Vampires, Immortality, and Christianity

This lecturewill explore the mythology of the vampire and its inversion of Christian mythology, including immortality. It will trace the concept of the vampire as it alters through different cultural shifts.

Examining the Christian beliefs that are all important in the novel, Dracula, written in 1897 by Bram Stoker, one may trace a path from various vampire books, films and television series up to the present day in which Christian lore becomes less and less important. Christianity no longer seems to matter or be necessary to either vampires or vampire hunters any longer. Other topics considered will be the fear and fascination humans have with two things associated with vampires: blood and immortality. The natural causes for the uncanny appearance of corpses and disturbed graves will be scrutinized, as well as the psychological reasons for our frightening dreams about the return of our departed loved ones. The role and the reasons for the Roman Catholic Church’s and the Eastern Orthodox Church’s co-option of the vampire myth and the inversion of the Christian myth and the Christian mass by vampire lore will be considered. The paper will conclude with a look at four vampire tales, three of them from the 2000’s in order to inquire into the modification and transformation of the vampire narrative.

The classic definition of a vampire is that it describes a reanimated body of a dead person who leaves his/her grave at night to suck the blood of living humans. Despite varied descriptions of vampire behavior and lore, one behavior is common to all vampires, even the very modern ones in today’s popular culture renditions. All vampires need to drink blood to survive. But even that necessity has altered through the centuries. The modern vampire is able to make some choices. Vampires may now decide to exist on the blood of large, predatory animals, as does the Cullen family in the 2005-2012 novels and films in the Twilight Series by Stephenie Meyer. The 2001-2014 True Blood television and novel series, also called The Southern Vampire Series, allows its vampires more options. They may simply subsist on a synthetic called “True Blood.” The synthetic is nourishing but does not have the full-bodied flavor of real human blood.

Since choice has become available to modern vampires, it presents an important quandary for them. Does one continue to suck the blood of living humans, killing them or turning them into slaves or vampires, or does one reject such evil acts and subsist on less satisfactory but equally nourishing substitutes, thus achieving moral responsibility? The fact that some fictional vampires actually care about moral responsibility is a striking alteration to the vampire myth. Earlier vampires were driven creatures, with no other option than drinking human blood unless they resorted to the demeaning act of sucking the blood of small animals, such as rats. They used their intellect and supernatural abilities in pursuit of human blood and nothing more.

There are many different explanations and definitions for the word and the concept of ” vampire. ” Its etymology is varied and much of it is in dispute. But many experts in the field accept that it is a Southern Slavic word, “upir” or ” upyr”, whose derivation might come from the Northern Turkish region. That area used the word, “uber,” to designate a witch.

The concept of an undead, or a reanimated being, who subsists by killing humans, and by sucking their blood from them, is very ancient. Various mythologies from Egypt, Babylonia, India, Greece, Rome and elsewhere described such creatures and their terrifying assaults on living humans. The undead of ancient times were not the vampires we recognize in books and films of the present day, but the fear of losing our blood to the undead is ancient.

During the Medieval and Renaissance (approximately 476 CE to 1600 CE) Ages in Europe, there was great interest and fear generated by tales of the dead rising from their graves. Many people from those times believed that what contemporary historians call The Age of Faith was the Age of the Anti Christ. There was a common belief that the wicked who died were reanimated by the devil. People who were thought to be vampires were sometimes executed by the Inquisition, although its primary targets were heretics and witches.

The infamous volume, the Malleus Maleficarum, or Hammer of Witches, published in Germany in 1487, confirmed the belief in vampires, werewolves, and other supernatural creatures, even it was a treatise most concerned with finding and exterminating witches. The book called vampires one of the worst manifestations of the devil . In 1597, King James I of England, published a Daemonology, which gave descriptions of divination. It was a likely source for the depiction of the witches in William Shakespeare’s famous play, Macbeth, first performed in 1606. The volume touched on the subject of werewolves and vampires as well. Such works altered earlier myths and folklore that described vampires as some type of terrifying undead. They were now described as the creatures and creation of the devil. The Church had co-opted the frightening undead of the pagan world, just as it had co-opted its pagan gods and goddesses. The gods were turned into saints. Vampires, werewolves, witches and other terrifying creatures were turned into emanations of the devil.

Candidates for vampires were numerous. They included murderers and their victims, felons, battlefield dead, stroke and drowning victims, the first to die in an epidemic, heretics, wizards, redheads, curmudgeons, women of ill repute, people who talked to themselves, and so on. There does not seem to be an agreed upon account that explains the origin of vampires. Most fiction and tales confine such beginnings to an original vampire (perhaps one who survived after most demons had been slain) that “turned” one human into an undead being, who then “turned” other humans into vampires down through the ages. The contemporary tales the paper will be discussing all have different origin versions.

There is one account which claimed the first vampire had been created by the Devil, who was either Judas Iscariot or a creature of the devil called Judas Iscariot. Judas was the apostle of Christian lore who betrayed Jesus for the sum of thirty pieces of silver. Apparently the betraying kiss that Judas gave Jesus was equated with the vampire’s so-called kiss to the human neck to drink its blood. Suicides were likely candidates for reanimating as vampires, and Judas was said to have committed suicide in a place called “field of blood” or Akeldama.

Vampire sightings were quite common in the 1700 and 1800’s. The Romantic Era of the 19th Century saw the literary beginnings of vampire mythology that became pervasive and popular. Such tales, beginning with Polidori’s “Vampyre” of 1819, was said to be modeled on the Romantic poet, Byron. It had large sales. The cheap series of pamphlets titled “Varney the Vampire”, from 1845-1847, were the genesis of the vampire mythology which has continued to be present day. Those older versions have now begun to alter with contemporary depiction of vampires in plays, television series, films and novels. Most importantly, such stories have become less religious, and whilst retaining much of the lore, have moved into a secular and modern version of the undead that has abandoned the idea of a god to a great extent. Even when god is mentioned, it is merely a cursory and unimportant nod to an old narrative.

