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Titus Hjelm – From Demonic to Genetic: The Rise and Fall of Religion in Vampire Film

bladeA few weeks ago I was thumbing through the program for the American Academy of Religion conference that will be meeting in November of this year. One of the areas of interest is religion and popular culture, and several presentation topics caught my eye. One was by Titus Hjelm of the University College, London. He will be presenting a paper that is based upon his contribution to the book The Lure of the Dark Side (Equinox, 2009) with the chapter titled ”Celluloid Vampires, Technology, and the Decline of Religion.” I was able to track Titus down through the Internet and he was willing to discuss the interesting change in vampire mythology. 

TheoFantastique: Titus, thank you for giving me a preview of your presentation at AAR. It’s good to learn of scholars with similar research interests. What is your personal interest in the vampire and how does this connect to your academic pursuits in religion and popular culture?

Titus Hjelm: I can’t remember what the first vampire film I saw was, but my parents were quite lax about my television viewing habits, so I was probably too young when I saw it, haha! Anyway, I’ve been interested in all kinds of monsters since I was a kid and the vampire has always touched a chord more than any other creature. Later, I took an academic interest in Satanism and evil in general, so the popular culture representations of the vampire became a natural part of that project.

TheoFantastique: In your essay you discuss the “migration of the vampire soul.” What do you mean by this phrase as it relates to your central thesis?

Titus Hjelm: Basically my thesis is that in recent vampire fiction (both film and books) the vampire has undergone a change from a religious figure into a scientifically defined villain. In other words, whereas the crucifix used to be the best weapon against Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee, the likes of Wesley Snipes and Kate Beckinsale are more concerned about biological weapons used against them. These are what I call the ‘old paradigm’ and ‘new paradigm’ celluloid vampires, respectively. 

TheoFantastique: What cinematic vampire sources did you draw upon in analyzing the old and new paradigms for vampires?

underworld_vampire

Titus Hjelm: I mainly compared the Hammer Studios portrayals of Dracula and some female vampires with recent mainstream films such as the Blade trilogy and Underworld—now a trilogy as well. The picture might have been different if I had added the host of indie vampire films produced in recent years, but that would have been a different project. I also left out all references to Buffy the Vampire Slayer because—I have to admit—I’ve never really followed the series, and also because that is a somewhat different discussion altogether.

TheoFantastique: In your analysis of these paradigms you address three characteristics. Can you describe them?

Titus Hjelm: I thought that from the perspective of declining religiousness and an emerging emphasis on science and genes, it would be interesting to look separately at the portrayals of the origin and motivation of vampires, and their nemesis—that is, how vampires are destroyed in the films. Although overlapping in many ways, all aspects revealed interesting changes in the fictional lore. For example, the Hammer vampire was a mystical, malevolent creature that shied away from religious symbols and was killed by supernatural means. In contrast, the modern vampires are represented explicitly as an outcome of a gene mutation. Their main motivation is not to spread ‘evil’ in itself, but to survive, and for some, to rule humans. Therefore, it is not a question of satanic vampires vs. good Christians, but a question of racial supremacy. Finally, as I mentioned above, the new films often employ metafiction in reference to religious symbolism, saying that unlike popular culture teaches us, ‘crosses don’t do squat.’ 

TheoFantastique: What are some of the reasons for this migration of the vampire soul in ways that, as you put it, “The Devil’s spawn of the classic era of vampire films has become a freak of nature, a genetic defect”?

Titus Hjelm: I think the first rule of cultural analysis is not to read too much meaning into the text itself, so answering that question is notoriously difficult. One plausible thesis would be that religious symbols have lost at least some of the common resonance ground they once had, therefore making the religious, ‘old paradigm’ vampire somewhat obsolete in contemporary culture. On the other hand, the need for ‘enchantment’ has not disappeared, now we’re just enchanted by the possibilities of science gone awry rather than religious evil. 

TheoFantastique: How does the new paradigm for vampires in cinema reflect both secularization and pluralization?

Titus Hjelm: Secularization is another tricky concept, and I would not go too far in interpreting that the move away from religious towards a scientific worldview in vampire films is a very strong implication of secularization. But it might be a sign of pluralisation in the sense that as religion becomes increasingly a matter of individual choice, there is less room for provincialism. In other words, the less there is reference to a particular religious tradition, the more broadly a vampire film can reach its audiences. There is a classic gag about this already in Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers. To the surprise of the heroes, one of the vampires does not recoil when presented with a crucifix, but only comments: ‘Sorry, I’m Jewish.’ Perhaps it is this attitude that has now permeated the genre more broadly.

TheoFantastique: Does this mean that the supernatural vampire of a previous age is gone?

Titus Hjelm: It is clear by now that science has not made religion disappear, despite some early sociological predictions. Similarly, I don’t think the ‘old paradigm’ will disappear, but rather that the interest in the supernatural vampire goes in cycles. The demonic and supernatural vampire might be hibernating somewhere underground while its genetic peers rule the silver screen, only to make a comeback sooner or later—to put it poetically! 

TheoFantastique: Titus, thank you again for your academic work and your contribution to this topic. I hope you continue such endeavors in the future.

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