The movie Breaking Dawn, Part I, is about to hit theaters. This and other media productions like The Gates, The Vampire Diaries, and True Blood, are just a few of the recent crop of vampire stories. But the fear that motivated the stories of those grave robbers stems from a long history of folklore reaching back thousands of years. Let’s take a short look at the history of the vampire legend and see if we can draw any insights into our Christian faith through our fascination with these mythical creatures.
From ancient tales of Hebrews, Persians, and Greeks, to medieval tales of Slavic gypsies, to trashy comic-book-style tabloids in Victorian England… the details of their origins and behaviors have changed across centuries and cultures. But one thing is certain: there is something people find terrifyingly fascinating about mythical creatures who drink blood.
Demons and unbearable trauma
The ancient stories of blood sucking, evil creatures seemed to deal with two main themes, demons and unbearable trauma. Many of these stories, such as the Hebrew Lilith, the Greek Lamiai, and stories from Malaysia dealt with a woman who gave birth to a still born baby, or who lost her baby, and driven by grief take out their vengeance on others in violent ways. Generally, these are wildly fictitious stories, like most mythology, that were used to explain things about life that defied explanation.
Fast forward several centuries to the Medieval period, and you’ll find a similar theme of dealing with the loss of a loved one. These vampires, however, were not at all the suave, intoxicating figures we imagine. They were thought to be more like zombies. And the two main explanations for them were 1) an effort to explain strange occurences and 2) religious misunderstanding. If someone’s sheep or livestock was being mysteriously attacked, one could blame a vampire. If there were strange murders in a local area, one could also blame a vampire.
Religion, death, and after-life
As we just said, people’s misconceptions about religion, death, and after-life blended into these stories. According to these legends, one could become a vampire normally only after death.
Some of the negative circumstances of death that seemed to set off people’s imagination were the following: 1) If the body of a dead person was not properly buried, 2) if the person had committed suicide, or 3) if the person had not been baptized.
Certain physical birth defects, mental illness, and unknown diseases could also qualify.
People of this time did not have clear ideas about what happens to a soul when a body dies. So they believed that if a soul could not go to heaven, perhaps the body could be invaded by an evil spirit, and could be made to move and act even though it was dead.
Our Catholic faith tells us that after death we either go to heaven, hell, or purgatory. Our souls don’t stick around here, except in a way that does good, not evil.
That’s why we can ask the saints in heaven for help. They are our friends and allies. Jesus is the one who most helps us, but he also listens to the prayers of his friends, both those who are still on this earth and those who are with him in heaven.
Yet we still wonder whether those who have died can come back to this earth or communicate with us in any way. It’s natural to wonder about this, and the Bible talks very little about this possibility, so we often try to fill the void with our imagination.
It’s not always easy to believe that people are totally gone after they are dead. We know that they do live on. It’s just the how (How do they live on? In what way?) that we don’t have a lot of details about. These legends try to fill the void, but they are make-believe, not fact.
Still they do tell us that we all need to figure out how we can make it to heaven. That’s where we will be happy. That’s where God wants to bring us. Vampire legends are a way that literature has wrestled with our desire to live forever.
In many cultures it was thought that souls who had unfinished business or unresolved feelings could come back as vampires. Often, these stories originated from grieving widows, who claimed to be visited by these un-dead husbands or lovers. There is a psychological phenomenon in which people experience feeling like someone is pressing on them in their bed while they are sleeping. Centuries ago this could be attributed to a vampire.
This is important for two reasons: 1) the theme of a dead lover rising from the grave to rejoin his former love begins the formation of sexual desire in the legends, and 2) because it began the belief that these undead creatures would father children with their widows, called dhampirs. These half vampire, half human children would become in folk legend what we know of today as “vampire slayers.”
During the time between 11th and 17th centuries a new twist began to affect vampire legend. Real historical figures and events emerged in some form or another as part of the stories. Perhaps the most famous is a Romanian king named Vlad the Impaler. His nickname was “son of the dragon,” or Dracula.
He was a terrifying and vicious warrior. Betrayed by his countrymen and his own brother and captured by the Turks, he was tortured mercilessly for a long time until he managed to escape. When he returned home he was hardened and vengeful.
After he returned, Vlad successfully defended his kingdom many times through cruelty and terrible violence.
Often, his enemies retreated even though they could have won, simply because they saw the disgusting ways he slaughtered people. He had very little respect for human life, and seemed to enjoy watching people die. His favorite means of killing people was to place a stake in the ground, sharp side up, and have them impaled on it.
This gave birth to three parts of vampire legend: 1) the name Dracula, 2) the location he was from is called Transylvania, and 3) the concept of the wooden stake having something to do with vampires.
Even though most cultures had some beliefs in blood-sucking creatures, the term “vampire” only became popular in the early 18th century. John Polidori, the physician of the famous writer Lord Byron wrote a fictional novel about his illustrious patient in which he mixed true elements of the wild life of Lord Byron with the false myths that circulated in Europe about blood-sucking undead. The book was called The Vampyre. It was published in 1819, and was a great success. It portrayed the mythical creature in a new light: a charismatic and sophisticated lover who is also a murderer.