By now there is a great deal of vampire lore that fiction may refer to when reworking the stories. Such lore is often changed, discarded, or made use of in a manner that differs slightly from past accounts, depending on the tale’s author, or in the present day, the film director and/or writer. In general, Bram Stoker’s 1897 Dracula, which forged much of the earlier vampire mythology into an enduring classic novel, continues to be made use of in contemporary works of art that feature vampires as their anti-heroes. Some of the attributes of vampires continue to be remarkably similar. Most importantly, the vampire must have some form of blood, preferably human, to survive. Such creatures are also immortal, although vulnerable to being destroyed by a wooden stake driven into them, by fire or decapitation, or by being exposed to sunlight too long. They are thus possessors of eternal life. As mentioned in the opening paragraphs, this paper will discuss how we humans crave and fear immortality. There will be a discussion as well of our awe and fear of blood. Vampirism as an inversion of Christian mythology and belief will also be thoroughly traversed.

Other less important attributes of vampires are their strength, their (sometimes) shape-shifting abilities, such as turning into a bat, a dog, a wolf, or even a mist. Many of them are invisible in a mirror or a photograph. They are vulnerable to silver, garlic, holy water, crosses and other religious objects. Vampires must be invited in, raising the issue of humans giving in to wickedness, either through their own evil desires, or through naivety. Vampires are often very fast, and frequently are able to fly. In contemporary accounts, and even many older versions, vampires are good-looking, slender and seductive. They have fangs, which are revealed when they are threatened, angry, ready to drink human blood or are aroused sexually. They are sometimes able to read minds, but not always. Some of them have hypnotic ability.

The human fascination with blood is well known and recorded. Blood transfixes us. If we humans lose too much of it, we die. If we receive a transfusion of it, we live, as long as our blood type matches with the transfusion. In the 1897 novel, one of the women being drained of blood by Dracula receives infusions from her fiancé, from the vampire hunter, Van Helsing, and from other former suitors. There is a great deal of discussion of who has been the first to give the lady blood , with barely hidden sexual innuendo, but no idea of obtaining the matching blood type for her. Many people died from transfusions that did not match their type at that time.

In the contemporary world, we know that blood can sometimes bring us death and disease by transmitting various bacteria and viruses to us through our bloodstream. In vampire lore, the undead vampires have a special relation to blood. Not only do they require it to subsist, but their ingestion of human blood can turn a human subjected to such a process into a vampire, particularly if the human drinks or sucks the vampire’s blood in turn. This piece of folklore has survived to the present day, while so many other myths have been changed or discarded altogether. It is noteworthy that Dracula holds some of his female victims to his chest while he forces them to drink his blood. Such scenes are truly unnerving, suggesting a baby nursing at its mother’s breast. Interestingly, it is only by such an act that a vampire can reproduce itself. Vampires are sterile vis-a-vis reproduction through sperm and egg. But even this tale has begun to alter slightly. In the popular Twilight Series from the early 2000’s, the human heroine, Bella and her vampire lover, Edward, are able to reproduce a hybrid child, part human and part vampire, who has an accelerated growth and maturity pattern.

Blood is what keeps a vampire immortal. It is also part of the lore that a mortal may partake, voluntarily or involuntarily, of vampire blood and become immortal. There are only two options that humans possess to achieve immortality. One can die in this world, a fate common to all humans, and take one’s chances on some sort of unknown world beyond the one known to humans. Despite Church promises of eternal life, no one has returned to share their knowledge of the Christian heaven. Such an immortal fate also holds out the fear of finding oneself in eternal punishment rather than eternal bliss. If one has the luck, good or bad, to achieve eternal life, youth, and beauty by becoming a vampire in this world, one must accept the fact that such a path is evil. Even in fantasy, people with good intentions and morality have usually rejected the idea of vampirism. However, that rejection is more often seen in earlier vampire fiction. There is a significant change in the 2000’s, with some people in vampire novels, films and television series, choosing vampirism, even though they are aware that the choice is heinous.

Rachael Robison locates some of the philosophical ideas concerning blood as coming from the history and philosophy of medicine. Many ancient philosophers, such as Aristotle (384-322 BCE) believed that blood was produced by the heart and that the heart was the rational and controlling center of the body. Ancient physicians, such as Galen in the 2nd Century, CE, believed that illness and even mental disorders were the result of stagnant blood. As a result of such thinking, blood- letting became a common “cure” for illnesses, putting leeches on the skin of the sick person, or cutting the skin to release the “unhealthy” blood. Needless to say, people often died from such treatments which were intended to cure.

The blood of vampires seems to be particularly desirable if one wishes to gain immortality or other benefits in the contemporary fictional treatments of the undead. In the True Blood series, when a synthetic is developed for nourishment for vampires without the necessity of draining humans, it is vampire blood that ironically becomes quite covetable. Humans use it as an expensive drug, which provides a potent high. It also seems to enhance sexual excitement and makes humans healthier. These attributes lead to the hunting and killing of vampires by humans for their blood, an interesting turn in the lore. Unlucky vampires are drained of their blood and killed by people who then sell it to dealers for a high price.

Robison maintains that even with our more scientific world view in the present day, we still associate emotions with the heart and blood. She states that we have many expressions about blood that convey “facts” about a person’s emotional state. People have “blood ties” or are “blood relations.” Friends exchange blood between them at times to signify undying love and loyalty. People are described as cold-blooded or hot-blooded. When the heroine and anti-hero of the “True Blood” Series exchange blood, they become aware of when the other one is near or in danger. They have some sort of supernatural connection. Such “blood ties” between humans and vampires have changed very little through fiction over the last century or so, despite other important alterations in the tales.

