Sunday, 10 October 2010

Keeping up with the Grinses

I miss Leo quite a bit.  I remember clicking on The Cimmerian, eager to read his latest news from the world of Howardom, or Tolkienalia, or Dunsanya.  I've been reading his essays in The Cimmerian journal, and I'm really rather saddened that he hasn't been around for such a while.

Luckily, though, Leo hasn't completely skipped planets, as he can be found at Big Hollywood.  Leo never made the connection between his work at TC with his work at BH, and for good reason: Big Hollywood is a site for conservative movie lovers.  Given how powerfully divisive politics can be in America - as circumstantially portrayed at TC itself, where John J. Miller, a writer and Howard fan who just happened to be a proud conservative, had his books "one-star bombed" at for the simple reason that his politics are not the same as another group's politics - this was unquestionably a choice for the better.  I would've hated for TC to be the recipient of such childish, petty antics, regardless of what I think of an author's political stance.

But this blog isn't TC, and I since I'm not an American, my opinions on the American political spectrum hopefully won't attract too much attention.  Not that I'm going to comment on them, of course: this blog is a politics-free zone.  There are enough things to disagree about within the realms of fiction without hauling deeply-set fundamental beliefs into it.

Anyway, reading up on Big Hollywood has allowed me a way of keeping up with Leo, and reminding me that he hasn't stalked off into the wilderness to hunt and forage.  So I come to my latest linkage and thinkage, as Leo discusses something that had been bothering me for a while: the treatment of vampires and other supernatural horrors linked with Christianity in cinema and television in recent years.

The jist of Leo's article is that Hollywood is essentially trying to have their cake and eat it in regards to the relationship of evil spirits with Christianity: namely, that Christianity either never appears, or is fundamentally powerless in the face of darkness:

As demonic horrors wreaked havoc on the protagonists, no countervailing otherworldly power of Good manifested itself. Unlike 1973’s The Exorcist (which, given Hollywood’s current state, may as well have been made a thousand years ago), faith in God was rendered impotent at best and utterly delusional at worst. At the end of The Last Exorcism, as the last scintilla of hope is drowned in scenes of gruesome murder and bleak nihilism (painfully, almost plagiaristically, reminiscent of 1999’s The Blair Witch Project), the audience I was with let out a collective groan, and I heard multiple variations of “Oh, come on!”, “You’ve gotta be kidding me!”, and (my favorite) “Awwwww, man. . . we shoulda seen Takers!”
Mind you, these reactions came not from a church group or an audience of young Republicans, but from the very kind of young, diverse, urban, opening-night audience that Hollywood claims is its key demographic. Even they appeared to sense, and be artistically disappointed by, the essential cheat at work: modern Hollywood wants us to believe that supernatural forces of Darkness are frighteningly real, even while they dismiss all supernatural forces of Light as laughable superstition.

This encapsulates one of my own pet peeves, which Leo doesn't bring up, but is nonetheless relevant: Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  In Buffy, crucifixes burn vampires.  So does holy water.  Stakes through the heart work, almost instantaneously - much quicker than the likes of Stoker's Dracula, who needed a lot more than a jab in the ribs with a pointy stick after some martial arts fight scenes that every vampire seems to spontaneously develop in the hours between burial and vampiric birth.  And yet, throughout nearly the entirety of the series... there's nary a whisper of a priest helping the Scoobies out.  You'd think having a guy on hand who could make tap water into vampire napalm with a few gestures, and who is practically a one-man army against the pitifully fragile vampires to begin with, would've been handy.

The one priest that does appear is, quite tellingly, one of the most evil characters in the series.  Sure, he's supposed to be a "fallen priest," but given Joss Whedon's open atheism, the noticeable lack of Christian involvement in a series where Christian tokens are the most powerful weapons against the forces of evil, and the mere fact that one of the only sights of a dog-collar in Buffy is around the neck of a monster, it isn't hard to see the subtext.

Now, Buffy lore has tried to explain it away, that the power of "belief" is what imbues these tokens with their anti-vampire capabilities.  Which is a complete cop-out, in my opinion, and begs the question of why they don't apply this Faith in Action business with something more useful.  Like a gun.  Heck, why aren't the Scoobies inscribing crucifixes on bullets or bowie knives?  Why don't they have crucifixes strung all around their body? (Alright, this is turning into a Buffy rant, I'll desist.  I quite like Buffy, but some things just bother me about the show's mythology.)

