Ginger Nuts of Horror
Ginger Nuts of Horror is proud to present an exclusive excerpt from M. Jess Peacock's new book, Such A Dark Thing - A Theology of the Vampire Narrative in Popular Culture.
Evil, death, demons, reanimation, and resurrection. While such topics are often reserved for the darker mindscapes of the vampire subgenre within popular culture, they are equally integral elements of religious history and belief. Despite the cultural shift of presenting vampires in a secular light, the traditional figure of the vampire within cinema and literature has a rich legacy of serving as a theological marker. Whether as a symbol of the allure of sin, as an apologetic for assorted religious icons, or as a gateway into a discussion of liberationist theology, the vampire has served as a spiritual touchstone from Bram Stoker's Dracula, to Stephen King's Salem's Lot, to the HBO television series True Blood. In Such a Dark Thing, Jess Peacock examines how the figure of the vampire is able to traverse and interconnect theology and academia within the larger popular culture in a compelling and engaging manner. The vampire straddles the ineffable chasm between life and death and speaks to the transcendent in all of us, tapping into our fundamental curiosity of what, if anything, exists beyond the mortal coil, giving us a glimpse into the interminable while maintaining a cultural currency that is never dead and buried.
Published by WIPF and STOCK PUBLISHERS
""Equal parts fan-boy adulation and academic analysis, this delightful book expresses such joy and enthusiasm in either mode: in both, the author shows what it is to be passionately engaged and intellectually stimulated by the subject. The section on liberation theology and social change also takes the vampire narrative into new areas of interpretation and application that I found especially exciting and invigorating. Those who identify as either fan or critic (or both) will find here fresh insight into and inspiration from their favorite monster--a sort of bracing antidote to Twilight!"" --Kim Paffenroth, author of Gospel of the Living Dead "
Used with permission from Wipf and Stock Publishers
At the climax of the novel ‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King, Ben Mears, the author turned reluctant vampire killer, has finally come face-to-face with Barlow, his undead antagonist. As the sun sets and the showdown begins, the master vampire psychically invades the mind of Mears, declaring:
Look and see me, puny man. Look upon Barlow, who has passed the centuries as you have passed hours before a fireplace with a book. Look and see the great creature of the night whom you would slay with your miserable little stick. Look upon me, scribbler. I have written in human lives, and blood has been my ink. Look upon me and despair!
Faced with the overwhelming power of his otherworldly adversary, Mears is sapped of his strength, suddenly all too cognizant of his own mortality. Perhaps due to the supernatural status of Barlow, perhaps due to the ferocity of Barlow’s psychic monologue, perhaps due to Mears’ own perceived human frailty, or perhaps a combination of all three, this devastating response to the manifestation of the vampire illustrates what theologian Rudolf Otto (1869-1937) described as the mysterium tremendum, “that is, a radically other mystery that brings on a stupefying combination of fascination and terror, wonder and dread,” traits, Otto argued, of religious experience present in the sublime as well as the horrific. The feeling or presence of the mysterium tremendum occurs in response to the numinous, another term coined by Otto that describes encounters with a Divine occurrence, as well as a “feeling which remains where the concept fails.” The idea of the numinous is an ineffable one, impossible to label or explain in any tangible way. It is less an emotional response to a sacred presence and more a type of mindfulness, a fundamental understanding that one is faced with the hallowed, the Divine, or something wholly other.
The effectiveness of the vampire narrative (as well as the horror genre overall) relies on the awe and mystification brought on by the dread of the mysterium tremendum experienced in the wake of the supremacy of the numinous figure. Whether seen through the eyes of Ben Mears, Jonathan Harker from Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula, or Charley Brewster in Fright Night, any of the heroes who have seen fit to directly challenge the supernatural presence and power of the vampire have been brought emotionally and spiritually low by the numinous presence of the undead, achieving a distinct and horrible awareness of their utter lack of ability to effectively act against the monster.
Not only is the vampire an ambiguity (mysterium) to those who encounter the creature, it possesses the ability to strike fear and trepidation (tremendum) in even the most heroic, emerging from the page and screen as an undoubtedly numinous figure. In the book The Vampire as Numinous Experience: Spiritual Journeys with the Undead in British and American Literature, Beth McDonald writes, “[I]t is not the degree or intensity of the fear that is most important, according to Otto; it is that the person not only trembles before something apparently absolute and powerful, but also that the person is left with a sense of the self’s insignificance in relation to that absolute power.” Whether the numinous figure is benevolent or malevolent is not the issue. Rather, the witness to the numinous understands at a fundamental level that the mysterious figure, simply through its existence, poses an intrinsic danger to the accepted reality of the observer, creating an immediate sense of awe and, conceivably, horror that one’s own humanity may not survive the encounter.
