Vampire Films and Catholicism

The vampire movies that are the most likely to treat issues of theology and religion seriously are the Gothic melodramas and the art house pictures, while the films in the other categories are more interested in entertaining and titillating the audience.  Significantly, the Gothic melodramas—such as those produced by Great Britain’s Hammer Films studio—are the ones that consistently evoke the bizarre Roman Catholic sensibilities of the classic vampire novel by Bram Stoker (Dracula, 1897), and its numerous adaptations.

All vampire movies, to some degree or another, exist in the shadow of Stoker’s novel. The Victorian-era classic portrayed vampires as demonic beings that shrink in the presence of Roman Catholic objects of faith, especially crucifixes, rosary beads, holy water, and the Eucharist.  When the novel was adapted into a stage play, and then into the 1931 film featuring Bela Lugosi in the title role, much of the Catholic iconography was retained and brought to the screen.  Vampires have been tied inextricably to the Catholic Church ever since.

Some of the most interesting vampire films, from both an artistic and theological perspective, are those that explore the connection between vampirism and Catholicism, often by positing theories for the origins of vampirism, and by considering the possibility that a penitent vampire might be “cured” or redeemed.  Since the novel Dracula does not explain clearly or definitively how the undead count became a vampire, and does not explain where the first vampire came from, films derived from the book have felt free to invent their own origins for the curse, many of which are intriguing and deliberately vague.  For example, in The Brides of Dracula (1960), Dracula’s arch enemy Professor Van Helsing explains that vampirism is a “strange sickness” that is “partly physical, partly spiritual” and is “most prevalent in Transylvania and the lower Danube.”  It will inevitably spread like a contagion “unless it is stamped out.”  He later cryptically observes that “the Cult of Vampirism” is “a survival of one of the ancient pagan religions in their struggle against Christianity.”

Alternatively, the 2001 film The Forsaken traces the origins of vampirism to the siege of Antioch during the Crusades, in which two hundred French knights were wiped out by the Turkish army.  Following the battle, nine surviving knights found themselves freezing to death in a blizzard.  Then the demon Abaddon appeared to them, offering them immortality in exchange for their souls.  Eight accepted and were instructed to “kill and drink the blood of the knight who refused.  When the sun rose, they were so ashamed of what they did, they hid in caves until night fell again.”  From then on, the undead knights were cursed to drink blood, avoid the sun, and win legions of new souls for Abaddon by spreading vampirism across the globe.

The Turks are offered a place of prominence in yet another account of the birth of vampirism.  Bram Stoker’s Dracula—a 1992 film that was notable because it was directed by Francis Ford Coppola—features a prologue that suggests that Dracula is Vlad the Impaler come back from the grave.  The segment takes place in 1462 and shows a still-human Vlad Dracul returning home from a military campaign against the Turks.  Upon his arrival, he is shocked to discover that his true love has committed suicide because she falsely believed that he had perished in combat.  A priest informs him unsympathetically that all suicides are damned according to “God’s law.”  Vlad raves, “Is this my reward for defending God’s Church?  I renounce God!  I shall rise from my own death to avenge hers with all the powers of darkness.”  He then performs a dark inversion of communion, drinking blood from a chalice and proclaiming, “The blood is the life, and it shall be mine.”  Thus, Dracula was born.

Rather than suggesting that Dracula was Vlad the Impaler in life, the film Dracula 2000 (2000) posits that Dracula is Judas Iscariot come back from the dead after hanging himself.  Throughout the film, heroine Mary Van Helsing wonders why Dracula hates silver and the crucifix, why he speaks Aramaic, and why he calls the Bible propaganda.  When the heroine discovers his identity, Dracula confesses the source of his rage to her: “You cannot imagine what I’ve had to endure.  I have borne the very wrath of God. Chosen to suffer like no man before.”  Dracula/Judas is particularly angry at his own contradictory role in Christ’s fate—he was the key to Christ fulfilling his destiny, yet he is condemned as a traitor.  Addressing the image of Christ painted on a giant crucifix, Dracula storms, “You knew this would come to pass.  It was my destiny to betray you because you needed me.  Now I drink the blood of your children, but I give them more than just eternal life.  I give them what they crave most.   All the pleasure you would deny them … forever.  You made the world in your image, but now I make it in mine.”

