Do We Hate Our Poor?

By Jess Peacock

Last month’s edition of Street Speech marked my twelfth issue as editor of the publication, and thusly marked my year anniversary with the Columbus Coalition for the Homeless (CCH). Despite the temptation to reminisce, I would rather address an issue that we rarely, if ever, discuss within the pages of Street Speech. It’s less an ‘issue’ and more a ‘question.’ And that question is: Why? Why Street Speech? Why CCH? Why the vendor program? In the richest country in the world, why do we need to exist as an organization at all?  In a city that seems to have ample funds for beautification projects (such as proposed spending of nearly $300,000 for deer sculptures along theScioto Mile), why are homeless shelters here regularly overflowing?  Why do we not question and rebel against economic and social structures and systems that not only do nothing to alleviate poverty and homelessness, they actually create and perpetuate the problem outright??
     Several months ago I was sitting for some tattoo work when the conversation turned, as it often does in this setting, to what I did for a living.  I explained to the artist my position as editor of Street Speech, and he replied, “Oh, yeah, I see them selling that on the street all the time. I never buy them, though.” I asked why, and he replied, “They’re just going to use the money for drugs and alcohol.”
     You have undoubtedly heard this before with regard to giving panhandlers money (or perhaps you even echo this sentiment). I for one have heard it ad nauseam since coming to work for CCH and, in all honesty, it infuriates me every time it is ignorantly tossed out as some holier-than-thou screed for not helping or assisting those within our society who need it most.
     Footnote: Street Speech vendors are not panhandlers. They are licensed through CCH who is in turn licensed and approved by the city of Columbus to commission vendors to provide Street Speech to the community for a donation. Put another way, Street Speech vendors are working. They are performing a job that, for many of them, pays the rent, feeds the kids, or in some other way helps to keep their heads above the metaphorical deep waters of homelessness and poverty.
     Beyond this, however, I am always curious as to whose business it is what a vendor does with his or her profits. I would be more than a little alarmed if CCH decided that they were no longer going to pay me out of a concern that I would purchase beer with my check. How might you feel if your employer decided that they were withholding your paycheck because you were going to purchase a bottle of margarita mix? Comparatively, we as a culture glorify alcohol and overconsumption as if it were a state religion. Televised sporting events are nothing more than an unending barrage of beer commercials, we have festivals in Columbus such as Beerfest and Comfest that deify alcoholic consumption, and we have an entire region of the city designated as The Brewery District. And yet, many of us are “concerned” about homeless or formerly homeless individuals purchasing alcohol? I bring up this glaring double standard only to shed light on why I believe CCH, Street Speech and other organizations in the city that work with the homeless population, exist. You may not like my answer. You may find it offensive. You may decide to stop reading this article altogether. But here it is:
     America hates the poor and the homeless.
     I know this sounds extreme, and probably stands in stark contrast to everything you might think our country embodies (i.e. justice, mercy, etc.). I mean, c’mon, this is America; we’re the good guys, right?  We freed the slaves (after enslaving them, of course) and took the bold step of allowing women (women of all people!) the right to vote. Hatred isn’t in our DNA, you say. However, the U.N. Human Rights committee recently denounced the United States for making homelessness a crime, went so far as to label it “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment,” and pointed out that said treatment of homeless individuals violates human rights treaties.
     Nigel Rodley who served as the chairman of the U.N. committee, said, “I’m just simply baffled by the idea that people can be without shelter in a country, and then be treated as criminals for being without shelter. The idea of criminalizing people who don’t have shelter is something that I think many of my colleagues might find as difficult as I do to even comprehend.”
     In addition, Susan Fiske, a psychology professor from Princeton University, states that the prejudice and fear felt by average Americans is a direct result of the homeless population being perceived as things rather than as human beings. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the perception held by Americans is that those who are homeless have nobody but themselves to blame for their predicament.
     As a result, laws are passed to combat homeless people rather than the actual problem of homelessness itself. Researcher and legal scholar Sara K. Rankin writes, “[T]hese laws seek to improve the quality of life of the housed by reducing the visibility of the homeless through incarceration or dislocation.”
     Cities such as Miami, Tampa and Palo Alto have passed laws making it a crime to be homeless. In addition, many cities have even made it a crime to feed the poor. In Columbia, South Carolina, homeless individuals are removedfrom the downtown area and taken to a “shelter” on the outskirts of town where police regularly patrol to ensure those  individuals removed do not return [Editor's Note: Columbia rescinded its unanimous vote over public pressure].
     Other ordinances target the homeless in cities and communities all around the nation as individuals are arrested for sleeping or even sitting for too long in a public space (It’s difficult to say what the defining criteria is for sitting someplace for “too long,” but rest assured this country will not stand for loitering). The Short North Civic Association in Columbus recently held a meeting on the  "loitering problem" in the area, but failed to specify if loiterers included the plethora of valet parking attendants standing around in front of restaurants, or even the throngs of people eating ice cream outside of Jeni's on any given Sunday night. 
     In addition, Ft. Lauderdale is attempting to pass legislation giving the police the ability to confiscate the personal belongings of homeless people provided those belongings are on public property.
     Ultimately, it seems that we are less concerned with the growing issue of homelessness and more concerned with punishing those who find themselves in such dire straits in the first place. In some cases, the price for being destitute results in the ultimate punishment being paid by those who have the audacity of being poor or homeless. This past March, a homeless man inAlbuquerque was killed by police officers for the crime of illegal camping. The 38-year-old man was shot in the back, holding nothing more than a small knife.
     Here in Columbus, homeless camps are sometimes dismantled and the occupants scattered to the winds as if they were pesky rodents as opposed to actual human beings. City officials tell the public that they would rather have the camp inhabitants (who often survive based on the community they form within those camps) in area shelters, but fail to share that shelters are continually overflowing and in less than ideal conditions. Street Speech has documented in past issues of the publication the convoluted and difficult process of navigating the Coordinated Point of Access (CPOA) hotline required of anyone seeking temporary shelter. And, as one homeless individual interviewed for an article on the CPOA explains, the attitude within the shelters does not necessarily differ from the attitude toward homelessness in society. “There’s an attitude a lot of the people have there, like a prison mentality, where everyone feels the need to act tough; to bully other people around,” he explained. “An attitude that homeless people are just the bottom of the barrel, worthless people.” For the homeless, it is nothing more than a damned if you do, damned if you don’t life and death Catch-22.
     In an effort to secure some answers for the dismantling of various homeless camps, as well as to find out what tangible steps his administration was taking to alleviate the issue of homelessness in Columbus, I spent several months receiving the run-around from an aide in Mayor Coleman’s office. My hope was to secure an interview with the mayor for Street Speech or, at the very least, provide a series of questions in advance to be answered (undoubtedly by his aides) by email. After several communications assuring me that it would not be a problem, my inquiries simply stopped being replied to.
     Footnote: With family homelessness growing in excess of sixty-fivepercent over the last three years in Franklin County, it would seem silence to inquiries might not be the best strategy by our city governance. However, it should be noted that the Columbus City Council did allot a $1.1 million grant to the Community Shelter Board for their new shelter building set to open on the west side sometime in the near future (Which, in reality, is a meager .16 percent of the overall 2013 city budget). However, temporary emergency shelter is not a replacement for affordable housing. Studies indicate that at least seventeen percent of homeless individuals are actually employed, but fail to make enough to afford permanent housing.

