VAMPIRES, BEING AND NOTHINGESS PART 2
Below is part 2 of a blog posted a few weeks ago considering modern vampire fictions, their popularity and how they address the problem of meaning (or its absence).
Vampires as symbols of both transcendence and its negation have long been part of cinema, especially in the second half of the 20th century. Lestat, Angel, Bill and Edward have more than a few ancestors.
For example, in the late 1950s, Hammer studios in England created one of the most successful brand names in horror in the 1950s and 60s, they reimagined all the Universal monsters and made them 60s modish (even while setting them within the context of a kind of medieval/Victorian never land).
Hammer films became popular at a moment when the British economy was going from the postwar doldrums into absolute chaos, when once thriving industrial towns began to look like burned out hulks, and perhaps most importantly, the country had passed through a panic over alleged “grave desecrations” and church desecrations. An army of the restless young spent their time hanging around old gothic ruins, kicking over gravestones and generally making a social nuisance of themselves
These “church desecrations” led to rumors of far darker nocturnal activities. Stories circulated throughout the 60s of so-called “black magic circles” in Britain who used abandoned churches for various satanic rituals.
Hammer borrowed these themes for the 1968 “Dracula Has Risen from the Grave” and the 1970 “Taste the Blood of Dracula.” In each, religious themes are preannounced, even “heavy handed” some critics have suggested.
This is especially true of “Dracula has Risen” in which the existence of vampires is used to prove the existence of God, in a fashion that even Bram Stoker may have found especially meaningful. In the narrative, a young man portrayed as a doubter of the faith must believe in vampires in order to save his beloved. We learn that it’s not even enough to stake them… a prayer of true faith must accompany the killing of vamps.
Also beginning in 1968, a panic exploded over the alleged sightings of vampires at Highgate cemetery. I have explored and interpreted this phenomenon in an essay in the Bram Stoker finalist anthology The Undead and Theology that you can pick up here. For our purposes, let me just note that the Highgate Vampire panic should be understood both in relation to a variety of religious and cultural anxieties coming together, focusing on a single incident that brought mobs to the old cemetery along with various celebrity vampire hunters.
In these “black magic circle” and vampire panics, did Britain become a secular society gripped by a moral panic or a secular society in need of symbols that revealed all the conflicts that loss of meaning has created? The wounds of secular culture, the fear of nothingness once religious meaning has been evacuated from the universe, seeks salving. Vampires can take the place, it seems, of the absent God.
Highgate was not just a panic over a possible supernatural presence. There is evidence that, and I think there is often an element of this in many similar tales of monster sightings, of very real excitement that there could be something to it at…that maybe the world was not dead in terms of meaning. Maybe there really are such things as vampires. And if there is such a thing as vampires, perhaps the universe has come meaning, even if it’s a dark and complex on.
Of course, the committed religious person often regards an increased interest in the supernatural as a denial of God rather than as an affirmation. Some might use this as a kind of critique of secular culture and, in fact there have been some 20th century religious apologists who have said that we turn to the darkness simply because we have lost the light.
G.K. Chesterton once wrote that 20th century interest in the paranormal, in the so-called “occult,” results from the fact that “once we give up believing in God, we will believe anything at all.” Chesterton, no mean intellect, created a criticism that has come from many a theological tongue…supernatural fascinations in monsters, demons, vampires and even zombies are about the need to find replacements for the alleged comforts of orthodox Christianity.
There’s much to be said against this. As I argued in Satan in America, most surveys of religious belief tend to find that the religiously inclined are more, not less, likely to believe in related supernatural phenomenon like witches or the Bigfoot. We could turn Chesterton’s aphorism back on itself and say, “Once you believe in God, you’ll believe in anything.”
So lets think about the other side of the question. Maybe our fascination with the fantastic and the sacred and the sacrilegious functions as a way to explore the possibility of what Nietzsche called “the death of God?” Perhaps it functions as a way to feel our way into the idea that transcendence as its always been proclaimed to us is simply not a live option?
