The Problem of Evil in Spooky Stories

This is a reprint of a column first published here in 2010. I am reprinting it now, just in case I ever talk Castalia House into publishing another volume of my nonfiction articles.


“It is the eve of St. George’s Day. Do you not know that tonight, when the clock strikes midnight, all the evil things in the world will have full sway?”

With these words, an old Romanian peasant woman to Jonathan Harker in Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula (1897) gives him a crucifix.

I did not know what to do,” Harker writes, “for, as an English Churchman, I have been taught to regard such things as in some measure idolatrous, and yet it seemed so ungracious to refuse an old lady meaning so well and in such a state of mind.”

But later, terrified and alone in Count Dracula’s Transylvanian castle, he is grateful:

Bless that good, good woman who hung the crucifix round my neck! For it is a comfort and a strength to me whenever I touch it. It is odd that a thing which I have been taught to regard with disfavour and as idolatrous should in a time of loneliness and trouble be of help. Is it that there is something in the essence of the thing itself, or that it is a medium, a tangible help, in conveying memories of sympathy and comfort? Some time, if it may be, I must examine this matter and try to make up my mind about it. In the meantime I must find out all I can about Count Dracula. . . .

As Leo Grin comments: Over a century later, Stephenie Meyer managed to write four bestselling books concerning vampires (later translated into a quartet of popular movies) without the word crucifix appearing even a single time in her hundreds of thousands of words.

Vampires without crucifixes. Ponder the sense of that.

Fan that I am BUFFY and ANGEL and of much of Joss Whedon’s work, I have always been disappointed and offended at how weak, silly, inept or arbitrary the supernatural Powers of Light have been portrayed in the seasons I watched. (A confession: I gave up watching BUFFY when Spike became Buffy’s BFF. At that point, I realized that Mr. Whedon was just interested in jerking my chain, and no longer interested in telling me a witty, gripping and entertaining tale of vampire-slaying derring-do.)

I seem to recall that when Cordelia went to Heaven, she was simply bored by it, and wanted out. On the other hand, when Buffy returned from Heaven, she could not revert to normal life, because Earth seemed like Hell compared to that enervating bliss. So here in the same show are two opposing views of the Power that opposes Hell, demons and vampirism, and in the first case, it is as bad as anything Achilles in Hades laments, and in the second, it is no better than what the Buddha seeks.

The Council of Watchers in BUFFY (which I am secretly convinced is one and the same as the Council of Watchers in HIGHLANDER, and is probably run by Methos and Vandal Savage together) is the nominal good guys, but they are portrayed as ruthless, bureaucratic, and unworthy of anyone’s trust or loyalty.

In a similar vein, the angels or angelic hosts as portrayed in other spooky stories, such as the SANDMAN by Neil Gaiman, or the Alan Moore run on SWAMP THING, or even the angel in SPAWN (who is, of all absurd things, a bounty-hunter) are portrayed as being about as admirable as the Watchers of BUFFY: namely, either indifferent or harmful to human affairs, and not someone you can turn to for help, and certainly someone you would never turn to in prayer.

(I might also mention Phillip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy has the same type of evil or unappealing portrayal of Heaven, but that was deliberately written as an anti-Narnia and ant-Christian diatribe, so any similarities between these stories and his are not to their credit. Whether deliberately or not, these other tales reflect the same world-view, not unchristian, but antichristian.)

In none of the stories I just mentioned, even stories where the image of Our Lord in His suffering nailed to a cross is what drives back vampires, is any mentioned made of the Christ. Is is always an Old Testament sort of God ruling Heaven, or no one at all is in charge.

So why in Heaven’s name is Heaven always so bland, unappealing, or evil in these spooky stories?

I can see the logic of the artistic decisions behind these choices, honestly, I can. If I were writing these series, I would have (had only I been gifted enough to do it) done the same and for the same reason.

