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Mary Y. Hallab: Vampire God

One of the helpful features of Amazon.com is its “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought…” recommendations. In a quest for new research and discussion topics using this feature I came across a book by Mary Y. Hallab, titled Vampire God: The Allure of the Undead in Western Culture (SUNY Press, 2009). I’m glad I discovered it. I read through a lot of materials for reflection and discussion, many good, some not so good. Hallab’s Vampire God is recommended for those interested in vampires, folklore, literature, and the frequently neglected connections of these topics to death and religion.

Hallab is Professor Emeritus of English Literature at the University of Central Missouri. She is also a painter with her work having appeared in art shows across the United States. It has been featured in River City magazine and Phoebe, and has appeared on the covers of The Connecticut Review and Pleiades: A Journal of New Writing.

TheoFantastique: Thank you for a great read, Mary, and for your willingness to discuss the book here. I like to begin many of my interviews on a personal note. How did you come to be interested in vampires and make this a research focus?

Mary Hallab: I had been trying to think of a literature course that would attract non-English majors, and I found this idea at the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts. The course did indeed attract students and was fun to teach. But reading the criticism, I was disappointed to find that almost none of it really defined or dealt with vampires as undead, but only as illustrations for some theory about sex or economics or whatever.

What makes vampires vampires is that they overcome death. They are all dead. But most critics of vampire literature seemed determined to avoid that truly taboo topic and so miss what the vampire uniquely has to offer. That is what I wanted to find out.

This study, however, is not at all based on my syllabus for the course or vice versa. In the course, I focused on the historical background of the vampire and the development of vampire literature in relation to literary movements like Romanticism and to literary figures, such as Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost.

I left it to the students to notice the Christian implications and the obvious parallel between Jesus and the vampire—which they did.

TheoFantastique: How would you summarize the thesis of your book?

Mary Hallab: Vampires are meaningful because they are undead. In folklore and fiction, vampires address the fear of death and the desire for immortality. By refusing to die, they help us contemplate our own mortality and answer our questions about death, about the soul and its survival after bodily dissolution, about the possible existence of an other life after this one. Vampires give us a chance to contemplate death without facing it at all, from all sorts of angles, personal, social, religious, and in all sorts of manifestations from vicious villains to annoying teenagers to hot babes to superheroes. Perhaps most important: uncanny and mysterious as they are, vampires express and respond to the spiritual need for transcendence of this world, for a sense of the sublime, that gives life meaning.

TheoFantastique: You discuss the vampire in a variety of ways and connections, but for me the most interesting was your exploration of this iconic figure in connection with religion. Religion functions at a number of levels, but it has been observed that Western Christianity tends to neglect the realm of everyday life where folkloric religion is more effective. Related to this, you state that “Folklorists tend to regard the vampire as part of a sort of supplemental system, filling in the gaps where institutional religion apparently does not function, at least in the minds of ordinary people.” Can you touch on some of the shortcomings in institutional religion and how vampires may fill this gap? In what ways does the vampire address important religious concerns?

Mary Hallab: Institutionalized religion is so vast and various and includes so many beliefs and practices that I do not want to get into seeming to criticize its possible shortcomings. All peoples all over the world observe all sorts of folk beliefs and practices that cannot be justified by religious texts or authorities, from knocking on wood to staking the dead, from praying to statues to hunting for demons.

Moreover, this topic is easier to discuss, as I did, in connection with particular folklore vampires in a particular place, which might have developed to explain problems that, say, the conventional church could not, such as unexpected deaths and plagues, even bad harvests. We can, these people thought, stop these calamities by staking a few warm corpses. It seems to work as well as prayer, maybe better.

This is, in effect, a scientific function of the vampire (along with other supernaturals): the vampire explains specific natural phenomena and offers some solutions for them. Today, science fills such gaps to the best of its ability.

Even the folk recognize that hardly anyone wants to die. (No one would do it on purpose.)

As for the modern literary vampire, an important religious concern is the concern about death and its why and how. Writers like Bram Stoker use the literary vampire to show why a normal death in the Christian manner is for the best, after all, no matter how comfortable our lives on earth may seem. But he also speculates about death in his novel. To what extent does institutionalized religion do that or allow that?

Both folklore and vampire literature are based in a concept of a direct relation and continued social interaction between the living and the dead, which institutionalized Christianity, as I understand it, has worked hard to stamp out. Here’s a gap:  We are devastated that we have lost our loved one forever—or at least until Judgment Day, as we are told, a dismal comfort. We are not to claim that we have talked to them or that they watch over us. But the whole vampire folklore is based on the belief that the soul goes right over and then hangs around a bit with all its friends and relatives—a very popular belief although not theologically correct, as I understand.

Still, the fact that institutionalized religion does not tell us what to think and do every minute of every day is not, in my view, a shortcoming.

TheoFantastique: One of the more unsettling aspects of your discussion is your recognition of an unfortunate dualism in popular thinking. This is fueled in great measure by what has been described in your book in a quotation of Neil Forsyth  as “the devil-soaked Protestant imagination” that often resembles Manichaeism. How has this dualism surfaced in vampire literature and film, and what are the ramifications as we move from the realm of fantasy and horror to the real world?

