In 1897 Bram Stoker published a book that drew upon numerous ancient myths from a variety of people groups that spoke of an evil creature of the night who preyed on human beings by drinking their blood or otherwise sucking out their life. In some cases the myths identify the vampire with demonic forces or the devil, but in others the creature was merely part of the forces of fearsome and mysterious evil that roamed the earth. Christians have, at least recently, been dismissive of such myths, but that is a mistake. From a Christian perspective they should be seen as honest hearted attempts to explain the brokenness of the world. As such they are stories that are fictional in detail but true in a deeper way. The vampire is a metaphor for the wickedness that loves the darkness and seeks to seduce us away from virtue, goodness, and life into the arms of damnation and death.
Stoker’s book was named, simply, Dracula. It consists of a series of diary entries and letters that even today convey a proper sense of horror about spiritual evil and sin, about beings that seek to destroy all that God has created good, especially those creatures made in his image. Dracula is worth reading—it is a book rooted in a distinctly Christian understanding of life and reality.
Near the beginning of Dracula, Jonathan Harker, a young British solicitor arrives at night at a massive castle deep in the dark recesses and shadows of the mountains of Transylvania. His employer’s client, Count Dracula had summoned a representative of the firm in order that some business might be transacted. It had been a long and tiring journey, the final section through what Harker saw as a primitive land whose superstitious inhabitants are horrified when they learn of his destination. The night before reaching Dracula’s castle the Count arranged for Harker to stay at a country inn. The next day before he left the innkeeper’s wife tries desperately to dissuade him from continuing his journey.
Just before I was leaving, the old lady came up to my room and said in a hysterical way: “Must you go? Oh! Young Herr, must you go?” She was in such an excited state that she seemed to have lost her grip of what German she knew, and mixed it all up with some other language which I did not know at all. I was just able to follow her by asking many questions. When I told her that I must go at once, and that I was engaged on important business, she asked again:
“Do you know what day it is?” I answered that it was the fourth of May. She shook her head as she said again:
“Oh, yes! I know that! I know that, but do you know what day it is?”
On my saying that I did not understand, she went on:
“It is the eve of St. George’s Day. Do you not know that tonight, when the clock strikes midnight, all the evil things in the world will have full sway? Do you know where you are going, and what you are going to?” She was in such evident distress that I tried to comfort her, but without effect. Finally, she went down on her knees and implored me not to go; at least to wait a day or two before starting.
It was all very ridiculous but I did not feel comfortable. However, there was business to be done, and I could allow nothing to interfere with it.
I tried to raise her up, and said, as gravely as I could, that I thanked her, but my duty was imperative, and that I must go.
She then rose and dried her eyes, and taking a crucifix from her neck offered it to me.
I did not know what to do, for, as an English Churchman, I have been taught to regard such things as in some measure idolatrous, and yet it seemed so ungracious to refuse an old lady meaning so well and in such a state of mind.
She saw, I suppose, the doubt in my face, for she put the rosary round my neck and said, “For your mother’s sake,” and went out of the room.
Stoker effectively raises the sense of impending doom with descriptions of the weather and countryside, conversations with passersby, and little coincidences that seem to take on a dark life of their own. Harker, however, as an enlightened London Protestant sees himself as too highly educated, too sophisticated for such gullible nonsense. He finally arrives at the castle in the dead of night, and is welcomed by Count Dracula, who firmly shuts and locks the great door behind him. From that moment, the castle is Harker’s prison. He is first shown to his room and then joins the Count for dinner.
I found supper already laid out. My host, who stood on one side of the great fireplace, leaning against the stonework, made a graceful wave of his hand to the table, and said,“I pray you, be seated and sup how you please. You will I trust, excuse me that I do not join you, but I have dined already, and I do not sup…”
The count himself came forward and took off the cover of a dish, and I fell to at once on an excellent roast chicken. This, with some cheese and a salad and a bottle of old tokay, of which I had two glasses, was my supper. During the time I was eating it the Count asked me many question as to my journey, and I told him by degrees all I had experienced.