“Get Your Ass Moving!”
Beyond our disdain for homelessness, we as a nation are seemingly eager to dismantle any programs that, for generations, have effectively kept individuals and families out of homelessness, if not poverty. Efforts to dismantle the social safety net are being introduced at all levels of government under the banner of austerity, and while the economic recession has made nearly fifty million Americans eligible for food stamps, safety net programs such as unemployment and food stamp benefits (SNAP) are being ripped out from underneath struggling families and individuals. Rankin writes, “[H]omeless families represent one of the fastest growing segments of the homeless population. Children comprise approximately 23 percent of the homeless population. The majority of homeless children are under the age of 7…approximately 1 out of every 45 children in the United States experiences homelessness at some point in the year.” Faced with these numbers, our leaders see fit to cut the very programs that seek to empower and feed those who need it most.
     Ironically, the Farm Bill that President Obama signed in February, which effectively cut $8.7 billion in food stamp benefits over the next ten years, was filled with subsidies (i.e. corporate welfare) for corporations, in particular big agribusiness. In addition, every year taxpayers subsidize Wall Street banks to the tune of $83 billion, and big oil receives nearly the same amount every year with their own combined subsidies. And yet, somehow the conversation always seems to revolve around how angry we are that those freeloading homeless families or welfare recipients are receiving funds from the government to, you know, survive. Americans have seemingly bought into the myth of Reagan’s welfare queen, or even the new Fox News promoted “food stamp surfer” Jason Greenslate, the poster boy for the undeserving poor.
     But what is the reality of the amount of fraud occurring within the welfare system? We’ve all heard the anecdotal evidence thrown out by those who think the “welfare state” is breaking America’s bank (despite the fact that we’re handing out hundreds of billions of dollars in corporate welfare every year), and we all know someone who knows someone who is receiving food stamps, but man, how can they afford that iPod?? In reality, less than two percent of people on welfare in the United States commit fraud. Erin O’Brien, a poverty expert at the University of Massachusetts, states, “The myth of the Cadillac driving welfare queen who defrauds the system lingers even though there’s no proof of it.”
     And the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) states, “SNAP has one of the most rigorous quality control systems of any public benefit program, and despite the recent growth in caseloads, the share of total SNAP payments that represent overpayments, underpayments, or payments to ineligible households reached a record low in fiscal year 2011.”
     Despite such lopsided systematic oppression, we as a country are bound and determined to punish those who have the audacity to be poor and/or homeless.  Over half the states in the union have introduced various forms of legislation (with varying degrees of successful passage) that would seek to require welfare recipients to undergodrug testing in order to receive benefits. With the stated rationale being that such measures would effectively curb welfare fraud, various studies and concrete examples such as Florida’s drug testing program show that a) a small percentage of individuals failed their tests (two percent in the case of Florida) and b) tax payers are saved very little money. Virginia’s program would have cost $1.5 million and saved just a little over $200,000. So if rampant fraud is actually little to nonexistent, and the savings are minimal, why continue trying to pass such programs? The answer does indeed seem to be that we hate our poor and feel the need to punish them (No word on whether proponents of drug testing welfare recipients expect executives of Wall Street banks, big oil companies, and agribusiness to undergo testing for the subsidies they receive).
     Politicians in our country have referred to the poor as stray animals that continually breed, as dysfunctional, as deserving of death, and radio host Rush Limbaugh (himself a former welfare recipient) has stated that people on welfare “buy Twinkies, Milk Duds, potato chips, six-packs of Bud, then headhome to watch the NFL on one of two color TVs and turn off their cell phones,and that’s poverty in the U.S.” Of course, Rush fails to mention that one cannot purchase alcohol with food stamps, but what are facts when you have a nation to divide?
     In addition, five-term Hawaii Democratic state lawmaker Tom Brower stated how he was “disgusted” with homeless people, and boasted (while demonstrating for news cameras) how he takes a sledgehammer to their shopping carts, and, in his own words, “If someone is sleeping…during the day, I’ll walk up and say, ‘Get your ass moving.’”
     Our negative attitude toward the poor and homeless seems to be the metaphorical nose we cut off to spite our own collective face. The CBPP states, “Economists consider SNAP one of the most effective forms of economicstimulus.  Moody’s Analytics estimates that in a weak economy, every dollar increase in SNAP benefits generates about $1.70 in economic activity.  Similarly, [the Congressional Budget Office] rated an increase in SNAP benefits as one of the two most cost-effective of all spending and tax options it examined for boosting growth and jobs in a weak economy.” In addition, a recent report by Creative Housing Solutions found that, while homeless individuals cost the taxpayer $31,065 each year due to various expenditures absorbed by the public, if we actually took the initiative to house the homeless it would cost only $10,000 per year.