Mary tries to urge Dracula to make peace with God, but Dracula insists, “He won’t have me.”

“He still loves you,” she assures him.

At the end of both Dracula 2000 and Coppola’s Dracula, a heroic woman slays Dracula and prays for his immortal soul, offering the possibility that the love of a sympathetic woman can inspire God to forgive even the prince of darkness himself.

Vampires frequently hope for redemption, or a cure for their condition, but are rarely granted any form of peace beyond being decapitated or pierced through the heart by a wooden stake. Barnabas Collins, the reluctant vampire of television’s Dark Shadows (ABC, 1966-1971), was granted several “remissions” from his curse, but he had better luck than Dracula’s Daughter (1936) Countess Zeleska, who begged God, psychiatry, and science for redemption but ended up being killed with a bow and arrow.  The possibility of a vampire redeeming himself (or herself) is touched upon in the Hammer film Kiss of the Vampire, but it is not explored fully.  The film paints vampirism as a form of demonic possession that can corrupt anyone, no matter how innocent.  Serving in the Shamanistic role normally occupied by Van Helsing, Professor Zimmer is an angry drunk who feels that he has to drive a shovel through his own daughter’s heart after she is transformed into a vampire.  As he explains,

“When the devil attacks a man or woman with this foul disease of the vampire, the unfortunate human being can do one of two things.  Either he can seek God through the church and pray for absolution, or he can persuade himself that his filthy perversion is some kind of new and wonderful experience to be shared by the favored few.  Then he tries to persuade others to join his new cult.”

Presumably, Zimmer’s daughter chooses to embrace her life as a vampire, and he disapproves.

The Subspecies series of films introduces the idea of a Roman Catholic artifact that neither destroys nor cures a vampire, but satiates its desire for human blood, thereby allowing it to live in peace with the human world.  This artifact, dubbed the Bloodstone, is a hollow crystal that magically fills with “the blood of all the saints” every time it is held by a vampire.  According to the film’s mythology, the Pope had been the guardian of the Bloodstone until the fifteenth century, when a Romanian gypsy stole it from the Vatican and presented it to the king of the vampires as a peace offering.  In return, the gypsy asked that the vampires stop slaughtering his people.  Since that time, the vampires lived off of the Bloodstone and never attacked another human.  When the first film begins, the vampire king dies, and his rightful heirs battle for the possession of the Bloodstone for three sequels.  The heroine, “good” vampire Michelle Morgan, wishes to live in peace with the humans, and the “evil” vampire, Radu Vladislas, wishes to use the Bloodstone to add to his magical power even as he breaks the treaty with humanity.

These films are among the most notable to embrace the connection between vampirism and Catholicism.  The filmmakers involved appear to have enjoyed exploring the notion that vampires exist in a universe in which Jesus Christ is undoubtedly God and Roman Catholicism is the true faith.  Other storytellers have played with the notion in even more exploitative ways, and have painted the clergy as more evil than vampires, or have sacrilegiously portrayed Jesus as, conversely, either a vampire or vampire hunter.  Still other filmmakers have been interested in vampires but not in Catholicism, and have tried to refute or ignore the Catholic connection.  (For example, in his 1966 comedy The Fearless Vampire Killers, filmmaker Roman Polanski created a Jewish vampire who laughed when a cross was used as a ward against him, exclaiming, “Oy!  You’ve got the wrong vampire!”)

