinsport.  Both are named after the family that houses some very dark secrets, as well as shadows.  Barnabas Collins is a vampire.  He has run-ins with many supernatural creatures, including ghosts, witches, and a few Scooby-Doo kinds of cases where someone’s faking the paranormal.  But Barnabas isn’t the only monstrous Collins.  His cousin Quentin, whom I kind of remembered being his ally, was an unstable werewolf.   Of course, I’m not sure there is such  a thing as a stable werewolf, but still.  Those in the family stay loyal, despite the beasts that lurk within their walls.  Some of the early Collinses were involved in the slave trade.

The Collins family has a long association with the state of Maine.  During the groovy 1970s they seemed somewhat progressive while maintaining the aloofness of the aristocracy they’d become.  Despite Tim Burton’s spin on it, they were the undisputed lords of Collinsport.  You felt you could trust them.  Unelected though they were, they possessed an innate sense of social responsibility.  I also learned as a child that, as appealing and tortured as they might be, you could never really trust a Collins.  Barnabas was not evil, but he was a vampire.  He required blood to survive, and his victims, like those of the current Collins of Maine, Susan, were female.  Any girl who trusted a Collins was in danger, unless she was their willing servant.  I was not squandering my childhood afternoons.  I was learning lessons about trust and its costs.

Zombie Wars

I suppose, rationally considered, most monsters can’t possibly exist. Maybe that’s the psychological relief required to enjoy the movies made about them. We can imagine the thrill, but we know we’re safe once we leave the theater. Culturally, monsters fight for supremacy. The early 2000s belonged to the vampire. They were everywhere. I once heard a literary agent advise wannabe authors to write on vampires since the publishing industry was showing no signs of slowing down on them. Then came the zombies. They’re still with us. World War Z came to my attention as a movie, but as one I never saw. I’ve watched many zombie films and none has lived up to the status of the spectacle that launched the genre, George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. It remains a classic to this day. Still, I was curious and so I read Max Brooks’ World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War.

Let alone the chapter after chapter of tough-talking, cool-sounding reminiscers, I have trouble buying zombies. Yes, I get the scare factor, but maybe I’ve read too much science even to visualize myself into a fantasy world where a creature with no digestive system would be driven to eat. It just makes no sense. Human bodies can function with missing parts, of course, but without the integration of muscles, ligaments, digestion, and brain, it seems difficult to accept that they’d keep coming after you when they’ve been decaying for years. It’s all I can do to get out of bed most mornings, even as a healthy, living body. Analysts, I know, talk about zombies as metaphors, but with over 300 pages of stories in no way believable, I had to wonder about the limits of credulity. Maybe Carl Sagan was right after all.

I hope I’m not unsophisticated enough not to realize that the real point in Brooks’ novel is how the surviving humans treat each other. There is a moral to the story. We develop new and “better” weapons to kill one another. We’re smart enough to have world peace and prosperity, but wars are constantly erupting. We have a nation with many brilliant people and yet we elect a Trump. Self-destruction, it seems, is written into our genes. We consume one another. Even when the enemy is completely imaginary we find ways of believing. So I read World War Z, appreciating the irony. I still can’t get over, however, the trope that all you need is a human brain to want to destroy others.

Church Vampires

For people my age manga is a new form of reading that is easily ignored. Although I’ve read a graphic novel or two, “comic books,” no matter how adult the theme, seem juvenile. Note that word “seem.” I do know some younger folks, and one of them insisted that I read Kouta Hirano’s Hellsing. This particular friend is as interested in vampires as I am, and, knowing my history with religion, suggested this might down my alley. Dubious, I gave it a try. In this manga universe Hellsing is a Protestant organization for fighting vampires and ghouls (non-virgin vampire victims who come back as zombie-like creatures who are very hard to stop). Their activity is in England, but when they cross into Ireland they encounter a Catholic organization that kills all vampires, including the “secret weapon” of Hellsing, who is indeed a vampire.

What made reading this tale so interesting is that the reader’s sympathy is drawn to the Protestant sect. The Hellsing characters are engagingly drawn—handsome or beautiful, resilient, and naturally good fighters. The Catholic characters are ugly and maniacal. They kill all monsters, regardless of their “heart.” In this the direction from the movie Van Helsing is reversed. There Van Helsing is a hireling of the Catholic Church who won’t kill a monster unless it’s evil. The idea of the graphic novel is that religious rivalry runs deep between these two Christian organizations. Thinking about this, I wondered how Christianity might look to someone from Japan. In this context, it makes sense. Christian missionaries penetrated east Asia from both Protestant and Catholic evangelistic efforts. Although they worship the same deity, they are quite different religions. At least it must look so to anyone not raised in this strange milieu.