“We Choose to Have It”
The simple question has to be asked, if the United States does hate its poor and homeless, why?
     One theory connects the disdain for those in poverty with the “Protestant work ethic” that is dyed into the wool of American culture. At its outset, U.S. capitalism found an ideological partner in John Calvin’s theology of predestination. This led to a philosophy of existence that clung to the notion that if one works hard, then they will be successful (or at least put food on the table). If one was poor or homeless, it was a result of either something they had done to cause it, or they simply were not working hard enough. Or, perhaps worse, god simply did not favor the individual or family living in poverty as a result of unresolved sin. However, the Protestant work ethic also guaranteed that, no matter what economic position you found yourself in, you could always choose to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. This belief is still deeply embedded in western “common” sense, despite the harrowing truth that so many people simply do not have the resources to eat, let alone thrive. As Martin Luther King said during his Poor People’s Campaign in 1968, “It’s alright to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it is a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.”
     There is also a strongly held belief that the United States is a meritocracy, where your level of success is limited only by how hard you are willing to work. Both of these concepts are still blindly spouted by politicians on both sides of the ideological aisle, despite the overwhelming and devastating evidence that there are three unemployed individuals for every available job opening, or that those employed in full-time minimum wage jobs simply do not make enough to survive individually, let alone to feed a family. Nobody has time to climb the ladder to success when you’re working three jobs to feed your family. And then of course there’s always the problem of the rigged system, the illusion of economic betterment for the poor.
     Chris Hayes writes in his book Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy, “Those who climb up the ladder [of success] will always find a way to pull it up after them, or to selectively lower it down to allow their friends, allies and kin to scramble up.” And once that ladder is pulled up and the “right” people are in power, backed more and more by unlimited sums of money from increasingly shadowed corporations, institutions that were once designed to reward hard work, effort, and a bootstrap ethic become increasingly privatized and gamed by the privileged and elite. As author and reporter Matt Taibbi said in a recent interview, “[B]oth [political parties] have the same approach to poverty, to people at the bottom, and they have the same approach to enforcement. And so what begins as deregulation of Wall Street concludes, ultimately, in potentially non-enforcement of crime; and what begins as being ‘tougher’ on welfare cheats in the ’90s, and being tougher on the whole process of giving out benefits, devolves into something pretty close to the criminalization of poverty itself.” In other words, the system has been rigged. The powerful have ensconced themselves in wombs of elitism and control while those left behind become grist for the mill. There are no longer any bootstraps by which the poor can tug.
     Last year, Demos released a study showing that it would cost $175billion to eliminate poverty in America. While that may seem like a considerable amount, when you consider that our defense budget is northward of $700 billion, it definitely brings the issue of American poverty into focus and puts our increasing efforts to demonize the poor into perspective. The shocking fact is that if you took the amount of corporate welfare being provided to Wall Street banks and the oil companies, you would easily cover most of the price tag required to eliminate poverty entirely.
     So what’s stopping us?
     Demos’ Matt Bruenig writes, “Eradicating or dramatically cutting poverty is not the deeply complicated intractable problem people make it out to be. The dollars we are talking about are minuscule up against the size of our economy. We have poverty because we choose to have it. We choose to design our distributive institutions in ways that generate poverty when we could design them in ways that don’t. Its continued existence is totally indefensible and our nation’s biggest shame.”
     Unfortunately, very few of us possess the individual power to alter the structure of our distributive institutions, nor can any of us, as individuals, shatter the plutocratic and corporate controlled governance that has stolen the reigns of power here in the United States. However, we can advocate for the homeless, we can support institutions working for the betterment of those in poverty, and we can speak out when we hear the tired tropes, the vilification of the poor and homeless.

