God is a Terrifying Monster, and Other Takeaways from the Study of Vampires in Pop Culture

What inspired you to write Such a Dark Thing?

Like a lot of kids, I was heavily influenced by the horror genre during my childhood. I was pretty obsessive, actually. Universal Monsters and Famous Monsters of Filmland were particularly influential on me at a very young age, and Fangoria magazine and the plethora of schlocky creature features that drove the VHS revolution summed up my teenage years. The monsters lurking within the movies I watched and the novels I read were reflective of my insecurities and the marginalization I often felt as a kid. That I often still feel, actually.

As I entered graduate school to study religion, I was determined to steer the focus of my research opportunities toward the fantastic, specifically the vampire narrative in popular culture, as the figure of the vampire can often stand as a theophany and has, throughout history, represented a theological totem rife with symbolism and metaphorical power.

As I discuss in the book, even as society and popular culture evolve, the vampire follows suit. The figure still exists as a powerful representation of death, redemption, and the struggle for freedom against oppressive forces. And while most of the blatant religious themes within the traditional vampire narrative have diminished, I am confident that at some point in the future they will cycle back. As a matter of fact, I think we’re already seeing this as the recent films Dracula Untold and What We Do in the Shadows each reached back into western vampire lore and instilled the crucifix with its traditional power over the undead.

What’s the most important take-home message for readers?

Above all, I wanted to frame the traditional vampire narrative as a form of resistance literature, serving as a metaphorical blueprint for the fight against oppression within society. If nothing else, I would want the reader to walk away thinking about the repression they either witness or are subjected to in their own lives and how they might resist and combat the spiritual, emotional, and physical subjugation that is—as opposed to the vampire—a very real part of our world.

In addition, as Farah Stockman remarked in the Boston Globe a few years back: “TV and movie characters can shape how we look at real world events.” This is also true of religious studies, where fictional narratives can give us new and fresh perspectives on theology and faith. Religion is not immutable, and throughout history it has adapted to the larger culture.

In some sense, I am making an argument that, in order to survive, contemporary religion must continue to adapt and evolve, moving beyond the antiquated laws, orthodoxy, and dogmas that prevent modern audiences from fully embracing it, and develop into a vital medley of transforming narratives.

As absurd as it may sound, the traditional vampire narrative in popular culture has a lot to say about this very thing.

Is there anything you had to leave out?

No, nothing I had to leave out. There was plenty that I chose to leave out, though. At one point the book was roughly one hundred pages longer, but I realized that most of the superfluous content was simply me fixating on and geeking out over different movies and novels. Some of that material was moved to the appendix, but I put myself through a fairly rigorous editing process where I eliminated a lot of the cultural and theological rabbit holes I found myself wandering down. Who knows, some of that content might find its way into a future book or paper.

What are some of the biggest misconceptions about your topic?

The biggest misconception is that the horror genre as a whole has nothing to say about religion and society. But whether it’s Satan and his army of fallen angels or the menagerie of monsters at the conclusion of the New Testament, Christianity and the monstrous go hand-in-hand.

Some might even argue that God represents the most terrifying monster of all, as the narrative of the flood and the plagues of Egypt (where Yahweh is referred to as the Destroyer) paint a frightening picture of an ancient deity. Judeo-Christian narratives and the horror genre are entangled chronicles of the unknown, of what lies beyond human understanding. As such, we can learn much about the former as we analyze the latter.

And so the vampire becomes a lens through which to view death, questions of evil, the search for transcendent meaning, and where exactly God fits into it all.

Did you have a specific audience in mind when writing?

I did, but I also felt like I was walking a conceptual tightrope while writing the book, as I wanted it to be accessible to both an academic and a general audience. My hope is that fans of both the horror genre as well as students of religious studies will find a lot to love about Such a Dark Thing, and will use it to foster a deeper understanding of the cultural impact of the horror genre beyond simple entertainment.

Are you hoping to inform readers? Entertain them? Piss them off?

Ideally the book will do all three! That’s not to say I’m looking to piss anyone off. But when you start tinkering or challenging dogma, tempers can flare and it becomes unavoidable that some people will be less than happy with the result. After reading the book, some might get the impression that I am anti-religion, which is far from the truth. I am anti-orthodoxy, anti-fundamentalism.

There is not only great value in the role of religion in society, but also great value in extracting narratives of transcendence, hope, and justice from our cultural narratives. Bringing the traditional vampire mythos together with theological introspection hopefully becomes an informative and entertaining endeavor for the reader…if not a little challenging

What alternative title would you give the book?

