It is with great sadness that I note the passing of Leonard Nimoy at the age of 83. He was one of my childhood heroes due to Star Trek. I remember identifying with his logical approach to dealing with his emotions in his human half as I wrestled with my own emotions and social changes during teen years in the 1970s. My appreciation continued during this time period as he served as the host for In Search of… on the paranormal, and in things like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), and his ongoing Trek films. I was privileged to meet him during a speaking engagement he had at Delta College in Stockton, California in the 70s when my brother and I dashed back stage after his presentation to get an autograph and a snapshot. He was a great icon of the the fantastic in my life.
I am really looking forward to this one coming out in October this year, Crimson Peak, by Guillermo del Toro.
Interview with Jess Peacock on “Such a Dark Thing: Theology of the Vampire Narrative in Popular Culture”
Recently Jess Peacock got in touch with me to let me know about his new book, Such a Dark Thing: Theology of the Vampire Narrative in Popular Culture (Resource Publications, 2015). It is a good read, and for those interested in exploring various theological aspects of the vampire, this book is worthwhile, bringing together an academic interest in probing deeply with a fan’s passion for the monstrous. Jess responded to some interview questions about his book in the following interview.
TheoFantastique: Jess, thanks for getting in touch and letting me know about Such a Dark Thing even before it was released. It was a great read. How did a horror fan from his youth, later a theologian involved in various aspects of ministry, come to develop an academic interest in vampires viewed through a theological lens?
Jess Peacock: My childhood was heavily influenced by the horror genre. I was obsessed with the entire Universal monsters franchise, Hammer films terrified and fascinated me, and I was reading Famous Monsters of Filmland at a very young age. In middle school, Fangoria magazine and the VHS revolution completed my transformation into a horror nerd. The genre really spoke to me, but nothing petrified me more than vampires. That obsession just never waned and, in all honesty, I always saw the vampire connected to theology in some manner. How could you not? Resurrection, holy water, the crucifix? It’s as if they were malevolent creatures that stepped right out of the Bible.
As I entered graduate school to study religion, it made sense to steer my research toward the vampire narrative in popular culture. Like I said, the mythos is a lens through which to analyze questions about death, the quandary of evil, and the role of religious symbols. Beyond that, I felt that the traditional narrative held a lot of potential for contemporary society. Meaning, I didn’t want to do research for the sake of research, but wanted to connect the western vampire narrative to tangible social justice efforts going on within the culture.
TheoFantastique: Among the many fine points you make in the book, you argue that not only is the vampire a figure for theological reflection on the nature of sin and evil, but you also connect it to conceptions of the divine in the Judeo-Christian tradition. This will be a bitter pill to swallow for conservative Christians who tend to hold to a sanitized version of their faith tradition. How do you see the vampire and the more general concept of the monstrous connecting to an understanding of God?
Jess Peacock: In all honesty, while I didn’t write the book to annoy conservative Christians, many of them probably wouldn’t like Such a Dark Thing. I am not anti-religion, and I make a case within the book for the potential of religion to be a force for justice within society. I am, however, anti-orthodoxy…anti-fundamentalism, and many of my conclusions skew wildly from conservative Christian dogma. Having said that, and to your question, it is undeniable that the vampire has often stood as a theophany within literature and cinema. The figure still exists as a powerful representation of topics including sin, redemption, evil, and death. Perhaps more controversial, the vampire and other fictional representations of the monstrous open a symbolic window onto the issue of theodicy, as well as shedding light on what could be interpreted in Scripture as the horror or monstrousness of God.
Reading the Hebrew Bible, it doesn’t take long to understand that Yahweh can be pretty scary. Fear is a common and stated tool of influence wielded by the Divine over humanity, and as such God comes to be seen less as a nurturer and more as a mercurial cosmic overlord who demands worship and faithfulness…or else. Many overlook the fact that in the narrative of the Egyptian plagues Yahweh is called “the Destroyer.” That’s pretty frightening to me.
TheoFantastique: You speak in the book about “interreligious horror,” and the possibility that the vampire might evolve beyond Christian symbolism and particularism. How might the vampire rooted in different religious and irreligious ideas be of value in a pluralist society?
