If you only know vampires, werewolves and zombies from modern fiction you won’t understand what I am about to say. If you haven’t read Dracula by Bram Stoker this essay won’t mean much. The origins of all the famous species of undead in fiction are shadowed in long forgotten myths. They come from a time in human history were good and evil meant something very different than what it does today. Primitive people saw reality created by two forces – the divine and evil. The phrase the Devil made me do it wasn’t just some cop-out excuse for shirking responsibility. People were either filled by the spirit of God or possessed by Satan. To modern believers, God or Devil, at best influence people. They bargain. Even the most ardent feel they have free will to choose. In the past that wasn’t always so.
As an atheist I don’t believe in the supernatural, but that doesn’t mean I don’t see it everywhere in people’s minds. In Bram Stoker’s Dracula, vampires were pure evil, to be avoided at all costs – even to the point of committing suicide. Whereas modern vampires are sex objects, and even the worse of them aren’t evil in the old sense. As society moves away from religious beliefs, it is transforming its ancient symbols and myths. This can be seen clearly by reading books about vampires in the 19th century, and then watching how the role of the vampire has changed through the 20th century and into the 21st.
A distinction we should make is between morality and ethics—the two main systems of determining right and wrong. Legal systems are a strange hybrid of the two. For most of history morality was defined by God and people were expect to follow his rules. That’s the original definition of morality As society became more secular people became philosophic, and right and wrong was hammered out with logic and rhetoric to eventually become ethics. Ethics is the system by which humans decide what is right and wrong. Many secular people still use the word morality, so it’s also being transformed. There are even scientists who seek to find moral origins in biology and animal behavior. But I’ll use morality in its original intent, as rules handed down by a divine being.
Vampires were immoral immortal creatures. They were agents of Satan, and represented the flow of evil forces permeating the world. Evil is seen as an absence of divine force, and its actions are in opposition to moral laws. Modern vampires have become secularized so they are no longer evil or agents of evil, but they can be unethical. We have also secularized the words good and evil. Good used to mean the divine, and evil the lack of God, or the force of Satan. Now good means many things, but it’s taken on a political correctness to mean what is socially acceptable. Bad and evil, mean something different too. Evil has taken on the connotation of something extremely bad, or extremely unethical. Hitler was evil. By the old definition of evil, that would have meant Hitler was an agent of Satan, working for the forces of evil. By modern standards he was a psychopath that killed millions of people through his own intent and not the Devil’s.
There are philosophical problems here. If God is all powerful, how can evil exist? Does God allow Satan his domain in reality, or does Satan have his own power that God can not touch? In Bram Stoker’s Dracula evil is darkness, without any goodness, that does have its own power. Characters in the story protect themselves from evil by embracing God. Thus the defensive power of the cross and holy water.
The undercurrent of Stoker’s Dracula is sex. His Victorian novel was not allowed to be explicit, but it was obvious enough. Evil conquers the virtuous through sex. In modern stories, sex is still the major theme, but it’s been converted. Sex is no longer evil, and neither is sex with a vampire.
Modern vampires can be good, and even seek to regain their souls, but this isn’t because divine forces won the war with the undead. As women were emancipated in the 20th century and gained both political and sexual freedom, they no longer needed the protection of males, and they escaped the prison of being the icons of virtue. Women writers refashioned vampires and the other undead minions for their own purposes. Women writers have decided the undead are hot, and they have cleaned them up ethically, and made them into objects of sexual desire. Stoker believed Victorian women should be protected from vampires. Modern writers have made vampires into the ultimate bad boys of desire, very fuck-worthy, and perfectly suited to become Mr. Right.
Strangely, most modern male readers and writers would prefer that vampires stay ethically bad or even evil so it’s socially acceptable to kill as many as possible with no guilt. We still like the Victorian attitude of the only good vampire is a staked vampire. Action fiction demands a bad guy to be killed, so the soulless undead make great targets for first person shooters. But even here, the undead have been secularized. They are no longer agents of Satan, but just plain vanilla bad guys. If the story was a morality tale it would require that the protagonists be moral, and the theme of the story would be morality, and that’s disappeared too.
Vampires were the first to become love objects, but slowly all the undead, even the gruesome looking zombie, are being transformed into protagonists of romantic interest. It appears the whole pantheon of the undead have become symbolic figures in stories of teenage angst over sex and violence. Any psychoanalysis of this fictional evolution would take book length studies requiring years of research. For instance, one aspect to explore is immortality. In the old days of God, immortality was conferred by the divine. I doubt many believe in real vampires, but they do reflect a desire for another path to long life. One where you keep your body and live a very long life on Earth. Earthly life has become a secular heaven.
These stories have been further secularized by writers coming up with pseudo-scientific reasons to explain the undead and their powers. But if we were a completely scientific society vampires, werewolves and zombies wouldn’t exist at all, even in fiction. As an atheist I have little interest in the undead other than to see them as literary symbols. It means as long as we have stories about the undead, then we have audiences and readers desiring aspects of the supernatural for some psychological reason or another. We like to think it’s all childlike fun for goose-bumpy making tales but I worry that they are a kind of Freudian desire for things we can’t have.
5 thoughts on “The Secularization of the Undead”
I don’t know why you have to bring Freud into it, Jim. 🙂 Even the oldest vampire tales were just told for fun, I suspect. Heck, horror stories are still popular today, with many people.
And when you say, “For most of history morality was defined by God and people were expect to follow his rules,” I think you just mean Christian history, don’t you? Other gods weren’t like that.
Sure, they were powerful, and you didn’t want to cross them. But so were human emperors and kings. The ancient Greek and Roman gods didn’t dictate morality, did they?
I don’t know for sure, but I’m wondering how much you’re just assuming that the specifics of Christianity are, and were, universal.
I assume all my readers know about the God of Genesis, and not the gods from the rest of the world. Also, Dracula comes out of the Western Christian tradition. I think the Greek and Roman gods did influence morality too, but not quite in the same way. Eastern religions are somewhere between ethics and morality. They believed in higher realms of nature, and the physical world is a lowly realm, sort of a school you might say that teaches about returning to the higher realms. They also explained evil differently.
Before I read Dracula all I knew about vampires were from the movies of the 1930s and the 1950s, which tended to be campy, and fun. But read Dracula, it’s a very impressive work of literature. I’m not sure if Stoker thought vampires real, but I do think he thought the evil he portrayed was very real.
Actually, since you and I are atheists, we have another view of divine power. It’s always seem to me that ruling humans, either tribal or monarchs, used religion as an inventive tool to impose order. It’s much easier to get people to follow the rules if you tell them God says so, and not that I say so.
fascinating. Stoker’s Dracula is coming up on my ‘to read’ list. Maybe I’ll come back and reflect on your post again after I read it.