Faith at First Bite? In all seriousness, I toyed with the title The Blood is the Life early in the process, but it seemed entirely derivative of just about every vampire themed book on Amazon. Such a Dark Thing is actually lifted from a line in Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot, which happens to be my favorite novel of all time.

How do you feel about the cover?

I designed it, so I guess I have nothing to complain about. I had an idea for the cover, and Wipf and Stock was kind enough to let me take a stab at it. The photo of the creepy abandoned church was one I snapped with my iPhone while on a trip to southern Ohio. I didn’t intend to use it for the book; I just thought it was a great picture. But as I considered cover ideas, that image of a decaying church perfectly embodied what I was trying to say in the book.

Is there a book out there you wish you had written? 

How do you even narrow down a question like this? Fiction? Non-fiction? Historical? Contemporary? Other than naming my all-time favorite novel (which seems too easy), I would have to choose the 1990 novel Vampire$ by John Steakley. An inventive and imaginative reinvention of the Vampire Hunter motif within the subgenre, it’s a novel that moves at a breakneck pace, simultaneously embracing and subsequently shattering hardboiled masculine and patriarchal stereotypes. In addition, Steakley populates his novel with complex and endearing characters that face down old-school monstrous vampires while struggling with the nature of religion and the role of the Divine amidst a horrific and dangerous reality. Vampire$ reflects my particular genre tastes and sensibilities perhaps more than any other book I’ve read, and is a must read for any fan of horror.

What’s your next book?

I’m hoping to write a book about ‘Salem’s Lot entitled Legacy of the Marsten House. Celebrating its 40th anniversary in October, Stephen King’s novel has proven to be a work of lasting endurance, an urbane deconstruction of American life married to the mythology of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. A deeper examination of the novel reveals a rich reservoir of meaning revolving around the role of religion in society, the breakdown of community, and the often mundane nature of evil in our everyday lives.

While it has sired innumerable book printings, two broadcast television mini-series, a cinematic pseudo-sequel, King penned prequel and sequel short stories, and a three book denouement in King’s Dark Tower series featuring a main character from the book, there is a surprising dearth of academic analysis of it.

  • Jim Reed

    I think he has the right idea saying contemporary religion must continue to adapt and evolve, moving beyond the antiquated laws, orthodoxy, and dogmas that prevent modern audiences from fully embracing it. I am not sure vampire stories do anything to help. I think the way to make religion better is to make it more true, and the way to do that is to embrace scientific understanding, and never reject anything science is discovering. There is no way that any religion could ever have any better understanding of anything than science does, and when religions reject science and put themselves in some way above science they are just setting themselves up for failure, and damaging their believers.

  • pennyroyal

    in the 1800s many religious groups styled themselves as being scientific, for example Christian Science. Science was starting to improve people’s lives with vaccinations and hygiene laws (water quality, sewage disposal, etc.). It was a marketing scheme churches used. Then in the US, at least, science was turned into an enemy. (Not so in Europe).

  • Jim Reed

    It became Darwin vs. the Bible. Christianity won the first round, at least in the US. In the long run that will have to change because truth must prevail.

  • pennyroyal

    Christianity keeps losing out to science. People go to the doctor when sick, learn forensic science, astronomy and life becomes more secular. Part of this is the evangelicals picking this fight instead of accommodating.
    But once people realize they can have reverence, awe ,and wonder at the world and universe without god, that changes. I’m a humanist but also like Thoreau I can say I see god in nature. I just don’t do the supernatural thing.

    I love Chet Raymo, biologist and science writer whose latest book is “When God is Gone Everything is Sacred.” He’s a Catholic agnostic.

  • Jim Reed

    Things might be changing in the next few decades because of the new interest in us getting into space. Launches are becoming less epensive and more widespread, and there is interest from several groups in going to Mars. This will change humanity and will have to end up changing religion.

    Once we are off the planet, our various End Timesisms will be obsolete. Instead of being based on the distant past, a new religion will be based on distance. This might ultimately turn out to also be a mistake, but for the forseeable future it should serve us better than what we have now.

  • A. David Lewis

    In her recent book MUSLIMS IN THE WESTERN IMAGINATION, author Sophia Rose Arjana suggests that Dracula’s origin comes from Protestant England’s fear of both Muslims (specifically Turks) and Jews.

  • Dime store pop-psych analysis. Nothing cutting edge or insightful here. The while premise of this book sounds like something stoners came up with while watching Nosferatu.