The Vampire Defanged: An Interview with Susannah Clements
Carissa Smith recently conducted an email interview with Susannah Clements (Associate Professor of English, Regent University), author of The Vampire Defanged: How the Embodiment of Evil Became a Romantic Hero (Brazos Press, which kindly sent us a review copy). The book traces the vampire’s evolution in pop culture, from its Christian roots in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, through its postmodern iteration in Buffy, and finally to the sparkly undead of Twilight.
Carissa: What, beyond the current omnipresence of vampires in pop culture, led you to write The Vampire Defanged?
Susannah: The book was primarily prompted by reflections and questions about how the portrait of the vampire has changed in the last hundred years. I had recently reread Stoker’s Dracula and was thinking about how different that vampire was from most of the vampires we see in popular culture now. Since I’ve long been a fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I thought there might be a way to do a Christian analysis of a culturally relevant phenomenon and also write about a number of texts I really love.
I think of Brazos as a press that straddles the divide between academic and non-academic audiences well. What sort of audience did you envision as you were writing and marketing the book?
I had originally envisioned it as more of an academic project, but my editor at Brazos wisely encouraged me to make it more accessible for non-academics, who might also find the book of interest. I’d only written the first chapter when that shift was made, so I rewrote the first chapter and then wrote the rest of it as a “crossover” book. It’s being marketed to both an academic and non-academic audience. The chapters are still pretty heavy on literary analysis, so it’s not necessarily a quick or easy read for non-academics. But I think it’s definitely accessible to anyone who is interested in vampire stories and enjoys thinking through the issues deeply.
In the introduction to the book, you say, “More than anyone else, Christians should know how to read and view well. And we should read the culture around us as deeply and thoughtfully as we read canonical literature.” Obviously, for Christ and Pop Culture (and for me personally, as a literature professor at a Christian institution), that statement rings true. What, in your opinion, best equips Christians to read culture well?
I think there are skills in analysis and interpretation that we can learn through education and/or practice that will help us read culture well, but I think the main thing we need to do is take the culture around us seriously. It’s easy for us to believe that, since a book is just for fun and isn’t real “literature,” we can just read it mindlessly without it affecting us in any significant way. Or we want to think that most movies and television are just for entertainment, so the messages they are expressing aren’t really important. But the stories we tell ourselves have power over us, whether we recognize it or not. So I think the first step is to “read” culture with our minds on so we can start to understand what these texts are really saying.
In your analysis of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), you argue that the titular vampire represents sin–not only the seven deadly ones, but also the infectiousness of sin and the impossibility of conquering it without God’s grace. In the next major vampire novel, Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire (1976), the vampire is no longer “a representation of sin and sin’s consequences–rather, the vampire provides a picture of guilt.” I found this point particularly insightful because, even for Christians, it’s easy to confuse sin–a condition–and shame–a feeling. Do you have any theories about what cultural changes might have led to this shift in the vampire’s symbolic significance?
I think the change in the vampire reflects a general shift in cultural worldview that has moved away from belief in the genuine condition of sin. Our culture often thinks in psychological terms of “deviance” or “disorder” rather than acknowledging sin as a spiritual reality. But even if we remove the reality of sin from our understanding of the world, the consequences of sin still exist for us. One of those consequences is guilt. Vampire stories like Anne Rice’s present a really compelling portrait of the bewildering nature of guilt—and its endlessness—in a worldview that doesn’t affirm sin as giving meaning to guilt or that doesn’t offer Christ as an answer to it.
In your chapter on Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003), you say that “the show actually goes deeper into the theological themes of grace, forgiveness, sacrifice, and free will than Stoker tackled,” but, at the same time, the show is secularized, “because of the way it refuses to affirm any definite spiritual reality but instead points toward many of them.” How do you define “the secular”? If a work is addressing theological themes at a deep level, how important is it for the Christian reader/viewer to label it as “religious” or “secular”?
I don’t think it’s necessarily important for us to label stories as “religious” or “secular.” Certainly, that can lead to artificial distinctions or compartmentalized thinking. But I do think it’s important to recognize that stories that explore religious or theological themes might be using them to draw conclusions that are neither religious nor theological. Christians are sometimes tempted to “baptize” texts that seem to deal with our pet themes—temptation, sacrifice, salvation, etc.—even when, at times, these themes are used to express entirely irreligious messages. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t value or find meaning in stories that don’t have Christian or even spiritual purpose. I think Buffy explores rich, complex theological issues better and more thoughtfully than most “Christian” fiction I’ve read. But I would be seriously misreading the show and significantly skewing the artistic expression of its creators if I claimed that—because sin and sacrifice are prominent themes—the show’s ultimate conclusions are theological or religious. The Christian themes in certain storylines and episodes are in service of the show’s larger message, which is about being human and living in the world. They aren’t exploring a relationship with God (any god) or a spiritual reality. Recognizing this doesn’t make Buffy any less meaningful to Christians, but I think we do need to recognize and acknowledge it if we are going to be good readers of the show.
