A taste for blood: Vampires, Catholicism, and popular culture

Catholicism has played a special—and conflicted—role in the development of the English Gothic literary genre, especially but not exclusively regarding the blood-drinking undead.

Detail from the cover of the author's novel "A Bloody Habit" (Ignatius Press).

During the late seventeenth and eighteenth century, a major outbreak of vampiric hysteria exploded across Eastern Europe. Documentation of purported vampiric incidents was erratic and hysterically exaggerated. This great vampire fright came upon the heels of a substantial panic over Satanism, particularly in France. Fortune-tellers, alchemists, and witches were on the rise.

For many, this is baffling. Should not vampire hysteria have arisen during the so-called “dark ages”, when illiteracy was rampant, and the medieval Church, with her sinister Inquisition, preyed upon the credulity of the masses?

Such is a thoroughly Enlightenment question, and therein lies the answer: the Enlightenment itself proved a prime breeding ground for horrors. The Enlightenment set out to squash “superstition” (catching under its auspices traditional belief) in the name of empiricist secularism. Consequently, the possibility of something that could not be explained through either science or empirical knowledge became all the more terrifying—certainly more so than it would have been for the commonsensical medieval peasant for whom such a creature would only be part of the panoply of folklore.

As Dracula’s Van Helsing notes: “A year ago which of us would have received such a possibility, in the midst of our scientific, skeptical, matter-of-fact nineteenth century?” The post-Enlightenment, technologically-advanced man who encounters a possible vampire is a man whose atheistic scientism has failed him. Thus, as Europe sloughed off the chains of Catholic antiquity and advanced toward industrial and scientific marvels, she found herself frantically digging up and staking corpses.

What was the Church doing in all of this? Folklore attested that the vampire was the soul of a heretic, a criminal, or a suicide, or some other soul the eternal fate of which was uncertain. The Church accepted incorruptibility as a sometime characteristic of dead saints, and, even more dramatically, preached belief in the resurrection of the dead. If God were inclined to intervene in such a way, it was asked, could not the devil intervene into the natural order as well?

The Church resoundingly denied that Satan was imbued with such power and, as peasants hurried to diagnose the vampiric tendencies of a dead family member by means of a hawthorn stake, priests, prelates, scholars, and Popes worked to defuse a situation that was unhealthy physically and spiritually. This was the period of vampire scholars Archbishop Davanzati (1665-1755), the Benedictine Dom Augustin Calmet (1672-1757), and Pope Benedict XIV (1675-1758)—from the latter we have our only papal document that speaks of vampires. When he wrote about the proper treatment of the bodies of the saints, the Holy Father dedicated an entire chapter to “the cruel maltreatment and mutilation of corpses believed to be vampires”.

Building from this colorful history, Catholicism has played a special role in the development of the English Gothic literary genre, especially but not exclusively regarding the blood-drinking undead. This role is conflicted, simultaneously expressing fierce anti-Catholic sentiment while vigorously appropriating aestheticized Catholicism. English literature teems with predatory monks and superstitious Catholic peasants. Such figures are not merely literary; they, along with the systematic demonization of the Dominicans and the Jesuits, have been the stock characters for anti-Catholic propaganda since the sixteenth century. This is why the Monty Python skit “The Spanish Inquisition” is still comprehensible to the British (though not, alas, to many of my students, who are missing a treat). At the same time, to represent anything beyond the natural world, novelists are forced to have recourse to the language and the “stuff” of the rejected Church—the “power of Christ compels you” and the bell, book, and candle. To introduce supernatural or preternatural undertones, the novelist introduces a sinister-looking, cassock-wearing priest or a nun with beetling eyebrows.

This “Catholic aesthetic” is all over the British Victorian period, interwoven with that strong anti-Catholic prejudice. Charles Dickens dabbled in it, Anthony Trollope made it comedic, and Charlotte Brontë steeped her heroes in it (along with a hefty dose of anti-Catholic self-torment). Most strikingly, we see it in Dracula, that “very weirdest of weird tales”. Bram Stoker, a Protestant Irishman, lacks the hang-ups of his Protestant friends and colleagues. His wife actually converted to Catholicism around the time Dracula was published. Her early love, Oscar Wilde, scandalously carried on a love affair with the Catholic Church—outlasting his more famous affairs—and converted on his deathbed. Catholicism is no real threat for Stoker, as it would have been for every upright, forthright late-nineteenth century Englishman.