Robison believes that our fear and awe of blood is so deeply ingrained in our psyches, that the putative magical powers attributed to it in so many fictional treatments of vampires is not found too off-putting or unbelievable for the tastes of contemporary audiences. We shall discuss the connection between the importance of blood in the Christian belief system and practice and the necessity of blood in the vampire world later in this paper.

The immortality of vampires is also a crucial part of the lore of folk tales, mythology, and novels and films about the undead. Before discussing whether or not eternal life on this earth, combined with youth, attractiveness and mental and physical health and power, is desirable, it is necessary to glance at the tales of vampire immortality. Many such notions have come about because of actual observations of so-called vampires who in reality are nothing but buried dead bodies with no supernatural ability, essence or power. The observations have been incorrect in their conclusions. Such notions have been, or should be, dispelled by science. There are not merely biological fantasies concerning the dead and the fears that they are actually alive. There are also profound psychological motivations that cause people to fear and desire the dead to come alive, particularly if they have loved the departed one.

In his excellent 1988 volume,” Vampires, Burial and Death,” Paul Barber has addressed the physical appearance of corpses along with the burying practices of the past. It is an important study and the author has exhaustively explained the natural causes that frightened people into believing a corpse was still alive, or had been reanimated after death and burial.

There was one particularly gruesome tale about dead people who were not truly dead but merely in a coma. Such people, on awakening, then chewed on their own bodies to obtain food and drink, broke their fingernails trying to get out of the coffin and eventually suffocated and died. However, Barber states there is no true account as yet of a corpse reviving and chewing on itself. There were thousands of dead bodies which were hastily buried in the Nazi camps of the 1930’s and 1940’s. No evidence was found of any auto cannibalism in those graves. There were also tales that people reviving from comas were murdered because they had come to life, but the truth of those stories remains an open question at the time of this writing.

But the many natural facts about a dead body reveal why people without scientific understanding were struck with fear by what they believed was the uncanny appearance of many corpses. I shall detail of few of these scientific facts and observations. Barber’s volume is a highly well-researched and definitive volume that goes very deeply into the facts of the natural changes that occur in dead bodies and in grave sites.

People were horror struck when a dead body’s grave was opened and the corpse had blood at its nose and mouth. Sights such as this gave rise to the belief that bodies with bloody noses and mouths were vampires who rose at night and “fed” on living humans. Barber explains that when blood no longer circulates, its movement is determined by gravity. Suspected vampire bodies were very often buried face down so they would not be able to find their way out of their grave. The trachea of such a body was often in the vicinity of the pooling blood, which would then seep out through the nose and mouth. Sudden death of many kinds can also create liquidity of the blood. Barber explains that a dead body can naturally stiffen and relax, bleed at the mouth and nose, appear to grow, appear to shrivel, change color with great versatility, seem to grow a beard, and even burst open due to accumulated gas action.

Nails and hair do not continue to grow after death, but the shriveling of the body makes both appear longer. Nails dropping off expose the body’s nail bed, which is mistaken for the body appearing to have grown new nails. People sometimes mistook maggot action for stab wounds to the dead body. Fungus on the head seemed to indicate new white hair that had grown on the corpse.

Bodies were frequently buried quickly in the past, particularly when there were a great many plague deaths. They were also buried in shallow graves, sometimes one corpse on top of another, with a little earth between them. Barber explains that as the body of such a corpse decomposes, it frequently changes size dramatically, blowing up to a larger size, then shrinking to a smaller one, which disturbs the earth above and around it. People often believed a body that changed in such ways was a risen vampire.

Noises were reported as coming from the corpses inside some graves. The abdominal wall of a dead body is distended by gas. Less often, a pregnant woman who had died had a fetus in her uterus which was expelled as her body bloated. Actions such as these would create uncanny sounds and sights. If the body actually burst, the noise was frightening. 

There were rumors of disturbed graves, which gave rise to tales of bodies emerging from graves, as well as sightings of actual bodies seen out of their graves. Such bodies had often been dug up by animals or grave robbers. There were also people who would remove a suicide’s corpse from sanctified ground and other people who believed certain corpses were vampires and would dig them up to destroy them in some ritual manner. Erosion and flooding were other causes for disturbed graves, sometimes with the dead bodies completely out of their resting places.

The belief that a body bled when its murderer appeared before it is easily explained by Barber. Suspects were often forced to manipulate the dead body. The accumulated blood would appear as the result of the manipulation. Bodies that had been thrown into the water would also be almost impossible to submerge due to simple buoyancy. There were a plethora of folk beliefs concerning dead bodies. There was the belief that some corpses with suspicious appearances or in disturbed graves had been reanimated as vampires or were simply vampires who appeared dead but were not. Barber’s book is a rewarding and exhaustive study of the natural action of the deterioration of corpses and the reasons for disturbed graves that were a large contribution to vampire lore and mythology.

Ernest Jones wrote a book in 1951 entitled “On the Nightmare.” One of the chapters deals exclusively with vampire dreams, nightmares and fears. Jones has attempted to explain the psychological dynamics of people who are left bereaved, as well as the coping mechanisms and unconscious motivations of people whose loved ones have died. Jones explains that many people believe, either consciously or unconsciously, the myth that a dead person can visit the living, drawn by life, and in the process become reanimated. He maintains that people all over the world believe that the dead can visit the living, especially at night. Fear of the dead is also common all over the world. The desire to be with the loved one again creates a projection that the deceased in turn wishes to be reunited with the living. Jones states that such desires of the living gave rise to vampire beliefs and tales.

But he goes on to explain that there are cases where unconscious guilt can be associated with the dead person. The relationship while the departed was alive may have had troubling aspects. Then the idea of a reunion might be accompanied by a morbid dread or anxiety. Jones believes that the desire for a sexual reunion with the loved object might be repressed. In such cases the desire was replaced with fear, love replaced with sadism and the original loved object replaced by an unknown entity. Jones calls attention to the innate sexuality of bloodsucking. The idea of an undead entity draining fluids from a living body might have had unconscious connections with semen.