By this time I had finished my supper, and by my host’s desire had drawn up a chair by the fire and begun to smoke a cigar which he offered me, at the same time excusing himself that he did not smoke…
Hitherto I had noticed the backs of his hands as they lay on his knees in the firelight, and they had seemed rather white and fine. But seeing them now close to me, I could not but notice that they were rather coarse, broad, with squat fingers. Strange to say, there were hairs in the centre of the palm. The nails were long and fine, and cut to a sharp point. As the Count leaned over me and his hands touched me, I could not repress a shudder. It may have been that his breath was rank, but a horrible feeling of nausea came over me, which, do what I would, I could not conceal.
The Count, evidently noticing it, drew back. And with a grim sort of smile, which showed more than he had yet done his protuberant teeth, sat himself down again on his own side of the fireplace. We were both silent for a while, and as I looked towards the window I saw the first dim streak of the coming dawn. There seemed a strange stillness over everything. But as I listened, I heard as if from down below in the valley the howling of many wolves. The Count’s eyes gleamed, and he said.
“Listen to them, the children of the night. What music they make!” Seeing, I suppose, some expression in my face strange to him, he added, “Ah, sir, you dwellers in the city cannot enter into the feelings of the hunter.”
Much later in Dracula, Professor Van Helsing identifies the task that must be undertaken, of Dracula is to be defeated even though the little band of warriors might well lose their lives in the process. Note that Stoker here depicts Van Helsing as expressing things in terms that reflect a Christian view of life: the reality of God, the incarnation and crucifixion, the nature of sin and death, and the fact that service to God is its own reward, even at the cost of one’s life.
There are such beings as vampires, some of us have evidence that they exist. Even had we not the proof of our own unhappy experience, the teachings and the records of the past give proof enough for sane peoples. I admit that at the first I was sceptic. Were it not that through long years I have trained myself to keep an open mind, I could not have believed until such time as that fact thunder on my ear. ‘See! See! I prove, I prove.’ Alas! Had I known at first what now I know, nay, had I even guess at him, one so precious life had been spared to many of us who did love her. But that is gone, and we must so work, that other poor souls perish not, whilst we can save. The nosferatu do not die like the bee when he sting once. He is only stronger, and being stronger, have yet more power to work evil. This vampire which is amongst us is of himself so strong in person as twenty men, he is of cunning more than mortal, for his cunning be the growth of ages, he have still the aids of necromancy, which is, as his etymology imply, the divination by the dead, and all the dead that he can come nigh to are for him at command, he is brute, and more than brute, he is devil in callous, and the heart of him is not, he can, within his range, direct the elements, the storm, the fog, the thunder, he can command all the meaner things, the rat, and the owl, and the bat, the moth, and the fox, and the wolf, he can grow and become small, and he can at times vanish and come unknown. How then are we to begin our strike to destroy him? How shall we find his where, and having found it, how can we destroy? My friends, this is much, it is a terrible task that we undertake, and there may be consequence to make the brave shudder. For if we fail in this our fight he must surely win, and then where end we? Life is nothings; I heed him not. But to fail here, is not mere life or death. It is that we become as him, that we henceforward become foul things of the night like him, without heart or conscience, preying on the bodies and the souls of those we love best. To us forever are the gates of heaven shut, for who shall open them to us again? We go on for all time abhorred by all, a blot on the face of God’s sunshine, an arrow in the side of Him who died for man. But we are face to face with duty, and in such case must we shrink? For me, I say no, but then I am old, and life, with his sunshine, his fair places, his song of birds, his music and his love, lie far behind. You others are young. Some have seen sorrow, but there are fair days yet in store. What say you?