“Like I’m Trash”
So, back to the original question: Why Street Speech? The obvious answer is that we provide a source of employment and income for many individuals who have a difficult time finding work elsewhere. We as a people like to think that America is fair and just, and if you’re knocked down, well, this country provides you every opportunity to get back up. Unfortunately that is simply not the case for many of our vendors. Labyrinthine housing bureaucracy, an ex-offender status, medical issues, the need for childcare, massive shelter wait lists, personal biases held by a potential employer, lack of resources for clothing or personal hygiene products, a proper toilet, or even how a vendor who is working is treated on the street.
     “When I’m out getting donations for Street Speech, people walk by and look at me like I’m trash or no good,” says vendor Randy Jones. “I wish they could just walk in my shoes for one day. Then they would know what I go through.”
     All of these factors snowball into insurmountable systematic walls that prevent many individuals from finding “traditional” employment and pulling themselves out of homelessness.
     In addition, Street Speech serves as a disruptive agent, a voice (small as it might be) crying out for change in Columbus. A voice that asks questions such as, while it’s great that the Community Shelter Board is building a larger shelter building, should we not address the issues and systemic causes surrounding why we even NEED shelters in the first place? Or how does the gentrification process that is taking place in the lower socioeconomic communities of Columbus serve as a major catalyst when it comes to local homelessness and poverty?  Or why does Columbus have a $50 million “rainy day” fund when we have individuals and families sleeping in their cars and under bridges no matter what the weather is?

     Do we hate our homeless, our poor? I will leave that for you to judge. Perhaps Mayor Coleman will sit down with Street Speech at some point and conduct that interview we were promised a year ago and answer some of these questions. Until then, we will advocate for those in poverty and for those who are homeless. We will continue to provide an opportunity for our vendors to earn an income. We will continue to ask the questions that need to be asked, even if nobody wants to answer them. And maybe, just maybe, if enough people start asking the same questions, if enough people start to see the homeless as individual human beings versus members of a conspiracy to live off the dole, perhaps change will come.

Left Behind...Again

by Jess Peacock

In 1995 I was a twenty-four year old conservative evangelical Christian convinced of his own spiritual piety with a laser sharp focus on winning the planet for Jesus. Okay, a slight exaggeration perhaps. Truth be told, as a full-time family minister I was mostly intent on surviving youth group lock-ins and getting culturally savvy teenagers to come with me to the Michael W. Smith concert (“C’mon guys, dcTalk is opening for him. They rap!”) But people accepting Jesus as their personal Lord and savior was a matter I took rather serious.

After reading Left Behind, I went and got real kooky. While I knew even then that the book was not particularly well written, it succeeded in prying open what I thought were my hermetically sealed spiritual eyes, enabling me to see the absolute imperative duty I had to convince as many people as possible to turn toward Jesus or miss out on the rapture and suffer the wrath of the well hidden (coughBillClintoncough) Antichrist who could be revealed at any moment.

And I wasn’t alone. To date, the original novel Left Behind has sold seven million copies, and the series as a whole (Left Behind: The Kids Series??) has sold over sixty million copies. Granted, not everyone who has read Left Behind gives him or herself over to a literal interpretation of Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins’ action adventure eschatology, but what can I say…I was an idiot.

So, as the Left Behind novel does rather ineloquently, let me skip to the end. It is now nearly twenty years after my first reading and I am a very different person indeed. No longer a practicing Christian, but having spent three years studying theology in a masters program, I have become fascinated by all things emerging from the Christian entertainment complex (and it is a complex if the $70 million dollar haul of the recent religious film God’s Not Dead is an indicator). What’s more, Tom Perrotta’s raptureish novel The Leftovers recently premiered as a series on HBO, and a reboot of the Left Behind film lands in theaters this October with Nic Cage bringing a small amount of star power to the Second Coming (rumors from the set suggest Cage wasn’t happy about Jesus getting the bigger trailer).


