The Christianization of vampires

  • October 30, 2009
{mosimage}TORONTO - There is no doubt that vampires have experienced a renaissance in popular culture, says Jennifer Harris, Christianity and Culture professor at Toronto’s University of St. Michael’s College. But more interesting, she said, is how the modern vampire takes root in Christian culture.

The Christian elements in vampire stories began with Bram Stoker’s 19th-century novel Dracula, she said. Stoker introduced into romantic literature the religious tools for repelling vampires. He was probably inspired by “scientific” publications such as Benedictine monk Dom Augustine Calmet’s 1746 treatise, in which the monk questioned and explored popular evidence of vampirism.

“(Calmet) acknowledges there are so many accounts of these events that one has to wonder and he offers the beginnings of what we would call a pathological explanation,” Harris said. “Some of the descriptions say clearly this was a vampire because of longer hair, longer nails, receding hairline and stuff like that — all of these things have since been described in the natural occurrence of the decomposition of the body.”

But romantic writers such as Stoker, unwilling to see vampires reduced to scientific terms, used the folkloric vampire tales to paint his vampire as a scary “other” to be feared and extinguished through religious means. This was in contrast to previous romantic literature which portrayed vampires simply as British noblemen who lived among those on whom they preyed.

But a more interesting point, Harris said, is how the picture of the vampire in the 20th century has been transformed by Christian writers from a sort of anti-Christ to a creature who participates in the Christian narrative.  Instead of seeking to find life through human blood and an eternity of pleasure they reject their vampirism and look for redemption through love — as depicted by Hollywood characters such as Spike in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Edward Cullen in Twilight.

{mosimage}“Stoker laid these elements of the Christian symbology onto the gothic vampire. So the figure and story he created are a kind of melting pot from which these subsequent authors have drawn the various elements that they then form into their own novels.”

The Christian narrative of fall and redemption only seems to be getting stronger in books and movies today, she said.

“Novelists such as Anne Rice who wrote Interview With a Vampire, L.J. Smith who wrote The Vampire Diaries, Charlaine Harris who wrote the Dead Until Darkness Sookie Stackhouse southern vampire series and of course Stephenie Meyer who has written the Twilight books, all of them in a sense follow the notion (of fall and redemption) — not like a classical hero who is tragic and needs to find some crisis to emerge from his fate, but more of the biblical character of someone who has been damned, who has fallen and yet is somehow seeking his redemption. ”

Rice, she said, who returned to the Catholic faith after having written her novels, described her books as dark quests for redemption. The Vampire Diaries, which have been turned into a TV series, are about an ancient vampire who having loved a woman and lost her many centuries ago is now seeking her again, to find redemption through her love.

The TV series, True Blood, shows this narrative structure less clearly and is a mixture of Christianity, decadence, vampirism, seeking redemption and wallowing in the depths all mixed up into one.

Harris adds it’s not surprising to see this type of vampire growing in appeal, because of the “inadequacy of the TV male” who has been portrayed in many shows as an overweight, immature oaf.

However, if anything, she says, by portraying the vampire more as a teen on the margins and less as a monster, authors have watered down the Christian narrative of redemption and reduced the potential for teaching Christian values.

“What is great about monsters is they really are about showing us something profound about ourselves and in a way vampires are just becoming romantic figures. They’re showing redemption, sure, but they’re becoming diluted. So in fact their redemption isn’t as powerful because they’re not that dark. (The vampire has become) really a nice guy who’s got a bad disease you might say as opposed to somebody who is deeply immersed in sin.”

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