Science fiction tends both to illuminate and obscure many issues related to human nature and its relationship to the animals below it and the spiritual natures above it. Our science fiction literature and film are filled with creatures with supernatural qualities as well as hybrid human qualities, not all that different from the ancient myths’ depiction of a universe bursting with gods, demi-gods, and human-animal hybrid monsters. Early in the creation of modern science fiction, the vampire was created (or perhaps borrowed from medieval mythology), an immortal monster who preys on human blood and is possessed with the magnetism and predatorial instincts necessary to succeed both in the hunt and in disguising its reality. Since those early 19th century depictions of vampires, a steady evolution of what vampires “are” has occurred, to the point where some of the more recent vampire story arcs such as The Twilight Saga render the vampire heroic and attractive, leading to our question for today: why are we drawn to vampires?
Perhaps our first task is to identify what vampires are actually supposed to be, with the proviso that I am unaware of evidence for real vampires, so that all references to them here will be solely as fictional creatures. We learn the complexity of this question of what vampires really are when we consider how often in vampire stories, we are told that vampires “lack a soul,” that becoming a vampire “costs one his soul.” What is that supposed to mean and how does it illuminate our discussion? Well, we can take the loss of one’s soul in two senses, one metaphysical and the other ethical.
Mortal sin is possible solely based on one’s own choices, not the choices of another, and since the vampire causes vampirism in his unwilling victims by biting them, these people could not have ethically “lost their souls.”
The ethical is the easier of the two to understand, for we speak of fellow human beings losing their souls or trading their souls to the demonic as the ultimate ethical failure, in short, of irrevocable mortal sin. If becoming a vampire entails irrevocable mortal sin, i.e., damnation, then desiring vampirism would be pretty foolish. In the Twilight films this fear hovers powerfully in Edward’s resistance to Bella’s wish to become a vampire. How can he love her if fulfilling her deepest wish would damn her soul forever? However, since the beginning of human history, people have occasionally made deals with the demonic for very limited and short term meta-human powers that are traditionally understood to damn them. So, as strange as it seems, since we are apparently willing to trade our souls for far less than dark immortality, this aspect of vampirism illuminates a real and deeply irrational choice by some human beings. However, mortal sin is possible solely based on one’s own choices, not the choices of another, and since, in many vampire stories, the vampire causes vampirism in his unwilling victims by biting them, these people could not have ethically “lost their souls.”
The second way we could understand a vampire’s ethically “losing his soul” concerns not the being of the vampire but instead his conduct. In the Twilight interpretations of vampires, we see some of them struggling with their desire for human blood, knowing that killing human beings is still murder. In these stories the vampire faces a kind of Eden test of whether to kill human beings to drink their blood when less attractive animal blood is available. Similar to our first parents, when the vampire then “falls” by killing human beings, we often see him rationalizing his behavior with the same sorts of justifications that we human beings use to explain away our conduct. In one of the Twilight films Edward confesses to Bella just such a deep moral anxiety, that in his early years as a vampire, he rejected the no-human-blood teaching of his noble patron and chose to hunt human beings. But like the literary and television character Dexter, Edward embraced a moral code to only hunt human serial killers, people who presumably “had it coming” and whose deaths would actually save human life. He nevertheless carries significant guilt about this brief interlude. Though Bella points out the justice of his choice, it’s not clear whether Edward considers this a moral rationalization or a true justification for his killings. Either way, vampires’ resistance to the hunger to kill or the justifications they offer to allow it showcase our own human conflict with temptation, moral complexity, and post-sin moral rationalization.
The vampire depicted as consternated by his inherently evil and damned nature, but who nevertheless refuses to murder doesn’t make much sense. You cannot be evil if you won’t do evil.
But vampirism really becomes fascinating at the metaphysical level, where we ask the question, what are they? That’s the metaphysical side of “losing one’s soul” by becoming a vampire, so what can that mean? We can understand that concept in two distinct ways. On the one hand, one might metaphysically lose his soul in the sense of becoming a warped human being, so that vampirism is a deforming human disease. We see this version of vampires in their occasional depictions as zombie-like, blood-sucking creatures. But most depictions of vampires present them as knowing agents with choice, so that their vampirism robs them not of their reason but of something else. What that something else is presents us with a problem, because no creature can be damned by anything but his own choices; one cannot become evil merely by being bitten. Jesus made it very clear that no one is made unclean by what he takes into himself, but solely by what comes out of him, i.e., his intentions and deeds. Thus, the vampire depicted as consternated by his inherently evil and damned nature, but who nevertheless refuses to murder doesn’t make much sense. You cannot be evil if you won’t do evil. Intriguingly, this comes to be the solution embraced by Bella in her quest to join Edward as a vampire. Her heroic moral virtue depicted in her carrying her pregnancy to term in spite of its killing her carries over into her post-human, vampire life. When newly born as a vampire, she manages to resist the intense thirst for human blood, a choice depicted as moral duty over temptation. Thus, it seems that for self-conscious vampires (i.e., not the zombie versions), damnation depends not on what one is, but on what one chooses to do.