The Jones volume also explains the possible origin of the belief that a human might be forced to drink blood from a vampire’s breast, and that the vampire will suck blood from the human victim’s neck, both actions depicted in the 1897 Dracula novel. There is a psychological origin to such myths. The live baby nurses at the mother’s breast, but occasionally is placed on her shoulder to “burp” ingested gas. The child is still hungry, so often he or she will attempt to “feed” on the mother’s neck. As babies achieve some teeth, they might also “nip” the mother’s neck a bit. They might also do the same to the mother’s breast. The oral sadism of the infant, Jones believes, gave rise to the oral sadism tales of the vampire sucking human blood and being sucked by the humans in turn. Blood, a universal symbol of nourishment, replaces the more bland desire for breast milk.

Immortality of vampires and some of their victims is another issue that has been taken up by many religions. (Please see an atheist perspective at Illusion of Immortality, Part 1 and Part 2.) There are two main arguments for the rejection of the desire for immortality on earth, aside from religious objections. One of the most popular is that life takes its meaning from its briefness. Since we know our time is limited, the meaning of life becomes precious. The other argument is that not only would we humans, while remaining young, strong and everlasting, be heartsick at seeing loved ones and friends get sick and die, but that at some future point, we would come to be bored, unhappy at the changes in society which we cannot adjust to, and long for death. I shall address such arguments in my closing remarks. I would like to state, however, that while these arguments against immortality on this earth are interesting, they are not cogent. I think they are soothing rationalizations to help take the “sting” out of inevitable human aging and death. I believe that if we could attain an immortality that would include health and mental and physical vigor, many of us would take the leap and face the possible consequences. The Christian church attempted to solve the difficulty of our limited lives with the promise of unimagined bliss in some locale that was not on this earth, a “heaven” for all those who led blameless lives. Both the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church used the vampire myth to not only insure their presence at burial rites and to reinforce their version of virtuous living inside the “arms” of the church, but also to reify the notion that immortal life on this earth was only for reanimated fiends. 

There are many objects in folklore which are reputed to repel or kill a vampire. There are some common myths that need to be examined before discussing the inversion of the Christian mass and communion associated with vampire myths. The wooden stake, a sure means of killing a vampire, almost as effective as cutting off its head, is easily associated with the mythology connected with Jesus, the Christian savior and god. Jesus’ crucifixion, which promised eternal life and forgiveness of human sin, was accomplished by nailing the hands and feet of the savior to a wooden cross. Killing the vampire with the full glare of sunlight, surely refers back to the powerful sun god, Sol Invictus, worshipped by many early people, including the Romans. The Roman Emperor Constantine, even after his so-called conversion to Christianity, retained such images of himself associated with the sun god on coinage and elsewhere in the 4th Century CE. He co-opted the sun god to merge himself, the early god and the Christian deity into one. Surely such a powerful image could be believed to vanquish the evil undead.

Silver was considered a powerful vampire repellant. Although gold crucifixes were sometimes used in the Dracula novel by Bram Stoker, silver objects were most often referred to as being effective with repelling vampires. One reason might be that gold was very costly in the past, just as in the present day, and not always at hand. Although silver was considered a precious metal as well, it was more affordable and more prevalent.

The association of silver with Judas Iscariot, the betrayer of Jesus, is noteworthy. Judas betrayed Jesus for thirty pieces of silver. Earlier, I mentioned that Judas was said to have committed suicide, and suicides were perfect candidates for becoming vampires in Christian lore. There was obviously a connection with Judas, a figure who was believed to be incredibly evil, and the heinous evil and malice of the vampire. A vampire could be decapitated with a silver knife after being killed with a wooden stake. (Suspected vampires were often buried with head and body far apart, so they could not find each other.) Blessed relics, particularly silver ones, were considered an effective means of repelling vampires. Mirrors were also made of silver at one time in the past, which might be connected to the belief that vampires do not have a reflection in mirrors. Any image they might have would be repelled by the silver of the mirror.

Silver was also sometimes associated with the third part of the Christian Holy Trinity made up of god, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Folklore was apparently able to hold both notions at once- the association of silver with Judas, an evil doer, and the connection of silver to one of the most revered Christian godheads, the Holy Spirit, often referred to as the Holy Ghost. The vampire could be vanquished by the precious silver metal, with its associations with the true faith , because unlike Christian believers, the vampire was believed to be an evil reanimation with no soul and not part of the Christian community.

Other effective vampire repellants were holy water, and oddly, garlic. Holy water is quite understandable, but garlic is problematical. Garlic flowers of one or two garlic plants might, if one stretched the imagination, vaguely seem to have a cross shape. Another explanation might be that the unpleasant odor of the raw garlic might seem to match the putrid odor associated with the vampire of older lore. Today’s vampires often just need a bath, have their own natural “sweet” odor or smell like humans. The body believed to be a vampire often had garlic stuffed in its mouth before being buried to further render its evil designs even less effective. There was a caveat attached to the use of such vampire repellants however. They would not be effective unless the user had a strong and unwavering faith. Any hesitation or fear they would not work or that the power of the divine was not at work in them would result in a terrible failure, putting the user and those he or she was trying to protect at the mercy of the vampire.

Vampire lore inverts Christian mythology to a greater degree with its dark counterpart to the Christian necessity of accepting Jesus and with the mythological ability to grant those who would become vampires eternal life in this world. In the Bible, it may be observed that Jesus is often invited into homes for healing of the sick and other miracles, such as raising Lazarus from the dead. Of course, it is assumed that whenever Jesus desires, he can simply walk into a room or house, as he is an all powerful god. But he is generally invited in. This custom is echoed in contemporary times with the belief of some Christian religions, mainly those with ties to the “saved” and evangelical movements that one needs to ask, or invite, or allow Jesus/god into one’s heart to be properly saved. Vampires must be invited in to drink human blood, the dark side of the Christian invitation.

