Monday, July 20, 2015

Such a Dark Thing: Theology of the Vampire in Popular Culture


 Note: this is the same post I made on Flame in the Dark. I thought I'd post some of those posts on both blogs now, since the subjects often overlap.

I bought this book the other week after seeing it reviewed, and thought it would be an interesting exploration of the religious nature of the vampire tale in fiction and cinema--which, for the most part ,it is. While the deeply conservative nature (in general) of the horror genre tends to be overlooked, even, perhaps especially, by those working within the genre itself, the Christian iconography of the vampire is difficult to miss. The cross, Holy water, silver, etc. are shown as very powerful in repelling evil. Really, if such icons did succeed in warding off vampires or other creatures of darkness, would that alone stand as a powerful testement to the Truth of the Christian faith?
     M. Jess Peacock recognizes this, and explores numerous examples, from Stoker's original Dracula to modern vampire tales. He notably excludes the Twilight-type stories in case you're wondering. However, while I had been expecting something more in the vein of Horror: a Biography, (also known by the title Monsters of the Id), by E. Michael Jones, what I got was, as a whole, almost a reverse. Unlike Jones, Peacok concentrates strictly on the vampire subgenre, and this much is made clear by the cover. Also unlike Jones, who is a political and religious conservative, Peacock is unabashedly liberal. This is made clear early on by his repeated use of words such as "patriarchal," oppression," "liberation," and so on, even criticizing Repulican policies and politicians occasionally. He is a strong proponant for "liberation theology," which advocates using relgion, notably Christ's criticism of the wealthy, as a tool for social reform.
   Now, as I've become more liberal over the years myself, I don't disagree with this stance entirely. In fact, though the conservative repsonse to the problem of poverty is generally through personal, chariable acts, government reform is not something that is neceassarly contrary to Christ's teachings. Peacokc's criticism of policies he believes sustain poverty may well be spot on, though I'm not informed enough to comment.
     Nonetheless, partly as a consequence of his politics, Peacok gets at least part of the theology of vampirism dead wrong. He correctly identifies that the traditional vampire tale is powerfully Christian-themed. However, he also makes at least one of the errors that Jones points out as committed by left-wing critics of horror. Peacock identifies the monster, in this case the vampire, as a potential rebel against the oppressive, social and political order. The vampire certainly can be interpreted as an ultimate rebel against tradition, all right: he seeks man-centered immortality without God or the need for salvation. But the fact that the undead are macabre parody of salvation seems to have escaped Peacock; the rebellion of the vampire against God and the forces of light is hardly a successful one. The vampire, condemned to an eternally monstrous exisitance is more akin to rebellions such as the French and Russian revolutions, which , in addition to slaughtering countless innocents, ended up devouring themselves in the process. Thus, the figure of vampire most accurately represents a warning against the false allure of creating a human-centered utopia on earth.

   Peacock also points out, with some measure of accuracy, that the potency of the Cross and other symbols has somewhat waned over the years onscreen, indicating a percieved diminishing power of God to combat evil. There is doubtless some measure of accuracy in this last observation. In this case, he identifies vampires, once they have achieved power over their victims, as themselves purveyors of the old, traditional social order, and heroes such as Buffy and Van Helsing as the leaders of a new revolution. Such an interreptation will not work with the more traditonal vampire tales, in which the heroes rely on the symbols of tradtional Christianity to repel the beasts. However, in the more secular tales, such as the Blade movies, and other tales in which power of the Cross seems to have diminished, Peacock might have a point. Heroes are coming to rely more on their own wits and resources than on faith in God. Is this becoming a trend for the vampire tale and for horror in general?
     The last section of the book is compodium of the films and TV series that the author thinks are most notable to the vampire subgenre. He explicates each of them very well, and often in great detail, explaining each one in light of his criticism. All in all, an informative and interesting read for the vampire enthusiasts, if a bit of a politically biased one.

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