Parish Universalist Church
790 Washington Street, P. O. Box 284, Stoughton, Massachusetts 02072
Church School: 10:45 AM
Why Do We Love Vampires?
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, October 31, 2010
I got to wear my vampire costume last Sunday. I decided against dressing up today, in spite of the fact that it’s Halloween. There’s something about vampire teeth that makes hard to even speak, let alone sermonize. I didn’t want to disappoint you, so the teeth had to go, and the rest of my vampire get-up with it.
But I did enjoy taking part with our young people and their teachers last Sunday in their little play about one of the most inspiring moments in Unitarian church history: King John Sigismund and the Diet of Torda, which, way back in 1568, gave the world its first edict of religious toleration and freedom of conscience. A Unitarian king (not many of those) gives the world its first declaration of religious freedom (none of them back in 1568, and not all that many since). It’s an exciting concept, don’t you think?
And to think that King John Sigismund ruled over
The fictional Dracula is, interestingly, based upon an historical figure:
a fifteenth century Transylvanian count named Vlad Tepes—Vlad the Impaler—who
From all existing accounts, this Vlad guy was, truly, quite a fiend. He
is said to have been one of Europe’s most bloodthirsty tyrants (and, given the
course of European history, that’s saying something); a “boundlessly dreadful
man,” in the words of one historian, who was apparently very fond of impaling
his enemies (of whom there were, apparently, a pretty good number) on huge
pointed stakes, in front of his castle. Because of such evil acts, Vlad became
known as “Tepes”—the Romanian word for “Impaler”. He was also branded with the
epithet “Dracul”, which means “the Devil”. People round and about Wallachia and
This is where the Unitarians come in.
According to Bram Stoker, in his original work,
Dracula, which gave the modern world
the genre of vampire novels from which we have never recovered, the Count is
quoted as saying that he is of the race of the Szekely people—a proud, ancient
This “pagan” anti-trinitarianism, as opposed to the distinctly
Christian Transylvanian Unitarianism that would come later, was already
common during the time of Vlad the Impaler. It served as a sort of middle
theological ground between the marauding Turks (who were Muslim, of course), who
had just captured
We don’t know for certain what Vlad’s official religious affiliation was
(no one is too quick to claim him, either, for obvious reasons). We know that he
wasn’t a Muslim; Turks were among his most numerous victims. The fact that later
“official” sources (that is, Catholic ones) would label him a “heretic” doesn’t
mean that Vlad wasn’t a Christian; it just means that he wasn’t a Roman
Catholic. It probably indicates that Vlad was a staunch follower of the Eastern
Orthodox branch of the Christian faith, which had broken with the papacy several
centuries before, and was making major inroads in the eastern part of
Well, aren’t we relieved that, at least, he wasn’t “one of us”?
Or are we?
I remember, when I had first finished my “Extensive Historical Research” on this topic (all of a half hour, I bet, maybe forty-five minutes), I felt a little disappointed to discover that Count Dracula—or Vlad Tepes, actually—had not been a Unitarian, in spite of my first inkling that he might have been. A vampire along our religious family tree—talk about celebrating diversity, big time!
I think that, maybe, I was just reflecting in my disappointment the allure that the idea of vampires has over us—and has had over us for centuries, in Western popular culture.
While mythological tales of creatures subsisting on human blood go way back in the folklore of many different cultures, the term “vampire” doesn’t appear in English until the early 18th century, and the first recorded English tales of vampires took the form of ballads or poems. Then, in the 19th century, short stories about vampires started to appear, the first and most influential of which was John Polidori's The Vampyre. The Vampyre (with a “y”), appeared in 1819, and featured a pro-Draculalike character named Lord Ruthven. Lord Ruthven's exploits were further explored in a series of vampire plays in which he was the main character. The vampire theme continued in a series of cheap novels known as “penny dreadfuls” (called “dreadful” because the story was scary, not because the writing was terrible) such as Varney (yikes!) the Vampire by James Malcom Ryer, which came out in 1847. The penny dreadfuls eventually gave way to more substantive works of vampire fiction, culminating, of course, in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the pre-eminent vampire novel of all time, which was published in 1897.
The success of Stoker’s Dracula, with its
themes of sex, blood, and death, may have said as much about the widespread
threat of tuberculosis and syphllis in Victorian England as it did about
fascination with ancient Transylvanian folklore. Since then, culture has
changed, but we’ve always had our vampires to accompany us. In her book,
Our Vampires, Ourselves (yes, that’s
really the title) Nina Auerbach, a professor at the
“… vampires come and go… they change according to what we demand of them. They have to take time to change. It’s never the same vampire from decade to decade.”
One of the first "scientific" vampire novels was Richard Matheson's I Am Legend in 1954, with its themes of wholescale annihilation, runaway science, and the power of technology all clear reflections of the dawn of the Atomic Age.
The latter part of the 20th century saw the continued rise and fall of various vampire clans. Do you remember the TV series Dark Shadows back in the late 60s and early 70s? It was Dark Shadows, I think, that set the trend for seeing vampires as poetic tragic heroes rather than as the more traditional embodiment of evil. Maybe it said something about the rise of moral relativism, or the acceptance of differences among people, or maybe it just reflected our understanding that the answers to the questions we ask are seldom cut and dried—even questions as deep and profound as the meaning of good and evil.