One of the most creative, multicultural solutions to the “Catholic” issue was presented in The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires, which took place in Chung King in 1904.  The film was presented as a sequel to the Dracula story and featured Van Helsing as a heroic man of action who travels the world fighting vampires in every country and culture.  In one key scene, Van Helsing explains to his Chinese compatriots that vampires “abhor anything that has a holy significance. They fear the word of the Lord.  In Europe, the vampire walks in dread of the crucifix.  Here, it would be the image of the Lord Buddha.”  Based on this significant dialogue, it is not clear whether the vampires fear the Buddha because the Buddha is as “real” as Christ crucified is, or because the vampire hunter is protected by a fundamental faith or goodness that is in the heart of every religious person, no matter what religious tradition he comes from.  (On a related note, both ‘Salem’s Lot and Fright Night assert that a cross will not keep a vampire at bay unless the human using it as protection has genuine faith.  The films only hint at what “genuine faith” might be.)

Other filmmakers have stripped their films of Catholic elements by suggesting that vampires are not supernatural but aliens (Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce), or the product of viral infection (The Last Man on Earth, based on Richard Matheson’s novella I am Legend), or have suggested that vampires are supernatural but do not fear the crucifix (Interview with a Vampire). Two of the most creative departures from the traditional view of the vampire include Lair of the White Worm—which features a serpentine vampire who fears the mongoose, and who can be captivated by a snake-charmer—and the swashbuckling adventure yarn Captain Kronos—Vampire Hunter (1974)—which presents creatures who walk by day and drain their victims of youth rather than blood.  Catholicism was downplayed in Dark Shadows, in which Barnabas Collins was transformed into a vampire by Angelique Bouchard’s voodoo curse, and he sought a cure through scientific rather than theological means.

These vampires are all clearly vampires, but the variations in their portrayals and in their appearance and abilities mean that they are different species of vampires.  In fact, to some degree, there are as many species of vampires as there are species of vampire film.  (The role-playing game Vampire: The Masquerade capitalized on these differences by cataloguing and codifying the different species of vampire, and inspired the filmed adaptation Kindred: The Embraced.) As a general rule of thumb, the more supernatural the vampire is portrayed as being, the more likely the film will address religious issues. Conversely, the more human the vampire seems, the more likely the film is using the creature as a vehicle to address more secular concerns.  Less supernatural variations of the concept have been known to treat vampirism as a disease akin to AIDS, wherein the vampire is not undead so much as afflicted by a need for constant transfusions of fresh blood.  Vampirism has also served as a metaphor for drug addiction, rape, nymphomania, necrophilia, and mass hysteria.

Those vampire films that explore religion and Catholicism tend to focus on the darker regions of faith and organized religion.  They meditate on the possibility that God is not as fair and forgiving as he is often portrayed.  They fixate on injustices in Church law and history, especially the persistent belief that all non-Catholics are misguided or evil, inspiring the horrors of the Inquisition, the Crusades, and the Counter-Reformation.  These films are particularly concerned with the law that suicides go to hell and that most, if not all, sexual pleasure is sinful.  In effect, the movies invite the viewer to weep for all the damned in hell, and for the vampires.  They do this even as they celebrate, seemingly paradoxically, the ultimate triumph of the just (and of the immensely likeable Professor Van Helsing) over the forces of darkness.  In that respect, vampire films have their cake and eat it too, allowing the viewers to live vicariously through the vampires—unchain the most secret desires of the id—and safely see these sinful impulses vanquished at the end of the film when a stake is driven through the vampire’s heart.  However, on some level all viewers know that those desires will rise again, just like the vampire will, when the sequel comes around next summer.

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Marc DiPaolo is associate professor of English and film at Oklahoma City University. He wrote War, Politics and Superheroes (2011) and Emma Adapted (2007). He is editor of Godly Heretics and Unruly Catholics from Dante to Madonna, and coeditor (with Bryan Cardinale-Powell) of Devised and Directed by Mike Leigh (all 2013). His personal web site is here.

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