How Vampires Led Me to Paganism

How Vampires Led Me to Paganism March 2, 2014

I just finished reading Margot Adler’s Vampires Are Us: Understanding Our Love Affair with the Immortal Dark Side.  It’s essentially an annotated bibliography of vampire fiction with a 50 page essay by Adler in which she briefly explores some of the themes of vampire fiction: mortality, power, otherness, morality, and spirituality.  Adler’s fascination with vampires may seem strange to Pagans, but not me.  In fact, vampires led me to Paganism.

I’ve always been a fan of vampire fiction.  Of course, like most vampire fans, I have my preferences.  The vampires of my generation were not Bella Swan and Edward Cullen, but Anne Rice’s rock star vampire, Lestat, and Kiefer Sutherland’s character from the 1987 film, The Lost Boys.  These were the vampires of the 1980s.  As the Internet meme goes: “They were not emotional sissy boys.  They did not attend high school.  And they did … not … sparkle.”  The vampires of the 1980s were, above all, dark.  And that’s what I wanted to be in high school.  I even half-convinced my younger siblings that I was a vampire for a while.  My predilection for sleeping all day and my apparent aversion to sunlight made my claim all the more credible to them.

Of all the vampire fiction I’ve read, no one really compares to Anne Rice for me. Rice’s vampires are, ironically, a study in what it it means to be human.  They are both more and less human than us, and as such, they highlight what it means to be human.  Like us, Rice’s vampires live on death.  This aspect of our humanness is hidden from most of us by the modern food industry which insulates us from the realities of blood and death.  But we are just as dependent on death to live as vampires.  It’s just more visible in the case of vampires.  Rice’s vampires are also very sensual beings.  All of their senses are heightened.  And their  passions are exaggerated.  When they cry, they weep blood, both figuratively and literally.  All of the feelings that make us human, vampires feel even more intensely.  And this makes them seem, in a way, more alive.

One the other hand, Rice’s vampires are different from humans in that they cannot reproduce, at least not in the way that humans can.  Rice’s vampires are cut off from the cycle of life.  They cannot birth children.  They can turn other people into vampires, but this is not actually a form of creation.  Rather, it is like plucking a flower.  It retains the appearance of life and vitality (temporarily in the case of the flower), but it is no longer growing.  In fact, we eventually learn that the oldest of Rice’s vampires are like living statues.

Rice’s vampires cannot die, but there is a sense in which they no longer live either.  Many are frozen in the time in which they were transformed into vampires.  And this drives many of them to suicide, because they cannot connect to the present.  In fact, each of Rice’s vampire character’s represents a different strategy for coping with the sense of meaninglessness that is the curse of immortality: Louis tries to deny his nature and struggles to retain the semblance of his humanity, Gabrielle cuts herself off from humanity, Armand lapses into religious dogmatism, Nicki goes insane, Maharet lives vicariously through the descendants of the child she bore before she became a vampire, and even Lestat goes into a centuries-long coma.

Rice’s novels played an important role in my conversion to Paganism.  Reading The Witching Hour (the first of the Lives of the Mayfair Witches series) led me to the witchcraft section of the public library, which led me to discover contemporary Paganism.  And the first Pagan god I knew came to me with the name “Lasher”, the name of a spirit in The Witching Hour. But long before that, while I was still in high school, I read Rice’s The Tale of the Body Thief (1992) for a senior paper.  Body Thief is the fourth novel in her Vampire Chronicles.  (I can’t recommend reading past the fifth book, Memnoch the Devil.  There’s five more after that, which are not the same caliber.)  In undergraduate, I read the first three novels, Interview with the Vampire (1976), The Vampire Lestat (1985), and Queen of the Damned (1988), as well as Memnoch (1995).  Of course, I saw Neil Jordan’s 1994 film adaptation of the first novel — which I loved.  (I won’t admit to there even being a second movie.  It was that bad.)

