When I first heard that Brazos Press, an evangelical publisher, had produced a volume looking at vampires in literature and film, I was very skeptical. Evangelicals have been less than receptive to this phenomenon, tending to lump vampires in with “occultism” and evil, rather than as pop culture figures for social and theological reflection. Thankfully, I discovered my fears were ill founded after reading The Vampire Defanged: How the Embodiment of Evil Became a Romantic Hero (Brazos Press, 2011) by Susannah Clements. Clements has written a volume that provides a sound analysis of the fictional vampire from a Christian spiritual perspective, and in ways that should be helpful not only to Christians, but to others who want to understand facets of the vampire tradition that have waned with the rise of secularism and late modernity/postmodernity.
The Vampire Defanged approaches the fictional vampire with an eye toward recapturing the creature as an object of theological reflection. With this perspective in mind, Clements looks at various depictions of the vampire over the course of history, and documents how the Christian tradition has been influential in shaping the theological elements of the vampire, and how this has changed as the vampire developed in changing cultural contexts. Clemens begins her analysis with a look at Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and then moves to the work of Anne Rice, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Sookie Stackhouse of Charlaine Harris’s Southern Vampire Mysteries, and Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series. Along the way Clements notes a shift from a vampire mythology with strong roots in the Christian tradition and theological explorations or implications, to more contemporary postmodern depictions with interests in guilt, existential angst, sex, and romance.
Two aspects of Clements’s treatment of the vampire are very helpful. First, she avoids the frequent responses of evangelicals in either ignoring the vampire in pop culture, or perhaps more frequently, the equation of the vampire with evil, the occult, and the satanic. In Clements’s view this perspective is inappropriate and shortsighted. She writes:
On the other hand, working from the assumption that any story that features a vampire is evil, demonic, and dangerous is an equally problematic response for Christians, as it is based on a lack of critical thinking and ignores distinctions between how the vampire is portrayed in different contexts.
Clements is not naive in regards to depictions of the vampire. She recognizes that at times this figure has embodied aspects that are at odds with Christian theology and ethics. Nevertheless, she navigates a balanced position that finds value in this monstrous icon as a figure for theological reflection through careful cultural analysis.
The second helpful element in Clements’s work is her analysis of Stoker’s Dracula where she reminds the reader of the significance of Christian elements in the work which arise from Stoker’s background as an Irish Protestant. She notes that many contemporary critical analyses of Dracula tends to approach the novel from psychoanalytical and postcolonial frameworks, in addition to much of the sexual and Freudian analysis of the recent past. Perhaps even more curious, is the tendency of biographers of Stoker to ignore or downplay the presence of his Irish Protestantism and its possible influence on his best known literary work. While Dracula should certainly be approached from a variety of analytical perspectives, the neglect of the theological elements is tragic, and demonstrates the biases of contemporary critics. Clements’s volume provides a helpful corrective to this situation, and provides a refreshing insight into Dracula studies, and a major starting point for the vampire in pop culture.
There are two criticisms to be offered to this volume. First, in her sampling of the vampire in pop culture as an object of theological reflection, Clements provides an overview of some of the more important works, and includes vampire films from the 1930s and 1940s. She then jumps to more recent depictions of the vampire in literature and film. In so doing she ignores significant additional examples that would have strengthened her thesis, particularly the Hammer Studios vampire films of the 1950s through 1970s. These films include symbols, rituals, and ideas, including a strong linking of the vampire to the satanic from the Christian tradition. Surely these films were influential in the depiction and evolution of the theological aspects of the vampire.
The second critique is Clements’s treatment of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series. In her view, “[i]n Meyer’s Twilight Saga, we can see the end result of the process of secularization. Although Meyer herself is a Mormon, spirituality and religion are not genuinely explored in the books.” She continues and says that while “religion is not completely absent in the books,” nevertheless “it certainly is not a dominant interest…” Here Clements makes the mistake of viewing Meyers’ Mormonism through the framework of Protestant evangelicalism where doctrinal considerations are most important. However, in Mormonism it is the ethical dimension that is significant, summarized by the phrase “choose the right.” This failure to appreciate Mormonism on its own terms is evident in a later statement Clements makes in her analysis of the Twilight series:
Instead of using the vampire to explore theological or metaphysical themes, the major themes in the Twilight saga are explicitly human: family and destined, romantic love.
Given the significance of the human connection to the divine in Mormonism, which includes the importance of eternal family and love, these elements are theological and metaphysical themes in Mormonism, even though they may not be in Protestant evangelicalism. Thus, it can hardly be said that in the Twilight series we see an “irrelevance of a theological framework for Meyer’s narrative” as Clements would have us believe. Through a misinterpretation of Mormonism, Meyer’s misses an important element in understanding the Twilight Saga, and consideration of it not so much as a result of secularization, but rather through the influence of a different religious framework.
Despite these two minor criticisms, Clements’s book is highly recommended for evangelicals willing to consider the positive aspects of the vampire for theological reflection, as well as for those outside of this religious tradition who want to understand the place of the Christian tradition in shaping the vampire mythology.