Vampire fictions have themselves increasingly turned to the question of meaning and its loss. Stoker may have thought the existence of the vampire settles the question of meaning but the end of the 20th century made it difficult to be so certain, even in a deeply religious America.
The creation of the “Brooding Vampire” represents this trend. The tormented vampire has become a basic trope in vampire fictions, allied to but not entirely determined by the “vampire in love” theme.
Novelist Anne Rice helped to create this new, angst-ridden creature with Lestat in the 1970s. Barnabas of Dark Shadows certainly influenced aspects of this image.
Rice created vampires who were not simply evil…they were in fact obsessed with good and evil and whether or not such categories had any meaning. These vampires are best understood as atheists with no choice but to believe in the supernatural, atheists less interested in questions of metaphysics than in ethics.
In Rice, we see this impulse especially in the vampire Armand whose history, we learn, is one of digging about in graveyards, desecrating churches, doing all the things that an “evil” creature is supposed to do—and yet he discovers at a certain point that there is no evil, that it is a social construction in an essentially meaningless universe. This realization actually causes him to lose a sense of himself. There is no God and no Devil. Only vampires.
Lestat wants the same kinds of certainties that Armand once thought he had and in one especially compelling scene enters a church to demand that God destroy Him for his sacrilege. But the heavens are silent. There seems to be no God willing to punish evil, no God willing to recognize evil and thus no God to give an underpinning to the vampire’s existence. And to ours.
(By the 90s, it should be noted, both God and the Devil are making regular appearances in Rice’s work…perhaps presaging her conversion (and then rejection) of Catholicism over the last half decade).
Most of our vampire fictions for 40 years have dealt in various ways with these questions and uncertainties. In fact, I would suggest that having vampires fall in love with human women (so similar to the story of Watcher Angels in Jewish apocalyptic literature) primarily serves to humanize them. This allows them to become mouthpieces for our questions and embodiments of our uncertainties.
This is nothing new. In fact, the vampire as existential question mark is not so different from how satirists and ironists from the Marquis De Sade to Mark Twain to Baudelaire used the traditional figure of Satan to voice human concerns and anxieties. Its not about the vampire in love. Its about the vampire who, its explained to us, has basic human needs, thus shares our basic human traumas and thus can serve as our interlocutor with the God or the Void…existence itself.
Angel in the Buffy series offers the best example. Angel is a vampire with a soul, indeed cursed with a soul that torments him for his past misdeeds. Angel loves Buffy, indeed loved her the moment he first saw her, loved her to distraction, loved her after he had to give her up which he does of his own free will both for her good and the greater good of a mission he must perform.
But Angel is the brooding vampire more than the vampire in love, his love for Buffy is only one part of his desire to make sense of his own experience in the world—a world that he makes clear he believes to be swept clean of a loving God. And so he spends many episodes staring into firelight and looking off into the distance (when Buffy was on TV, if it was Tuesday night Angel must be brooding).
In the Buffy episode “Lover’s Walk,” for example, we see Angel reading Jean Paul Sartre’s Nausea. His living quarters are in fact always packed with books, many of which are reflections on the deeper meaning of human existence and, as his reading of Sartre suggests, probably books that reject the notion of overarching meanings. Angel’s pursuit of meditation and how he includes various Buddhist images in more or less every living space he occupies further illustrates his effort to shape meaning out of the question mark of his immortal existence.
A number of cultural commentators have noted that we love zombies because zombies are, on some basic level, us. And so they are, as I suggest in Monsters in America, images of the ugly side of our embodiment…our inability to escape from our own bodies and our own bodies needs.
Vampires ask a different set of questions, or rather raise a different set of questions
These vampires are not vehicles for transcendence. They are questions rather than answers to questions. Their existence poses a problem for which there is no answer. And for those of us who are not vampires, this feels like torment with which we are all too familiar. To paraphrase Camus, to be human is to urgently search for meaning in a universe that refuses to answer.