Bela Lugosi’s Dead

A friend showed me a newspaper cartoon earlier today that featured a kid pasting a poster of Bela Lugosi’s Dracula over a poster from one of the recent Twilight films. I was amused. How I wish it were that easy to get a classic like Dracula shown instead of its current far-removed progeny. However, Twilight is sadly a vampire series for our times, a reflection of the worldview of the society we live in. The evil, fatally seductive Dracula of Bela Lugosi, and even the original of Bram Stoker, has been largely staked by the cultural abandonment of Christianity on which the legend of the vampire truly depends.

You see, the vampire only truly makes sense when it feeds on the tradition of Judeo-Christian theology. The crisis happens when we divorce the vampire from its most bare-bones concepts and reinvent it outside the concept of blood sacrifice and the struggle to accomplish eternal life outside of the work of Christ. To be fair, vampire-like creatures have existed from the most ancient mesopotamian mythologies. We even see a vague but chilling reference to the Lilith, a man-feeding, child-killing succubus of Babylonian and Assyrian folklore in Isaiah 34. These proto-vampires were always demonic manifestations, portrayed as purely evil. The Lilith of Isaiah is one of several natural and metaphysical creatures finding a home in the nettles and thistles of a dead and forsaken Edom.

There is much traditionally redeemable about the vampire story. Stoker presents Dracula as a wholly evil, wholly repulsive creature of the night, visibly monstrous, yet possessing a highly sexual undercurrent in his feeding habits on female victims and their subsequent seduction into vampiracy themselves. The vampire drinks the blood of humans to preserve his life, an inversion of the Christian practice of communion with Christ through the drinking of the Eucharist wine. The Christian symbol of divine grace is mocked by the drinking of human blood to reach immortality. The character of Mina, after drinking Dracula’s blood and therefore beginning her potential transformation into one of the “undead” herself, cringes at the sight of a crucifix and calls herself “Unclean, unclean.” The foil of Dracula, Professor Van Helsing, labels their struggle as a Christian one, “Thus we are 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.”

The early silent German film adaptation Nosferatu keeps the repulsiveness of Dracula (called Count Orlock in a failed attempt to avoid copyright payment), adding an element of occult involvement as a subplot. Nosferatu also emphasizes the avoidance of vampires to sunlight, a scriptural theme emphasizing the preference of evil to darkness over light and the overcoming of darkness by light that we see (particularly) in the writings of John. By the time Universal Studios produced the classic Dracula starring Lugosi, the vampire had been turned into a mysterious, well-dressed foreign aristocrat, seductive in a more straightforward sense, and more sociable than his literary inspiration, though no less chilling at the same time. The blood lust, the horror, and the avoidance of all Christian symbols were all still there, and were made even more frightening by the mysterious, concealing direction of Tod Browning who, in light of censorship restrictions, made an even more frightening film by what he did not show. The film and its sequels retain the Christian themes of temptation and the fight against evil and remain true to the heart of the vampire legend.

The western world has changed much in the interlude between 1931 and now, however. The culture of that period was one where Christianity was still the common worldview, whether one had a personal faith in Christ or not. As we have shifted from a Christ-centered worldview, so also have our monsters, including our vampires, changed. Edward, the vampire love interest of the Twilight saga, sparkles like diamonds in sunlight instead of hiding or dying from it, elevating him to something higher than human, almost an angelic being, and the vampires are called “inhumanly beautiful.” Only the element of immortality and a desire for blood remains, but even these have been reshaped, with many vampires (including Edward) now resisting the need to feed on humans. The characters are made heroes, and the end affirms vampirism rather than confronting it, as Susanna Clements confirms, “Bella and Edward find happiness, not through the natural order of creation dictated by a traditional concept of God, but through relying on their own ‘unnatural’ choices – they are able to achieve happiness on their own.”