Mary Hallab: I don’t think I made any effort to blame Protestants over Catholics. All Christianity is pretty much devil-soaked, isn’t it? I have pictures from the paintings in medieval churches that are full of devils. If we say that old women are having “concourse with Satan,” (as both Catholics and Protestants have done) aren’t we positing a great evil figure outside of God who can cause people to behave the way he wants however innocent or good they might be? Aren’t we teaching people to believe in the Devil as an actual powerful god, uncontrollable by and dangerous to the Big Good God, who ought to be doing something about him?

Now, I don’t regard dualism or Manichaeism as necessarily “unfortunate” although some might. This is a very complex topic. Dualism might, for example, refer only to a conception of the universe as divided between the material and the spiritual; these need not be evil. The arbitrary division of the universe between absolute Good and absolute Evil and the insistence on labeling all things (or words or thoughts or people) as belonging to God’s party or the Devil’s party creates all sorts of unfortunate behavior. What is “unfortunate” is using this idea of Satan to declare our neighbors, for example, or unbaptized Indians or Muslims or people whose property or oil we want to take to be evil and worthy of annihilation in the name of rescuing humankind and even God from them. If God needs rescuing, then there is powerful force equal to him. Is that right? But God can look after Himself. Some of our neighbors cannot.

This dualism does not appear in the folklore I looked at. The vampire is just a family member or neighbor who won’t die. The staking is not regarded, so far as I could tell, as a punishment. It saves the community from a major nuisance and a danger, but not from damnation or annihilation. It is a physical, not a spiritual, threat.

Most early vampire literature is more like this. Polidori’s Ruthven is just a killer. Varney and Carmilla are simply following their own nature. But Stoker’s Dracula works for Satan, or so Van Helsing tells us, as he rallies his Christian knights, as he sees them, to destroy Dracula in the name of Jesus. He proposes a world of good versus evil, in which one must be one or the other. (Isn’t this what Christianity does when its God “judges” everyone at death and pops them into the Good or Evil bin to be eternally rewarded or punished?) We know Dracula is evil because he defies God’s orderly plan by ignoring death. This is not just a folkloric misdemeanor; this is heresy.

We know he is the equal of God, or nearly so, because he alone acts in the novel. God is not there, nor does He send an agent, as Satan does. This setup appears in any number of vampire works, where, for example, the evil vampire, serving Satan, is trying to undermine the church or destroy the universe.

What disconcerts me about these works is that they feed into and even encourage the kind of dualistic thinking I described above according to which it is all right to slaughter fellow beings on the suggestion that they are agents of Satan, or belong to the Dark Side as if this oversimplification was valid. We even see it in “kiddie” works like Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Where is God in that show? But some great Evil, called The One, threatens the universe at every turn.

This kind of Devil vs. God, Evil vs. Good thinking appeared in the rhetoric justifying our invasion of Iraq and the slaughter by us of thousands of people. It is repeated constantly in America in sermons, political speeches, and even the press, in the tendency to attack any other people who disagree with our policies.

TheoFantastique: You point out that vampire studies often neglect the subject of death and how it is treated in vampire literature and film. How does the vampire help us confront death?

Mary Hallab: Mostly, in vampire literature, the vampire’s hard life and many handicaps represent a “fate worse than death.” Often, he wants to die. In Browning’s Dracula film, Bela Lugosi says, “To be dead, to be really dead, that would be wonderful!”

To maintain life, vampires usually have to suck blood from the living, which deprives them of a normal social life. Their creators usually give them other difficult restrictions and limitations, even bad breath. The living are always trying to kill them, and they watch their friends and family die over and over again. That is, a good deal of vampire literature continues the argument that a normal death is the best, after all. Almost all of it affirms belief in an other world beyond this one to which we may go after death, although this may not be strictly Christian. At least, vampire literature asks the question: What would you be willing to do to live forever?

Usually, often the vampire dies too. Most vampire literature makes the point that you are not going to get to live forever on earth anyway, so you had better find a way to deal with it.

So another way the vampire helps us to accept death on the personal level is by standing for a self that lives on. The vampire may live or die, but he is not a sniveling, humble, passive being who bows before death and accepts eternal submission. As a strong, assertive, willful, fully developed, and even rebellious self, the vampire affirms the strength and authority of the human soul. Poe’s willful vampire women, like Ligeia, suggest strongly that we carry our personal being and strength into the other world. This, I think, is a comforting thought for many.

Vampire literature also insists on strong ties between the past and the present. The vampire brings a sense of the living past and reminds us that that past still does live, just as our present will live on in the future.  The past is not dead; our past is not dead.

TheoFantastique: In your description of the vampire you mention part of the appeal for it is its undeadness, the ability to cross the boundary between life and death, its ability to overcome death, its being both human and supernatural, and its connection to the archetypal dying god. I find it interesting that some zombie fans have drawn connections between a resurrected Christ and a zombie Jesus coming from the tomb without the transformation of the body. As I read some of these aspects of vampiric appeal it dawned on me that this is similar to Christian claims for the resurrected Christ here as well. Am I off base?