Interestingly, the concept of the mysterium tremendum put forth by Otto was meant to convey the effects of a distinctly religious encounter, a brush with the Divine or an agent thereof. Poole writes, “[R]eligious experience [is] a kind of horror movie, embodiments of the Divine that evoke feelings of terror. The monsters of the Bible are symbols of that horror.” As such, examining the vampire through the lens of the mysterium tremendum raises two very important questions: 1) If the vampire displays traits of the numinous, must we consider it a symbol of the Divine? Within the literary and cinematic mythology of the undead, the vampire has conquered death, promises everlasting life, and even displays power over certain aspects of the created order (e.g. the weather and nocturnal animals). 2) Is the presence of the Divine, for which the term mysterium tremendum was essentially coined, inherently horrific, even if essentially benevolent in nature?
Theology of Terror
Timothy Beal, addressing the overarching modus operandi of the literary work of H.P. Lovecraft, writes, “Lovecraft considered cosmic fear to be coeval with religious experience, but he believed that modern religion (especially mainstream American Protestantism) had attuned itself exclusively to the more beneficent dimensions of cosmic mystery[.]” In other words, mainstream Christianity chose to emphasize and promote the softer side of its religious heritage, explaining away, or simply outright disregarding, the darker topics of genocide, rape, filicide, etc. that are legion within the Judeo-Christian Scriptures. As a result, Lovecraft believed that the contemporary horror genre has emerged in its present form as a bifurcation to modern religion, a malevolent (although essential) compartment that the devout keep at arms length, while using it to compile their unspoken and unrealized fears about the shadow side of the Divine. Lovecraft wrote in his novella The Call of Cthulhu:
The most merciful thing in the world . . . is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far . . . [S]ome day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.
The unspeakable reality of infinity that takes amorphous shape in the Lovecraftian mythos modeled in The Call of Cthulhu may in some ways reflect the equally indescribable and horrific elements of the Judeo-Christian God that have been knowingly obfuscated and shifted to the outright (and therefore easily marginalized and dismissed) genre of the monstrous. Both Christianity and the horror genre bear a striking resemblance, each filled with terrifying tales of inexplicable malevolence unleashed on humanity by way of unfathomable numinous entities who might manifest in the form of Dracula, the Great Old One Cthulhu, or the ancient deity Yahweh who, much like Cthulhu, takes very little issue with the death of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of innocent people by way of floods and terrifying plagues.
The pages of both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament are rife with the horrific, including cosmogonic chaos, mass murder (including the God ordained murder of children), worldwide disaster, demons, war, witchcraft, cannibalism, and the divinely endorsed exploits of Satan. However, this diabolic aspect of Scripture has either had its fangs dulled by the need for palatable and civilized religious practices, or ignored altogether by contemporary mainline communities of faith. Through the avenue of the horror genre, however, particularly the traditional vampire narrative found in western literature and cinema, the monstrous has found an avenue to convey the power of its own religious experience, the horrific Divine found in the mysterium tremendum. Cowan discusses this at length:
[I]t matters little whether Moses really met with Yahweh, whether the Ark really destroyed all who touched it, or whether sudden death came to those who entered the Holy of Holies unbidden by the Divine. The point is that they are remembered in the sacred narratives as though they really happened, and for hundreds of millions of Jews and Christians worldwide, they have behind them the power of memory, mythistory, and, for some, literal truth . . . The fact of the matter, however, is that fear (insert terror) is the thread that often holds the cloth of religion together.
Cowan’s astute analysis finds illustrative life in the 1995 film The Prophecy when the angel Gabriel (Christopher Walken) leaves Heaven for Earth in order to secure a weapon, a dark soul that would enable him to win a second war in the heavenly realms. Standing in his way is Thomas Dagget (Elias Koteas), a former priest who left his holy calling after suffering a series of frightening visions of an eternity not necessarily defined by peace never ending. Echoing the earlier passage from The Call of Cthulhu by H.P. Lovecraft, at one point Daggett asks, “Some people lose their faith because Heaven shows them too little. But how many people lose their faith because Heaven showed them too much?” Daggett goes on to wonder aloud:
Did you ever notice how in the Bible, whenever God needed to punish someone, or make an example, or whenever God needed a killing, he sent an angel? Did you ever wonder what a creature like that must be like? A whole existence spent praising your God, but always with one wing dipped in blood. Would you ever really want to see an angel?
Gabriel puts a definitive exclamation point on this query from Daggett when he declares, “I'm an angel. I kill firstborns while their mamas watch. I turn cities into salt. I even, when I feel like it, rip the souls from little girls, and from now till kingdom come, the only thing you can count on in your existence is never understanding why.”