Lestat and Claudia in Neil Jordan’s Interview With a Vampire

While I was in college, and still a Mormon, Rice’s characters planted the seeds of an idea that would later grow into my own form of Paganism.  In The Vampire Lestat, there is a scene where the main character, Lestat, and his mother, Gabrielle, both recently-made vampires are struggling with how to live with in their new state.  Gabrielle says: “There must be other ways [to live].”  Both Lestat and Gabrielle were struggling to find a sense of meaning in a world where both the fear of hell and the promise of heaven had been ripped away.  Lestat writes: “She had gone to the core. And the implications dazzled me. Always I’d felt that I couldn’t be a good human being and fight them [his family, the church]. To be good meant to be defeated by them. Unless of course I found a more interesting idea of goodness.”  I personally had felt that same sense of defeat — the defeat that comes with failing to live up to an externally imposed moral code, but also the defeat that comes with the success of any such endeavor, because to succeed in that endeavor is to kill some part of yourself, what Paul calls the “natural man” (1 Cor. 2:14).  (In the Book of Mormon, Latter-day Saints read: “The natural man is an enemy to God”.)  But Rice (through Lestat) suggests that there may be another way to live, “a more interesting idea of goodness”.  This phrase haunted me for years, until I was to find my own more interesting idea of goodness in Jungian Neo-Paganism.

For Rice, that more interesting idea of goodness is an aesthetic one. Lestat theorizes that there is no ultimate moral law, only an aesthetic law that he calls “the Savage Garden”: “Beauty, rhythm, symmetry, those are the only laws I’ve ever witnessed that seemed natural. And I’ve always called them the Savage Garden! Because they seemed ruthless and indifferent to suffering—to the beauty of the butterfly snared in the spiderweb! To the wildebeest lying on the veldt with its heart still beating as the lions come to lap at the wound in its throat.”  Later, I would come to recognize Rice’s “Savage Garden” as a form of the Pagan Goddess, a goddess who (as I know her) is not omni-benevolent, who in the words of Catherine Madsen “is not nice”, a goddess whom to Ahab declares in Moby Dick, “To neither love nor reverence wilt thou be kind; and e’en for hate thou canst but kill”, a goddess who is Change, for better or for worse.

But Rice’s characters taught me an even more important lesson, one which was to transform my relationship to life, to the earth, to my own body, and to other people, as well as my own sense of what it means to be “spiritual”.  While I was Mormon, I had a very transcendental sense of spirituality.  Spirit was separate from the body, separate from the earth, separate from other people. My ultimate goal was to escape all these things.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, the founder of the 19th century Transcendentalist movement, is one of my heroes.  His friend, Carlyle, once wrote to him about his fear that the Emerson’s spirituality was ungrounded:

“You seem to me to be in danger of dividing yourself from the fact of this present universe, in which alone, ugly as it is, can I find any anchorage, and soaring away after Ideas, Beliefs, Revelations, and such like, into perilous altitudes.  I wish you returned to your own poor century, its follies and maladies, its blind or half-blind, but gigantic toilings, its laughter and its fears, and trying to evolve in some measure the hidden godlike that lies in it.  Alas it is so easy to screw oneself up into higher and ever higher altitudes of transcendentalism and see nothing under one but the everlasting snows of Himalaya, the earth shrinking to a planet, and the indigo firmament sowing itself with daylight stars; easy for you, for me.  But whither does it lead?  I dread always to inanity and mere injuring of the lungs.”

His words could have applied with equal force to me.  In a way, I was striving for that statuesque spirituality that is represented by the immortality of the vampire.  Eventually, I came to appreciate that I was cutting myself off from everything that was life.  I was trapped in a solipsistic prison of my own mind.  Anne Rice’s passionate vampire characters gave me the key to the door that led out of that prison.  In Interview with a Vampire, Claudia advises Louis, “Let the flesh instruct the mind.”  And in The Queen of the Damned, Maharet warns: “In the flesh all wisdom begins. Beware the thing that has no flesh. Beware the gods, beware the idea …”.  But, this is not abandonment to our senses, as the titular character in Rice’s Pandora explains: “Have I said anything about abandon?” she asks. “To yield is not to abandon.  It is to honor.  I speak of a prudent life; I speak of the wisdom of listening to our bodies.  I speak of the ultimate intelligence of kindness, and enjoyment.”  Elsewhere in Queen of the Damned, Maharet explains, “It is not man who is the enemy of the human species. […] it is the spiritual when it is divorced from the material; from the lesson in one beating heart or one bleeding vein.”

I printed these words out on a piece of paper and hung the paper where I would see it.  I didn’t fully understand what this meant for several years, but I could feel its significance while it gestated in my psyche.  To honor the physical, to listen to body, to enjoy the senses: This was the ethic ultimately I was to discover in Paganism.  In The Vampire Lestat, Lestat’s mentor, Marius, calls him an “innocent”.  Lestat balks at this — after all, he is a vampire.  But Marius explains that by “innocence” he means “to lose the sense of sin and subordination, the false grief for things supposed to be lost” and “love of and respect for what is right before your eyes.”  I cannot think of a better Pagan motto.

