September 09, 2011 | Andrew Steiner
“People seem to think I was born loving vampires,” said English professor Jennifer Williams. Yet it was only when she came to Calvin in 2005 that Williams became seriously interested in the vampire mythos.
At the University of California-Irvine where Williams earned her doctorate, she read Hegel with her friends on Friday nights and mused on theological questions with J. Hillis Miller and Jacques Derrida. Her dissertation addressed the influence of religion in modernist thought.
It was while Williams was teaching Bram Stoker’s Dracula in one of her first courses at Calvin that a student in her class told her about a list of the top 70 vampire movies of all time and challenged her to watch them.
“I think I have 30 left,” Williams said, “and I’m getting down to, you know, Fright Night 2.”
Williams’ new interest coincided with a vampire renaissance in pop culture. By mid-2010, Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight novels had sold more than 100 million copies worldwide with two movie adaptations in pre-production. Williams initially resisted reading the series, but as the first movie came out, students began to seek her opinion on them. “I wanted to be able to say something substantive about it, not just, ‘Oh, those books look dumb,’” she said.
This summer, Williams was still working on her response, a critical essay for an anthology commemorating the centenary of Stoker’s death: Open Graves, Open Minds: Vampires and the Undead in Modern Culture. The essay, “A Vampire Heaven: The Economies of Salvation in Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Twilight,” contrasts the way salvation operates in the classic and contemporary works. The vampires of the 21st century tell a different story than their 19th century forebears, she argues.
In Stoker’s novel, Williams said, to become a vampire is to be alienated from God: “Christ’s death on the cross no longer works because you drank the wrong blood …. You’ve attained eternal life, but it’s the wrong kind.” Williams views Stoker’s vampires, with their thirst for blood and the horrifying attraction they inspire in their victims, as potent metaphors for spiritual struggle. “It reminds me of Paul,” Williams reflected: “‘For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want.’”
Meyer’s Twilight Saga, Williams contrasted, is populated with “hyperbolically good” vampires who have created a kind of heaven on earth through their righteous works. The novel’s protagonist, Bella, is weak, clumsy and incapable of making a difference in the world; her self-sacrificial impulses pale beside the superheroics of her vampire boyfriend Edward.
“There’s no discourse in the book to say that … to be human is actually not something to throw away,” Williams said.
When Bella finally becomes a vampire in the last book of the saga, she gains everything—immortality, love, community, wealth—without having to part with very much. “There’s no cost to her at all. It just feels like everything is cheaply bought,” Williams said.
The allure of vampires for contemporary readers and viewers is that they suggest an alternative road into heaven, Williams explained, one that bypasses the cross: “The temptation is to find eternal life apart from Christ. We need not humble ourselves or confess our sins. I think there is something about being human that hates to be reminded that we are fallen and sinful.”
Professor Susan Felch is consistently impressed by Williams’ liveliness of mind: “She’s able to take ideas from popular culture and take ideas from quite sophisticated, complicated theory and stretch that to British modernism or the Victorians and see lines of connection and adroitly tie them together.”
The duty of the Christian scholar, Felch said, is to be able to recognize the worth of a piece regardless of the social place it occupies. “You have to recognize that Shakespeare was popular culture in his day,” Felch explained. “Shakespeare was kind of the Steven Spielberg of his day. This whole high culture/low culture, it’s kind of an artificial distinction.”
Williams’ interest in folklore and popular culture is part of a long-standing tradition in Calvin’s English department, Felch said: Charlotte Otten, professor of English emerita, studied lycanthropy; Don Hettinga, Gary Schmidt and Nancy Hull have published scholarly and creative work on fairy tales; Roy Anker teaches film classes whose titles range from Kieslowski’s Blue to Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
Williams will teach her second interim class on vampires this January. Her class will discuss the creature’s mythic roots in the conflict between Europe and the Ottoman Empire, explore the 18th- and 19th-century reports of real-world vampire epidemics and plunge into the canon of vampire literature, including, “of course,” Stoker’s novel:
“Dracula is just a really great novel,” Williams said. “It stands up really well. It’s spooky, and it’s scary, and it’s such a fabulous look at what British subjects at the turn of the 20th century were concerned about.”
Open Graves, Open Minds will be published by Manchester University Press in 2012.
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