In Dracula the vampire is an apt metaphor for all that is wrong in this fallen world, a symbol of the forces of evil that seek to do war against the kingdom of God in heavenly realms, a battle that spills into history for those who have eyes to see. This is a robust vision of evil, one that is truly frightening and should be. Contrary to what our mothers told us there are things that go bump in the night. Creatures of enormous power and grandeur prowl about the edges of space and time seeking those they may overpower and devour, and if not resisted effectively, will make us their prey (1 Peter 5:8). This is not to say that in Dracula the vampire is to be identified with the devil, for instead Stoker develops it as a literary metaphor for sin—supernatural, personal, and supremely dangerous. The myth of the vampire is rooted in truth, a deep understanding of the reality of evil that ancient people possessed but is largely lost today in our postmodern world.
The Vampire Defanged (2011)
This loss is explored in The Vampire Defanged: How the embodiment of evil became a romantic hero, by Susannah Clements, professor of literature at Regent University (Virginia). “Vampires are more than just monsters to us” as a culture, Clements says. “They have recurred as a figure in literature and Western culture for the last two centuries, and they go back much further in lore and myth. It is over the last hundred years or so, however, that their portrayal in our culture has morphed from monster to lover, from single-minded villain to complex antihero. The vampire was once held up as the embodiment of evil and temptation, but has now become the ultimate romantic alpha-hero.”
In The Vampire Defanged, Clements begins with a thoughtful study of Stoker’s classic tale and then walks us through the succession of vampire stories that have followed more recently: Anne Rice’s ten-volume Vampire Chronicles, the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Charlaine Harris’s Southern Vampire Mystery books centered on the character, Sookie Stackhouse, and finally Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight books (and movies). In two final chapters Clements explores other versions (film or book) of the vampire genre, including Bela Lugosi’s classic films, the Underworld movie series, and Robert Rodriquez’s film, From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) written by Quentin Tarantino.
Clements has written a helpful book, and though she has written as a scholar on the topic, The Vampire Defanged is composed for ordinary people who care for story and truth. Though not designed a study guide, I could see Clements’ book used as a thoughtful guide as someone or some group works their way through the vampire genre that is so wildly popular and highly fascinating.
Clements is not merely concerned to trace the changes that have slowly transformed the vampire story in our day, though she does that well. She is more concerned to help Christians think Christianly about story, theology, and sin and thus be able to see reality more clearly and engage our world more effectively with the gospel. The loss represented by the transformation of the vampire from seductive evil to attractive lover represents a loss of understanding of life in a sinful world. That loss, Clements believes, affects both believers and unbelievers.
As I read The Vampire Defanged, I thought of something the ancient Hebrew seer, Isaiah recorded. He pronounced a series of woes—“woe” being a prophetic term referring to a divine curse—that obviously his hearers and readers were to take seriously. The divine curse is expressed in poetry which only deepens the sense of doom.
Woe to those who call evil good
and good evil,
who put darkness for light
and light for darkness,
who put bitter for sweet
and sweet for bitter!
At first glance Isaiah seems to be describing something that few people would attempt. Who would try to say evil is good? It’s such an absurd reversal of meaning. What could they possibly gain by doing it? The answer is found in my own heart. If I mention some tidbit of information that makes another look bad, is it not to my advantage to label that delicious gossip a prayer request? If someone criticizes me in a way that I do not like to hear, do I not feel better if I tell someone else how hurt I am because someone maliciously attacked me? In both instances have I not called evil good?
Perhaps, all things considered these examples are rather insignificant in the cosmic scheme of things. Far worse are the Holocaust deniers, the despots who sanctimoniously insist their landslide election legitimates their oppressive regimes, the bankers whose risky trading helps trigger a massive recession and requires tax-dollar bailouts who nevertheless insist they have earned their massive bonuses, the researchers who shade their conclusions according to who happens to be funding their study, or the film director that depicts unsafe sexual behavior as attractive and without negative consequences. Perhaps these are worse, if by worse we mean which behaviors affect the most people. Still, a woe is a woe, so a divine curse should get our attention, and wickedness still reeks of death and decay whether we think it small and insignificant or large and important.
Another Hebrew prophet, Amos cut to the heart of the matter. “Hate evil, and love good” (5:15), though such a simple declaration masks the process that is required to live it out in daily life. The New Testament writer was referring to that process when he identified “the mature” as “those who have their faculties trained by practice to distinguish good from evil” (Hebrews 5:14). Such training never ends in this fallen world, and we would do well to delight in the practice that is required until our maturity is complete.