Vampires Are Us is a feature in the Patheos Book Club! Click through for more roundtable responses from our Pagan bloggers, vampire video footage, praise from horror novelist Whitley Strieber, and more.

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  • david

    Rubbish…12 paragraphs of nothing ridiculous dribble. What a weak constitution of beliefs and reason. Anne Rice is a great author of FICTIONAL work. And the “pagan” beliefs you are comparing them to are late 19th century and early 20th century ramblings of Crowley who made them all up…..more works of fiction. I am not a Morman, but I think maybe you need to find a firm grasp of reality and maybe find a spiritual reference source other than vampire books and Golden Dawn crap………respectfully.

    • Just because a work is fictional doesn’t mean it doesn’t contain any wisdom. To me, the Bible is just pre-1st century ramblings of Jewish men, the majority of it fictional. But you won’t see me going around telling people their life’s philosophy is rubbish because, you see, I don’t own the truth. And either way, my truth is certainly not the same as everybody else’s. So I think a little humility and respect would do you – and everyone around you – worlds of good.

      • Starred

        Good point….in reality (or truth) the Savage Garden of life exists and it’s not necessarily beautiful or kind. The Bible could be explained as a brilliant work of fiction. Most faiths are about leaving the physical and its needs behind to become pure spirit…so we purge or lose the flesh to become something unseen….is this even possible? Or are the religious living in a fantasy world of their own?

        • david

          Most faiths ARE NOT about leaving the physical. They are very much grounded in the physical and how to conduct affairs in THIS WORLD. More dribble and nonsense. The “Savage Garden” is not a philosophy of life. It is an analogy. Did ANYONE go to college here?!?

          • jen

            Not everyone who attends college learns about faith, just as a reminder. And, I think faith is usually meant to be learned on perspective since there are multiple faiths and multiple books to read about faith and faith’s teachings. I’m sure that there are people out there who would say that ‘heaven’ has no basis in reality, since there is, in fact, no solid evidence that heaven exists. So, maybe instead of pointing out others’ fallacies, you should open your mind to other opinions. You’re definitely not nice… but you’re not right either.

          • Living The Wheel

            It’s “drivel”. Not dribble. If you’re dribbling, you might need a hanky. You were saying about college and the uneducated……?

            • You should have seen the some of the animosity directed at this post on Anne Rices FB page. Makes this guy look friendly. (There were some nice comments too.)

            • Living The Wheel

              Yeah, I saw some absolutely ridiculous comments over there, as well. Like the one about how we’re all “born on the path or not at all”. What a bunch of malarkey. It never ceases to amaze me how people in the “greater ‘P’agan hive” will pipe up with some ludicrous garbage so that they sound like they know everything there is to know about religion and paganism.

        • david

          Most faiths are NOT about leaving the physical. Most are very much grounded and invested in actions and behavior in the physical. Has ANYONE that commented ever been to college?!? The “Savage Garden” is not a philosophy for life, it is an analogy of a depressed character in a fictional book with NO BASIS IN REALITY.

          • Wow! I never cease to be amazed at which of my posts set some people off.

            • I think it is cute he made a Disqus account JUST to comment on this post.

      • david

        Comparing an Anne Rice book to the bible makes you just as ridiculous as the author of the article. While your argument may sound good on it’s face, it is in fact logically wrong. Here are the fallacies you are guilty of… 1. Straw man, 2. Definist fallacy, 3. Appeal to equality, 4. Red herring, 5. Affirming the consequent, & 6. Masked man fallacy. The truths of the ignorant and uneducated mean little to me….I may not be nice, but I am not wrong.

    • shilohmedia

      There’s one in every message board. Actually, there was nothing “respectful” about your comment. You mocked him and then dismissed his opinions and inspiration as “crap.” Your advice can then be reduced down to nothing more than to get a grip and see life as dully as you do. You are a sad, sad individual. Do you think because these boards are anonymous they are a place to take out your inner frustrations with your own life on people who are happily enjoying theirs? Mom always taught me, if you don’t have anything good to say, don’t say it.

      • david


        • Congrats david! You are banned from this site. Trolls are not tolerated and neither is this kind of abusive language.

  • MeganIsHere

    This article is a great example of how fiction is more than story. Fiction can provide puzzles for the mind, and paths for thought to explore. I had an experience of which the skeleton was similar to your’s; I read Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” books, which introduced to me the idea of creating the Republic of Heaven, a society of kindness, and acceptance of the present, without “sin,” here, where we are.