Colonialism, in all its forms, has forced peoples to make decisions about new religions in a somewhat violent way. Imagine someone confronting you with your way of life and warning you that you’re going to suffer never-ending torment unless you accept a faith of which you’ve likely never heard. Then you discover that there are two very different versions of that faith that mutually condemn each other. The natural result, if you acquiesce at all, would be to choose the one that either makes the most sense, or the one that got to you first. Hardly the way to gamble with eternal life. I’m not sure Hellsing is intended as commentary on the experience of the colonized. It seems reasonable to me. And if vampires are a problem, you’ll want to be sure to select the right belief system the first time around.

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.

Scary Pictures

monstershowThroughout its history, until quite recently, one of the most serious natural enemies to the horror movie was the religious establishment. At times this antagonism seems well placed as horror films often take theological concepts and stand them on their heads. Within the last few years, however, thinkers of religious thoughts have come to an uneasy accord with some horror movies as vehicles for the kind of thinking promoted by traditional religions. The first half of this dynamic appears clearly in David J. Skal’s The Monster Show. Written before any kind of detente had been reached, his book chronicles skirmishes between the Production Code, religious groups, and even women’s collectives, against what was considered indecent and degrading. We have come to realize, however, that we are the monsters. We are the degraded. And seeing these films can lead to a strange sort of solidarity.

Most classic monsters, after all, have their origins in religions. Even the most recent of the lasting undead—Frankenstein’s monster and zombies—have origins in religious thought. Mary Shelley’s novel was subtitled The New Prometheus, a reference that anyone in the early nineteenth century would have understood. Zombies, on the other hand, are a product of vodou. Religion can’t get along very well without its monsters, and despite their less-than-stellar looks, their screen appeal is undeniable. Maybe it’s just we don’t like our dirty liturgical laundry being hung out where anyone might see it.

Skal’s treatment doesn’t stop at the cinema. He has a chapter on modern vampires, and Stephen King has earned his own chapter (or at least most of one) as the poet laureate of the novelistic form of the genre. More often than religion, Skal traces what’s happening in the monster world to the larger social issues of the day. Quite rightly so, as scary movies go nowhere without a receptive viewership. Looking around these days it’s easy to be scared. Even what was once a grand occasion of debate over higher principles as we ponder our next leader has become a farce in one of the parties that could make its own horror movie. Hitler, it is said, was a huge fan of King Kong. Large apes manhandling women never seem to go out of style. Some call it horror. Others try to get away with saying it’s politics. While the daily commute grows more and more dangerous, and the rhetoric grows even worse, is it any wonder we like to dim down the lights and watch monsters that we know really can’t get us at all?

Of the Night

August isn’t too early to start thinking about vampires. The nights are already noticeably longer than they were in June and some leaves are just beginning to change on the trees. I’m thinking of vampires because one of my readers sent me a link to some investigative reporting about the “Highgate Vampire.” I’ve posted about this before, but the brief story, if you don’t have time to browse through my “monster” category, is that beginning in the 1970s a group of people came to believe a vampire haunted London’s Highgate Cemetery. This led to the publication of written accounts of the hunt for the undead. On a trip to London in 2012 I visited the Highgate Cemetery as my host for the trip lived quite close by. Apart from being the resting place of many famous people, the cemetery is moody and Gothic and it’s easy to see how, in days when it was neglected, it could’ve spawned such tales. Thing is, we know vampires don’t exist. So we’re told.

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Back to the story. My reader pointed me to the website Vamped, and now I’m afraid my limited time has just grown more limited. More specifically, there is a story by Erin Chapman entitled “5 Reasons Why a Wampyr Didn’t Walk in Highgate Cemetery.” The article investigates claims made in Sean Manchester’s book on the subject (reviewed elsewhere on this blog), demonstrating that his locations, photographs, and narrative don’t add up. The piece on Vamped shows a meticulous level of detail, comparing notes and photos in a way some of us simply don’t have time to do. Now I’ll sleep more securely on my next visit to London. I hope. The conclusions are disputed.