We shouldn’t be so quick to abandon what God made us to be, for only in being who and what we are will we ever find happiness.
So, that brings us to the other sense in which a person might metaphysically lose his soul, this time not in the sense of degrading one’s human soul through murder, but in the sense of replacing it with another one, by becoming a different kind of creature altogether. On this interpretation vampires are actually a different species from human beings, whether improved or not depends on the particular take of the story. Usually, becoming the vampire provides one with immortality and power, but comes at a serious human cost: the inability to have children, the loss of all of one’s mortal friendships to death, the inability to walk in sunlight, the inability to enjoy fundamental human activities such as eating, drinking, and sleeping, and the near constant craving to drink human blood. Notice, too, that the loss of human eating likewise seems to block vampires from the full body and blood experience of the Eucharist, though as a different species, their sacramental access to God could differ. Nevertheless, the blood lust for human murder speaks to a dark flipping of the sacramental order provided in Christ’s body and blood. In all of these vampire/human trait trade stories, the deep lesson is that attempting to transcend human nature to become something “better” whether by hybridizing one’s nature or by replacing one’s nature always leads to misery. It’s a lesson we often see in our superhero, x-man, cyborg or AI-enhanced human being, and genetically engineered super soldier stories. We shouldn’t be so quick to abandon what God made us to be, for only in being who and what we are will we ever find happiness, since happiness is species-specific.
In spite of all of the dark object lessons about vampires we have just seen, we nevertheless find a potent contemporary draw to the heroic vampire, to the vampire who chooses to use his power for the good of human beings rather than to kill them. This noble sort of vampire evokes strong associations with our warrior guardian angels, always vigilant in protecting our souls. The Twilight Saga depicts the Cullens’ clan leader as not only teaching his family to embrace “vegetarianism” (by drinking only animal blood) but by devoting his life to the medical arts, to saving human life wherever he can. Of course, the heroic in the vampire inevitably evokes the deeply romantic, where in Twilight, the story centers on the young Bella, who is so drawn by her attraction to the protective vampire male, Edward, that she wishes to become a vampire herself. But the writer also indicates to us that certain traits of Bella’s personality or, perhaps, even her nature render her antecedently fit or appropriate for vampire transformation—she blocks other vampires’ attempts to read her mind while still a human being—suggesting that her desire for vampirism is not merely the result of an intense crush. The Twilight Saga storyline engulfs us in all the human trait trade problems while intoxicating us with the romantic devotion of her love for Edward, an overly fragile love that cannot properly function while she remains human. When, finally, she is saved from her own self-sacrificial, heroic death by becoming a vampire herself, we watch an astonishing transformation take place within her, as immortality and incorruptibility surge through her shattered human body. Her senses heighten, her beauty reaches its peak, her physical powers multiply, and her energy and speed prove nearly limitless—qualities that attract all of us too. But why? Well, here I think we find the silver lining to the more recent vampire mythologies like Twilight, for what we see in Bella’s transformation is actually a depiction of the beginning and the end of human nature.
I say the beginning of human nature, because the immortal youth and undying love of Bella’s relationship to her vampire husband, Edward, bespeaks the Garden of Eden, points to what human nature was supposed to have been had we not fallen. Adam and Eve were made for boundless life, created such that their immortal souls would function to order their bodies to immortality. Youthful health and vitality would presumably have stretched on for eons had they not eaten the fruit. As Edward and Bella race through the woods hand in hand in the second part of Breaking Dawn, and then land intimately in front of the hearth in their little forest cottage, we are drawn to that Edenic vision, a portrait of beauty and blessedness in perfect natural harmony.
But I also say the end of human nature, not in the sense of its death or destruction, but in the Greek philosophical sense of its fulfillment and completeness. For what Bella undergoes in her physical transformation into a vampire looks an awful lot like what Jesus promised us as immortality and incorruptibility in the resurrection of the dead, only in true eternal life, where we go on forever with our family and friends in physical world after physical world of peace and harmony with all living creatures. Jesus called it a fountain of eternal life continually springing up within the human soul, spilling over into the body forever, a promise that, in this mortal world of sin and loss, benefits from its depiction in science fiction to remind us of what is most real: that when the King returns, all shall indeed be remade as most well, transforming us into immortally robust human beings, consumed forever with creativity, discovery, and love.