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Icon of the month: Vampires

Simon Jones

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In a popular culture that sometimes seems to get more and more shallow, there's still one group of people taking the cross seriously. Vampire myths predate Christianity by thousands of years, but wherever you look the devils are believing and trembling. Twilight, Tru Blood and Being Human are just the latest in a long fascination.

The bloodsucking undead have always have been closely associated with religion. In Babylonia, China, Greece, and Egypt, as in the Christian versions, the person likely to become a vampire was someone who neglected good religious practice. A sloppy non-ritual burial, for example, might condemn a loved one to a damned existence after death. Suicides might lose their own soul. In ancient Egypt the Ka, a double placed next to a dead body, had to be bountifully supplied with food or it would escape the tomb, driven to eat whatever it could find. The ancient Chinese believed that humans had two souls, and that the P'o, the inferior one, might use any remaining part of an unburied body to become a vampire.

While ostensibly religious, these rules were ways in which necessary contemporary values were enforced, an unburied body being a serious health hazard as well as a symbol of lack of communal care.

With the arrival of Christianity then, vampires changed to challenge - and be challenged by - new rituals and ethics. You could fend off a monster with a crucifix or some holy water, and you would need to protect most carefully the purest - the virgins.

For Freudians the symbolism was obvious, society being most nervous about its secret desires. The vampire was unholy and demonic but also worryingly seductive and charming. A young body, preserved, agile, fit. He - always a he, then - would slip unnoticed into a young woman's bedroom. She would succumb with a sigh. The old priests were bug-eyed with fear and fury. And regret. After being taken, feminists noticed, the women became confident and strong.

The most graphic confrontation of the Christian narrative comes with the insatiable thirst for blood. There is power, power, wonder-working power, in the blood. In fact, the medieval church is said to have used beliefs about vampires to explain the Eucharist. Just as vampires drank their victims' blood and possessed and devoured their spirit, so Christians drank Christ's blood (which was given not taken) and had their souls replenished. For the vampire there was no redemption; even Hollywood would eventually recognise that the very act of drinking blood was a reminder to them that they were earthbound - the thrill becoming a torture.

As we become less enamoured of organised religion, this view of the vampire as tortured soul has been the most abiding. Humans, we are regularly reminded, can adopt a praiseworthy set of ethics that are not religiously defined. But vampires are stuck, more rational yet not free of holy impositions, and certainly not free of craving and self-loathing. For what they want to do they do not do, but what they hate they do do. Consequently, while once they were caricatures of unremitting evil, they have become moral creatures, with choices - a source of identification rather than contempt.

When Buffy the Vampire Slayer shows Angel, a goodie vampire, restricting himself to pigs' blood, what we see is a man who knows his old lifestyle is no good for him. When Tru Blood shows us a synthetic alternative drink manufactured in factories, we see science bump into old ways that just keep hanging around.

Surely it won't be long, then, before vampires shake off their ancient fears of the church and the crucifix. Audiences cannot continue to condemn a people that can hope to be good. As in history,  the future character of the vampire will tell us much about the society we are building.

But perhaps another reading. The demon always feared the hero with the cross, and always will. Is this because of the object's inherent power, or because of the faith with which it is wielded?