The Vampyre Bicentennial: Should Catholics Be Wary?

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Full disclosure: I have been scarred by vampiric literature.

It happened when I was a boy. My mother learned of an isolated Catholic family living in the woods outside town who had a lonely son of my age. As happens in childhood, I was enlisted upon a mission of charity. Having received my marching orders, I loaded a backpack with an arsenal of playthings and, after a lengthy drive, found myself at dusk in the shadow of a tall, ominous, dilapidated house with shuttered windows, shivering amongst the trees that surrounded it. I climbed the long, rickety staircase, tapped timidly at the door, and was admitted into a dreary kitchen by a dreary woman. A bare, buzzing lightbulb hung from a wire, giving a greasy sheen to the linoleum-lined room where a gaunt man sat on a plastic chair at an antique table.

To this sallow, sunken-faced individual I was presented for scrutiny, which he performed silently and severely with an icy eye. Once sufficiently withered beneath his gaze, the man instructed me to remove my pack, which I did, and he took. His glare remained fixed on me as he unzipped the bag and only fell away to inspect the foolish paraphernalia I had brought into his sober house. His long, sharp-nailed fingers ranged my property on the table. King Kong figurine. Chewbacca utility belt. Ghostbusters playing cards. Lego mini-castle. Rubik’s cube. A cape-less Superman.

Then his eyes flashed with fire as he produced a library book with Bela Lugosi on its cover. “What is this?” he hissed through his teeth as he opened the volume. “Vampires? Look here, my love. This boy has a book of vampires to show our son.” His eyes scanned the page before piercing me again. “Do you know what this book of yours says ‘Dracula’ means? ‘Son of the devil.’ Did you know that? Do you like reading about the son of the devil? Well? Do you?”

 

Permit me to draw the curtain on this crushing scene of horror. Suffice it to say that an impression was created on me that night that vampires were not in the same class of monster as Godzilla (though I had always been wary of the blasphemous intonation of that lizard’s title). No, there must be something more to vampires. There must be some cause for wariness…

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It is a strange proposition that sensible Catholics beset with substantial crises should be wary of vampires. Though strange, without doubt, such a proposition is not so strange as to espouse occult crazes that the Church has failed to document a species of life after death; or encourage superstitious nonsense regarding crucifixes and garlic; or give credence to ghoulish conspiracies that the pope sleeps in a coffin by day and feeds upon the blood of cardinals by night. Such specious matters are left to the Dan Browns of the world who would entertain whatever remains of the minds of the masses. But in that desperate effort of diversion lies a reason why Catholics should be wary.

Whenever a godless society begins to grope for something like a god, which is the inevitable dilemma of atheism, the idols it erects should not escape the purview of the faithful. These creations belie a true state of affairs and may afford occasion for Catholics to better judge the waters they are navigating, being, as they are, in the world but not of it. The trajectory and tragedy of modernism is a concern to any modern-day Catholic who intends to conquer, for the enemy must be known if he is to be overthrown. Victory will go to the vampire without knowledge of the stake. And, as it is, the vampire has become something of an enemy emblem, a dominant icon of popular culture, an expression of post-modern angst—a status gained since his entrance two hundred years ago in a tale largely forgotten.

John William Polidori

In 1819, English author and physician John William Polidori (who prompted the concept for Frankenstein to Percy Bysshe Shelley) published a single tale, falsely attributed for a time to Lord Byron, that would prove the prototype of a vast genre. Though a mere short story penned lavishly by a 23-year-old romantic two years before he supposedly committed suicide, The Vampyre is hailed as the original modern vampire story from which an entire literature of dubious eminence and indubitable impact has materialized. Prominent contributions include works such as J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (1872), Bram Stoker’s inimitable Dracula (1897), and Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes adventure The Sussex Vampire (1924), together with more contemporary pulp such as Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot (1975), Anne Rice’s racy Interview with the Vampire (1976), and Stephenie Meyer’s tawdry Twilight series (2005-2008).