An important part of Christian mythology is the ritual drinking of Christ’s blood. Before his arrest, trial and execution, Jesus told his apostles that the bread and wine he offered them at their last meal together was his body and blood. He stated that whoever drinks it and eats it would be assured eternal life. Jesus meant that such believers would join him in heaven after their earthly deaths. It was the spilling of Jesus’ blood and his death, according to most Christian theology, that saved humanity. His suffering and execution assured Christians of an immortal life.

The Christian mass repeats the drinking of Jesus’ blood for salvation and eternal life. The Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox and the Lutheran religions believe that after consecration by a priest, the bread and wine of their rite literally becomes the body and blood of Jesus. (Most Protestant churches believe the drinking of wine and the eating of bread is in remembrance of Jesus and is merely symbolic, not a transubstantiation.) When one examines the core of the vampire myth, it is obvious that it replicates the Eucharist of the Christian Church but turns it on its head. Christians are promised eternal life if they accept Jesus and devote themselves to following his commandments and living a good moral life.

A vampire drinks the blood of humans, either killing them or making them damned souls like itself. There is no question of such humans ever leading a “good” life. The vampire drinks human blood to live and to remain immortal. It commits an evil act by draining humans of life blood and often revels in that transgression. There is certainly no question of a vampire leading anything but a life that is wicked and immoral. We shall see how this lore becomes very different in the contemporary world, but such beliefs about vampires remained unchanged for many years. The vampire’s victims, if they become vampires, are doomed to damnation like their maker. God is supposedly the creator of everything, even humans, in Christian mythology. But the vampire is a maker as well, a creator of erstwhile human creatures that it can change and control psychologically, physically and morally.

Dorothy Ivey’s 2010 master’s thesis, “The Vampire Myth and Christianity,” contains many interesting and insightful observations, particularly about the role of the Christian Church in perpetuating and prolonging the vampire myth for its own purposes and advantage. She relates the story of the real life Dracula, Vlad III, who ruled in Wallachia in the middle 1400’s. He was a hero of the Catholic Church because he was one of the few rulers who responded to Pope Pius II’s plea to stop the Turkish forces from their European incursions. Vlad claimed to have killed 23,884 Turks and Bulgars. The pope was grateful and decided Vlad was a true Christian hero. However, the erstwhile hero was finally imprisoned by the Hungarian Court, from 1462 until he died in 1476. He has been condemned by history for visiting severe punishments not only on Turks and Bulgars, but on his own people. He was claimed to be guilty of impalement, boiling alive, burning, decapitation and dismemberment. He earned the nickname of Vlad the Impaler. It is likely that Vlad III was the model for the wicked vampire, Count Dracula, in Bram Stoker’s classic novel by the same name. It was Stoker’s novel that set vampire lore for over a century, with its evil vampire and faithful Christian opponents, who were armed with religious objects, even a consecrated host, to repel and defeat their formidable opponent. The Pope had received reports of Vlad III’s crimes, but never condemned them. Vlad III was, for a while, the hero who saved much European land and the Christian religion from the Turks.

Witherspoon believes that the frequent vampire sightings during the 17th and 18th Centuries in Europe, particularly in the peripheral territories of the Hungarian Kingdom, were partly the result of the Catholic Church trying to preserve its waning power. The Protestant Church had achieved large inroads of influence and power, especially in Northern Europe, during its Protestant Reformation of the 15th and 16th Centuries. The Roman Catholic Church decided to expand eastward, in an attempt to shore up its influence. But in the Balkans it encountered the entrenched resistance of the established religions of the Greek Orthodox Church and the Muslim believers. The Catholic Church made use of the vampire legend as a wedge to maintain political power, not sanctity. Both the Muslim faith and the Greek Orthodox believers gave credence to the notion of eternal life. Catholic priests began to preach and spread the fear that one could experience eternal afterlife not as a blessed soul, but as one of the undead. From there, it was but a step to the next foolery. A scapegoat was needed to illustrate the horror of such an undead existence, and so the myth of the vampire was given credence.

The sightings continued in Europe until thinkers of the 18th Century Enlightenment such as Voltaire and Rousseau began to scoff. Pope Benedict XIV admitted that he believed the stories of vampires were fairy tales, but did nothing to stop ecclesiastical scholars from claiming vampires existed and were agents of the devil. They were continuing a tale that the Church had given credence to as early as the 4th Century. From Augustine in the 4th Century to Aquinas in the 14th Century, important Church officials, scholars and writers gave credence to vampire belief.

During the Middle Ages, the Church had encouraged the fears of the credulous that dead people would become vampires if they did not receive proper burial rites. The Church made sure that elaborate burial rites, provided by the priesthood, were carried out to ensure that the dead would remain dead. The most important assurance of remaining dead was to be buried in ground consecrated by the Church. The Church garnered a great deal of power by claiming that suicides, pagans, heretics and the excommunicated were to be excluded from Christian burial. The Eastern Orthodox Church believed that the excommunicated undead were vampires. The Church used vampire lore as one more way to control members by insisting on funeral rites laid down by the church and carried out by its priests. It also encouraged the myth of being able to deter and even vanquish vampires by using the instruments of the Church, such as crucifixes, holy water and so on.