Now, that's not to say I think vampires are inherently Christian: far from it.  Vampire-like beings have been around long before Christianity, after all.  Therefore, for a vampire that predates Christianity (and, arguably, one could say they might not be vampires as they are currently understood at all) to fear the cross is not necessary, unless one is also attempting to prove that Christian might conquers all, even against those demons that do not fear the cross.  However, the current iteration of vampire is largely a being tied to Christianity.  Most of the elements that are considered "traditional vampire lore" are very recent: sunlight being detrimental, stakes through the heart, all that jazz.  Unless you're going to go for a very specific pre-Christian creature, chances are your vampire will die in sunlight, or through a stake through the heart - and those are modern "Christian" Vampire elements.

Separating the vampire of popular culture from Christianity while still addressing its tenets has been done successfully in the past: I Am Legend is the best example I can think of, and that's because it essentially de-mythologized the vampire.  Since the vampires are no longer supernatural, there's no need to confirm or deny the presence of God therein.  There are other films which explain vampires in a scientific sense.  However, those films that suck - pardon the pun - are the ones that attempt to do both, to use the Christian elements against the vampire, but without the evidence of God to back them up.  Hence how you have nonsensical situations like a crucifix causing a vampire to recoil, or even burning the skin, even though the film or television series is trying to divorce itself from the Christianity itself.

Essentially, it's the appropriation of Christian anti-vampire measures without taking the context that bothers me - since without the context, the measures shouldn't work.  I just think that in works that rely on a certain theology, that work should be consistent with the theology, and where it isn't, the explanation should be reasonable.

In any case, I invite everyone to go and check out Leo's posts.  You may agree or disagree with his politics, or his religious views, or his general thoughts, but I'm not discussing them.  I don't really want this to become a forum about Christianity or the Church or how Obama's ruining/saving the world.  I just want to talk about fiction, mythology and history, and not discuss things that are too heavy for The Blog That Time Forgot.

Am I making sense?  I hope so.  Of course, this doesn't discuss Howard's treatment of vampires, which I'll do in another post.  In the meantime, I'm off to bed.  With my usual wreath of garlic.


  1. I think there's room for both the Christian and pre-Christian elements. Bram Stoker brought the Christian icons as weapons against Dracula. And in some ways Dracula was kind of an allegory of the anti-christ (this is just my opinion). Dracula takes lives to prolong his own, Christ gives up his life to grant others eternal life, Dracula seeks power over man, Christ has power but gives mankind freedom of choice..etc...

    But I do enjoy the more sci fi vampire genre as well. My favorite being the Blade series, based on Marvel comics vampire hunter. The first two movies were really well done, and Wesley Snipes was just so bad ass! He was kind of like Van Helsing mixed with Batman.

    Now the newer vampire movies, which I refer to as Emo Vampires are completely self indulgent. Like the Twilight series (I've only seen the first movie and felt like my body started to produce estrogen.), where there really is no downside to being a vampire. You're always young, good looking, you sparkle in the sun and you have supernatural powers. These are the kind of vampire films, books, T.V. shows I can't stand.

    Although I have been hooked on the True Blood shows (hangs head in shame).

  2. That has long been one of my bugaboos about recent vampire films and tv series. The Exorcist notwithstanding, you can't make Satan the villan of a story that asserts that there is no God. Vampires that are physiological in nature, or aliens or whatever, fine, but if they cringe away at the sight of a crucifix then athiest vampire hunters have very little chance of being anything more than lunch.

  3. I have a problem with crosses: there are EVERYWHERE. Is it too simple as a image to be a "symbol of power". Look around you. How many crosses can you count?? That is why accept that the faith is "needed" to use something like that as a weapon. Elsewhere, the fucking vampires COULDN'T walk.

  4. Put me down as another who dislikes the way that Christian trappings continue to be used in vampire mythology without any acknowledgment of the consequences of continuing to do so. That said, I suspect that, like most things in Hollywood, laziness and a lack of imagination are more likely explanations for this than perfidy. I mean, why should Hollywood make any greater effort to think through their vampire movies than their science fiction films?

  5. Christian imagery is familiar to the viewers, easy to co-opt, and can be employed in a lot of ways - wannabe-subversive juxtaposition, unearned gravity, neat set dressing, or lazy shorthand for a particular cluster of character traits. The studio system doesn't care a whit about consistency or coherence.

  6. Atom, I fairly like Blade myself, though they adhere to the Marvel universe's "belief is what makes the power" thing that bothers me. The creatures in Twilight are not vampires. True Blood is a very interesting show - though I had to laugh heartily at the opening episode, where a pro-Vampire pundit says that "no deaths in human history have been specifically linked to a vampire - unlike the Crusades, the Inquisition etc", which is simply ludicrous.

