The Sacred and the Profane: Religious Themes in Vampire Fiction

Almost from the beginning, vampire fiction has been a battleground between the powers of heaven and hell.

Bela Lugosi portrays Count Dracula in the classic 1931 film from Universal Pictures.
Bela Lugosi portrays Count Dracula in the classic 1931 film from Universal Pictures. (photo: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain)

Nearly 80 years before Bram Stoker introduced the world to Count Dracula, a strikingly similar figure debuted in a pioneering 1819 short story: William Polidori’s The Vampyre. His name was Lord Ruthven, and in many respects, he was a clear forerunner to his better-known literary heir: aristocratic, immortal, pale-skinned, suavely seductive, preying at night when his powers were greatest.

Polidori’s influence on Stoker was substantial, but Ruthven lacked one element crucial to Dracula’s identity: Ruthven was a creature of privileged social status and sexual allure as well as paranormal evil, but there was little if anything about him specifically demonic, and no explicit religious implications of his existence.

Rosaries, the Eucharist and other tokens of the sacred that would figure significantly in Stoker’s novel play no role in the earlier work. Lord Ruthven slew his victims’ bodies, but there was no indication that the fate of their souls was at stake. The story ends with the grisly discovery of Ruthven’s latest victim, but death here is the crowning misfortune. 

In Dracula, mere natural death was a mercy compared to the diabolical mockery of life that resulted from the Count’s predations. “The devil’s un-Dead” is what the learned Abraham Van Helsing called Lucy Westenra while she was in the vampiric state, but, after her fiancé Arthur drove a stake through her heart, her soul was freed and she was accounted “God’s true dead, whose soul is with him!”

This is not to say that the earlier Lord Ruthven was a mere serial killer. A creature of decadence who seduced women before glutting himself on their blood, he was also a quasi-Satanic figure who perversely manipulated the lives of all around him like a cat “dallying with a half-dead mouse,” working for their moral or material ruin. The story ends not only with the murder of the protagonist’s sister, but also with the protagonist himself, a young man named Aubrey, dying in an asylum after a bout of madness.

The malice of Ruthven’s actions was an eye-opening revelation to Aubrey, a naive, romantic man with a complacently inflated view of human goodness and of his own talents and merits. Polidori wrote that Aubrey believed “that dreams of poets were the realities of life.” Part of the theme of the story, then, is that the world is a darker, more perilous place than the comfortable imagine, and that predatory evil is a terrifying reality.


Literary Vampires of Le Fanu and Stoker

Another vampire story that influenced Dracula, the 1872 novella Carmilla by Irish author Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, further developed the mythology. Like Dracula, the vampire Carmilla slept in a coffin and drained her victims progressively over a period of time, until in death they became vampires themselves. Anticipating Van Helsing, Le Fanu introduced a vampire expert, Baron Vordenburg, by whose hand Carmilla was dispatched in a strikingly thorough concatenation of what would become classic means of destroying vampires: staked through the heart, decapitated, and burned to ashes. (The ashes were thrown into a river, possibly evoking a fourth vulnerability of vampires and other evil creatures, to whom running water, symbolically linked to baptism, is often a deterrent.)

Notably, Le Fanu infused his tale with religious elements absent in Polidori’s short story. Carmilla manifests an aversion for the sacred when a funeral procession for her latest victim passes by. Laura, the teenaged protagonist and narrator, joins in the hymn being sung by the procession, at which Carmilla, angrily protesting and making a futile effort to plug her ears, is left trembling violently and crying out in duress. Later, as Laura herself begins to succumb to Carmilla, a priest is enlisted to offer “certain solemn rites” on Laura’s behalf (possibly anointing of the sick, exorcism, or a fictional ritual specifically for vampirism) and to help protect her while she sleeps. Laura is ultimately spared becoming a vampire, though the vampire’s memory continues to haunt her imagination.

Although Le Fanu’s family was Huguenot and his father was a Church of Ireland clergyman, Le Fanu’s writings show a level of imaginative interest in Catholicism. For example, one of his recurring characters, an 18th-century Irish Catholic priest named Father Francis Purcell, narrates a dozen short stories (The Purcell Papers), giving Le Fanu room to engage topics like purgatory in the context of ghost stories.

Like Le Fanu, Stoker was an Irish Protestant, but his wife, Florence, was attracted to Catholicism and converted in 1904, just a few years after Dracula was published. Among the many elements borrowed from Le Fanu’s story, Stoker greatly expanded the religious themes, making overt the Catholicism implicit in Le Fanu’s treatment. There is an almost evangelistic dynamic to the way that icons of Catholicism like rosaries and the Eucharist are initially presented as alien and shadowed by suspicions of idolatry or superstition by respectable Anglicans like Jonathan Harker, only to be vindicated in their power over evil, triumphing over all skeptical resistance. 