It is the same question that George Orwell criticized in his review of THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH by CS Lewis. In the Manchester Evening News, 16 August 1945, Orwell writes that the evil scientists in the NICE [the National Institute of Coordinated Experiments, who are the Black Hats of the yarn] are actually evil magicians of a modern, materialist bent, in communion with ‘evil spirits.’ Orwell comments:

Mr. Lewis appears to believe in the existence of such spirits, and of benevolent ones as well. He is entitled to his beliefs, but they weaken his story, not only because they offend the average reader’s sense of probability but because in effect they decide the issue in advance. [emphasis mine] When one is told that God and the Devil are in conflict one always knows which side is going to win. The whole drama of the struggle against evil lies in the fact that one does not have supernatural aid.

I myself happen to think Mr. Orwell’s criticism is utter rubbish.

Is Milton’s PARADISE LOST lacking in drama because one know which side is going to win? What about the story of the Passion of the Christ in any of its versions, including the child’s fairytale version as told in THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE? Or what about any and every version of Dracula? While there may be modern versions where vampires are driven away by leather-clad vampiresses in shiny coats shooting explosive bullets while doing wire-fu backflips, in the older versions of the tale, it was the crucifix that drove off the evil spirits. Merely having God Almighty on your side does not remove the element of doubt nor the element of drama.

Firearms instead of Crucifix?

Having said that, I must hasten to admit that Mr. Orwell has a point.

If the drama centers around the struggle between the White Hats and the Black Hats, and our team has God Almighty or a magical lion as its quarterback, the game is a done deal, and there is no drama.

In each of the examples above, including THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH, however, the drama centers around not whether the White Hats will smear the Black Hats, but around whether the main character (Adam & Eve in the case of Milton, Mark & Jane Studdock in the case of Lewis) will end up on the winning team or will be pulled by temptation over to the Dark Side and over the edge of the abyss. (And I do not mean any wimpy, namby-pampy pseudo-Taoist Dark Side produced by a galactic energy field of midochloridians: I mean the wretched and magnificent Prince of the Fallen Angels.)

Well, you may have also wondered why in a Disney movie the main character lives alone with her foolish and incompetent Dad, or her shy and retiring Mom, with the other parent always dead. The reason is that if Mom were around or Dad were sane, there would be no discussion of Jasmine marrying Jaffar, and certainly none of this sneaking around in disguise in the market place hobnobbing with street rats. Likewise, Professor Caractacus Potts is not inventing Chitty-chitty-bang-bang and taking his two adorable moppets up in a rickety and wheezy and untested flying motor car without helmets nor parachutes if Mom is around. (n.b: At least in the movie version. In the book, to his credit, the Crack Potts inventor did not know the car could fly until the car told him so).

Likewise here: if the Virgin Mary, Queen of Angels is on stage as a character, not in disguise, the vampires and the devils do not stand much of a chance. If Mom is around, she does not want you getting in the silly mess that makes up the main action.

This has nothing to do with religion: In addition to keeping Mom from solving the mess, you also, dear writer, have to make up a reason why the hero does not simply call the police, the FBI, the NSA, the NASA, the Bureau of Unexplained Phenomena, James Randi, or the special Vatican SWAT Team of rocket-Deacons and Opus Dei Assassins to take out the nest of vampires hiding in the haunted museum. If you want your hero to solve the problem on his lonesome, he is not allowed to call Heaven or to call the cops.

There are many ways to write a vampire story, and, at this point, I think nearly all of them have been done, and, if you will pardon the expression, done to death.

Joss Whedon’s original idea, which was brilliant, was merely to take the innocent blond cheerleader who takes a shortcut through the graveyard and is usually the first victim of the vampire, and make her the heroine and the scourge and nemesis of vampires. It is a feminist sort of idea, based on a desire not to portray women as victims. Or something.

This makes the story something of an action comedy with horror overtones, but it is not really a horror story any longer, at least in that respect, because now the rabbit is able to hunt and kill the wolf.

Firepower beats the Powers of Darkness!

You can do a vampire story as a thriller or a detective story, where the drama is finding the monster, and the actual flourishing of the crucifix and spraying the vamps with a supersoaker filled with Holy Water is as routine as shooting a mad dog.

