Laughing at the Devil: The Not-So-Cool Vampire as Theological Boon

What’s the deal with all the vampires?

One thing that makes them interesting is that, unlike the also-popular zombie, far from being the frequent subject of shock-horror fare, this monster comes with a certain amount of class. In Twilight and True Blood, for example, vampires can be evil, sure, but they are also cool, well-dressed, well-mannered, technologically savvy. They’re incredibly desirable. Drinking blood is cast as an unfortunate, yet strangely empowering, side-effect, the necessary baggage of everlasting life, but able to be overlooked if the vampire is sexy and polite.

If you have seen the Twilight series (admit it), think of the scene in the first part of the final movie, in which Bella, pregnant with her vampire baby, moans in pleasure as she tastes blood for the first time, slurping it through a straw from a styrofoam to-go cup. Yes, the movies are disturbing with what they have to say about sexual desire, but that simple movement of vampiric desire for blood has always stuck with me. Blood from a styrofoam cup: that’s some seriously disturbing stuff.

And I think “seriously” is part of the problem.

What We Do in the Shadows, a recent mockumentary by the makers of Flight of the Conchords, chronicles the daily lives of four vampire flatmates living in modern-day New Zealand. Part of its brilliance is in its stripping both the romance and the seriousness from the modern-day vampire to build an intelligent spoof, while not shying away from the real horror of what a vampire actually is.

So vampires can levitate? Put them on the ceiling vacuuming cobwebs. So they live for hundreds of years? Have one of the youngest marry a ninety-year-old and then admit a little embarrassment at his “robbing the cradle.” Have one of the flatmates look exactly like Nosferatu, and then have him cause tension by never cleaning the skeletons from his bedroom floor or coming to flat meetings. Recast their human lackeys as harried personal assistants; and then, have those same lackeys come upon the aftermath of a dinner date with a bucket and a sponge, and let it be so really, truly disgusting, so shockingly bloody (properly shocking, as blood is), that it can’t quite remain entirely funny.

This combination of disturbing and funny is what makes this movie work as a truthful enterprise. While you’re laughing (when you’re able to laugh), you’re also hearing: Vampires are not cool: they’re actually pretty selfish and gross.

Another thing that makes this movie worth seeing is that, unlike “cooler” vampire fare which omits any reference to religion (and it’s odd that it can get away with this), What We Do in the Shadows directly addresses Christianity. In fact, it’s part of the shtick. In one scene, one of the younger vampire roommates accidentally glances at a crucifix while he’s in the middle of a sentence and gags comically while his friends rush to cover it. Part of the reason this interface with Christianity is funny is because it’s true: the only bleeding human body a vampire cannot bear is the body of Jesus. A creature-turned-evil can only revel, only “live,” in an attempted inverse of what Jesus has done. In another instance, a vampire wears a nun costume to a party and no one there thinks it’s funny. Another flatmate, who’s considering the danger of human friends, shivers in horror at the thought of not only uneatable humans, but Christians possibly hanging out on their sofas eating chips. In this vampire crowd, Christians are the only thing too deadly serious to joke about.

Jermaine Clement’s and Taika Waititi’s mockumentary ends up making a real sermon out of itself (though I admit, you have to dig for it. But who doesn’t enjoy the fun?). In typical everyday life, unless we take extremely seriously–and frequently–the worship of the Church in its central celebration, blood doesn’t really “happen,” and we wouldn’t believe anything mystical about it if it did. But What We Do in the Shadows shows better than any vampire flick made this decade that this older world that vampires come from, of magic and lust and horror, already takes Christian worship and its power for granted–takes Christ’s power for granted–whether the world around it is made up of pretty nice relativists or not. The vampire has a story at all because the Church exists: the folklore’s central and twisted figure can only be predicated on the existence of something as beautiful, terrible, and life-giving as Christ’s bloody Eucharist. The world from which vampires emerge into our own knows the rules—that it must have human viscera to live—and so it easily mesmerizes and overwhelms a world in which Christian gospel and worship makes almost no sense, a world in which we can even ask the question, “But why blood?”

And yet, if we’d completely forgotten why, we wouldn’t be interested in what vampires are up to on a Saturday night in contemporary New Zealand. We wouldn’t fill a styrofoam cup with blood, telling Bella to take, drink, and be saved. The Gospel spills over and covers a world in frank cahoots with evil, and that world is still ours. What We Do in the Shadows reminds us, if nothing else, to laugh at what is not true, and to wonder why vampires are so particularly allergic to chalice-grade silver.

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2 Comments

  • Jonathan Lett says:

    Amber, this is a fabulous article!

    You’ve made me realize that vampires are the *true* parasites. At the literal level, they feed on human blood. At the narratival level, their intelligibility derives from the gospel logic of Christ’s blood. At the metaphysical level, vampire ‘magic’ draws its power from an ‘enchanted’ world, one in which the Eucharistic blood of Christ can penetrate a porous world and self, slaying evil, sin, and the demonic.

    Anyways, you’ve made me ponder the parasitic nature of vampire mythology the past few days. I’ll never watch a vampire movie (Twilight, I admit it!) without wondering about the world of salvation that today’s vampire world simultaneously assumes and conceals. So thanks!

    • Amber Noel says:

      Yes! Thanks, Jonathan. And good to hear from you. : )

      If I can get people to think about salvation while watching vampire movies– what else can a theologian hope for?

      Peace,

      Amber

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