Long story short, it seemed like an interesting opportunity to revisit the novel. Don’t worry, I’ll be sure to do all of the heavy lifting and read the book for you (to steal a line from chapter one, “A crash into the ocean had to be better than this,”). However, any fan of Mystery Science Theater 3000 knows that the suffering is much more enjoyable when it’s done together. So feel free to find a copy (apparently there’s seven million lying around) and join me for Left Behind…Again.


UP NEXT: Chapter One – “Fake Poop”

Religious Iconography and the Popular Vampire Narrative

by Jess Peacock

Toward the end of the novel Salem’s Lot, Father Callahan, the lone Catholic priest in the town of Jerusalem’s Lot, and Mark Petrie, the young student who has found himself an unwitting player in the vampiric drama rapidly unfolding around him, have together, suddenly and unexpectedly, come face-to-face with Barlow, the master vampire well on his way to enslaving the entire town.
“And here you are!” Barlow had boomed good-naturedly in his rich, powerful voice. Mark attacked without thought and was captured instantly.
Callahan moved forward, holding his cross up.
Barlow’s grin of triumph was instantly transformed into a rictus of agony. He fell back toward the sink, dragging the boy in front of him. Their feet crunched in the broken glass.
“In God’s name-“ Callahan began.
At the name of the Deity, Barlow screamed aloud as if he had been struck by a whip, his mouth open in a downward grimace, the needle fangs glimmering within.
This scene effectively illustrates a common element of the popular vampire narrative within Western culture; that is the cross of Christ, a primary tool in the technology of salvation, serving as a bludgeon against the undead. The meme found origin and purchase in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, resulting in continued implementation within the established mythology of the vampire for the next hundred years. Susannah Clements writes:
In Dracula, the power of the Christian cross is more than simply a plot device. The cross is a picture of one of the central themes of the novel, and it points to the way Stoker portrays the figure of the vampire. The vampire in Dracula is used for spiritual and theological reflection in a way that is gradually secularized as the vampire genre develops through the twentieth century.
For Clements, Dracula is not just a narrative figure with theological connotations to be discussed and explored. She views the vampire sub-genre as a direct Christian allegory and apologetic bound up in a spiritual morality play where God ultimately defeats the power of sin and death. She continues:
The cross and the figure of the vampire in Dracula are inextricably linked. Once the cross has been understood theologically in the context of the novel, then the vampire must be as well. The vampire – primarily Count Dracula himself – represents all of the forces that the cross must defeat. The figure of the vampire in Dracula is more complex than a force of generic evil. Because the evil is placed in a spiritual context, the vampire comes to represent sin in a theological sense.
While Christian objects are clearly granted a place of privilege in Dracula, the assertion of Clements that the Count serves as a direct equivalence to sin is problematic as discussed in my previous article, Let There Be Darkness: The Vampire as Agent of Theological Dialogue. However, her belief that the vampire should be viewed as a theological figure, and that the consequence of the various sacred accoutrements has as much to tell the reader as the presence of the undead, is an observation rife with avenues of analysis. Doug Cowan writes, “While we might not go so far as to call them Christian allegories, that the power of Christianity triumphs in the end of so many vampire films is not in doubt. Indeed, from the pages of Stoker’s novel onward, the cross has been the preeminent instrument for defeating Western vampires.”

Surprisingly, the film Dracula 2000 is a rare contemporary attempt at explaining exactly why the assorted Christian technologies of salvation are able to impair Dracula, without secularizing the intrinsic religious subtext behind them. In the movie, the Count, surviving into the turn of the twenty-first century, pursues Mary, a distant relative of his arch-nemesis Abraham Van Helsing, while also concealing the surprising, yet logical, source of his existence. Cowan writes:


