I was thrilled when I got the chance to read M. Jess Peacock’s Such a Dark Thing: Theology of the Vampire Narrative in Popular Culture and review this academic treatise for our blog. Just seeing the title itself filled me with nerdy joy and anticipation. This is not the first time I’ve written about vampires and religion for this blog, and I hope it won’t be my last. Such intersections of fantastical genre pop culture media and religious studies/theology perfectly fits in with some of my own dearest interests, as well as the mission of the LGG&F blog, of course. The book does exactly what it says it will, looking at the symbolic value of the vampire in pop culture through a variety of theological lenses, some of which I’d thought of before, but many of which had never crossed my mind. Without further ado, let’s sink our teeth into this review (I’m sorry, I couldn’t resist #punsarealwaysintended).
The author, M. Jess Peacock, is a self-confessed fanboy who studied at Methodist Theological School in Ohio, and his passion for horror shines through and gives a vivacity to this highly academic book. Now, I do genuinely love academic studies, but let’s face it, they can be a little dryer and denser to get through than your average novel; however, that is tempered in Such a Dark Thing by an underlying boyish eagerness of a kid entranced by the Salem’s Lot TV miniseries who never stopped loving the genre. In the introduction, he explains how the vampire has stood in for a wide variety of things, enumerating such topics as “…the LGBTQI community, forbidden love, seductive and corrupting forces threatening the institution of marriage, the political and social other, immigrants endangering the very fabric of civilized society, and the interpersonal dynamics of the family”. However, he believes that one of its most important roles is that of as a vital, in fact irrevocably, religious symbol. Just as darkness always points to the light, evil implies the existence of good (at least in traditional, conventional vampire/monster narratives), and the very nature of vampires also lands them squarely in line one of the most important ideas in religion—that of the eternal quandary of death and the afterlife. After all, both God and the vampire offer promises of everlasting life, albeit via vastly different paths. Peacock shows us the vampire who helps challenge what we think about religion and God by taking us to the darkest corners of the theological imagination.
The author begins with a discussion on how the vampire’s numinous qualities put it on par with other supernatural beings like angels and gods. The line between gods and monsters is, of course, very thin. Though in typical Western imagination “godly” has become synonymous with good and righteous, Peacock points out the intense acts of violence and bloodshed committed by and for God in the Bible. Though at times I think he is perhaps comparing the wickedness of vampires to the wickedness of God, I prefer his analogy of vampires to angels; otherworldly, but not omnipotent. All this talk about vampires as supernatural agents of harm and mayhem is naturally tied to questions of theodicy, something else I’ve written about on this blog. Does God allow wickedness and evil in the world, or is He also the source and cause of evil? The author mentions the Book of Job, in which not only does God let Satan bring all kind of harm and ruin down on Job, God also says He is creator of Leviathan and Behemoth, monstrous beings from ancient Biblical mythology. To what extent does God create and allow monsters, and to what extent do they exist to do His bidding? Difficult questions to ponder. Peacock even brings up the possibility of the vampire’s existence as a revolt against an unjust or monstrous God, such as the backstory given in the 1992 Coppola film, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, starring Gary Oldman.
This leads to the question: is being a vampire a state of sin or a state of salvation, being saved from God rather than by God? Sin is often a murky, poorly delineated topic to examine, often described as that which separates from God, or that which willfully goes against God and His ordinances. When the vampire represents sin as such, standing directly in opposition to God, we often see very a strong, overly simplistic dichotomy between good and evil. Here, questions of theodicy are minimized, as God must represent total goodness in sharp contrast to the total evil of the vampire. Peacock brings up related issues involving agency and free will that inform the experience of being a vampire’s victim. If vampirism, and its often associated libertine characteristics and themes, stand in for sin in vampire narratives, certainly some characters actively choose the transformation, but for many others, the “choice” is hindered by the vampire’s power of compulsion, a staple in the genre. An aspect of sin and vampire narratives I’d never thought about is applying the lens of liberation theology, which focuses heavily on overcoming institutionalized social sins like kyriarchy rather than personal sin. In this case, vampires stand in as unjust social and/or corporate structures that are literally sucking the life out of the oppressed.
Of special interest to our blog readers is discussion of how this talk of sin intersects with women in vampire narratives. Does the subversive power of “sin”/vampirism give women a freedom they often lack in stories and perhaps real-life situations? Or does it rather merely over-connect women to sin, as has been all too common in church history? Women are by far the more common characters to fall victim to the predation and seduction of vampires, even when the vampires are also women. There is certainly a misogynistic/sexist strain of thought when women are the fragile damsels in distress who must be saved from their own weak wills by primarily male vampire hunters. Though not addressed by the author, I would like to mention the intersection of gender, sexism and heteronormativity in vampire narratives as well. With a love of women victims who need saving and the big, strong men who will do the saving (some people just hang on to those gender roles for dear life), comes a reticence for male vampire victims. To these minds, the idea that a man couldn’t save himself would imply a failure of his masculinity; to need saving by another man would be an embarrassment, and to need saving by a woman would be both ridiculous and humiliating. And heaven forbid a man fall prey to a male vampire—the lesbian vampire trope is strong, though it mostly serves as an over-sexualized titillation device; meanwhile, gay vampires are all but unthinkable in most popular imagination (with the exception of some gay porn I may have watched once).
The book ends with a large appendix that lists and briefly discusses specific movies, TV shows, and books in the vampire genre. Overall, It was quite a good read that did get me thinking about the vampire in ways I hadn’t before. The text is of course, Christian-centric, as the author was educated at a Christian theological school and examines the Western oeuvre of vampires works, which is overwhelmingly, practically completely, Christian. Peacock does acknowledge this a bit during a chapter on religious icons in vampire stories that examines whether it’s the power of faith (whether of the wielder or the vampire) or the inherent power of religious symbols that are used to battle vampires (the age-old question, “Would a crucifix repel a Jewish vampire?”). We see so little horror media with anything but a Christian milieu. While The Possession was a totally Jewish haunting/possession movie, even The Unborn, which focused on a dybbuk from Jewish folklore, had a rather ecumenical exorcism including an Episcopal priest. It would be nice if there were more works in existence that had people of diverse faiths dealing with vampires and other monsters so we could get a wider theological discussion. If at times the book felt a little disjointed going from point to point, in the end that, in its own way, served to strengthen the idea that the vampire is truly a multivalent symbol, with many layers full of rich meaning waiting to be explored and examined in unexpected ways. If you have some spare time and a geeky
obsession interest in vampires and religion, I would definitely recommend trying to get your hands on a copy.