But the most famous vampire novel of all times is Bram Stoker’s work Dracula, published in 1897. Stoker also portrays his fictional vampire as aristocratic and sophisticated. Stoker’s Dracula is from Transylvania, but comes to England in order to have access to more victims. The novel is a true thriller, combining detective elements, romance, sexual overtones, death, international intrigue, and of course a blood-sucking vampire (actually, several).
The novel Dracula remains the classic vampire novel today, and has inspired many other works of literature.
Vampire myth lives on
Modern media has increased our fascination with vampires. Many works of theater, movies, and television series play on our fascination with the elements of the vampire myth: romance, mystery, danger, death, vengeance, murder, etc.
There is no doubt that author Stephanie Meyer has created a very successful variation of the vampire theme in her Twlight series. Her hero, Edward Cullen, is a vampire who is able to overcome his evil impulses and use his powers for good, not evil. He is rescued from a life without love by a girl who believes in him more than he believes in himself. And he also rescues her from a life without love and then from all sorts of other dangers. The story strikes a deep cord in the hearts of many people (especially girls) who long for true romance. It’s certainly a vampire story with a happy ending, unlike many of the other versions.
Christian attitude towards vampires
So, what does our faith have to say about the vampire myth?
Well, it helps us deal with many of the elements that continue to create our fascination with vampires: death, danger, revenge, life after death, love, intrigue, vengeance.
Death and life after death
As Christians, we know that Christ has conquered death. We know that death does not have the last word in our lives. Christ’s love, God’s love, is more powerful than death.
As Christians we experience the tragedy of death, but we have confidence that death does not have the last word. We try to fill our hearts with hope rather than despair when we see someone we love die or when we ourselves face death or tragedy.
Hope does not totally take away all the fear and sadness when we deal with death, but it does show us a clear light at the end of the tunnel.
Christian hope also shows us that we are not alone when we face death and tragedy. Christ accompanies us in our sorrow and fear. He faced the same things. He knows what it is like. He never abandons us.
Danger and evil
Christ’s terrible suffering, torture, and horrible death are a reminder that evil is very real.
But Christ’s sufferings are also a reminder that God can work tremendous good even in the most terrible circumstances. Christ took on suffering, torture, and death, but lived these moments with love, and he rose from the dead.
As believers in Christ, we know that no situation is hopeless. God’s love is more powerful than evil. We may not see everything work out for good in this life, but we are shown by Christ’s love and his resurrection that victory over evil is assured.
Even though despair can often assail us when we are faced with terrible occurrences in life (such as the death of someone we love dearly), we still know that evil is not the final word.
We are all scared of something. The vampire myths play on some of these fears. Often these fears are further fueled by ignorance. When we see evil in the world we can let our imagination take over.
A Christian tries to educate himself about truth, even though his imagination can sometimes push him in the opposite direction.
A Christian believes deeply in God, but does not jump to the conclusion that something he cannot explain is caused by an evil spirit, a vampire, etc.
A Christian knows that there are also natural causes to events, and that he needs to investigate the natural causes first.
God has done a good job in creating the world. Most events have a natural explanation. We may not have all the answers, but that does not mean we jump to the conclusion that evil spirits caused all the bad things we are experiencing.
As strange as it sounds, there is a fun aspect in fear, Sudden fear produces a strong adrenaline rush. As long as we find out that the scary thing is not really that bad, the excitement of a sudden scare is fun, especially when we are young.
It’s similar to when we get on a roller coaster. We know we are not going to die, but there are moments when it feels that way. Experiencing the strong emotional rush and making it through the moment unharmed is fun and exciting.
That’s why we will often find it fun to see scary things. As long as they are not too scary. But the closer we are carried to the edge of fear and then brought back, the stronger the rush.
Is this bad? Not really. We need to learn to deal with fear in our lives.
There is however a danger we can become almost addicted to the adrenaline rush. But for most people this does not become an addiction.
Usually, scary movies are just a fun moment in which we know it’s just a story, not reality. It’s usually a way we work out some of our fears.
So, are vampire stories evil? Not really. Yes, some vampire stories today can do damage because of their promotion of an irresponsible attitude towards sex or their glorification of murder, but the basic elements in vampire stories are not evil in themselves. They are just a way that we wrestle with important questions.
We simply need to remember that they are myths, not truths. They are make-believe.
Our Christian faith isn’t make-believe. Jesus really lived and died. He died for us. And he has inspired and strengthened millions and millions of people to continue doing good in their lives even though they also live tragedy and sorrow in many moments of their lives.
Our faith doesn’t always make everything work out immediately, but we see in the life of Christ and in the lives of so many Christians, that “all things work out for the good for those who love the Lord.” God’s love has the final say.
It is not always easy to believe this. That’s why we need to focus on good things in our lives, not just the tragic things. That’s why even most vampire stories show that good eventually triumphs.
Let’s continue to cultivate the Christian virtue of hope. We can certainly have fun watching scary movies, but we should also take time to discover positive stories, stories that increase our hope. The lives of saints are often a great source of hope. These are real men and women who faced tragedy and adversity but were able to be a source of goodness and light in the world. Their stories are often very inspiring.
You might want to read some of their stories.
There are lots of sites on the internet, books, and videos that tell true stories of saints. You might want to check some of them out after you see the latest scary movie. It’s another way to wrestle with the age-old questions that we all have. And it’s a way that helps us see some very positive role-models and get some good answers.
(Note: Alex Kubik also contributed to this article.)