Presenting the ur-vampire as the epitome of religious betrayal, Dracula is actually the latest incarnation of Judas Iscariot, who died by suicide but was resurrected to an immortal half-life as punishment for his betrayal of Jesus. This is meant to explain his fear of crosses, holy water, and silver, as well as his paradoxical penchant for Christian churches and graveyards.
While Dracula 2000 succeeds at providing a particularly fascinating and imaginative perspective on the Dracula mythos, it also serves as an excellent illustration of the apparent, although often unspoken, limitations of the various technologies of salvation. At one point in the film, a character uses a Christian bible against Dracula, its pages exploding outward in a violent, fiery wave. The holy book, obviously conveyed as a sacred weapon in the presence of the undead, has little effect on the vampire who smiles and mutters, “Propaganda.” In addition, the cross has a limited effect on Dracula, much in the same way the crucifix contains limited potency (i.e. it does not kill a vampire) for the bearer of the symbol in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Mary Hallab addresses this when she writes:
God does not give his Christian heroes much help. The power of Christian symbols and Christian faith is only weakly manifest in temporarily warding off Dracula. Most of the time, the heroes of Christ must combat Dracula’s supernatural physical and psychic powers with only human resources, aided mostly by assorted physical things – garlic, crosses, magic circles, and sturdy stakes and knives…Indeed, the power of virtue or of faith seems to play a very small role, except in keeping the vampire hunters on task.
If we return to Father Callahan facing off with Barlow in Salem’s Lot, we are witness to a vampire held off by the glowing power of the cross of Christ, though most assuredly not defeated by it. Barlow, having captured Mark Petrie, agrees to let the boy go if Callahan will cast his cross aside and face the Master Vampire one-on-one.
“Then fulfill your part of the bargain, shaman.”
“I’m a priest!” Callahan flung at him.
Barlow made a small, mocking bow. “Priest,” he said, and the word sounded like a dead haddock in his mouth.
Callahan stood indecisive. Why throw it down? Drive him off, settle for a draw tonight, and tomorrow –
But a deeper part of his mind warned. To deny the vampire’s challenge was to risk possibilities far graver than any he had considered. If he dared not throw the cross aside, it would be as much as admitting…admitting…what? If only things weren’t going so fast, if one only had time to think, to reason it out –
The cross’s glow was dying…Barlow reached from the darkness and plucked the cross from his fingers. Callahan cried out miserably…and the next sound would haunt him for the rest of his life: two dry snaps as Barlow broke the arms of the cross, and a meaningless thump as he threw it on the floor.
“God damn you!” he cried out.
“It’s too late for such melodrama,” Barlow said from the darkness. His voice was almost sorrowful. “There is no need of it. You have forgotten the doctrine of your own church, is it not so? The cross…the bread and wine…the confessional…only symbols. Without faith, the cross is only wood, the bread baked wheat, the wine sour grapes. If you had cast the cross away, you should have beaten me another night.”
A similar scene is played out in the film Fright Night, when Peter Vincent and Charley Brewster confront the vampire Jerry Dandridge, brandishing the assorted technologies of salvation, including the cross of Christ which Vincent wields melodramatically and commands, “Stop! You creature of the night!” Dandridge joyfully laughs, then nonchalantly reaches out, snatches the cross, and crushes it, explaining, “You have to have faith for this to work on me, Mr. Vincent.”

Both Barlow and Dandridge seem to indicate that the crucifix itself is not the actual weapon used against the vampire, it is within the indefinable locus of faith where the power is rightly manifested, faith translated through the image of the cross of Christ. Clements writes, “It takes faith to begin to fight against the forces of evil…But, more and more as the [vampire narrative] develops, ‘faith’ becomes clearly connected with religion, and the faith that ultimately saves is a faith in God’s power.” However, the previous examples draw stark attention to the problem of symbols diluting the faith of the believer, the reality, or authority said symbols are substituting for, what Jean Baudrillard terms simulacra. He writes:
But what becomes of the divinity when it reveals itself in icons, when it is multiplied in simulacra? Does it remain the supreme power that is simply incarnated in images as a visible theology? Or does it volatilize itself in the simulacra that, alone, deploy their power and pomp of fascination – the visible machinery of icons substituted for the pure and intelligible Idea of God?
Jean Baudrillard
Both Father Callahan and Peter Vincent seem to have fallen prey to the “visible machinery of icons” that Baudrillard warns of, apparently losing sight of the “supreme power” those icons represent. He continues:
All Western faith and good faith became engaged in this wager on representation: that a sign could refer to the depth of meaning, that a sign could be exchanged for meaning and that something could guarantee this exchange – God of course. But what if God himself can be simulated, that is to say can be reduced to the signs that constitute faith? Then the whole system becomes weightless, it is no longer itself anything but a gigantic simulacrum – not unreal, but a simulacrum, that is to say never exchanged for the real.
By the time the crucifix has been rendered ineffectual for our heroes, the symbol has transmogrified through the process of what Baudrillard describes as the “phases of the image.” According to him, the image proceeds through four stages: “[It] is the reflection of profound reality; it masks and denatures a profound reality; it masks the absence of a profound reality; it has no relation to any reality whatsoever: it is its own pure simulacrum.” In other words, religious icons do not intrinsically possess power or authority of its own within these vampire narratives. The effectiveness of the cross of Christ, for Father Callahan and Peter Vincent, solely depends on their ability to allow the symbol of their faith to transcend its visible machinery and immerse them into the profound reality the cross only serves as an agent for. As Clements observes with regard to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, “We will see that salvation in Dracula – salvation from Dracula – ultimately comes only through faith.”