Two hundred years of spilt ink (to say nothing of film) has seen the trend of vampiric fiction rise in popularity while declining in quality, with Meyer’s heartthrob melodramas a far cry from Stoker’s measured masterpiece. Polidori’s groundbreaking, slightly salacious tale is powerful, drawing from the dark European folklore of undead, blood-drinking seducers. Like his immediate successors, Polidori presents a rich, moody tapestry of language and atmosphere, well worth the attention of the civilized reader, and marks a high literary point from which a subject of mystical fascination descended into an abyss of superficial fantasy.

The Vampyre: A Tale tells of one Lord Ruthven, a surreptitious socialite with an uncanny allure given his dispassionate, cold manner. His enigmatic reputation attracts the attention of a young Englishman named Aubrey, who becomes riveted by the mysterious power of Lord Ruthven as he effortlessly ensnares the affection of women and the admiration of men. Aubrey befriends Ruthven and accompanies him on a trip to Italy. He observes closely as the Lord slinks through upper-crust drawing rooms and seedy underbellies, inexplicably leaving ruin, suffering, and vice in his wake. After witnessing one obscenity in particular, Aubrey is compelled to quit Lord Ruthven’s diabolical company and travels alone to Greece.

While engaged there in a study of archeology, Aubrey falls in love with a beautiful country girl named Ianthe and learns about vampires from her, struck by the similarity the legends of the undead bear to Lord Ruthven. When Ianthe is murdered in the most unspeakable and gruesome manner, Aubrey is suddenly and strangely reunited with Ruthven. It is too late. The young man cannot escape. Their association resumes. Even when Ruthven himself is attacked and killed by highwaymen, his impossible reappearance in London haunts Aubrey to the brink of madness. The tale unravels rapidly with Aubrey’s wits, leaving him raging and raving over the exsanguinated corpse of a beloved vampire bride.

The Vampyre laid a firm foundation for frivolous fodder like Twilight, striking those sparks that the centuries have fanned into the flames seized today with a Promethean audacity that denies the divine and hence seeks hollow fulfillment. The nightmare of the undead can become the dream of those for whom death is nothing but death. The philosophic longing for eternal life; the demagogic hunger for power, animal magnetism, and preternatural mystique; the psychotic desire for spiritual flare without a spiritual life—these will always be formidable lures, and they are the lures of the vampire. Fantasy for the godless creates a universe where life can spurn the course of nature and go on, even in perversity. And this spirit of perversity, derived as it is from the spirit of faith, should make Catholics wary indeed.

The central problem with the prevalent iteration of the vampire is that he has become less of a monster and more of a man, making him a sympathetic creature of gothic charm, a lost romantic soul of mystery, seduction, and seclusion, commanding the attraction of the outcast. All of these themes have their place in storytelling, to be sure, but they assume a dangerous aspect when wed to the mythos of the vampire in the embraced context of secularism and relativism. The moral muddiness that defines the age is one that recasts villains like vampires in a new, questioning light that asks whether foes might be heroes and whether myth can be man-centered. Without a distinct divine element, however, there can be no true mythology. Modern myth has, like its age, lost the sense of a whole and as such it is fragmented. Ours are a people who no longer believe in two worlds. Ours is a mythology of undead, zombie materialism, a mythology of romanticized vampirism, conjured for men who, like vampires themselves, are described by Kipling in his poem “The Vampire,” “some of him lived but the most of him died.”

Thus are vulnerable readers entranced by the vampire. For, in such dark and dreamy revels, the everyday expectations of everyday existence vanish, making way for impossible hopes, even if they are impossible horrors, when superstition edges science and latter-day men cower before legendary wolfmen. This traditional clash of the natural and the supernatural is symbolic of reality, even if vampiric fiction dwells upon the unreal. As the vampire tale has evolved, however, there is an increasing penchant to succumb rather than struggle, diluting the inconvenient implications of the spiritual realm. Polidori’s Vampyre has long turned to dust, but the evil which animated that son of the devil still seeks new victims with smoke-like stealth. And of that enemy, and of the diverting charisma he has established over the last two centuries, should Catholics be wary.

Sean Fitzpatrick

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Sean Fitzpatrick is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College and the Headmaster of Gregory the Great Academy. He lives in Scranton, PA with his wife and family of four.

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