Religion in the Vampire Motif
When reading Gothic fiction, one can assume that religion will play a role in the overall evolution of the literary genre itself. The section of this mode of writing that expresses its wishes to delve into the depths of religion is the vampire motif. Bram Stoker in Dracula uses the full force of God and His religious symbols to avail against the undead, never questioning his characters’ faith in those symbols. The vampire stands no match against anything that is holy. In Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot, King takes a different approach with Father Callahan. Religious symbols in this novel mean nothing without faith. King argues that faith in God is the ultimate triumph over the demon. Anne Rice in her novel, Interview with the Vampire, reaches deeper into the role of religion within Gothic literature. Louis questions the ultimate meaning of life: is there a God? If so, then is he damned? Taking a different tact than Stoker and King, she seeks to question religion and faith. In the evolution of Gothic fiction, religion has changed in the last hundred years. Perhaps it has been because of the social and cultural evolution of society and its role in literature. From the late 1800s, a time when religion could be followed blindly, until the Contemporary era, a period when man has the right to question religion, the Gothic has followed along.
In Stoker’s Dracula, he uses religious symbols as devices to avail against the undead. The characters use these devices with unwavering faith throughout the novel. Van Helsing, “laid in Dracula’s tomb some of the Wafer,” before killing the three female vampires, so that Dracula may never sleep there again (371). This is done so without the question of whether or not the symbol will prevail. Before leaving the castle, Van Helsing also “fixed its entrances that never more can the Count enter there Un-Dead” (371). Religion and the faith in its symbols are used to repel the vampire through God on earth and keep Dracula out of his home.
Father Callahan uses a cross “that flared with preternatural, dazzling brilliance” in defense against Barlow in King’s novel (524). However, King moves into a new realm of how religion is used in the Gothic. In order to use religious symbols against the undead, one must have faith in them, and Father Callahan’s faith was weakening as “the last of its [the cross] light vanished” (525). Since Callahan’s faith was lost, so was his power over the vampire.
You have forgotten the doctrine of your own church, is it not so? The cross … the bread and the wine … the confessional … only symbols. Without faith, the cross is only wood, the bread baked wheat, the wine sour grapes. (526)
Religious symbols used without faith no longer hold their power. King is suggesting that religious symbols alone have no effect on the undead at all. The only real weapon that can be used to destroy Barlow is faith in God. Without that, they are “only symbols” (526).
Anne Rice begins her novel by doing away with some of the conventions previously set forth about vampires. When speaking with his father, Lestat “said something blasphemous and gave him the rosary” (23). Rice takes away the use of religious symbols as a weapon harnessed against the vampire by allowing Lestat to touch the rosary. The boy (interviewer) was shocked at Louis’s revelation as the vampire asked, “You refer to our being afraid of crosses” (23)? By removing religion’s harm against the undead, Rice does not totally remove religion from her book, but rather questions its use. If the vampire is flesh and blood just as mortals are, should he fear the cross? Rice even goes as far as giving Louis a trait unusual for a vampire, “I rather like looking on crucifixes in particular” said the vampire in spite of the conventions of previous vampire fiction (23). Louis does not fear religious symbols because he lacks the knowledge of an existence of God.
In Stoker’s novel it is suggested that vampires are damned beings and do not belong on earth. The undead are seen as “Unclean,” as are those who have taken “the Vampire’s baptism of blood,” even before they have become one of the undead (296, 322). By placing the “piece of Sacred Wafer” to Mina’s forehead, Stoker implies that the undead are damned (296). He relies heavily on religion as a device to destroy evil. Taken, without question, the undead are truly evil, and that “Only the old magic” can release this evil from the earth (back cover).
Mina was fearful because “she with all her goodness and purity was outcast from God” (308). She was to become damned through no fault of her own. Realizing this, after the Wafer burned her forehead, she said, “Unclean! Unclean! Even the Almighty shuns my polluted flesh! I must bear this mark of shame upon my forehead until Judgment Day” (296). Stoker’s vision of the undead was that they were damned, no matter if “God is merciful and just” (304). The vampire is a thing that God shuns. Through religion, only can a being be damned, and Stoker implies that religion is the almighty force that to use against the undead because the vampire is a damned creature.