Faith in what, however? In some vampire narratives, the “profound reality” of Baudrillard does not necessarily belong to an easily defined God or religion, and attempts to funnel such immense universal cosmogonic power through mere trinkets of religious devotion seem to only deaden its effects. In the novel Hotel Transylvania, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro writes of the duality of power at play in the vampire narrative:
There is a Power, which is only that. It is like the rivers, which nurture us and can destroy us. Whether we are prosperous or drowned in flood-waters, the rivers are still the same. So with this Power. And when it lifts us up and opens our eyes to goodness and wonders, so that we are ennobled and inspired to kindness and excellence, we call it God. But when it is used for pain and suffering and degradation, we call it Satan. The Power is both. It is our use alone which makes it one or the other.
In the works of Yarbro, this Power is neither defined as good, evil, Christian, or Satanic; it just is. At the climax of Salem’s Lot, we discover that this Power may very well have been available to Father Callahan in his confrontation with Barlow, perhaps if he had not relied so much on only the symbol of that Power, placing his faith in the crucifix and not the “profound reality” it poorly represented, as Mark Petrie watches in awe as Ben Mears rips through a door hiding the casket of Barlow, assuming for himself the eldritch power that Callahan only briefly tasted:
Power seemed to have welded his flesh into its present grip. He stood holding it for a moment, looking at the shining blade, and some curious impulse made him touch it to his forehead. A hard sense of sureness clasped him, a feeling of inevitable rightness, of whiteness. For the first time in weeks he felt he was no longer groping through fogs of belief and unbelief, sparring with a partner whose body was too insubstantial to sustain blows.
Power, humming up his arms like volts.
The blade glowed brighter…Mark stared at him, amazed. The cold blue fire had crept down the ax handle and spread up his arms until he seemed to be working in a column of fire. His head was twisted to one side, the muscles of his neck corded with strain, one eye open and glaring, the other squeezed shut. The back of his shirt had split between the straining wings of his shoulder blades, and the muscles writhed beneath the skin like ropes. He was a man taken over, possessed, and Mark saw without knowing (or having to know) that the possession was not in the least Christian; the good was more elemental, less refined. It was ore, like something coughed up out of the ground in naked chunks. There was nothing finished about it. It was Force; it was Power; it was whatever moved the greatest wheels of the universe.
Terence Fisher
However, in some vampire narratives, the symbol of the crucifix stands as its own agency of righteousness, neither dependent on the bearer of the icon, the power behind it, nor where it might rest on the spectrum of the phases of the image theorized by Baudrillard. This is most noticeably demonstrated in the Hammer produced vampire films directed by Terence Fisher. Paul Leggett writes:
The apostle Paul speaks of the cross having cosmic dimensions reconciling all things in heaven and earth to God (Colossians 1:20). For Fisher the cross can be found virtually anywhere. The cross emerges out of otherwise ordinary elements such as candlesticks and windmills. This ubiquitous character of the ultimate symbol of God’s victory in the Christian faith gives Fisher’s work a prevailing optimism in the face of evil. Fisher has insisted that if there is a general theme to his films, it is his emphasis on the ultimate final victory of good over evil.
The ubiquity of the image of the cross in the cinematic world constructed by Fisher (epitomized in Dracula falling under the shadow of a cross cast by a windmill), while undoubtedly reassuring for people of faith, inevitably falls into the symbolic deconstruction Baudrillard warned of, assuming a power and authority within an icon that has no claim on said power or authority, which leads to the cross of Christ as a symbol losing any and all meaning. This is on full display in the film From Dusk Till Dawn where characters create makeshift crosses with whatever is at their disposal, including a sawed off shotgun, echoing the character Van Helsing in the Fisher Directed The Horror of Dracula who uses two candlesticks to temporarily keep the Count at bay.

In From Dusk Till Dawn 2, the presence of the cruciform is taken to ridiculous heights as the vampires within the film are repelled by the cross-section of the bars of a jail cell door, as well as by the red cross on the back of an ambulance. Similarly, in the Terrence Fisher directed The Brides of Dracula, Leggett points out that humans are “able to hold Dracula…at bay using the cross even though they don’t really seem to understand why it has this power.”