Bit finally, we had vampires that we could like—or even love—openly. It was this impetus which powered Anne Rice's extremely popular Vampire Chronicles between 1976 and 2003. This is the force that energizes today’s major vampire money machine, the Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer. Meyer’s vampires even ignore the effects of garlic and crosses—a sign which the theologian might argue indicates that we are now in a post-Christian postmodern world. Her vampires also are not harmed by sunlight, and don’t drink human blood (only that of overpopulating animal species). Politically correct vampires—how 21st century!
What does all this mean? What are we supposed to take from the fact that today, vampires are hotter than ever—churning out billions of dollars in books, movies, television; eating away at hours of “free time” that could be spent doing, obstensibly, more “serious” or “important” things?
One scholar has theorized that “In times of economic contraction, fear of job loss, and war [that would be today], the vampire myth really speaks to people. What’s so bad about being powerful,. almost immortal, always in control, and incredibly desirable?”
“What’s not to love about vampires?” another observer asks. “Sleep all day, Party all night. Forever young and sexy.”
But maybe it goes even a little deeper. Stories of vampires do confront some of the basic verities of our human existence: the nature of good and evil; the nature of beauty and ugliness; how do we relate to the “other”; how do we face death; how do we dance with the mystery-- and, of course, there’s always sex.
Anne Rice says that we find vampires so appealing because they make us wonder what we would do if we were turned into vampires ourselves. Would we do evil—drink human blood and all that—if we could be made immortal? Or would immortality cost us more than it granted? If we remove the certainty of our own deaths from this human equation, does it make us, then, less than human, and not more?
I think, rather obviously, that it would. The preciousness of human life is founded upon the premise that it comes to an end (at least, within this worldly cycle). Our lives are so precious because they are so brief. Yet, something within us makes us yearn to know what immortality would be like. The fear of our own deaths (and even more, perhaps, the deaths of those we love) haunts the deepest recesses of our beings, even if we don’t admit it; even if we don’t even know it. As one modern poet has put it, “Life’s like an hourglass glue to the table.”
For all of us, maybe. But not for vampires. They can just keep turning that hourglass, over and over again. So, they intrigue us.
Vampires are also all about darkness and mystery. Most of the time, we all think of ourselves, at least, as creatures of the light. We like doing good, or at least we tell ourselves as much. “Know thyself,” the ancient voices intone, and we try to obey. Self knowledge seems the surest road to human virtue and worldly success.
But, for many (most?) of us, too, there are dark recesses of our beings that even we ourselves don’t want to look upon. Or, that we do look upon and shudder. Or that we run away from, or live in denial about, or that we have covered over for our own protection.
Vampires remind us, often in a safe, literary, fictionalized, kind of way of the darkness that lies within the human soul. If nothing human is foreign to us, then it lies in wait within our souls, too. Even as we go about our mundane, everyday business, there are dark spirits within. Vampires help us face these fears, this evil.
Or, conversely, they liberate us to live out fully, either within our lives or certainly within our psyches, those deep, hidden, aspects of who we are which, perhaps we might be forced to keep closeted and hidden. Our vampire friends remind us of our hidden powers, our influence, our real strengths, which too often lie dormant in the pale way we see ourselves reflected in the mirror of life.
Why did Mina in Bram Stoker’s novel fall for Dracula, when she already had a fiance, Jonathan Harker? Because Harker was boring! Dracula wasn’t. Evil—yes; but boring, no. Maybe Dracula can inspire some of us men to turn it up a notch in the passion department. Or, as Sherrilyn Kenyon has put it:
“I think that as humans we are compelled by the darkness that lurks within all of us [as well as by the light]. Because we are civilized, we want to pretend we aren’t as… [much of the animal kingdom]… as our genetic codes dictate. But we really are animals and [mythological] creatures aren’t bound by the same laws of humanity as we are. They allow us to explore that darkness [and those animal passions] in a safe and controlled environment.”
Vampires help us to restore to our lives some of the erotic energy of the pure ecstasy at the heart of being alive: the power of life fully experienced, untrammeled by all the oftentimes-necessary and oftentimes-ennobling additions of civilized society. As such, perhaps, they give us deeper glimpses into the sheer energy that makes us alive, primally human creatures.
The evils of this world are real. And there are things in life we need to fear.
But there is an even-greater Mystery out there, as well. We are one with that Mystery, and everything that is lives and moves and has its being lies within that Mystery.
Our vampire friends call upon us to honor the mystery within, for it is only at our own peril that we refuse to do so.
If we keep the mystery repressed, and hidden, and pretend we have no need for it, then it is like the farthest corners of a deep, dark cellar, where the sunlight never reaches, and where all manner of evil and ugliness may lurk, and where horrible crimes are committed in humanity’s name.
But if we nurture and foster this mystery and wonder inside our souls, then it can flower forth in beauty, and creativity, and wisdom, and bless our world. It can wrap the world in joy. And sweeten it with laughter. And season it with sugar and spice and magic and enchantment of all the tricks and treats that this wondrous life still has in store for us.