Jess Peacock: This is a difficult question to answer without delving at length into the content of the book. But in a nutshell, I wanted to look at how the increasingly deemphasized Christian symbolism within the vampire narrative might be reflective of the waning influence of religion in the wider culture. And while that might be alarming to some, it could provide an opportunity for a spiritual revolution for others.
I would argue that the traditional view of theism is no longer needed by society, and I think we’re definitely seeing this reflected in irreligious vampire narratives from Blade to Twilight. Rather than this being a portent of the death of faith, the contemporary vampire mythos could be viewed as a symbol of a new theology, one of transcendence over immanence. In other words, the community creates and interprets God versus having to obey morals and precepts stemming from an authoritarian, unseen, and unquestioned deity. This reversal, that of a community influencing the Divine versus a “God said it, that settles it” dynamic, creates a safe and imaginative space to discuss theological and social issues without the threat of the inflexibility of religious exceptionalism or biblical literalism.
TheoFantastique: Another major idea of yours is that the vampire can serve as a symbol of resistance and liberation. You mention this in connection with liberation theology. One could argue that resistance and liberation is one facet of the so-called “war on terror.” Given our present debates over religion and violence, have you given any thought as to how the vampire might contribute to our reflection on these important global realities?
Jess Peacock: Absolutely. As I alluded to earlier, to some extent I use the vampire narrative to discuss at what point gods become monsters. With regard to the “war on terror,” we can use the same analytical process to discuss when a so-called exceptional nation turns into a monstrous one. When does the United States cross the line between justice and terror, displaying shocking ambivalence toward the innocent people victimized by its actions? When, in our search for monsters, do we become what we hate? I feel that, with our record of mass drone strikes and an illegal torture program, this is a question long overdue and one still not sufficiently publicly addressed and debated. And while we might consider our “war” to be a righteous one fueled by redemptive violence, our monstrous actions inevitably breeds more monsters, much as a vampire sires more vampires.
TheoFantastique: Jess, thanks again for the book and for the opportunity to drink deeply from the well of the vampire and the theological.
This book comprises essays that explore transhumanism and the issues that surround it, addressing numerous fascinating questions posed by scholars of religion from various traditions. How will “immortality” or extreme longevity change our religious beliefs and practices? How might pharmaceuticals enhance spiritual experiences? Will “post-human” technologies be available to all persons, or will a superior “post-human race” arise to dominate the human species? The discussions are as intriguing as the future they suggest.
Spirit Possession around the World
Possession, Communion, and Demon Expulsion across Cultures
by Joseph Laycock, Editor
Beyond addressing the Christian tradition of possession and exorcism, Pentecostalism, and “New Age” and less widely known Western concepts about possession and exorcism, this work examines ideas about possession and exorcism from other world religions and the indigenous cultures of Asia, Africa, and the Americas. It also covers historic cases of possession and presents biographies of famous theologians, exorcists, and possessed individuals. High school and undergraduate readers will learn about world history, religious and spiritual traditions, and world cultures through a topic that figures prominently in popular culture and modern entertainment. Bibliographies that accompany each entry as well as a selected, general bibliography serve to help students locate print and electronic sources of additional information.
Sound is arguably one of the most fear-provoking aspects of horror. Ghost stories and horror films employ sonic tropes such as creaking floor boards, sudden loud thumps, or ephemeral children’s choirs in order to enhance suspense through the evocation of unseen terror. “The spectre of sound”, as Kevin Donnelly has called it, creeps up on us dorsally, evading the relative comfort of visual recognition. Sonic horror tropes have also been used to imbue other genres, such as musical theatre and popular music, with elements of horror. Whether through whispers darkly, in the sinister connotations of the harpsichord timbre, via the decontextualising power of white noise, or in the uncanniness of complete silence, horror’s performativity relies on sonic guises.
Horror Studies is seeking essays for a special issue devoted to horror and sound. “Sonic Horror” will explore the manifold roles of music, sound, and silence in horror. Possible topics may include, but are not limited to:
* Sonic and musical references in horror literature
* Horror and recording technology
* Horror film and television soundtracks
* Survival and psychological horror videogame soundtracks
* Horror themes in rock/metal/Goth lyrics
* Horror samples and references in rock/metal/Goth musical settings
* Horror themes in subcultures of popular music
* Horror in opera and music theatre
* Silent horror
Essays of approximately 8500 words (including apparatus) should be sent to Isabella van Elferen (I.vanElferen@kingston.ac.uk) by January 31st, 2016. Horror Studies uses Harvard Style in its formatting; authors should consult http://www.intellectbooks.co.uk/journals/view-Journal,id=151/ and download the full style sheet.