The following pages will track the changes in several of the most popular and influential vampire novels and films to demonstrate how, while the legends and lore of the vampire have continued for the most part, the element of the sacred and the role of the Christian church in them has dramatically altered. In contemporary vampire fiction, the Catholic Church is fortunate to be given a courtesy nod, as the vampires continue an afterlife that seems to be en route to outliving Christian lore and finding mythologies of their own. As mentioned before, Bram Stoker, the author, took the name of the bloodthirsty ruler of Wallachia and combined it with vampire folklore and myth in 1897 to create a work of fiction. He named the novel, Dracula, which was an honorary title used by both Vlad III and his father, and apparently meant, “The Order of the Dragon.” It was Bram Stoker who consolidated earlier vampire lore and fiction and forged an unforgettable classic tale that was the foundational novel for the image of the undead. Vampires of later fiction and film followed the Stoker recipe, which was usually very popular with audiences. Certain traits and behavior had come to be expected from classic vampires, until the 21st Century.

I shall be reviewing Stoker’s novel, and three other vampire tales, one of them a film, “What We Do In The Shadows” from 2014, the popular Stephenie Meyers’ Twilight Book and film series from 2005-2012, and the 2001 to 2014 True Blood book and television series , sometimes called the Southern Vampires by Charlaine Harris. I shall also briefly consider the great difference between Bram Stoker’s vampire hunter, Van Helsing, and the teenage vampire hunter, Buffy, from the 1997 to 2001 television series in order to point out the differences not only between depictions of vampires in the last hundred years or so, but also the changes to the vampire hunters. All the contemporary works will demonstrate the dramatic shift from the power and authority that religious beliefs and objects had over vampires and those who believed in the mythology, to contemporary vampire lore depicting the undead responses to such objects minus the religious imagery or theological belief system of the past. 

There has been a change in the modern vampire’s compulsive need to drink human blood. Vampires have become less miserable concerning their eternal life. Such shifts in vampire lore echo the increasing secularity in American and Western European society, where fictional vampires are depicted as living eternal lives in which they determine their behavior to a great extent and have the ability to make more choices. Their changing depiction in popular culture demonstrates the dramatic shift in cultural beliefs and mores. Vampires from past fiction remained under the power of a Christian god, who allowed them to exist for some unknown reason but made them vulnerable to so-called holy objects, such as crucifixes and holy water. The modern vampires are not unaffected by such objects, depending on the author of the tale, but the power of the artifacts no longer seem to have any connection to the Christian or Jewish god in the least. Such increasing secularity of the undead lore is all the more interesting as most of such movies, books and television series have been created and produced in the United States, the one successful and capitalistic Western nation that supposedly clings to the Christian faith.

In the Bram Stoker novel from 1897, the vampire, Count Dracula, has decided to move from his traditional home in Transylvania and enlarge his supply of victims in London, England. A young English lawyer, Jonathan Harker, is sent to Dracula to expedite the Count’s purchase of a home in London. Harker realizes that Dracula is a fiend after being locked in his room, tempted by the vampire’s three undead wives ,and other mishaps. Dracula leaves to board a ship to London with his fifty coffins aboard. Vampires need to sleep in the daytime in a coffin filled with earth. Harker manages to escape but is very ill and wakes up in a hospital. From there he begins to mend so he can return to London and his fiancé, Mina. In the meantime, having reached London, Dracula proceeds to slowly drain the blood of Mina’s friend, Lucy. Lucy dies from Dracula’s assaults, even though her uncle has called in his friend, Van Helsing, a brilliant doctor and deeply religious man. Lucy becomes reanimated as a vampire who sucks the blood of young children.

Dracula then turns to Harker’s fiancé, Mina. Harker has returned to London, but sees Dracula by chance on a city street and suffers a minor relapse. Van Helsing has been studying his ancient volumes and confirms his deep suspicion that a vampire is at work in Lucy’s death. Several friends search out Lucy and behead her. Van Helsing confirms that she is now guaranteed redemption and entry into heaven on Judgment Day.

Mina is barely saved from becoming a vampire, as was Lucy. Dracula forces her to drink his blood from his breast, an interesting inversion from the “natural” nursing of a child at its mother’s breast. Dracula is the potential creator of Mina, turning her into a vampire by this act. Van Helsing, Harker and the three men who had loved Lucy destroy Dracula’s coffins with the aid of a consecrated host, mixing pieces of it in the earth that they contain. Dracula cannot use them as the host repels him. Dracula escapes, making his way to his home in Transylvania in his one remaining coffin. He is being transported by a group of Gypsies when the men, led by Van Helsing and accompanied by Mina, defeat and kill Dracula. Mina is saved from being a vampire and London is saved from the threat of an infection of vampires.

Van Helsing is a deeply religious man despite his scientific prowess and his reputation as a noted scholar. He has a fictional resemblance to the philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1885), who maintained that it is necessary to believe in god because such a belief is absurd. Van Helsing believes what he has studied and what he observes but through the eyes of his religious faith. So he is able to deduce that Dracula is a vampire and is able to use traditional means to repel the undead villain. He uses garlic flowers, gold and silver crucifixes, wooden stakes and so on. The consecrated host he uses to render Dracula’s coffins useless has been obtained through a special church dispensation. When Dracula and his three wives are decapitated, they turn to dust. Mina, who has trusted in Van Helsing and her strong religious faith, is cured instantly and becomes a human once more.

The important point in this over one hundred year old novel is that Van Helsing is a vampire hunter but he can only prevail if he has perfect belief in the religious objects he uses against Dracula. In Stephen King’s 1975 Salem’s Lot, a priest whose faith wavers when a vampire challenges him is conquered by the vampire and is turned into one himself. The ancient lore and the religious objects meant to repel a vampire were only effective if accompanied by great and trusting religious devotion.

By contrast, in the 1997-2003 television series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Buffy uses religious objects effectively but there seems to be no connection to religion or faith in god with those artifacts. The vampires who are vulnerable to crucifixes, stakes and other formerly Christian objects, not only have no belief in god, but instead have their own “holy” book and origin myth. They believe they were on earth first, being displaced by humans in some sort of evolutionary development. At one point, the heroine, Buffy, claims: “Make note- religion is creepy.” Buffy prevails by some unknown power, but in 1997 that power is no longer the Christian one that Van Helsing relied on to vanquish vampires.

