[Please Note: This paper was presented at the AAR’s Southeast Regional Commission for the Study of Religion (SECSOR) yearly conference in Atlanta this past weekend, as part of a panel on “Zombies and Zombie Apocalypses.” Over the next week, additional papers from this same panel presented by Kate Dailey-Baley, Joseph Laycock, and Gregory Reece, will likewise be featured on the Bulletin]
While it is, perhaps, somewhat unorthodox to talk about vampires at a panel dedicated to the study of zombies and zombie apocalypses, the hope of this paper is that, by examining some of the deliciously complicated ways in which popular images and narratives associated with the vampire are appropriated and deployed in religious and other contexts, we might perceive, at least a bit more clearly than we did previously, some important cultural dynamics at play, and that such insights might enable yet further analytical conjuring with respect to other modes of social production, religious and otherwise.
I would, however, like to pause for a moment to consider briefly the zombie/vampire relationship. Ultimately, they might be plausibly construed as ontological and discursive cousins, linked by family resemblances amidst important differences. Both the zombie and the vampire, for instance, come to be as a result of something not unlike a virus, which “raises” subjects from the dead, though to quite varied expressions of consciousness, agency, and community. Both dine upon the living, though in ways suggestive of rather distinct culinary preferences. Both have been associated with churches, though so-called “zombie churches” exist, at least thus far, solely within the polemical worlds of some especially devout Christians (that is, as spiritually lifeless churches other folks attend), whereas websites such as vampire church.com and vampire temple.com offer actual online communities for would-be congregants.
Both the vampire and the zombie have also been aggressively commodified, with zombies standing in for products such as Toshiba computers, Polaroid cameras, and Doritos chips, and vampires representing for Sonic restaurants, Miller beer, Ray Ban sunglasses, and Mazda sports cars. With respect to other commodities, however, vampiric identities have been deployed in yet more interesting ways. Vampire Vineyards in Napa Valley, CA., for example, presents itself as a lair of clandestine vampire activity. “Rumor has it,” their website tells us,
that the Vampire Vineyards are actually owned by a circle of vampires and our company’s founder, Michael Machat, an entertainment attorney from New York, is actually just a front. Whether he and his convertible were commandeered by a Vampire is still a subject for debate. The truth may never be known, but we do know however that Michael first began talking about branding wine with the vampire mark back in 1985 after picking up a mysterious hitch-hiker on a late night drive through the pitch black Nevada desert…. Shortly thereafter our first modern-day Vampire Wine product was introduced….
If Vampire Vineyards positions itself as a product made by vampires, True Blood, The Beverage, a “uniquely carbonated, slightly tart, lightly sweet blood orange drink, with “all flavor, [and] no bite,” first made available as a supplement to season three of the HBO series, True Blood, suggests a product made for vampires. This shift in advertisements and products, from miscellaneous consumer goods endorsed by patently faux vampires, to goods specifically marketed by and/or to would-be vampires, represents an interesting development, one to which this paper returns in its concluding section. Presently, though, I would like to say a bit more about the two online vampiric communities mentioned above, some of the ways in which so-called vampiric spirituality overflows these communities, and the interpretive frames we might employ in making sense of them.
Vampire Church.com presents itself as a “free and open meeting place [and] research organization” dedicated to bio-vampirism. Bio-vampirism is here understood as a heritable condition in which afflicted persons require life-force energy drawn from external sources in order to sustain their own life and well being. The sources from which particular bio-vampires are able to draw the energies that sustain them determines the kind of bio-vampire one is: psi vampires consume the mental energies of other people; empathic vampires feed upon emotional energies; sanguine vampires draw energy from blood; and elemental vampires from powerful manifestations of nature such as thunderstorms. Interestingly, bio-vampires of all kinds seem to draw sustenance from potent expressions of human sexuality. That said, Vampire Church prohibits the taking of life-force from unwilling donors in most instances. For registered members of this community, a wealth of informational essays and a monthly VC magazine are available, as well as opportunities for interacting with other self-identified bio-vampires and non-vampires willing to give of their personal energies.
Whereas Vampire Church somewhat paradoxically distances itself from notions of religious affiliation, Vampire Temple.com self-identifies as “the only authentic international organization in the world that represents the true Vampire religion.” For a membership beginning at only $75 for the first 90 days, Vampire Temple offers a variety of teachings and social resources: a “Dayside path” of exoteric spirituality aimed at “practical” teachings, such as improved interpersonal communication, increased self-acceptance, better finances, physical health, and even life extension up to and including physical immortality; a “Nightside path” of esoteric spirituality said to open up profound realms of paranormal experience; access to the authoritative Vampire Bible and Revelations; and opportunities for face-to-face mentoring and social engagement with the worldwide vampire community. Also unlike Vampire Church, which rejects all “romantic” Hollywood portrayals of vampires, Vampire Temple rejects only “those aspects of the Vampire mythos that are negative, including any that are anti-life, anti-social, deathist, crude, gory, self-defeating, or criminal.”