Kevin Wetmore, who I have interviewed on this blog previously on his book Post-9/11 Horror in American Cinema, let me know that the forthcoming issue of Social Research: An International Quarterly 84.1 (Winter 2014) has an interesting focus. It will explore horror in society.
Here is the Table of Contents:
Endangered Scholars Worldwide
Horrors and Horror: The Response of Tragedy
Christian Demonology in Contemporary American Popular Culture
The Liberalism of Horror
Metaphor of the Living Dead: Or, the Effect of the Zombie Apocalypse on Public Policy Discourse
Daniel W. Drezner
When the Vampires Come for You: A True Story of Ordinary Horror
Colonial Possessions: A Fanonian Reading of The Exorcist and its Sequels
Kevin J. Wetmore Jr.
Better Horrors: From Terror to Communion in Whitley Strieber’s Communion (1987)
Jeffrey J. Kripal
The Horrors of Witchcraft and Demonic Possession
Brian P. Levack
Monsters on the Brain: An Evolutionary Epistemology of Horror
Stephen T. Asma
Forthcoming Title of Interest – Such a Dark Thing: Theology of the Vampire Narrative in Popular Culture
I’m privileged to promote a forthcoming book, Such a Dark Thing: Theology of the Vampire Narrative in Popular Culture (Resource Publications, 2015) by M. Jess Peacock. Look for an interview with Peacock here in the near future. Here is the back cover description and endorsements:
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.
“Eminently readable, exhaustively researched, and always thoughtful. Well worth reading for any scholar, student, or fan of the genre.”
- David Wellington, author of Positive and 13 Bullets
“Jess Peacock knows his theology and his vampires, making him a perfect guide to the dark places he wants to take us. Such A Dark Thing successfully explores how our fascination with the hungry undead not only connects with religious themes, but also sex, politics, and even social justice.”
- Scott Poole, author of Monsters in America: Our Historical Obsession with the Hideous and the Haunting
“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: George Romero’s Visions of Hell on Earth
The Supernatural Cinema of Guillermo del Toro
Edited by John W. Morehead
Foreword by Doug Jones
Print ISBN: 978-0-7864-9595-5
Ebook ISBN: 978-1-4766-2075-6
photos, notes, bibliography, index
softcover (6 x 9) 2015
About the Book
Guillermo del Toro is one of the most prolific artists working in film. His directorial work includes Cronos (1993), Mimic (1997), The Devil’s Backbone (2001), Blade II (2002), Hellboy (2004), Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), Hellboy II (2008) and Pacific Rim (2013). He has also worked extensively as a producer, with several screenwriting credits to his name. As a novelist he coauthored The Strain Trilogy (2009–2011), which he also developed into a television series for FX in 2014. Del Toro has spoken of the “primal, spiritual function” of his art, which gives expression to his fascination with monsters, myth, archetype, metaphor, Jungian psychology, the paranormal and religion.
This collection of new essays discusses cultural, religious and literary influences on del Toro’s work and explores key themes of his films, including the child’s experience of humanity through encounters with the monstrous.
And the catalog: http://www.mcfarlandbooks.com/catalogs/
We are currently accepting proposals for essays for an edited volume entitled “The Paranormal and Popular Culture.” Academic writers and independent scholars are invited to submit proposals spanning the wide range of topics on pop culture and the paranormal, and their connection to religion, including reflections on the full panoply of extraordinary beings (e.g. vampires, zombies, demons, ghosts, mutants, cyborgs, cryptoids, etc.) and extraordinary phenomena (e.g. psychic abilities, channeling, spontaneous combustion, magic, necromancy, etc.), as well as theoretical and/or historical reflections on supernaturalism, pop culture, and theology.
Those interested in being considered as contributors should send an abstract to the co-editors, Darryl Caterine (email@example.com) and John Morehead (firstname.lastname@example.org) by June 1. Our timeline is as follows: write up a proposal this summer and pitch it to various publishers. Assuming we receive a timely and positive response from one or more of them, the tentative deadline for the essays would be the summer of 2016.