At this point some may be asking why an educated, rational adult is even addressing such questions. Why worry about something that isn’t even real? This brings to mind the realm of religion. Archetypes, whether they have an objective existence or not, are part of our consciousness. Supernatural beings of many varieties inhabit our heads, no matter how much garlic or holy water we happen to have lying around. Ignoring them can lead to problems. Do I think there is/was a vampire in Highgate Cemetery? I don’t think so. Do some other people sincerely believe it? I have to think yes. No matter which religion people follow, there will be entities that other people don’t believe. That doesn’t mean that they should be ignored. The Highgate Vampire isn’t real for most people, but it is for others. And just in case, I’ll keep a bit of garlic around as the nights begin to grow longer.

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.

Modern Vampires

VampiresTodaySometimes I feel guilty. A grown man reading about vampires? Then I think of such puerile things as television and the stock market over which other adults waste their time and my pituitary gland releases endorphins and I carry on. I must say, however, after reading Joseph Laycock’s Vampires Today: The Truth about Modern Vampirism, that I’m not a vampire. Nor have I ever wanted to be. I am fascinated by the idea, however. The more I read—as is the case with most good academic books—the more I questioned definitions. Laycock does a good deal of that questioning himself in this book, and I came away wondering what indeed defines a vampire? As a child it seemed pretty clear. The vampire was a blood-sucker who came out at night. Fangs, a thirst for blood, and a faded aristocracy seemed to be the essential characteristics. But I was only a child.

Before you get the wrong idea about Laycock’s book, I need to say that his is a serious study of modern day vampires. Yes, they exist. No, they’re not easy to define. As an academically trained scholar of religion, Laycock is keenly aware that self-definition is crucial to categorization. Religious believers self-identify. We have no way of categorizing an adult (and some would say no way at all of children) without their own affirmation of what they believe. Vampires Today, however, raises the pointy question of whether those who self-identify as vampires constitute a religion. Or if vampire communities may be considered religious groups. In case you’re confused: many people identify themselves as vampires—sanguinarian and/or psychic. They believe they require the life energy of others to live and prevent illness. They sometimes drink blood—with permission—or siphon the life force of other people. Like all adults, they should be treated as self-identified. Probably not, as Laycock carefully spells out, a religion.

As in his other books, Laycock takes seriously groups that would, based on numbers alone, be considered fringe. Nevertheless, these groups are a part—sometimes an influential part—of larger society. We live in a world where we’re authoritatively told there is nothing but matter and energy, and as biological beings our purpose is reproductive success and then death. Is it any wonder that vampires and others are seeking something more? I’m no vampire. I read the occasional, thoroughly pulp, Dark Shadows novel to recapture a little of that after-school wonder I felt watching the waves pounding on the Maine cliffs while Barnabas Collins lurked inside. And he bore a strange truth that was perhaps instilled in those young years. Age is only partially a biological matter. Defining it any other way is, I have to believe, immature. So I read about vampires and wonder.

What You Pay For

VampireHunterWhen a friend pointed out the easily missed 2001 film, Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter, (well before Seth Grahame-Smith came up with the same role for Abraham Lincoln) I knew I was duty-bound to see it. As regular readers know, although I’m not a fan of gore or violence, I have a soft spot for vampire movies. Vampires, although often evil, are frequently presented as conflicted characters. As former humans they have some level of sympathy for their victims, while at the same time, all people are objectified for the vampire. We are food. This low-budget, independent film didn’t promise to deliver on many levels, but as the end credits show, they did shoot enough film to be able to cut out a few bloopers. The story, in as far as there is one, has Jesus fighting lesbian vampires in modern-day Ottawa (where the film was shot).

Not that the film was serious enough to invite critical dialogue, I did wonder what Jesus had to do with the whole thing apart from the shock value. There were a few cute moments, as when the “atheists” pile, clown-like, out of a car for an extended fight scene, but the lead could have been any character apart from one scene where a miracle does occur. Jesus fights with his fists, not with supernatural power. Tossing in Mary Magnum and “professional wrestler” El Santo, the movie came close to the screwball level of Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. It’s difficult to critique a film where logic isn’t held accountable for the plot—the only thing to keep the film going is the action of a particular scene. And that, as I’ve intimated, can’t be counted on.