    M.D., spot on.

    Kike, well originally it wasn't just mere crosses, it was full crucifixes complete with Christ figurine. Crosses are a geometric shape that can be seen everywhere, as you say, but little figures of Jesus on a cross are not so common. That said, I think the proliferation of crucifixes is a good way of explaining why vampires haven't taken over the world: they're kept at bay with crucifixes. Vampires are stronger, faster and infinitely more dangerous than any man: there has to be something stopping them from taking over.

    James, I think that's pretty clearly the case. Laziness and nowt else.

    Scott, agreed.

  7. I don't mind non-Christian-based vampires at all, and I like sci-fi vampires when they're done well, but I am very weary of new vampire movies that always seem to have that cliche'd "forget everything you think the movies taught you about vampires" scene. The contradictory treatment of vampires on Buffy always irritated me, too.

    As far as I can tell, Leo is easily one of the best writers at Big Hollywood, if not the best. I always look forward to his Saturday posts.

  8. I've never really been bothered by any of this stuff..

    but then I've also never been a big fan of vampire stuff in general.. sure I enjoy the old Christopher Lee movies.. and Blade was alright.. but I really can't stand the buffy/trueblood/twihard/trampstampvamphunter of the month stuff..

  9. Taranaich: look at the Dracula movies (both Universal and Hammer). In most of them there is no christ attached to the cross.

  10. A sure way to skip all the Christian stuff would be to write a vampire tale set on another world or in a pre-Christian time. I mean, Conan ran into a Vampire in Hour of the Dragon. I'm having fun with Andy Remic's 'Clockwork Vampire' series right now. Steampunk bloodsuckers who drink a mixture of blood and oil. No Christian trappings there. Mainly I'd just like to see some non-glamorous vampires again. Take them back to Nosferatu. Ugly, smelly things with clumps of worm filled earth clinging to their rotting clothes like the thing in Stephen King's The Night Flier.

  11. Andy: that's essentially what I'm saying, really. If you're going to have non-Christian vampires, don't have clearly Christian symbols as effective weapons. Silver in True Blood works because it has quite famous alchemical properties, but if something like holy water was just as effective, then I'd cry foul. I hate the "forget everything you think you know" scene, too, so bloody awful.

    Lagomorph, I think I love you for that "trampstampvamphunter" remark. Out of all you mention, I only like True Blood and Buffy (though I was a teen when Buffy was on). I have no time for Twilight, not even to mock. I barely like even mentioning it on the blog.

    Kike: That's one of the things that bothered me about the old films, oddly enough. Perhaps the Protestant nature of the US subtly transmuted the crucifix as a weapon to the simple cross itself, but then, it just brings up the problem. That said, it would still explain why vampires haven't taken over the world: they can't go outside without running into a cross!

    Charles, that's a good point. I think it's very interesting that the three major "vampires" in REH (The Hour of the Dragon, "The Horror from the Mound," and "The Hills of the Dead") are very different from each other. It might be a future blog piece.

  12. "Mainly I'd just like to see some non-glamorous vampires again. Take them back to Nosferatu. Ugly, smelly things with clumps of worm filled earth clinging to their rotting clothes like the thing in Stephen King's The Night Flier."

    I agree. It occurs to me that no matter how vampires might put the whammy on their victims, at the end of the day they're still undead parasites. I just can't picture them as truly seductive because we're still talking about room temperature corpses (that may or may not have fangs). Those details are usually glossed over when people want to have their sexy vampires.

  13. The duality of sexuality and repulsion is one of the most potent aspects of Vampire mythology for me: the idea of a hideous, parasitical, rotting monster somehow having the power to seduce and allure is frightening indeed. That power is lost if the Vampire is genuinely attractive *dagger stare at Anne Rice.* At the very most, an Uncanny Valley approach - most beautifully portrayed, IMO, by Atla the Were-Woman (though she's obviously not a vampire) in "Worms of the Earth." That's what I feel female vampires should be like: attractive from a distance, but when you get close...

  14. do you see Moonlight? although the vampire stuff is boring for me, I prefer psycological horror, that show was great...
    Buffy has some interesting seasons but it isn't the great show people say, the sixth one specially, with the musical episode and the relations between characters and no plot or story anywhere is a pile of sh... stuff...
    by the way absolutely gorgeous Glory, Clare Kramer and specially Faith, Eliza Dushku, one of the most underrated young actress...