That question also brings us to Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Saga (2005-2008), of which you say, “As the vampire has become an idealized romantic superhero, he has lost his potential for spiritual and theological reflection.” However, the main themes you draw out in the Twilight Saga–the power of free will and the idealized nature of romantic and familial love–seem to me to be fairly consistent with a Mormon worldview (albeit at a shallow level). To what extent do you think vampires can be successfully co-opted by other religious traditions?
Well, vampires can mean what we want them to mean—which is one of the reasons they’ve been so popular for so long. So certainly other religious traditions can “co-opt” them and shape them into something else. Once the vampire loses his traditional characteristics, which were grounded in the Christian tradition, however, he becomes less and less recognizable and I would say less and less powerful as a metaphor. In many cases, I think storytellers would do better to call the super-human creature something other than “vampire” and thus be freer to tell the story they want to tell. I’ve read a couple of good studies of the Twilight Saga, highlighting how the novels reflect a Mormon worldview. I definitely think there’s something there, particularly in the last half of the last book in the series. But, for most of the Twilight Saga, I think the vampire, embodied in Edward, is primarily shaped by conventions of romantic fiction rather than theological or spiritual issues, either Christian or Mormon.
In the conclusion, you say that Christians are somewhat to blame for the secularization of the vampire, partly due to the knee-jerk “vampires are demonic” response and partly due to apathy. On the hopeful side, you argue that “If Christians can understand the vampire better, we can discuss, create, and inspire a respiritualized figure of the vampire. In doing so, we can help return the vampire tradition to the power it once had. We can give vampires their fangs again.” Why is it so important to rehabilitate the vampire tradition? If Dracula already did it so well, why do we need new, re-sanctified vampire books and movies?
We tell ourselves the same stories over and over again—sometimes because the stories are true and sometimes because we believe them to be true. Jane Austen wrote fantastic love stories, but that doesn’t mean we have no need to tell good love stories today. In the same way, we could be using the vampire artistically to tell ourselves stories we need to hear—true stories about sin, sacrifice, salvation and grace. Right now, because of the ubiquity of vampire romances, one of the main things vampire stories are telling us is that love and sex are most “hot” when they’re dangerous and forbidden and that a women’s existence is given value by the love of a powerful man. These stories simply aren’t true, but they’re being told through the figure of the vampire over and over again. There are so many “true” stories the vampire could allow us to tell, it would be a shame for Christians not to take advantage of it.
I was waiting for The Count from Sesame Street to make an appearance in your book, but he never did. Any comments on his cultural significance?
Well, I guess The Count is probably another example of the domestication of the vampire in our culture—we can laugh at the vampire now, not just be scared of him—although honestly I can’t speak intelligently on that character, as I haven’t watched Sesame Street in twenty-five years!
What new projects do you have in the pipeline?
I’m working on a Christian companion to British literature that could be used for a supplemental text in British lit survey courses at Christian colleges. I also have a werewolf book in the back of my mind, although I haven’t actually done anything with it yet.
Wow, terrific interview, thank you. I never had the slightest interest in vampire literature, until I recently read Stoker’s Dracula and was shocked by how different it was from what it has become. I also love the idea of watching how literature in various areas evolves… be it vampires, science fiction, fantasy, or whatever else. It’s a great way to hold a mirror up to the culture and to better understand our own cultural context.
Sounds interesting. I’m curious if Clements treats any of these topics in her book:
• The pre-Polidori/Stoker vampire as folk-monster (cf. Nosferatu, Lilith, succubi/incubi, the vârcolac)
• The role of the cinematic vampire and its effect on popular conceptions of the vampire (e.g. Murnau’s Nosferatu and Lugosi’s Dracula and beyond)
• The humanization of the vampire (e.g. Let the Right One In, Lost Boys)
• Vampire as representative of sex or seduction (even in Murnau’s Nosferatu, the grotesque, traditional vampire resembles an erect penis)
• Vampire as comedy (Abbott and Costello, Once Bitten, Dracula: Dead and Loving It)
• The role of the vampire hunter
I’m not sure I’m willing to grant her position that the evolution of the vampire away from Stoker’s moral vision is necessarily a bad thing (and therefore something for which to blame anyone). There’s certainly room for vampire literature or cinema to contain new stories that reflect a vision common with Stoker’s but I think most of us would agree that there doesn’t need to be one singular use for any given sign and that so long as the product is worthwhile, various use of the vampire in fiction should be welcomed. After all, Stoker’s treatment wasn’t exact in accord with the traditional view either.
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