Throughout the Hebrew Bible, figures such as Moses, Jacob, and Abraham are in some way confronted with the face of God through the mysterium tremendum embodied in the angelic, each encounter leaving profound and life altering effects for those involved. For example, Adam and Eve were prevented from ever reentering Paradise by an angel with a fiery sword, and not only was the hometown of Lot destroyed after the arrival of two angels in Sodom, he was also widowed as a result of his wife disobeying the angels and glancing over her shoulder at the destruction behind her. Meanwhile, angels are just as dangerous, if not more so, in the New Testament, beginning with Gabriel striking Zechariah mute for having the audacity to believe that he was too timeworn to father the baby that would ultimately become John the Baptist. And in the Apocalypse of John, angels, at the behest of the Divine, unleash unfathomable violence, death, and destruction upon the physical world, sounding trumpets of destruction, pouring out bowls of plague and death, and killing non-believers wholesale.
Indeed, the biblical precedent of the angel appears to be an immensely appropriate lens through which to examine the function and consequence of the undead. While the appearance of the vampire is, in fact, a human crust disguising a supernatural being, angelic appearances in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament served a similar role. Often in Scripture, the countenance of the angel is human, initially showing no traits of the numinous, as in Genesis 18 when three angelic guests appeared to Abraham, soon followed by the two angels visiting Sodom in nothing more than human facades. Similarly, in the traditional vampire narrative within popular culture, the vampire often appears to be just as human as members of the general community until the visage transforms into a horrific perversion of the created order. The typical response of the corporeal cast of characters to the mysterium tremendum of the vampire is indistinguishable from the typical response of the mortal to angels in Scripture: fear, awe, horror, and foreboding. In the novel Vampire$ by John Steakley, a vampire suddenly appears amidst Team Crow, a grizzled and hardened group of accomplished and fearless Vampire Hunters. At night and without their weapons, the undead fiend quickly dispatches the group. Those few who are able to escape a violent death are left shaken, devastated, and weeping, brought to the fearful realization of their own mortality by the numinous power and presence of the vampire.
The response of the disciples to an apparently undead Jesus in the upper room bears a striking resemblance to that of Team Crow. “Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost.” By this account, while Jesus looked physically as he did before his death, his post-mortem appearance to the disciples created a horrific response, one not dissimilar to the ghastly disbelief of Quincey Morris (Bill Campbell), Jack Seward (Richard E. Grant), and Lord Arthur Holmwood (Cary Elwes) when faced with the undead Lucy Westenra (Sadie Frost) in Francis Ford Coppola’s film Bram Stoker’s Dracula (2002).
Never Understanding Why: The Horror of Job
Perhaps the greatest example within Scripture of the sway of mysterium tremendum as a result of theological terror would be through the narrative of Job, a biblical story that irrevocably colors all other scriptural narratives. It is through the story of Job that we are confronted by a painful and problematic lesson. Not in the holiness and significance of suffering, as has been imparted by Sunday school teachers from time immemorial, but in the capriciousness and unpredictability of Yahweh.
The horror to be found at the heart of the story of Job is the shocking ambivalence of the Divine, the promotion by God of violence and death, working with and through Satan against a man allegedly favored by the Creator. In a theological world where pain was an indicator of a life out of sync with the precepts of God, the story of Job would have created confusion and fear in the faithful. The life of Job is entirely shattered in every conceivable manner, only to be rewarded throughout his terror and pain with the silence of God, echoing the chilling words of Gabriel from the film The Prophecy: “And from now till kingdom come, the only thing you can count on in your existence is never understanding why.”
While the reader of the narrative knows that the travails of Job are the result of a wager between Satan and the Divine (as if that makes it acceptable), Job undoubtedly sees himself as cursed, suddenly cast from the favor of God to suffer the misery of the cosmos. It is important here to note how the vampire Barlow in ‘Salem’s Lot closely echoes Job’s exclamation of “Face me and be appalled” when he commands Ben Mears, “Look upon me and despair!” Both literary figures seem to be aware of the theological terror they are playing a vital role in, serving dualistically as a result and an example of the power of the mysterium tremendum at play within their existence. Beal writes:
Job’s embittered declaration “let there be darkness” is a literal inversion of God’s own initial world-creative words . . . At this point in his summoning of chaos against cosmos, Job seeks the company of the chaos monsters Yam and Leviathan . . . Job desires them, even identifies with them, conjuring them as a destructive force against creation.
Job setting his face against the Divine and aligning himself with chaos and darkness is an imaginative starting point for the development and emergence of the vampire, a motif embodied presciently in the film Bram Stoker’s Dracula. At the start of the movie, a Romanian Christian knight, Draculea (Gary Oldman), leaves his bride Elisabeta (Winona Ryder) in order to lead his army into battle against the invading Muslim Turks. Draculea emerges victorious, kissing a crucifix and declaring, “God be praised! I am victorious!” However, through a nefarious trick by the Turks, Elisabeta believes her husband to have died in battle and commits suicide by flinging herself into a river. Draculea arrives home to find her dead body surrounded by a cadre of priests in a chapel:
BISHOP: She has taken her own life. Her soul cannot be saved. She is damned. It is God's Law.