Father Callahan in Salem’s Lot, after letting his faith waiver in front of Barlow becomes “unclean” through a slightly different means (535). When the cross lost its power the vampire insisted for Callahan to “Come, false priest. Learn of true religion. Take my communion” (527). The vampire, just after backing away from the religious symbol openly mocks God when there is no faith in Him. Without his faith, “The Master had marked him [Callahan]” making him “Unclean” before the eyes of God (534, 535). Using the idea of faith, King approaches religion in the Gothic genre differently than Stoker, which had been seemingly similar. Yet, to taste a vampire’s blood still makes one “Unclean” (535).
Through Barlow, King presents the notion that vampires are damned. The vampire sought to weaken his enemies by proclaiming that, “I am not the serpent, but the father of serpents,” showing that he is older than religion itself (496). He also goes on to make Father Callahan question his faith, “Your faith in the White is weak and soft” (497). However, he is afraid of religious symbols that have the backing of faith, which is why he had to make his most powerful opponent, a priest, falter in his own. Ultimately, King suggests that religion, only with faith, is the source of power to wield against the vampire.
Looking at life through a vampire’s eyes, a method previously unseen in Gothic fiction, Rice has the option of asking if the vampire is truly damned. Louis gets to question the meaning of immortality. Believing “that I [Louis] was damned in my own mind and soul,” he could not believe that a creature such as himself could be otherwise (337). By becoming a vampire, he did not realize his own damnation. It was not until he turned Madeleine into the thing that would “damn the legions of mortals” that he realized the thing that “died in this room tonight is the last vestige in me of what was human” (265, 273). That was the point where he believed he was damned and he had sold his soul “for a many-colored and luminescent thing” (276).
Throughout the novel, Louis sought to find meaning, an answer to his existence. Lestat’s answer to Louis’s question of immortality was that “Evil is a point of view,” that to be evil one must look at one’s self as evil (88). Lestat did not look at himself as damned, but as a creature superior to mortals, who had to cope with the concept of damnation.
God kills, and so shall we; indiscriminately. He takes the richest and the poorest, and so shall we; for no creatures under God are as we are, none so like Him as ourselves, dark angels not confined to the stinking limits of hell but wandering His earth and all its kingdoms. (88, 89)
Lestat’s one lesson he tried to teach Louis was that they were beyond damnation. If they were damned, then why does God allow them to roam the earth without confinement?
Seeking other vampires, Louis found Armand who asked “How could we be the children of Satan…Do you believe Satan made this world around you” (234)? Rice is questioning the idea of damnation, because Satan is not the Creator. If God created the world and all things in it, then are vampire’s not “God’s children also” and can those children be damned (234)? This poses another question to Louis, “Then God does not exist … you have no knowledge of his existence,” in which Armand replied that he had “None…after four hundred years” of living undead (238). With this conversation, Rice has the ability to question the meaning of existence. By doing away with religious symbols as weapons against the undead, she moves beyond the concept of religion to pose the questions of the vampire’s damnation and the existence of God.
In the evolution of Gothic fiction, religion has also evolved with the genre. Stoker looks at religion as the weapon to use against the undead. King follows Stoker’s vision, but takes it a step further by implying that faith is the ultimate power against evil. Rice takes a different route and questions religion and evil. Whereas, Stoker and King both agree that vampires are ultimately damned, Rice asks if that is a correct assumption. The use of religious symbols has varied also. Stoker uses them unrelentingly; King believes that without faith, they are meaningless; and Rice’s’ vampires are unharmed by them; opening up a door to question the vampire’s seeming damnation. These three texts use religion very differently, yet it is vital to Gothic fiction, because the ultimate question in the vampire motif is the question of damnation. Only through God can a being be damned.