Although (as Joseph Laycock points out in his excellent book, Vampires Today: The Truth About Modern Vampires) formal religions capture only a tiny fraction of the larger community of self-identified vampires, Vampire Church and Vampire Temple by no means exhaust the scope of vampiric spirituality. We might also consider the diffuse and emergent quasi-tradition of “Cullenism,” based upon the Twilight character Edward Cullen and his vampire family, other online communities such as the Vampyrian Temple, and a range of self-help and social networking resources such as books like Practical Vampyrism for Modern Vampires, other websites such as The Real Vampire Directory.org, and discussion boards like “Vampire Forum of Darkness.”
Over the past decade, scholars of contemporary American religion and culture have offered a number of interpretive frames that might be fruitfully deployed in analyzing such modes of religious production. The many fine essays in Eric Mazur and Kate McCarthy’s edited volume, God in the Details (2001), argue that religious symbols and patterns are ubiquitous within American popular culture, from southern barbeques to football fandom to popular music. Other scholars, most notably Gary Laderman and David Chidester, argue not that popular culture contains religious elements per se, but that an enormous range of social practices are capable of functioning religiously under certain conditions and for certain communities. This applies, Chidester contends, even with respect to intentionally absurdist movements such as Discordianism (dedicated to Eris, god of chaos, and offering self-refuting creeds such as “we Discordians stick apart”), as well as “invented religions” like Jediism, derived from George Lucas’ imaginary Star Wars universe.
In her recent book, Invented Religions: Imagination, Fiction, and Faith, sociologist Carole M. Cusack makes a detailed study of these, and other movements (such as the Church of All Worlds, Church of the SubGenius, Matrixism, and the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster) that have been self-consciously crafted from the fabric of popular culture. Whereas new religious movements typically lay claim to ancient origins and endeavor to avoid charges of fabrication, Cusack’s “invented religions” do not. In fact, despite explicit acknowledgment of having been crafted wholesale from the goods of popular culture, these movements flourish in a variety of social environments. In working to explain why, Cusack points to a complex cluster of inter-related factors that have come to shape the process of identity formation. Given our location in a highly individualistic consumer culture in which vivid, compelling, imaginative narratives are readily available by way of entertainment and communication industries and networks, the ongoing construction of personal identities is increasingly accomplished by the selective consumption of such resources. Put somewhat differently, Cusack tells us, invented religions strike people as compelling because they “promote interesting explanatory narratives that replicate the conditions of traditional religious forms” from which everyone picks and choose in assembling our personal and collective identities. (25)
I certainly have no intention of debunking Cusack’s approach, nor, for that matter, any of the approaches alluded to above. Each might show us things that we did not see previously, and as a methodological pluralist I would happily trade the tension between competing interpretive lenses for multiple and divergent studies of a given social phenomena, forcing us to understand the same thing as plausibly construed in quite different ways. Still, I would like to suggest a modest contribution to such theorizing by way of a personal story.
Back in the summer of 2000, when my step-sons where just 13 years old, I took them to the science fiction and fantasy convention known as Dragon-Con (here in Atlanta). More than anything, we were all three of us fascinated by those who dressed up as figures from one fantasy or sci-fi narrative or another: Jedis, wizards, devils, angels, fairies, Klingons, Vulcans, elves, orcs, Imperial Storm Troopers, Sith Lords, and so on. In three days of wandering around the Atlanta Hilton and Hyatt conference rooms and ballrooms noting the beauty, detail, and the considerable expense invested in these costumes, I began to talk to costume wearers about their motivations for engaging in this practice. While people had different reasons for so doing (e.g., that their friends were doing it, that it seemed like fun, that it offered a chance to meet new people, etc.), one common theme had to do with the desire to actively participate in the larger narratives that costumes suggested, whether Star Wars, Star Trek, Lord of the Rings, or what have you. Casting the body in the form of a beloved image or narrative, offered, in the context of a fantasy convention, a socially acceptable means of drawing as close as may be to that image or narrative.
I find it likely that similar dynamics are at play among the vampire appropriations discussed above. The advertisements for Vampire Vineyards and the True Blood beverage announce a shift away from vampires merely recommending random products, and toward merchandise specifically marketed to those who wish to participate in the contemporary vampire motif, if only by drinking True Blood while True Blood. Membership in online vampire churches and temples likewise allows for the construction and public presentation of a vampire-identity – that is, active participation that is recognized, authenticated, and reinforced by a community of like-minded folk.
Ultimately, emphasizing the proactive dimension of participation in (as opposed to merely the reception of) compelling and beloved images and narratives from popular culture may help us to better understand the ways in which the construction of contemporary religious identities, like the crafting of Dragon-Con costumes, expresses variable degrees of creativity and appropriation. It might also help us to better understand the plethora of other self-consciously “invented religions” that continue to be forged from popular resources, such as Battlestar Galactica (e.g., Church of St. Gaius Baltar, Church of the Cylon God), Star Trek (Klingons for Jesus, and Klingons for Christ, Klingons for Christ/Jesus), other Star Wars religions (e.g., Sithism), The Big Lebowski (Dudeism), and of course Fight Club (e.g., Christian cage fighting at so-called fight club churches). Such phenomena are worthy of scholarly analysis not because any are likely to emerge as dominant religious traditions, but because of the larger set of social processes to which they point. Indeed, we may be approaching a point at which virtually every compelling expression of popular culture and entertainment comes to function religiously, perhaps even presented as a religious tradition, by and for, someone.