That is not to say that Stoker fully appreciates the theological connotations of his subject. He muddles this like he muddled a lot of other things in his bizarre, messy, glorious novel. Nevertheless, Stoker’s substantive contribution to the genre was that he could recognize the vampiric feast as a direct counterpoint to the Eucharist. While folklore recognized the power of sacramentals in battling demonic forces, the anti-Eucharistic aspirations of the vampire was never fully explored until Stoker’s novel. Stoker took on the tension between the ancient and the modern, the old religion (and the old “superstitions”) and the new secular creed. The post-Enlightenment world, with its scientism and technological enthusiasms, unleashes the monster that only the relics of antiquity can properly combat—“for in this enlightened age, when men believe not even what they see, the doubting of wise men would be [Dracula’s] greatest strength”.

Because of this, Stoker’s Dracula serves as the prototype for exploring the Eucharistic significance of vampirism and its Catholic potential. Blood is the source and summit of a vampire’s existence: “he cannot flourish without the diet; he eat not as others”. Ironically, the clearest presentation of the novel’s underlying sanguivorous theory is exemplified in a character who is not technically a vampire: Renfield, a lunatic and self-proclaimed disciple of Dracula. He collects flies, then spiders to whom he feeds the flies, and birds to whom he feeds the spiders. He wants a cat but the asylum staff refuse. Renfield consumes his various pets—including the birds—raw because he wants to “absorb as many lives as he can, and he has laid himself out to achieve it in a cumulative way”. Dracula promises him flies, moths, rats, dogs and cats—“All these lives will I give you, ay, and many more and greater, through countless ages, if you will fall down and worship me!” The lunatic looks to the vampire with a sense of assurance of “some higher life” through the consumption of “lives! all red blood, with years of life in it”.

The problem is that Renfield wants the lives, but doesn’t want any souls. His desires are solely physical, even to the point of ignoring the spiritual implications of his relationship with Dracula, yearning for the “distribution of good things”—“He thinks of the loaves and fishes even when he believes he is in a Real Presence.” The human life of Christ made daily physical and intimate communion with God possible—beyond even the Old Testament experience of Enoch, with whom Renfield compares himself: “he walked with God.” (This internal conflict for Renfield is what makes him possibly redeemable, in fact.)

Going beyond Renfield, we see again and again the notion of the vampiric villain as the twisted, skewed imitation of Christ:

  • The Incarnation transcends the gulf between the natural and the supernatural; Dracula is a super-physical being in whom a supernatural power is lodged.
  • As the actual sacrifice of a Calvary occurring mystically in an unbloody manner, the Eucharistic sacrament brings the reality of a past action into the reality of a present; vampires are unnaturally frozen between the severance of body and soul at the point of death and the afterlife.
  • The Eucharist is the ultimate transformative and life-giving agent; vampires consume blood to perpetuate an undead eternity.
  • The blood on the cross was given willingly; vampire victims do not submit of their own volition. They are hypnotized, entranced, or otherwise reduced to an altered state of consciousness.

Dracula as Satan is thus elaborately developed: engaging in an anti-sacrifice and an Anti-Eucharist, Dracula is the Apocalyptic Anti-Christ who comes to collect souls and set up an alternative eternity to that promised in the New Testament. The Eucharistic connection is quite deliberate; early drafts of the novel included a parodied Last Supper with the Count appearing formally in the role of Anti-Christ.

The mode of the novel is not generically Christian—it’s emphatically Catholic, even to the discomfiture of most of the characters. Jonathan Harker is appalled when an hysterical Romanian peasant woman pushes a rosary on him. Later, when he clings to the rosary in Castle Dracula, he remarks: “It is odd that a thing which I have been taught to regard with disfavour and as idolatrous should in a time of loneliness and trouble be of help. Is it that there is something in the essence of the thing itself, or that it is a medium, a tangible help, in conveying memories of sympathy and comfort?”