Written by Charlaine Harris, the Southern Vampire book series from 2001 to 2013 and the television series from 2008 to 2014, are interesting for their premise that a synthetic blood replacement, called True Blood, makes it possible for vampires to use it for nourishment. If they use “True Blood,” which is also the name of the television series, they can live without draining a human of blood, without killing humans or more rarely, turning them into vampires. The vampires of the True Blood series have eternal life (except when they are drained of blood, pierced by a wooden stake, or exposed for too long to bright sun) . But unfortunately, as mentioned earlier, “real” vampire blood gives humans an incredible drug high, making the vampires vulnerable to being trapped and drained of their blood. Such blood is of very high value on the human drug market.

The vampires in True Blood are subject to the traditional lore. They must stay out of bright sunlight, sleep in a dark place during the day, and cannot eat human food or drink human drink. They also have superhuman strength and speed. But the series operates on an original plot device. Vampires in the South are fighting for their civil rights. They have come out of the closet, or the coffin, as it were, and wish to be treated as citizens. Many of the churches and the residents of these Southern states are prejudiced against vampires. The undead are subjected to insults, draining of their blood, and murdered. Many people do not want to associate with them, and those humans who do are looked at askance. There are also vampires in the story line who do not like the taste of the synthetic, “True Blood,” and continue to kill humans, whom they consider an inferior species. The issue of moral choice is raised by this series. The Southern vampires can have eternal life if they decide to drink “True Blood” and not kill humans. There is no real choice in the earlier Dracula novel or other early vampire tales. Earlier vampires are depicted as evil, driven and desperate creatures. Their single goal is to imbibe human blood.

Some of the Southern Blood vampires are able to abstain from evil practices if they so desire. The series has a heroine who is nominally a Christian, and believes that Jesus would have liked vampires. That Jesus or his father, god, is responsible for creating or allowing vampires to exist is not an issue in this series. The Christians in the story lines are seen as hypocritical and their leaders murderous and power loving. One of the opening shots in each show is of a church billboard proclaiming: “God hates fangs,” a reminder of the LGBT movement and its difficulties from religious groups. Vampires are creatures with a choice and with a desire to be accepted in mainstream society in contemporary fiction, films and television. They have “come out” of their coffins and are demanding their rights.

The 2014 film, “What We Do In the Shadows,” is a wry comedy. It is a send up of vampire horror tales and also of documentaries. There are four vampires in this tale, who share a flat in New Zealand. In preparation for a huge once a year celebration for vampires, zombies and other creatures, called “The Unholy Masquerade,” some film makers are visiting the flat to film the four friends. The entire film is shot as a documentary on the vampires’ lives and preparation for the celebration. The film crew has been provided with crucifixes for protection and the vampires have promised not to harm them.

The film plays with earlier vampire lore. Three of the friends are preoccupied with dressing stylishly, going to the most desirable night spots and generally doing things that they consider “cool.” But they are still bound to a great extent by that lore. They are unable to see their image in a mirror, must drink blood to live, recoil from crucifixes, sleep in dark coffins during the day and so on. They can, as could Dracula, fly, turn into bats, hypnotize humans and in general conform to earlier versions of vampire traits.

However, there is no god in this film nor an origin myth offered. The vampires are immortal, barring the usual mishaps with sunshine and stakes. The most interesting part of this film is the vampires’ joyous embrace of life. The brooding vampire of the past is portrayed in this film as well. He is an 8,000 year old vampire who is hideous, frightening and driven by thirst for human blood. He is meant as a satirical comment on the film and its anti-hero, Nosferatu, a classic tale from 1929. He is murdered by being exposed to bright sunlight by a vampire hunter early in the film. With his death, a vampire tradition that is no longer of interest to modern audiences dies as well, to replaced by equally murderous, but joyful and cavorting night creatures.

The humans in this film who have become aware of the vampires’ talents and especially of their eternal life are eager to become vampires. They do not mind if it means killing other humans for their blood. Gone is the terrible fear of joining the undead and being eternally damned. An old servant of one of the vampires left back in Europe complains over Skype to his master that he had been promised eternal life. He says he has done nothing with his life, waiting for the vampire transformation. His master quickly disconnects the call.

Another vampire employs a human woman who acts as an unpaid and overworked employee, doing extremely unpleasant tasks, like cleaning up blood from “kills” and so on. She is married and has children, but still desires eternal life and power. She is willing to be used by the vampire who delays making her one of the undead for years because she is a useful “slave.” She is finally turned by another vampire and expresses great delight in having attained her goal of being one of the undead. This movie is comically truthful about how much humans long for immortality. At the film’s end, the vampires happily gather for a small celebration. There are many modern themes about the undead in “What We Do In The Shadows.” The first is the secularity. There is no god or origin myth in the story. The second is the characters’ pleasure in being vampires. The third is their delight in being immortal in this world, not some heaven promised by traditional religion.

The final books and films discussed in this paper also depict the increased secularity of vampire lore. The Twilight books, written by Stephenie Meyer and the films, all of them from 2005 to 2012, depict a very different type of vampire than any other works in this paper. A young girl, Bella, returns to her hometown of Crossroads, Washington to live with her father, the town sheriff. The name of the town is a strong hint that something strange will happen. In the past, cross roads were where vampires appeared or were buried. People sometimes were said to meet the devil at cross roads as well. Famous jazz musicians were sometimes rumored to have met the devil at the cross roads and sold their soul to him in exchange for their great talent.

