I first read Bram Stoker’s Dracula when I was fourteen. I was shocked how Christian the book was (which should tell you something about how deeply I thought about books written by white Irish guys in the 19th century). I underlined, for instance, when Van Helsing insists, “Thus are we ministers of God’s own wish: that the world, and men for whom His Son die, will not be given over to monsters, whose very existence would defame Him. He has allowed us to redeem one soul already, and we go out as the old knights of the Cross to redeem more. Like them we shall travel toward sunrise; and like them, if we fall, we fall in good cause.”
I underlined this passage because I was a Southern Baptist youth group kid. A religious kid who loved horror, but a religious kid all the same. Even buying my mass-market paperback edition of Dracula felt transgressive. But here, near the end of the book, I was reading lines that would have sounded right coming from any minister or missionary’s mouth. I had known, of course, that the Church was the enemy of the vampire—holy water and crosses (and garlic because, uh, Rome is in Italy?) are potent weapons against this fanged menace. But Stoker’s enigmatic slayer was explicit. He was practically evangelistic in his fervor.
In his now-classic essay “Monster Theory (Seven Theses),” Jeffrey Jerome Cohen posits that monsters are cultural creations. They are “born only at this metaphoric crossroads, as an embodiment of a certain cultural moment—of a time, a feeling and a place. The monster’s body quite literally incorporates fear, desire, anxiety, and fantasy… A construct and a projection, the monster exists only to be read.”
In their book Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers, Jude Doyle reads the anxieties (and desires) to which Dracula—and by extension, the vampire as monster—point. Doyle meditates on the scene where Jack, Quincy and Arthur (under Van Helsing’s guidance) must strike down Lucy, the woman they all love. Doyle observes,
We finally see her, in all her hunger: The girl who took three men’s love, drained three men’s bodies, and went out at night looking for more. The monster… Lucy Westenra raises a possibility that is apparently even more alarming than rape, torture, and fatal tanning-bed malfunction: consent. Desire, even. Dead sluts are forcibly penetrated and tossed aside; the Final Girl survives, but only by erasing her own sexuality. It’s when a girl leans into the violence of desire, goes out to let a stranger eat her in the pale moonlight, that she becomes a monster.
For all that sexuality was implied in Stoker’s novel, it’s been made explicit in vampire fiction of the last several decades. Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 adaptation not only captures the sexuality of Lucy’s murder, but includes a kiss between Lucy and Mina. Two years later, Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire brought sexy vampires to the mainstream. Edward cannot resist his desire for Twilight’s Bella. Blumhouse’s latest vampire flick, Black as Night, uses vampires to comment on colorism—the heroine, Shawna, is too black for the boy she likes. Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican vampire novel Certain Dark Things imagines ten separate species of vampires (a clever accounting for the world’s varied vampire lore). An elder vampire observes to a lovestruck teen, “Don’t deceive yourself, my boy, this is not a love story… Vampires, we are a diverse lot. So many differences. Yet we are united by one simple unavoidable fact: we are our hunger.”
Vampire stories are always about desires.
It was no accident that I was so moved by Van Helsing. Stoker conjured him and sent him to wage war against a monster that had been created by the very institution to which he and I both swore allegiance: the Church. Vampires—as Stoker and Rice imagine them—are monsters that arose from Christianity’s particular fascination with desire, particularly sexual desire.
The Evangelicalism in which I grew up was obsessed with desire—particularly sexual desire. We were encouraged to pledge True Love Waits—a commodified movement that encouraged teens to sign cards promising not to have sex before marriage. “Purity weekends” often ended with parents giving female teens a ‘purity ring’ they would (ideally) one day exchange for their wedding ring. One massive conference featured a speaker who styled himself as a latter-day Van Helsing: God’s knight raising an army to wage (culture) war. The denouement of his campaign for sexual purity and evangelism involved reenacting one of the most misogynistic stories in the Christian canon (Judges 19).
Scholars, activists and practitioners have rallied around the term ‘Purity Culture’ to describe this Evangelical obsession with controlling (especially female) sexual behavior. As author Linda Kay Kline describes it, “gender expectations are based on a strict, stereotype-based binary… Men are taught their minds are evil, whereas women are taught their bodies are evil… Purity culture also teaches that women are responsible for the sexual thoughts, feelings and choices men make, and so must dress, walk and talk in just the right way so as not to ‘inspire’ sexual thoughts, feelings and actions in them.”