Even later, Harker and others squirm when Professor Van Helsing imports a consecrated host from Amsterdam (and mashes it into putty to seal the tomb of a vampire). The thoroughly Catholic tools necessary to combat the vampiric threat are not to be found in fin-de-siècle England, because they were cast out with so much other Popish rubbish over four centuries earlier.

It is precisely this sacramental preoccupation, possible only in the writings of a man like Stoker (that mixture of Irish superstition and humor along with an untroubled attitude toward Popery) and set in the context of post-Enlightenment Britain, that consecrates Dracula as a masterpiece. Were it merely a cleverly crafted book, or merely eccentric, or merely horrible, or merely adventurous, it would probably have enjoyed a great deal of success, its innumerable plot-holes and contradictions notwithstanding. But it would not resonate so vividly across cultures and hang like a dark shadow over every single vampiric attempt in film or fiction since. Sales of Dracula rose like a vampiric horde, spreading its bloody contagion across an unresisting world, so that millions of copies were sold by the end of the twentieth century, prompting some to compare the novel’s sales to those of the Holy Bible.

What can Catholicism offer to the glutted genre of vampire fiction? It is not merely a case of: “Hey, you’re using our stuff wrong!” or: “We can work in clever transubstantiation puns and you can’t!” Gothic fiction, which purports to deal with monsters and goblins and all things preternatural and terrifying, permits us to talk about those outrageous, outlandish, old-fashioned themes: Good and Evil; Salvation and Damnation; Life and Death; Sin and Redemption. Try to work those into your average domestic comedy without lapsing into irony, profanity, or preachy awkwardness!

‘In particular, the Gothic permits us to talk about “The Problem of Good”. The insanity of God’s mercy is what is inexpressible and baffling. “We preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block, and unto the Greeks foolishness” (1 Cor 1:23). This is a large part of what Catholic vampire fiction has to offer, and one of the strongest reasons why novelists such as Tim Powers (in several novels), Karen Ullo (Jennifer the Damned), Gabriel Blanchard (Death’s Dream Kingdom), J. B. Toner (Whisper Music), K. V. Turley & Fiorella de Maria (This Thing of Darkness), and your humble servant (A Bloody Habit and Brother Wolf) are playing around with fanged blood-drinkers (from a safe distance).

The supernatural, as the mysterious and unknown, demands what is, by definition, the impossible: explanation. If such behavior seems to stray into the realm of the high-fantastical, recall that Dracula, for one, is after all a story of blood-sucking fiends and heroic Englishmen, and that what is at stake is even more than mere life or death; what is at stake is the answer to a single, vital question: is a world where God Himself became man and died a horrific and bloody death for the salvation of souls a world that has been materially altered?

If so, Van Helsing’s frequent assurances that victory is in the offing (in spite of all the evidence) are not half as silly as they sometimes seen. If not, there can only be blood, blood and more blood, and with it desolation and despair—and from this God-less heritage, we will only find ourselves oppressed by the gloom of really bloody awful books. Is it “rubbish”? Perhaps so. But I defy any scoffing reader to attempt a chapter of Dracula or one of its Catholic progeny late at night. In the midst of a derisive chuckle, you will surely feel the skin at the back of your neck creep, and you will look about you for some mark of spiritual reassurance.

And, unlike most of the characters of most of the vampire novels there are in this overcluttered, overwrought, undead sub-genre, you will have the certainty of knowing that the weapons you use, oh you well-instructed Catholic peasant, actually have efficacy.


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About Eleanor Bourg Nicholson 2 Articles
Eleanor Bourg Nicholson, author of A Bloody Habit (Ignatius Press, 2018), The Letters of Magdalen Montague (Chrism Press, 2021), and Brother Wolf (Chrism Press, 2021), is a literature instructor for Homeschool Connections, a Dominican tertiary, and a homeschooling mother of five. Read more at her personal site: eleanorbourgnicholson.com.