Interestingly enough, Jesus is treated throughout the film in a positive way. Although he doesn’t use supernatural powers, he is the “good guy” and is even tolerant of alternative lifestyles as long as love is the basis of relationships. The movie is biblically literate, using the Good Samaritan in a scene that underscores the accepting nature of the new millennium Jesus. The vampires don’t add much to the lore of the monster. They can be out in daylight because it is cheaper to shoot film that way, but the plot does come up with an explanation for it. Vampirism, at the end, can be healed by prayer, and when Mary Magnum, El Santo, and Jesus go their separate ways at the end, we are left wondering what all the fuss was about.

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.

My Beloved Monsters

OurOldMonsters copyOnce upon a time I felt radical in claiming that monsters and religion shared a pedigree. Having grown up fascinated by Universal, as well as much cheaper and more tawdry, monster movies, I always experienced a twinge of guilt. My family was very religious, and these monsters were, well, evil, weren’t they? Yet I couldn’t let them go. Although college, seminary, and graduate school each took their toll on this early fascination as I was restructured as a more rational man, the monsters always lurked. In college a friend and I named an invented monster “the lurking.” In seminary and graduate school, demons and ghosts still captured my imagination. Brenda S. Gardenour Walter has, quite unintentionally, vindicated my outlook. Our Old Monsters: Witches, Werewolves and Vampires from Medieval Theology to Horror Cinema just about says it all. Not limiting herself to witches, werewolves, and vampires, Gardenour Walter has given us a novel thesis: monsters come from theology.

Well, not exactly. Medieval theology, as many of us learned in seminary, continued the ancient Greek practice of dividing the universe into four substances: air, fire, water, and earth. Each was associated with a humor in the human body: blood, yellow bile, phlegm, and black bile. Keeping these humors in balance led to healthy bodies. Gardenour Walter, who teaches history in a Pharmacology school, shows how monsters were often viewed against this paradigm. As she notes, this Weltanschauung was not friendly to women. Seeing man as the perfect, rational being, women were considered less rational and more controled by their base urges, leading to the concept of witches. Witches were also associated with demons at a later time, and there is a considerable discussion of that transition.

Vampires were often associated with black bile. Although there are vampiric beliefs going back to very ancient times, Gardenour Walter shows how the modern vampire indeed derives from medieval theology as eastern ideas met western. Unfortunately, in unenlightened times, the concepts were anti-semitically applied, with unwonted liberality. Werewolves were generally dismissed as illusions wrought by demons, although, there always remained an ambiguity. I have to admit not having known that even Augustine discussed werewolves in The City of God, which, it comes to mind, would make an excellent horror movie. The book brings each of these medieval monsters up to the silver screen and considers how their theological pedigree plays out in modern times. This is a book I would have enjoyed as a college student, but maybe, secretly, enjoy even more now as an adult.

Strange Days

The flight from London to New York is eight hours. Although I always travel with books, sometimes the selection made before the actual reality of time on a plane turns out to be too academic. I read academic books on my daily commute from New Jersey to New York and back, but these trips are not so drawn out as the long flight across the Atlantic. Since my flight was departing Terminal 2 at Heathrow, I had trouble finding a bookstore. There are stores that sell books, but having been to Blackwell’s the day before, the selection was not inspiring. I wandered to the magazine section. Magazines can be good travel fodder since they don’t demand the rigors of a monograph, and glossy pictures always add to the appeal. But what to buy?

ForteanTimesLooking over the covers, I found one featuring vampires. It turned out to be the Fortean Times, but since I had a row to myself on the plane, I couldn’t see the harm in having a magazine about strange phenomena. I’d never actually read an issue of the Fortean Times before, although I had a general idea of what to expect. While it may seem odd, there is a pretty solid connection between the paranormal and religion. I’ve noticed this for years. Reading through the Fortean Times, it was clear that others have made the connection as well. Many of the articles, including the ones on vampires, touched on obvious religious themes and motifs. This was so much the case that I began to wonder if any kind of solid wall can be erected between the two.

Religion, broadly conceived, tends to be concerned with the non-material world. Its claims tend to defy empirical verification, and its subject matter is often at odds with science (at least in the mainstream). The paranormal is open to scientific investigation in that it tends to be based on secular claims. Like religion, however, it tends to dwell in the non-material realm. After all, vampires coming back from the dead is hardly a phenomenon that is readily recorded with any instrument beyond a Hollywood movie camera. Still, most religions are hostile to the paranormal, and investigators of the paranormal may be unconnected to religion. Both, however, are an engaging recipe for a long flight. Especially if nobody is sitting in the row next to you.

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.