The theologian Paul Tillich writes, “The first and basic characteristic of the symbol is its figurative quality…the inner attitude which is oriented to the symbol does not have the symbol itself in view but rather that which is symbolized in it.” With regard to From Dusk Till Dawn 2, Tillich, at this point, might not take umbrage with the ubiquity of the cross, differing greatly with the view of Baudrillard. From this perspective, a makeshift crucifix, by nature of what Tillich would describe as the characteristic of “innate power” of the symbol, would carry with it some form of power or authority. However, Tillich continues:
This characteristic is the most important one. It gives to the symbol the reality which it has almost lost in ordinary usage…This characteristic is decisive for the distinction between a sign and a symbol. The sign is interchangeable at will. It does not arise from necessity, for it has no inner power. The symbol, however, does possess a necessary character. It cannot be exchanged. It can only disappear when, through dissolution, it loses its inner power…In the course of evolution and as a result of the transition from the mystical to the technical view of the world, they have lost their symbolic character, though not entirely. Once having lost their innate power they became signs. The pictorial symbols of religious art were originally charged with a magical power, with the loss of which they became a conventional sign language and almost forfeited their genuine symbolic character.
Tillich here could easily be discussing the gradual erasure over the last hundred years of the vampire as a potent theological symbol. However, in the context of the symbolic power of the cross, he seems to be in slack agreement with the phases of the image. Although, while Baudrillard would argue that at the last phase the symbol has no relation whatsoever to the profound reality it once served, Tillich would assert that, no matter how severe the dissolution of the symbol, some power would always remain. With regard to the popular vampire narrative, it might be argued that the vestiges of this “innate power” is what lingers, a once potent reality now relegated to an ultimately ineffectual (though still painful for the vampire) apparatus that relies solely on the moral agency of the one who bears the cross, and not the power, authority, or ultimate Truth behind it. This avenue of analysis is what ultimately leads to the popular vampire narrative serving, in some sense, as an apologetic for the Christian faith, as evidenced in the novel Midnight Mass by F. Paul Wilson where Father Joe attempts to convince his unbelieving niece of the veracity of his Christian faith:
“But atheism implies that you consider the question of a provident god important enough to take seriously. I don’t. At heart I’m simply a devout agnostic.”
He pointed to the gold crucifix hanging from her neck.
“But you wear a cross. Didn’t you once tell me you’d die before wearing anything like that?”
“I damn near did die because I wasn’t wearing one. So now I wear one for perfectly pragmatic reasons. I’ve never been one for fashion accessories, but if it chases vampires, I want one.”
“But you’ve got to take the next step, Lacey. You’ve got to ask why the undead fear it, why it sears their flesh. There’s something there. When you face that reality, you won’t be an atheist or agnostic anymore.”
Lacey smiled. “Did I mention I’m a devout empiricist too?”
However, with regard to this apparently logical exchange in Midnight Mass, Tillich goes on to address a perspective on the power of symbols that creates an interesting wrinkle in the vampire narrative epitomized in the Roman Polanski directed comedy The Fearless Vampire Killers. In the movie, a young woman wields a crucifix in an attempt to fend off a vampire who was Jewish before his undeath. He smiles and good-naturedly says, “Oy vey, have you got the wrong vampire.” Tillich writes that a symbol, in order to be effective, must be accepted socially for what it represents. The Jewish community writ large does not accept the symbolic meaning of the Christian cross, therefore, according to Tillich, it would not serve as a legitimate source of power for a Jewish person. He writes:
This implies that the symbol is socially rooted and socially supported. Hence it is not correct to say that a thing is first a symbol and then gains acceptance; the process of becoming a symbol and the acceptance of a symbol belong together. The act by which a symbol is created is a social act, even though it first springs forth in an individual.
Tillich raises an interesting question within the traditional vampire narrative: What if the power and authority of the crucifix does not lie within the symbol or even within the alleged influence behind it? What if the power of the cross is a residual psychosomatic response of the vampire, conditioned by his or her own religious, cultural, and social systems at work within their development when they were human? In the novel I Am Legend by Richard Matheson, Robert Neville, a survivor of a worldwide viral pandemic that has turned most of the planet into vampires, is explaining to Ruth, another apparent survivor, what he has discovered about the creatures:
“When I showed him the cross,” he said, “he laughed in my face.”
She nodded once.
“But when I held a torah before his eyes, I got the reaction I wanted.”
“A what?”
“A torah. Tablet of law, I believe it is.”
“And that…got a reaction?”
“Yes, I had him tied up, but when he saw the torah he broke loose and attacked me.”
“What happened?” She seemed to have lost her fright again.
“He struck me on the head with something. I don’t remember what. I was almost knocked out. But, using the torah, I backed him to the door and got rid of him.”
“Oh.”
“So you see, the cross hasn’t the power the legend says it has. My theory is that, since the legend came into its own in Europe, a continent predominantly Catholic, the cross would naturally become the symbol of defense against powers of darkness.”
In Dracula 2000, this concept of the vampire as its own moral agent with regard to the effectiveness of various technologies of salvation used against it, is explored further, albeit as a punch line, when Marcus, a vampire, attacks Simon, a Vampire Hunter, who brandishes a cross in defense from the creature. Marcus smiles and says, “Sorry sport, I’m an atheist.” Matheson, through Neville, explains further:
“Why should a Jew fear the cross? Why should a vampire who had been a Jew fear it? Most people were afraid of becoming vampires. But as far as the cross goes – well, neither a Jew nor a Hindu nor a Mohammedan nor an atheist, for that matter, would fear the cross.”
While this fairly modern cultural perception has undoubtedly contributed to the secularization of the traditional vampire narrative that Clements mourns, removing the religious symbolism, metaphors, and analogies for a more pseudo-scientific and psychologically based explanation of the undead might also provide an opportunity for a discussion of religious pluralism in a post-modern society. If the traditional vampire narrative (and the symbolism associated with it) is losing its teeth so to speak, arguably along with religion in society overall, perhaps the vampire might unearth new life as the catalyst for fresh dialogue on what needs to transpire within religious discourse in order to remain relevant to a far more savvy and enlightened audience than existed when Count Dracula first journeyed to England in 1897.

Bibliography

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Clements, Susannah. 2011. The vampire defanged: How the embodiment of evil became a romantic hero. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press.

Cowan, Douglas E. 2008. Sacred terror: Religion and horror on the silver screen. Waco: Baylor University Press.

Dracula 2000. DVD. Directed by Patrick Lussier. 2000; Los Angeles, CA: Dimension Films, 2001.

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