    What David fails to understand is that this article is not a commendation of Anne Rice as a theologian, nor an admission of her vampire stories as the foundation for belief. It’s quite clear you’re saying neither of those things, but that you’re describing how her ideas gave you fertilizer for your own development of meaning and spirituality. That’s a beautiful thing, and one to which readers throughout the many centuries can relate.

    • >”…Her ideas gave you fertilizer for your own development of meaning and spirituality.”

      Exactly, thanks!

  • shilohmedia

    Totally enjoyed your insights. Don’t think I would land as far as you did, but I love your thoughtfulness, especially in the battle you faced escaping a religious structure so bent on crushing critical thinking. Bravo. I will need to reread these and maybe explore more of what you are saying. I have always sensed a great connection to these characters for many of the same reasons you are pointing out. They are amazing gifts to the world. We are so lucky for Anne’s creativity and thoughtfulness.

  • So what was Alder’s ultimate take on vampires then?

    • She didn’t really settle on one take, but touched on several briefly. It was a disappointing read to be honest. Nina Auerback’s *Our Vampires, Ourselves” probably does a better job of what Adler was trying to do here.

  • Paige A Snyder

    Finally someone lays out the words that I myself have been struggling to find. Anne’s work also led me down a similar path. The work of art that is literature always amazes me, how a fictional tale can plant seeds in our brains that grow into insights we never thought ourselves capable of. Very elegant article.

    • Someone needs to write a book about the influence of fiction on Neo-Paganism, including Heinlein’s *Stranger*, Tolkien’s *Lord of the Rings*, etc.

  • Courtney

    Wow, I really want to read Rice’s work now… thanks! I had never really been interested in them because vampires just never really set off a spark in me… I bet you could write a comparison of the themes in Rice’s books vs. the Twilight novels written by the Mormon Stephanie Meyer 😛 But then you’d have to read Twilight…

    Anyway, there was a time in my life where I fell into a spell of thinking sort of like that troll down the way, although I didn’t want to admit it to myself. Despite growing up immersed in stories and getting my greatest joy from pure imagination, I didn’t think fiction could ultimately change lives. I think this is a result of being a liberal arts major at a university known for science/engineering and kind of being subliminally and overtly bullied into thinking what I liked and did would never really make a difference in the world.

    The story that changed my life and resurrected the power of narrative for me was a play, actually: Arcadia by Tom Stoppard. I highly recommend it – I was in it, and for a couple months the world was transformed for me. It deserves to be seen but also to be read because it’s hard to catch everything in it and really think about it from just one viewing. It’s a beautifully composed mix of macroscopic and personal human problems and triumphs and despair and hope. I’ll just say that it got me to think about the tragic, beautiful process that is our entire species; each person contributing the fruits of their own desires and passion, much of their work being lost and yet slowly, staggeringly, with a few steps backward and a few more forward, we make progress and come to understand each other and our universe a bit better over time. It even sowed the seeds for the process-thought and a stubborn devotion to free will that I’ve been into lately.

    “Comparing what we’re looking for misses the point. It’s wanting to know that makes us matter. Otherwise we’re going out the way we came in. That’s why you can’t believe in the afterlife, Valentine. Believe in the after, by all means, but not the life. Believe in God, the soul, the spirit, the infinite, believe in angels if you like, but not in the great celestial get-together for an exchange of views. If the answers are in the back of the book I can wait, but what a drag. Better to struggle on knowing that failure is final.”

    (Although I’m happy to say I had the first line in the play: “Septimus! What is… carnal embrace?”)

    • Asil Utom

      There is no comparing Meyer and Rice…I believe a lot of Meyer’s ideas came from Rice…her Vampire series is awesome… there are writers and then there are writers..

      • Courtney

        Ha! I’m sure. It was mainly a joke. Unfortunately, though, most people my age grew up since middle school or so, equating vampires with the particular sparkly kind that one either loves or loves to hate.

        I’ve never read the Twilight series myself, but from what I’ve read about them, some of the relationships therein are anything but healthy. It might actually be genuinely interesting for John to try to pick up on the Mormon influence- but then. Like I said, he’d have to read a book where vampires turn into disco balls in the sun.

    • Thanks Courtney, I will have to check out Arcadia, especially since I so love *Rosencrantz and Guildenstern*.

      • Courtney

        I’d love to discuss it with you when you do!