Purity culture is rooted in white, hetero, cis-gendered patriarchy. As such, Purity Culture defines sex, sexuality, marriage and family narrowly (ironically, not through the lens of the cultures found in the Bible but through the lens of the modern nuclear family). And thus, desire is dangerous. Desire is, we might say, monstrous.
Enter the vampire.
The vampire is in many ways a perversion of the Christian story (as Coppola ably demonstrates with Dracula’s temptation of Mina). He offers a form of eternal life as Jesus does, but only through the consumption of his victim. Rather than the Spirit’s dove, he transforms into a bat. It’s easy to stop the critical analysis there, to clutch cross and holy water close and whistle past the mausoleum.
But monsters are products of cultures, which means the Church (and by extension, Christian Europe) made the vampire. He (since Dracula, they’re almost always ‘he’) embodies the Church’s fear of desire—desires that are unbound, that spill out of the narrow confines of the pews and want that which is forbidden.
It’s telling, then, that the vampire appears not terribly dissimilar from the very religious leaders who claim to offer us protection from our desires: A charismatic, older man with an air of authority. And here is the true danger of the vampire: by externalizing our fear of desire into a (fictional) form we can exorcize (by way of a stake to the heart), we imagine we have defeated the monster. Just as by externalizing our fear of desire into a (female) form we can control (through purity rings, one-piece bathing suits, and calls for modesty), we imagine we have conquered desire.
But we have learned to our pain that the real danger lies not in vampires or the female form, but in those charismatic men in the pulpits and positions of authority. In 2002, The Boston Globe broke the story of rampant sexual abuse by a priest in the Boston diocese, abuse the diocese knew about and went to great lengths to cover up. In the wake of the Globe‘s reporting, parishioners across the country began to come forward with similar stories, exposing a widespread culture of abuse and denial.
In 2019, the Houston Chronicle published a six-part investigation of the Southern Baptist Church (the largest Protestant denomination in the US) that spanned 20 years and included more than 700 victims of sexual abuse that echoed the patterns uncovered by the Globe.
At time of writing, neither the Catholic Church nor the SBC have made structural changes to their organizations to combat sexual predation of minors. And though these organizations are the largest, they are far from unique. Regardless of denomination, religious organizations that unquestioningly embrace and perpetuate patriarchal values are havens for sexual predators. These organizations routinely place men in positions of authority without accountability or oversight. They frequently prioritize the words of these men, diminishing or ignoring the testimony of the women and children under their authority.
Monsters are omens; they warn us something isn’t right. The vampire has, for centuries, been warning us that the Church has a problem with desire. That rather than do the difficult work of discerning how we might rescue a message of liberation from the forces of oppression that pervert it, we have settled for demonizing those we’ve shoved to the margins, the easier to cast them out. In doing so, we have become the very monsters from whom we claim to offer protection.
It’s perhaps telling that vampire narratives are more popular than ever at this moment, with director Robert Eggers’ remake of Nosferatu moving forward, and both a current TV series (Chapelwaite) and a big-screen adaptation (’Salem’s Lot) based on Stephen King’s vampire fiction in the works. There are also upcoming TV adaptations of Let the Right One In and Interview With the Vampire in production, not to mention Netflix’s recent miniseries Midnight Mass, which brings the religious elements of the vampire mythos to the fore in disturbing and compelling ways.
For fans of horror and vampire fiction, there’s much to look forward to, but at the same time, it’s important to ask why these stories still resonate so strongly within the culture, and why they continue to feel so relevant. As revelations and reports about sexual abuse in the church and other patriarchal institutions continue to surface, it’s time to heed the omens and be mindful of the reality behind the layers of fiction and fear.
If you have been the victim of abuse at the hands of clergy or other church leaders, you can find resources to report, heal or protect yourself at GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment) or RAINN (a secular anti-sexual violence which operates the National Sexual Assault Hotline, 800-656-HOPE).
JR. Forasteros cut his teeth on Goosebumps books and Sword of Shannara. These days, he’s a pastor, author of Empathy for the Deviland scifi/fantasy junkie in Dallas, TX. Once he makes it through his to-read list, he plans to die historic on the Fury Road. Find him on Twitteror Instagram, or on the Fascinating Podcast where he is a co-host.