If our art reflects our culture, then the modern vampire reflects how our culture had departed from the eras of Stoker or Lugosi, but only as much as human effort has always rebelled against a Christocentric worldview. We want to atone for ourselves without God. We want to find ultimate happiness and everlasting life without God. We want to be like gods. As long as we carry these longings on this side of the New Creation, the vampire legend will continue in some form. The vampire of Bela Lugosi is dead, but if we are smart, we will allow him to arise from his coffin once more to confront our current vampires about the truly frightening seduction of Satan’s lies and an existence lived in rebellion against God. Only then can we look to the cross he flees from and see the true path to eternal life.

Oh, and since I know you looked at this post for this:

For further reading:
Clements, Susannah. The Vampire Defanged: How the Embodiment of Evil Became a Romantic Hero. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2011. Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, Second Edition. Ed. Karel van der Toorn, Bob Becking, and Pieter W. van der Horst. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999. The Forgotten Heavens: Six Essays on Cosmology. ed. Douglas Wilson. Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 1989.

2 thoughts on “Bela Lugosi’s Dead

  1. This is so interesting, particularly your last two paragraphs. I’ve never heard it posited that our pop culture’s LACK of horrifying vampires is a sign of our culture’s increasing rebellion against a Christ-centered worldview, but golly, it makes sense! What irony, then, that many, knowing the author’s Mormon faith, have criticized Twilight’s religious (I would say moralistic) undertones, when her sparkly, good-natured, restrained vampires are actually undermining the Christian themes usually inherent in “evil vampire” stories.
    I’m curious as to what you think of the 1992 Francis Ford Coppola version of “Bram Stoker’s Dracula.” Despite the casting of & typically sour performance by one Keanu Reeves (as Jonathan Harker), I love this film for its take on the title character. Though not the Dracula Bram Stoker envisioned, Gary Oldman portrays the vampire with a Romans 7 slant that I just adore. His Dracula is torn, needing to feast on the living to survive (and ultimately doing so; he’s no restrained Twilightesque creature), but all the while struggling against his own nature for the sake of Mina. He does the things he doesn’t want to do, and can’t do the things he does want to do. Watching Oldman’s performance, I’m always reminded that, while his dark nature wins out, I have been rescued from my equally dark nature, “this body of death,” by Christ. (Though we’re not discussing it here, I have the same reaction when watching one of my all-time favorite TV shows, “Dexter.” It’s only God’s grace that my own Dark Passenger doesn’t take over…)
    I was going to write a blog series on all of this last year (titled “In Defense of Dark Art”), but only got as far as the first post. Thanks for your post, which has allowed me to think through some of these things again, and with an awesome new perspective.

    1. The issue with the good boy vampires of Twilight is their squeaky-clean image. For a few millenia, vampires have been symbolic of something evil; even the more sympathetic ones are unable to persevere over their evil tendancies. Count Dracula will never be your well-behaved, friendly neighborhood Satanic bloodsucker next door. He is a picture of our nature in its most basic form: we are the living dead existing in direct rebellion against God and seeking a way out of death that only blood can satisfy. Only in Christ are we broken out of this bondage to our sin nature, our living death, and given true eternal life because Christ shed his blood for us. When we make our monsters able to overcome their evils by sheer willpower, we deny the fact that we (and our world) are more lost than we can ever imagine and are enslaved to our sin nature apart from Christ. What is scary about our most frightening monsters is that they say something true about us. They are our Dorian Gray portrait. We are afraid of what is on the screen or on the page, and it is something within ourselves.
      Kelsey, you nailed the Coppola film. I love the very human struggle Oldman’s Dracula has. Very Romans 7. It reflects again how we fight to be good and ultimately are never good enough. Coppola, from a traditional Catholic family, retains much of the Christian imagery and references of the book even if the film veers far from the novel in many aspects, and even inserts some not originally there. From Dracula’s turn against God in the prologue to the dialogue about eternal death and condemnation in Mina’s bedchamber and even Renfield’s own, “Dr. Jack, I’m not a lunatic man, I’m a sane man fighting for his soul!”, there’s a strong, if inconsistent (the whole reincarnation thing), Christian element running through the whole, which is why it is one of my favorite Dracula films (aside from Keanu).

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