“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.
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.
“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.”
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?
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.”
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.
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.
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?”
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 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.”
“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.”
“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.
Baudrillard, Jean. 1994. Simulacra and simulation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
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.
Fearless Vampire Killers, The. DVD. Directed by Roman Polanski. 1967; Los Angeles, CA: Warner Brothers, 2004.
Fright Night. DVD. Directed by Tom Holland. 1985; Los Angeles, CA: Columbia Pictures, 1999.
Hallab, Mary Y. 2009. Vampire god: The allure of the undead in western culture. New York: State University of New York Press.
King, Stephen. 1975. 'Salem's Lot. New York: Doubleday.
Leggett, Paul. 2002. Terence Fisher: Horror, myth and religion. North Carolina: Mcfarland.
Matheson, Richard. 1954. I am legend. New York: Eclipse Books.
Tillich, Paul. 1966. “The religious symbol.” In Myth and symbol, ed. F.W. Dillistone, 15-34. Essex: The Talbot Press.
Wilson, F. Paul. 2004. Midnight Mass. New York: Tor Books.
Yarbro, Chelsea Quinn. 1978. Hôtel Transylvania: A novel of forbidden love. New York: St. Martin's Press.