Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Our vampires, ourselves

In his article "Monsters vs. Monstrance", Mark Shea suggests that "(t)he vast panoply of scary creatures the human imagination has concocted to express our fears reflects this awareness that there is some deeper and more ancient evil behind mere human evil." The word "monster", as he points out, comes from the same root ("monere", "to warn") as "demonstrate" or "monitor". A "monstrum", in Latin, is a portent or sign, and that monster we create is a visible sign of invisible evil. It is a warning that there is, in fact, evil in this world to beware.

A monstrance, likewise, makes visible the invisible. It not only presents the Eucharist to us for adoration and blessing, but shows visibly some small sign of the invisible glory surrounding the sacramental body, blood, soul, and divinity of Christ. Mark points out that "...a 'monster' is a thing that shows forth in visible form something Horrible for all to behold, just as the Monstrance shows forth in visible form something Beautiful for all to behold."

Our interactions with fictional monsters can also demonstrate something about our interaction (or lack thereof) with the unseen-but-very-real world around us. A subtle sign of our culture's growing secularization is the way in which we deal with vampires. In Stoker's story, the Eucharist is used to bar a vampire from its coffin. Over the years, the Eucharist and crucifix have become simply a cross, then a holy symbol, then a joke.

Consider the creatures themselves, also. In some modern stories, they are not longer preternaturals but simple predators; they are above humans on the food chain - sharks on legs. In others, they are misunderstood aliens, creatures considered noble and even desirable. In contrast, Bram Stoker's Dracula is much more like the devil from whom he gets his name. He is a liar and murderer from the beginning, trapping Jonathan and condemning Lucy. He is a tempter and manipulator that cannot simply work his evil wherever he wills but must be invited or accepted, must like the Tempter himself. For example, before Lucy becomes a vampire, she must drink of Dracula's blood. Like Eve biting into the apple, she must willingly take in order to fall; she must make an act of the will, otherwise the act (and the sin) is not mortal.

If our vampires have become Darwinian predators or brooding bad-boys, it is, perhaps, because we're in denial of the realities at which those early vampires hint. If a vampire is turned by a crucifix, then a crucifix - and the one that died on it - has power. If a vampire's temptations must be denied, then so must Satan's. And if Van Helsing and the others must dispatch vampire-Lucy to save her immortal soul, it is because she has an immortal soul to save.

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