DRACULEA: Nooo! Is this my reward for defending God's church?
DRACULEA: I renounce God! I shall rise from my own death to avenge hers with all the powers of darkness!
Enraged, Draculea brandishes his sword and violently impales a large stone crucifix atop the chapel altar. Blood gushes forth out of the cross and Draculea snatches a chalice with which he fills with the blood and drinks from it. “The blood is the life,” he says. “And it shall be mine.” Not only does Draculea invoke here a cosmogonic chaos of sorts, aligning himself with darkness in a rant reminiscent of Job (“Let there be darkness”), he also partakes of an inverted and perverted communion at the altar of Christ. As we have discussed, it is not difficult to see the connection between the Christian ritualistic consumption of the symbolic(?) blood of Jesus Christ and the fictional consumption of blood by Dracula and his ilk. As Clements points out, this is more than likely intended to be “an inversion of this act of Christian devotion,” and should be taken as such, placing the vampire directly in the company of Job.
This inversion of communion is a theological horror, the horror of the vampire, and challenges the sacred order by seeking the solace of chaos as modeled by Job versus the face and order of the Divine. Dracula, as envisioned by Coppola, introduces a new communion, one directly opposed to the ritualistic intimacy modeled by Christ and introducing chaos into the sacred order. Cowan writes, “The advent of one unseen order heralds – or at least threatens – the disappearance of another.” Such a threat against the status quo instills terror across a wide spectrum of ideologies, evidenced, for example, in the histrionics emerging from the white patriarchal establishment over Census Bureau projections of a white minority in the United States by 2043. In the case of Draculea, not only does his inversion of the established order surprise and horrify the attendant priests due to its visceral power of disgust, it is the genesis of a new order in defiance of the established one, signifying the vampire emerging directly out of the mysterium tremendum, as well as serving as an agent of it.
After the resurrection but before the ascendance into heaven of Jesus the Christ within the narrative of the Gospels, the Nazarene has plunged through the mortal coil of the organic order of life and death, straddling the invisible chasm between the two. Neither dead nor alive and inhabiting a realm that can only be described as undeath, the numinous aura of the Christian demigod is evident to all who bear witness to his post-crucifixion exploits. So it is with the vampire, a once human now transcendent figure that conquered death and now offers the same freedom from the unassailable laws of God and nature. Granted, while the avenue of eternal life that Jesus provides promises a spiritual bounty of grace while the vampire seems to be one of darkness and evil, their respective modus operandi regarding salvation are too similar to dismiss.
If the vampire is indeed a figure of the numinous, displaying traits of the Divine while exhibiting the influence of mysterium tremendum, what can this transcendent fictional character tell us about God and the role the Divine plays in the structure and existence of evil? This question finds its roots in the story of Job and is carried into contemporary life through the engine of the vampire narrative. While the generally accepted view of the traditional western vampire is one of ultimate evil standing in opposition to the inherent righteousness of the Divine, the next several chapters will examine how the complexity of the mythology of the vampire in popular culture, as well as an honest analysis of the theologically problematic enigma of theodicy, may pose more demanding questions than hopeful answers.
 King, ‘Salem’s Lot, 388.
 Beal, Religion and Its Monsters, 7.
 Otto, The Idea of the Holy, xxi.
 McDonald, The Vampire as Numinous Experience, 22.
 Poole, Monsters in America, 6.
 Beal, Religion and Its Monsters, 181.
 Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulhu, 76.
 This is not to say that the diabolic side of the Divine is entirely ignored by all faith communities, especially when said communities feel the need to condemn those they feel are living a life of sin.
 Cowan, Sacred Terror, 51-52.
 The film was interestingly renamed God’s Secret Army in Europe.
 The Prophecy, Widen, 1999.
 Ibid., Widen.
 Ibid., Widen.
 Luke 24:36–37 (NRSV).
 God basically acquiesces to a bet that Satan proposes, the equivalent of a cosmic pissing contest.
 Job 21:5 (NRSV).
 King, ‘Salem’s Lot, 458.
 Beal, Religion and Its Monsters, 41 & 43.
 Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Coppola, 1992.
 Ibid., Coppola.
 Ibid., Coppola.
 Clements, Vampire Defanged, 25.
 Cowan, Sacred Terror, 67.
 Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, during coverage of the 2012 presidential election, infamously asserted, “Obama wins because it's not a traditional America anymore. The white establishment is the minority. People want things."