5 Comments

  1. We see the blood lust of evil in Revelation 17:6 “I saw that the woman was drunk with the blood of God’s holy people, the blood of those who bore testimony to Jesus”

    Why is love always dipped in blood
    Toil anguish and pain
    Lifting up, setting free
    Here now and eternity

    Pure is love that’s dipped in blood (Our Saviours cup of suffering)
    Freeing the heart to see
    The love that dwells in you
    Also dwells in me.

    kevin your brother
    In Christ

  2. The prayers and the 24 Hour Passion meditations can add to the richness of the understanding of the role of The Precious Blood – besides the protection offered for the areas where such is done –

    https://www.ltdw.org/newsletter-subscription—publication-orders.html

    The rapid speed with which the blood circulates in our systems , conveying its mission and its urge to cleanse and heal , its capacity to bring forth Oneness by being easy to share , the constant hum / hymn of the blood flow in the womb , as an echo of the music in Womb of The Divine Will that formed us and susttains us reminding us of the maternal tenderness in the Heart of God – may ou trust and love for The Precious Blood be what free us from the effects and urges of the bestial spirits , their blood shedding rage and fear that can afflict hearts and nations .
    http://www.comingofthekingdom.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/14-Blood-of-Jesus.pdf

    Driving through neighborhoods that seem to glorify evil, esp. this time of the year – one can ask the holy Angels to help bring The Precious Blood to all around to help us to cherish and protect all that exists in the Beauty of the Goodness of God in our lives .

    https://bookofheaven.org/2014/07/02/jesus-offers-his-precious-blood-to-the-father/

  3. Interesting thoughts by the author. However, I would disagree entirely that this was all done in jest, or with an ‘enlightened’ eye by the writers concerned. The English ‘Gothic’ can be seen in it’s explicitly, propagandist anti-Catholic form (Anne Radcliffe, Matthew Lewis, etc.) There is a sadly long, strong ‘stream’ of this running throughout English literary history, the ‘haunted’ monastery-convent-great house. It became a way of ‘dealing with’ past and contemporary sins committed in the name of ‘reformation’ and empire, (the most cathartic is perhaps Burnett’s The Secret Garden). Austen both uses it and shows it as the convenient but empty excuse it is in her Northanger Abbey. It can still be seen in contemporary England, with it’s Tudor obsession, the History Channel (UK) is wall-to-wall Tudors (the national original sin?). Hilary Mantel knows her market too well. As with Brexit, so with Anglicanism. Fear of foreigners, the immigrant, the continentals, the pope, the monasteries. They talk funny, take our money, our cattle, our women. Outside, there be monsters! Unfortunately, this can be subtler nowadays, but is still all too real I’m aftaid. The works of vampiric fear interestingly all came out of Irish Anglicanism, Mauturin, LeFanu, Stoker, all the way up to William Hope Hodgson’s ‘The House on the Borderland’. This was a reaction to the campaign for Catholic emancipation in Ireland, successful by 1829-30. The emergence of the Oxford Movement undoubtedly fed into it also. This one is more fear of assimilation, Catholic culture as ‘sponge’. Hence the strong ‘lust’, ‘love-hate’ element in Dracula and LeFanu’s ‘Carmilla’. The same period in Ireland (famine years) witnessed an aggressive, evangelical, ‘second reformation’ accompanied by a short-lived but serious attempt to subsume the Catholic church in the British Isles into the ‘church-by-law-established’. The same period also saw the emergence of the Powerscourt Conferences, the Brethren movement, dispensationalism and the beginning of the obsession with ‘the rapture’. I can see many US Christians appear to be unaware of the context to so many errors in the contemporary English-speaking world. This was no joke, enlightened jaunt, etc., It was and is deadly serious and although weaker (thank God), as British imperial power finally diminishes, is still alive and kicking today. For more check out much of the current ‘narrative’ around Mantel’s ‘masterpieces’, Brexit, the stoking the passions of the ‘loyalist’ community in Northern Ireland against Irish Catholics, the reception a few weeks ago of Michael Nazir-Ali into the Catholic church, etc. Still plenty of ‘Gothic’ around! The Daily Mail, the Daily Express and the Daily Telegraph is where you will find much of it.

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