For all that, Dracula is not a work of Catholic imagination — a reality nowhere more apparent than in Stoker’s sacrilegious treatment of the Blessed Sacrament. Van Helsing carries consecrated Hosts around with him in his bag and uses them for vampire deterrence, at times placing fragments of them in coffins or even crushing them into tiny particles and sprinkling them on the ground or pressing them into putty to make a barrier uncrossable by the undead. “I have an Indulgence,” Van Helsing says by way of purported explanation for these actions. Whether the reader is meant to understand an indulgence as forgiveness in advance for sins yet to be committed, or as a kind of dispensation to commit otherwise sinful actions, is unclear, but it’s incoherent either way.


Vampires on Screen

The 1931 Universal adaptation of Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi, streamlined Stoker’s religious themes, eliding the novel’s Catholicism with more ecumenical imagery: Dracula and the vampirized Mina flinch from crosses and crucifixes, but rosaries and the Eucharist are omitted. Hammer Films’ 1958 Dracula (also known in the U.S. as Horror of Dracula), directed by Terence Fisher, a High Church Anglican, continued the ecumenical trend — with a highly influential twist. Fisher weaponized the cross, giving the world vampires so vulnerable to the cross that their undead flesh would burn at its touch. Even a pair of candlesticks held at right angles was so powerful that Van Helsing could use them to drive Christopher Lee’s Dracula into the full rays of the sun, where he slowly disintegrated into dust (a vulnerability pioneered by the 1922 silent film Nosferatu by F.W. Murnau).

Fisher’s weaponization of the sacred became a mainstay in vampire fiction, from Francis Ford Coppola’s wildly revisionist, Catholicism-haunted 1992 film Bram Stoker’s Dracula to the agnostic, mythologically dense world of Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Other vampire stories have reduced or even eliminated the religious dimension of the mythos, returning to Polidori’s non-religious conception (or something like it). The original silent Nosferatu, an unauthorized adaptation of Dracula, offered vestigial references to religious concepts like sin, the devil and magic. Werner Herzog’s 1979 art-house remake Nosferatu the Vampyre went only slightly further, with a shot or two of Dracula flinching from crosses. Holy artifacts have reduced power at best in John Carpenter’s Vampires (1998) and the Hugh Jackman action movie Van Helsing (2004). Even so, Catholicism is very much present in both films and opposed to the forces of darkness, including vampires — even if the Vatican relies in this regard on professional vampire hunters rather than priests.

Still other takes are wholly secular, or effectively so. Religion plays no role in Kathryn Bigelow’s vampire neo-Western Near Dark (1987) or in the acclaimed Swedish vampire film Let the Right One In (2008). 

Among the knottiest treatments of vampirism and Catholicism are films with vampire priests, like Father Paul in the recent Netflix series Midnight Mass by Mike Flanagan and Father Sang-hyun in the 2009 South Korean film Thirst by Park Chan-wook. Both priests experience dramatic physical healings in connection with their vampirization, and both come to be venerated by others for their association with the  apparently miraculous. The difference is that Father Sang-hyun recognizes from the outset that he has become a monster and is disgusted when a blind religious superior expresses a wish to become a vampire so that he can see again. Father Paul, on the other hand, regards the hideous bat-winged predator who turned him as an “angel” bestowing divine “miracles” and is only too eager to share the “blessings” of vampirism with his flock.

Eventually, amid a downward spiral of increasing depravity, including adultery and serial murder, Father Sang-hyun comes to recognize that, despite his efforts to control his evil passions, there is no way to live morally as a vampire, and he commits suicide by sunlight. In Father Paul’s case, the scales fall from his eyes only after his actions lead to a horrific bloodbath, and he eventually accepts his inevitable death, also by sunlight. Although both priests’ actions are depicted as antithetical to their religion, aversion to holy things is no part of the vampiric condition.

For a recent example of the traditional power of the sacred over vampires, see Netflix’s 2020 horror-comedy Vampires vs. the Bronx, which pits Afro-Latino teenagers against affluent, gentrifying vampires. Highlighting the role of the local Catholic parish and its stern but caring priest (Cliff “Method Man” Smith) in the life of the community, the movie also depicts its young heroes absconding with (unnecessarily) pilfered holy water and a (sacrilegiously) pocketed Host.

Crosses and crucifixes repel the vampires; holy-water balloons do damage; and, when Father Jackson smacks one with a large processional crucifix, it leaves a burn mark. The high and low point in the depiction of the sacred is when one of the boys tosses the Host into a vampire’s mouth with the words “Body of Christ”: St. Paul’s warnings in 1 Corinthians 11 about the potentially fatal consequences of unworthy reception of Holy Communion couldn’t be more dramatically realized. 

Sacrilegious, yes — but this is a movie that knows the Host is no mere symbol.

More than 200 years after their horror-fiction debut, vampires are still going strong. In 2022 the Marvel vampire antihero Morbius will get his big-screen debut, while on the small screen AMC will launch a series based on Anne Rice’s Interview With the Vampire. Don’t look for religious iconography to play a power role in either of those; neither Morbius nor Rice’s vampires are affected by crucifixes and the like.

On the other hand, considering the provocative theological themes that Robert Eggers brought to The Witch (2015), if he succeeds in getting his too-long-delayed remake of Nosferatu out of development hell, I’m intrigued to see what he might do with Dracula’s religious milieu.