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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