Mary Hallab: I am not sure what you are referring to with “this.” Nor am I sure that you are equating zombies with vampires. In my book, I very carefully avoided zombies, who are not, as I understand it, conscious beings. I cannot imagine why they are so popular. Jesus seems to be fully conscious when he comes from the tomb. Moreover, this does not make him a vampire either or a zombie. He lives in a different context, that of a god, the Christian God.

To take a pagan example, Persephone lives in the other world part of the year. She is a seasonal dying goddess. But she is not a vampire. She is a Greek goddess. When we look at Greek literature, of course, any being who has immortality is a god or goddess, although maybe a minor one, even if she/he did not actually die at any point. Calypso on her little island is a goddess.

What kinds of connections did these zombie fans draw? What difference does it make? Perhaps in our Christian dualistic way of thinking, we are putting too much emphasis on the great gap between the material and the spiritual. This is where Christians get into trouble, isn’t it?

Of course, Jesus too is a dying god. Look at how he dies—on a tree, with a sword piercing his side. He dies every year at Easter and is born again then and at Christmas. The difference is that Christianity made his rebirth permanent, no longer marking a new season (only) but a new world.

TheoFantastique: I was struck in your book about the frequent critique you bring, and that the vampire brings, in the face of a dualistic Christianity. In your final chapter you write:

Like folklore vampires, most literary vampires are not Satan or opponents of the Christian God. Rather, they have become minor gods of the cycle of life and death in a modern folklore pantheon, often but not always explicitly subordinated to the Christian God. Thus, the vampire stands for both the power of death and the triumph of life. We often forget that, from folklore to the present, the vampire’s real crime is his excessive love of life on this earth, his refusal to give it up for some vague promise of bodiless immortality. It is not only the demonic and the dark of the vampire that appeals to us; it is the energy and vitality — and humanity — set against a religion that, at its very best, offers self-denying contemplation and a remote, unattainable, incomprehensible mystery.

Do you see the vampire developing historically and culturally in reaction to perceived shortcomings in Christianity as the dominant religious expression of various cultures?

Mary Hallab: Actually, no. The folkloric peasants were probably not reacting against anything, just taking care of their own needs through some useful old pagan beliefs that Christianity could not entirely wipe out, try as it might.  The vampire has developed as part of a complex of beliefs about death and the human soul, etc., some that fit very neatly into Christianity and some that do not.  This is the case of old wives’ magic, too, for example.  They were not trying to be heretics or rebels.  They were just trying to cure warts.

In the complex of beliefs about death, for example, the belief in the possible return of the dead could help to maintain family and community relations in a way that orthodox religion does not always provide for. We honor our elders, for example, because, if we don’t, they may come back for us.

But, you may argue that the Romantics, who developed and promoted the vampires as a literary figure were rebels.  Yes, Byron, the model for most modern vampires, starting with Polidori’s story “The Vampire,” was sort of a rebel.  But in his poem, “The Giaour,” the vampire is cursed for his antisocial behavior.  In Polidori’s tale that gave us Byron-as-Vampire on a platter, the vampire is a nasty bloodsucker, but is not a rebel against anything.

“Christianity as the dominant religious expression of various cultures” covers a lot of people and a lot of territory.  Vampires are mostly popular in European cultures, especially in America. Most people do not take them as religious figures. They are just fiction that allows us to fantasize and to speculate. Many of my students were good Christians and did not see any religious issues at all; instead they had fun with this spooky character and, I suspect, fantasized a bit about having supernatural powers and good looks and living forever.  Also, lots of vampires are really sexy (thanks to Byron, I suspect).

They did, however, want to talk about death. As a subgenre of Gothic literature in general and a development from the old “Graveyard School,” vampire literature may be a reaction to our refusal in our culture to deal with the “dark side,” that is, the unpleasant stuff, mainly death.  Introduce the topic of sex at a dinner party. Then introduce the topic of death. See which one gets you invited back again. No doubt the institutionalized religion goes along with this, contributing to the smarming up of death as much as possible. Perhaps the church could help people find ways not to ignore their dying parents—or not to pretend that they will not die. This is possibly a result of our usual dualistic thinking in which death has to become entirely spiritualized.

Of all the deaths that appear on television, very few are natural. We don’t believe in natural death. Death can be avoided, we think. We can prevent murders, prevent automobile accidents; if we stop smoking, eat a lot of vegetables, jog, etc., we will not die. If we don’t recognize it, maybe it will go away.

But the vampire tells us that death is not spiritual; it is very physical, usually very unpleasant. It lurks and waits. Some young people do want at least to know this.

TheoFantastique: Mary, thanks again for your book and this discussion. I hope this interview helps create greater interest in what you’ve written.

Those interested in picking up a copy of Vampire God can do so at this link in the TheoFantastique store.

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