Bella meets Edward Cullen, a handsome young man, at her new high school. He is a vampire and is strongly attracted to Bella, not only sexually but also by the smell of her blood, which he wishes to drink. The plot of the four novels and five films of the Twilight series centers around this couple’s relationship and its problems. Eventually they marry, Bella becomes a vampire in order to save her life, and the two have a hybrid little girl, half human and half vampire. She has accelerated growth and seems to have some sort of empathetic ability but her future is left open by the writer.

Edward is part of the Cullen family, whose members were mainly created because they were near death. They were saved by being made vampires by the family head, a physician who had been turned into a vampire himself. The doctor works at the local hospital of the town and the children, in reality many years older than teenagers because they have been vampires so long, attend the local high school. They have kept the looks they had when they were turned, so the masquerade is not detected.

When Bella gets to know the Cullen family, there is a major turn to the story and to contemporary vampire lore. The Twilight vampires are quite secular, much like the vampires we have glanced at in other books and films from the 2000’s. These vampires do not drink human blood. The father, Dr. Cullen, has a strong moral and empathetic character and he struggles to prevent his family from becoming killers. They do not have “True Blood” or any synthetic offered to them, so must solve their dilemma by other means. They humorously call themselves “vegetarians.” They drink the blood of the large animal predators in the area, such as mountain lions.

These vampires do not fear sunlight, as it is not fatal to them. They avoid it, living in cloudy areas, because full sunlight makes them sparkle beautifully, and would give away the fact they are not human. They have individual talents and traits. Some can see into the future, others are very strong and fast, some of them can fly and so on. They don’t sleep and do not eat human food. They are not subject to much traditional vampire lore, with their origin story emerging from “the mists of time.”

There seems to be no creator god involved in their genesis, nor any sort of devil. There is no higher power in this series. The main threat to the Cullen clan is the Vulturi, a powerful vampire coven based in Italy. They are aristocrats, cling to old traditions and beliefs, feast on human blood and are determined to keep the fact of surviving vampires from humans. The Vulturi’s name suggests vultures, birds of prey, and their aristocratic background, as well as their rules, seem to suggest a connection with the old Italian aristocracy, such as the Borgias and the Medici. Such families had great wealth and power during the Renaissance and were often connected by blood relationships with the Popes of the Roman Catholic Church. The Vulturi’s iron clad rules are revealed to be more to enable the coven to maintain its superior power over the other vampires rather than to guarantee the safety of the entire vampire world. Their regulations and restrictions, with severe penalties attached to transgressing them, seem to suggest the behavior of the Catholic Church of earlier times. Religion is not presented in a positive light in the Twilight series, any more than the other contemporary vampire tale considered by this paper.

By the end of the books and films, the Cullen clan seems to be on its way to a happy immortal life, even though there is a threat that the Vulturis might return. The European vampires have failed to conquer the Cullens and have ignominiously retreated to Italy, their stronghold. Bella and Edward are happy with their baby girl and the Cullens are free to develop their various talents and interests. The Cullens are depicted as bringers of a new dispensation, a freer, happier and more beneficial one. The name of their series, “Twilight,” means neither day nor night. Some critics have seen a suggestion that the Cullens are bringing on a “Twilight of the Gods,” as the philosopher, Nietzsche (1844-1900) wrote about, an end to old, restrictive laws.

It has become obvious, as we have traversed the world of vampire lore, that the old question of god’s existence and his putative abilities are brought very much into question by the existence of undead creatures, such as vampires, werewolves and zombies. Theodicies are the name given to attempts to explain the motives of god to humans, but the explanations have always been insufficient and fail to provide any clear rationale.

Those Christian writers who spin out theodocies are finally caught up in the notion of a god allowing evil to preserve men’s free will to choose between evil and good. They also maintain that people, in some uncertain future, immortal life, will be provided with an explanation and will then understand the toleration of evil on the part of this god. But unfortunately for Christian theologians, two things become very clear when contemplating evil in the world. Their god either chose to do nothing, or could not do anything to prevent evil. The Greek philosopher, Epicurus stated this obvious fact in the 4th Century BCE. It is even possible that, as Gnostic doctrine would have it, this god inefficiently created our world and all its human and natural evil. Some have believed that god then abandoned the world. Most reasonable people conclude that such a god, or any god, never existed at all.

Edward and Bella, at the end of the Twilight series, find happiness and goodness by relying on themselves. They are free of the notion of god, and are able to find power, contentment and flourishing by their own efforts. But they enjoy one attribute that we humans cannot attain. That is the gift of immortality. We have been extending the human life span bit by bit. Perhaps in some future time, if we do not destroy our planet and the chance to inhabit another one, we shall see very long expansion of our life spans.

I think that the rationalizations that philosophers such as Martha Nussbaum bring forward concerning human life are insufficient. Such thinkers state that life would have much less meaning if there were no end to it. They insist that even while death brings an end to our goals, our interests and projects, which is therefore a bad thing, it also creates an intensity and dedication to those goals and tasks because we know we are constrained to bring them to completion because of our limited time span.

I do not believe that all humans would be bored or put off important projects if they knew they had an eternity in which to fulfill them. Many people never live up to the full value and intensity that life deserves in the present day with death bringing closure to all potential. But there are those who do. Ted M. Preston argues that immortality is no guarantee of eventual boredom and life value lost. It is each one of us who determines and lives up to the value of our lives, whether bound by mortality or immortality. We have learned that we need no gods, no religions or clerics to teach us how to live our lives or what projects we should choose.

A stimulating, exciting life would likely be just the same if extended in perpetuity. We could pursue our dreams, pleasures and projects forever. I think many of us would choose immortality if we could. Since we cannot, and will never experience the immortality of the fictional vampires we have studied, I think the conclusion of writers such as Preston should be embraced. Preston inquires: “Since it is extremely unlikely we should find ourselves vampires some day, “… why not do the next best thing? Try to live a life that would be worthy of eternity.”


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