One way to gain traction in this process is to pay attention to the way stories change over time. Story is central to our humanity, essential to reality, and the form in which each generation and culture embodies its deepest beliefs and values, hopes and fears. Some stories sound such deep mythic chords they appear in widely disparate cultures and over long periods of time. As the stories are told and retold, cultures shift and as that happens sometimes the stories shift as well, and those changes can be telling.
One such story is the tale of the vampire, and the way that story is told has shifted within our own time. It’s an example of what the prophet so long ago warned about in his declaration of woe: when evil is called good, bitter is imagined sweet. Do that and people are bound to get hurt. Not necessarily by the stories themselves, but by the loss of a sense of evil in the culture at large.
Clements understands that the story of the vampire has morphed in part as a reflection of the changes in our culture. But she also argues, “Christians have let this happen” through apathy, fearfulness, and lack of discernment and that this failure calls for repentance.
The vampire can engage both the intellect and the imagination of the Christian, but it is not likely to happen by accident. Using the vampire to explore human experience that is not spiritual or theological is certainly not bad in and of itself, and we shouldn’t devalue those stories that do so. But it is worth recognizing that, as the vampire figure has lost its spiritual potency, it has lost much of its metaphorical power. If the vampire represents for us aspects of ourselves that make us human, then the spiritual and theological aspects are necessary for a fuller, richer picture. If Christians can understand the vampire better, we can discuss, create, and inspire a respiritualized figure of the vampire. In doing so, we can help return the vampire tradition to the power it once had.
I must confess that when I began reading The Vampire Defanged I was not expecting this conclusion. I expected to read about the change from evil antihero to romantic hero, and even to hear some grief over this devaluation. I also expected to read how American or Western culture has changed over the past couple of centuries and how this change explains the transformation of how the vampire is depicted. I also expected to read how what has been lost is of theological significance from a Christian perspective. Clements goes one step farther, and I find her challenge both intriguing and creative. The vampire story needs, essentially, to be redeemed, and the church must take the lead. I wonder if we’ll get past our apathy, our fearfulness, and our lack of discernment?
The Strain Trilogy (2009-11)
One thing is certain: vampire stories continue to be told. Guillermo Del Toro, the writer and director of Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) has published a trilogy of vampire novels, co-written by novelist Chuck Hogan: The Strain (2009), The Fall (2010), and The Night Eternal (2011).
I would not rank The Strain Trilogy as great literature, though they are exciting page-turners, bringing the vampire into our modern technological world in a way that is both plausible and horrible. Just as Stoker’s Dracula was written so that his readers recognized their own day in the story, Del Toro sets his telling of the vampire threat in our postmodern world. Though the vampire in The Strain Trilogy is far closer to Stoker’s vision of evil than the adolescent heartthrobs of Twilight, Del Toro is not content to merely repeat Stoker’s depiction. In Del Toro’s version the vampire is primarily linked to a spreading virus, so that medical science is both necessary and yet insufficient in itself to defeat the spreading plague. Here the vampire is a parasite on the human race, evil certainly but one that can be eventually defeated by technology.
As those who know his movies will realize, Del Toro is far too good a storyteller to limit the plot to adventures in technology. He loves monsters not merely science fiction, stories that partake of myth not merely entertainment. So numerous themes weave their way through The Strain Trilogy that touch on deeper ideas that have always animated the human imagination because they are woven into the very fabric of existence. The importance of names and naming; the existence of an ancient book (Occido Lumen) that reveals essential truth that can be found in no other way; the transcendent value of sacrificial love; the fact that myths dismissed by science as superstitions contain within them truths that must never be lost; that the most deadly wounds are in the soul rather than the body; mysterious events that can only be understood correctly as portents; the existence of a spiritual realm where angels exist and which breaks into human history in surprising and inexplicable ways.