But if you want to have your hero, or, better yet, your svelte and leather-clad yet Navy SEAL-trained Ninja heroine, to go a dozen rounds with the bad guy in Chapter Five and have the Boss Battle in Chapter Twenty, fighting fist to fist, knife to knife and kusarigama to batarang in a knock-down drag-out donnybrook atop a burning skyscraper beneath the tornado formed by two colliding supersonic hurricanes during a volcano-triggering super-earthquake caused by the two halves of the shattered moon descending from their orbit toward the Earth, well, then by Jove, you cannot have your plucky yet sensuous heroine merely hold up a folding yardstick in the shape of a cross and make Lord Dracula the Impaler scream and vanish.

Having the moon break a second time from tidal stress of passing Roche’s Limit to form a second crack, visible from the Earth, at right angles to the first, so that the whole lunar surface looks like a Celtic cross, with the miraculously reignited molten core of the moon filling the two trenches to form a burning cross in the heavens, now that would be Way Cool.

(Yes, I know the core of the Moon has no lava core, but I am on a roll, here. What?! You will give me vampires but you won’t give me a volcanic Moon?)

But just having the plucky yet sensuous leather-clad super-Nun hold her katana and wakizashi at right angles—well, heck, Sally Fields the Flying Nun could manage to do that with a spoon and a salad fork without even donning any leather microskirt or taking any badass ninjette wire-fu training at the Cursed Springs of Jusenkyo at all, or at least very little, so what would be the point?

What? A Nun with no Uzi? What is This?

Ergo Orwell is right if you writing an actioner. Either the crucifix has to not work, or your main character has to be disqualified from using one, or you have to ignore the modern conventions of story-telling (which include, for better or worse, the trope that girls who look like lingerie models are better hand-to-hand fighters than guys built like linebackers).

This is not some hidden and sinister conspiracy against Christianity. Well, actually, it is, but there is also a story-teller’s logic behind it.

In a story in a Christian background, the crucifix and Holy Water drives back or destroys vampires, and Protestants and Jews are merely out of luck, unless the Protestant is Solomon Kane, Puritan Adventurer, or the Jew is Rabbi Leow of Prague or Ben Grimm of the Fantastic Four, in which case, the vamps are just spit outta luck, because not only does Solomon Kane have that strange jackal-headed stave granted him by an African wizard, the Rabbi has a golem and it’s clobberin’ time.

Solomon Kane, Puritan Adventurer

Why, in these modern vampire stories, does the Crucifix not drive back the vampire? There are two answers, one of which I have already mentioned: you have to have the Crucifix be weak, or powered by faith, or something the heroine (because she is a vampire herself) cannot use, or else the fight scene is over before the skyscraper even catches on fire.

The other answer is that the modern audience is mildly (or deeply) offended by the suggestion that one Church might have super-powers that the others lack.

Look, it is merely a historical fact that since Maryland was colonized by Catholics, who brought nine barrels of Holy Water over the Atlantic from Rome, Seven Stars and Seven Stone and One White Tree (that can still be seen in Annapolis) whereas Massachusetts Bay was colonized by Puritans, who smashed out all the stained glass widows aboard the Mayflower, and removed the Holy Rood Screen, so that Massachusetts was therefore helpless before the devils summoned up by desperate Red Indian Medicine Men: to this day, Massachusetts has had a much more severe Vampire infestation problem than Maryland, not to mention the Deep Ones at Innsmouth, Witches in Salem, the Horror at Dunwich and the Joker incarcerated at Arkham.

By a very ancient and significant law, to this day the flagstaff of any flag in Maryland flying the state banner is required to bear aloft the sign of the Bottony Cross. Coincidence? There were no reports of vampire attacks in the state of Maryland this year, except near the Beltway, of course, but that is under the jurisdiction of the Great God Dagon, Lord of the Dark Waters and the Lower Chesapeake, who is sacred to the creatures and Congressmen dwelling in the District of Columbia.

But these historical facts, all of which I made up just now, annoy the modern and politically correct members of the vampire-loving pro-undead audience. Maybe in the old days, a Heathen or a Cathar could have read a vampire story without blenching at the sight of a cross, but these days to put a cross in a vampire tale would be interpreted as a studied insult against the Non-Christian segment of the book-buying public. The modern audience, or many of them, want all religions to be equal, and to be portrayed in movies and books as having the an equal degree power against the Bad Things. (And if the story is written by an Englishman, the story also has to star Margaret Thatcher as a demon-queen.)