  • Northern_Light_27

    This is such a good post and such a good demonstration of the fertile ground fiction is for the mind and the spirit. For me, Anne Rice’s vampires were the Twilight of their time, and the “not emotional sissy-boys” meme cracks me up since Louis is absolutely the genesis of the now-archetypal self-hating, brooding vampire who can’t get out of his own head long enough to see and engage with the world around him. I’ve always found it hard to sympathize with characters who have an immortality version of affluenza– if he’d actually used his power to help people in need, I think a fair few of them would happily tap a vein in gratitude and defend their benevolent “monster”. But I’ve oft heard it said that vampire stories are our culture’s way of expressing our envies and fears of the super-rich, and that’s pretty much how I read “Diary”. So it’s interesting to come from that view of her work and read the rich tapestry of ideas and inspirations you got from it, I think it’s fascinating how different people can get such completely different things out of the same stories.

    This, though, is disturbing to me: “Rice’s vampires are cut off from the cycle of life. They cannot birth
    children. They can turn other people into vampires, but this is not
    actually a form of creation. Rather, it is like plucking a flower. It
    retains the appearance of life and vitality (temporarily in the case of
    the flower), but it is no longer growing.”

    As someone who chose not to have kids, and someone with infertile family members, this is a really frustrating thing to read. You’re not cut off from the cycle of life if you don’t personally reproduce. (I’d think not aging would be equally significant, really.) Reproduction is not the only creative thing in the universe. And if these vampires are no longer growing, that’s a choice. They could be more involved in the cycle of life than anyone, being able to have such a long view. They could be the keepers of lore for their families, teaching each generation about the triumphs and struggles of the one that went before. Guardian of the worldview of a culture, making sure that what is built in one era survives into the next. I’m sure it would be dreadful to lose each person that they love, but what an opportunity to see a long view that nobody in real life sees– the way the people the vampire knows now recall the shades of their ancestors, the way the dead are ever with us in ways we are incapable of seeing, being short-lived and in the moment. Could the vampire become the custodian of a family, a city, a people? Trying to find the balance between letting people make mistakes so they learn, but not make mistakes such a long view knows as catastrophic in a way that our short views cannot see? Memory is immortality, where is the story of the vampire as the keeper of memories? I live in a city whose governance cannot seem to learn from its own history, and keeps making the same failures and the same foolish mistakes over and over again. I’d love if we had our own personal vampire to say “hey, you tried that in the (decade). Here’s what happened. I knew this man, named John, and here’s what happened to him and to his whole family when that policy happened. This is Joe, his great-grandchild, and here’s how his family is still suffering. Don’t do this again, instead, this is what this neighborhood actually needs.” So perhaps in what you see in Rice’s vampires and what I wish I could read in a vampire story share a common desire to re-engage with the world around us.

    • >”You’re not cut off from the cycle of life if you don’t personally reproduce. …”

      Excellent point. That needed to be said. I was speaking from Rice’s perspective, especially in *Diary* which is so strongly influenced by the death of her own daughter. I think she came around to the perspective you describe in her later books.

      >” Could the vampire become the custodian of a family, a city, a people? …”

      Yes! That’s exactly what Maharet does in *Queen*.

  • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

    I haven’t read any of Rice’s vampire books (I read Exit to Eden once, though…on which I have more to say, but another time!), but so many of my friends had, that they were telling me in the early 90s that I must be a Vampire like in them. And, I’ve heard that at other times, too…I was becoming much more Pagan in those days, though, so perhaps that’s what they were seeing…but, since you’ve met me briefly, you can make your own determinations on the question of my Vampiricity. 😉 I do hope to read Margot’s book as well soon…

  • Funny thing (to me anyway): I also sometimes think vampires led me in this direction, but the path was totally different. I wasn’t particularly into vampire tales or movies, but in the early aughts I became fascinated with the vampyre subculture — not as a participant but merely as an onlooker from the sidelines. I was surprised by the existence of psychic vampyre cults with developed religious philosophy. (I wonder if Adler treats any of this in her book?) In some ways this “research interest” seemed to lead to an awareness of contemporary Paganism.

  • Living The Wheel

    Like you, I also wandered into the occult section, but in a bookstore, after reading The Witching Hour. It remains one of my favorite books, today. I’ve always been attracted to the darker side of life, I think that’s also part of why I sought out paganism and created a life based on it. Some other things contributed, as well, so I can’t say it was the sole reason. It was still a part.

    Excellent post!

    • I prefer her vampire novels personally, but just in terms of sheer writing skill, I think Witching Hour is her best novel. The way she weaves together the generations, amazing!