Each of the holy books, the Torah, the Bible, and the Koran, tells the tale of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. So, in a way, does the Lumen.
In Genesis 18, three archangels appear before Abraham in human form. Two are said to proceed from there to the doomed cities of the plain, where they reside with Lot, enjoy a feast, and are later surrounded by the men of Sodom, whom they blind before destroying their city. The third archangel is deliberately omitted. Hidden. Lost. This is his story.
Five cities shared the vast, lush plain of the Yarden River, near what is today the Dead Sea. And out of all of these Sodom was the proudest, the most beautiful. It rose from its fertile surroundings as a landmark, a monument to wealth and prosperity.
Irrigated by a complex canal system, it had grown randomly through the centuries, radiating outward from the waterways and ending up in a shape that vaguely resembled a dove in flight. Its ten-acre contours crystallized in that form when the surrounding walls were erected around 2024 BC. The walls were over forty feet tall and six feet thick, constructed of baked mud brick and plastered in gypsum to make them shine brightly in the sun. Within them, mud-brick buildings were built so close together as to be almost on top of one another, the tallest of which was a temple erected to honor the Canaanite god Moloch. The population of Sodom fluctuated around two thousand. Fruits, spices, and grains were abundant, driving the city’s prosperity. The glass and gilded bronze tiles of a dozen palaces were visible at once, glinting in the dying sunlight.
Such wealth was guarded by the enormous gates that gave entrance into the city. Six irregular stones of enormous size and heft created a monumental archway with gates fashioned from iron and hardwoods impervious to fire or battering rams.
It was at these gates that Lot, son of Haran, nephew of Abram, was when the three creatures of light arrived.
Pale they were, and radiant and remote. Part of the essence of God and, as such, void of any blemish. From each of their backs, four long appendages emerged, suffused with feathery light, easily confused with luminous wings. The four jutting limbs fused in the back of the creatures and flapped softly with their every step, as naturally as one would compensate for forward movement by swaying one’s arms. With each step they acquired form and mass, until they stood there, naked and somewhat lost. Their skin was radiant like the purest alabaster and their beauty was a painful reminder of Lot’s mortal imperfection.
They were sent there to punish the pride, decadence, and brutality that had bred within the prosperous walls of the city. Gabriel, Michael, and Ozryel were God’s emissaries—His most trusted, most cherished creations and His most ruthless soldiers.
In the few interviews I have read, Del Toro has said he has no argument with those who have changed the vampire story into a romantic romp. I have no reason to question that, except this is not the impression I was left with as I read The Strain Trilogy. Del Toro’s vision is strong, the evil depicted is frightful, and in the story itself the characters discuss Stoker’s Dracula. There are differences, and Stoker’s version is regarded as mistaken in details, but in Del Toro the vampire is once again evil, an explanation for all that is wrong in a broken world.
In the end, though I prefer Del Toro’s version to that of Twilight, he does not return us to the Christian understanding displayed by Stoker in Dracula. Rather than a metaphor for human sin, Del Toro’s vampire is linked to angels who have gone astray, and technology plays too big a role in defeating the evil plague that has infected the planet and enslaved the human race. It’s a step in the right direction, but only a step. More steps are needed if the vampire myth is to be, shall we say, redeemed.
SourceDracula by Bram Stoker, chapters 1, 2 & 18 online (http://www.literature.org/authors/stoker-bram/dracula/)
The Vampire Defanged (p. 2, 162, 164); The Night Eternal (p. 139-140).
The Vampire Defanged: How the embodiment of evil became a romantic hero by Susannah Clements (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press; 2011) 164 pages + notes + bibliography + index.
Dracula by Bram Stoker (The Online Literature Library, 1897; www.literature.org)
The Strain by Guillermo Del Toro and Churck Hogan (New York, NY: HarperCollins; 2009) 401 pages.
The Fall by Guillermo Del Toro and Churck Hogan (New York, NY: HarperCollins; 2010) 440 pages.
The Night Eternal by Guillermo Del Toro and Churck Hogan (New York, NY: HarperCollins; 2011) 371 pages.