So if, in real life, the Seal of Solomon is the only thing that drives back the Jinn, the Crucifix the only thing that drives back the Vampire, only an Elder Star-Stone wards off Nyarlathotep, and the Egyptian Ankh in the hand of Isis the only thing that destroys the Mummy, then to portray real life would be really inconvenient and some religions would simply feel left out.

Just to be safe, one would have to carry around one of those stupid COEXIST bumper stickers, supposing in case you don’t know which one drives off the Chupacabra.

Er.. Which One Stops a Frankenstein Monster?

I don’t know which sign you hold up to ward off the Archangel Michael, but I assume an upside-down star with an inscribed goat head would do the trick. I mean, if all religious emblems are as equal as they are for D&D clerics, it should work, right?

But the better solution, story-telling-wise, if you are writing an action story, is merely to have any symbol of any kind drive off Vampires, and have all these symbols more or less interchangeable, while making sure that only the Egyptian Book of Thoth can unmake the Mummy and Raise the Dead.

(Note to self: If I am ever plunged by accident into the World as Described by Movies, I am for sure switching to the only religion that is consistently and blatantly portrayed as being able to carry out its promises of an afterlife in spades, and that is Egyptian Paganism. All the other religions, even Voodoo, seems not always to function as designed in universes run by movie-logic. Well, either Ra-worship or Leprechauns.)

On the other hand, if you are writing a story where you are trying to spook your reader out, set the tale in a universe where only Crucifixes drive back vampires, and, just to make it extra spooky, have the creaking old Romanian peasant grammy (or worse yet, Irish) be dead right about everything. NOTHING freaks people out quicker than the idea that the Catholics might be, you know, right about anything. (You cannot have them right about everything, of course, because (a) then it is not fiction and (b) rioting Leftwing zealots will burn down the theater in the name of Toleration, which is their name for the Great God Dagon, see above.)

Now, at this point you may be thinking, dear reader, “Wow. Kate Beckensdale playing a sexy vampiress sure looks sexually attractive to me when she wears shiny skintight black leather. But I also like Milla Jovovich playing a sexy vampiress in skintight red leather.” In which case you are the perfect audience for modern vampire stories, and you occupy the same sub-basement-level of popular culture as I do.

Vampiress is the Good Guy. Bad Guy is Big Pharma. Typical Modern flick.

But just in case you, dear reader, are a female, a male homosexual, or someone above the mental age of fifteen, you might be thinking, “Is there really a sinister and hidden conspiracy against Christianity?” Or you may be thinking, “If I am a female or a homosexual, or above fifteen years of mental age, why in the hell am I reading anything written in John C. Wright’s journal! He is the Epitome of Evil!”

The answer to both questions is, of course, no, no, of course not! And by “of course not” of course I mean “yes.” That is, I am not the Epitome of Evil, but merely the Assistant or Vice Epitome of Evil manning the ‘Evil’ desk until the Epitome comes back from vacation. Also, hate to break it to you, there is a sinister conspiracy against Christianity, but it is not hidden in any way, shape or form, but is brazen, open, and shameless.

One element in the conspiracy is to abolish the sexual distinctions which nature, or nature’s God (take your pick) established in human nature. In the name of equality, the masculine impulse to protect women and children is allegedly unmasked as a sinister impulse for male dominion and oppression: so busty cheerleaders and/or busty bad girls in tight Goth leather are now the vampire slayers and monster hunters, and boys are the comedy relief sidekicks, or even more annoying than we are in real life.

Myself, being an unrepentant Viva-la-Différance type of fellow, I do not see the immediate advantage to the cause of female equality once movies where ‘eye-candy’ actresses portray scream queens and fainting yet chaste damsels in distress menaced by Mummies and Swamp Things have been swept aside and replaced with movies where ‘eye-candy’ actresses portray Amazonian babes frolicking and fornicating with vampires and werewolves. The guys in the audience are still going to such flicks to oogle the chicks who have va-voom, and the only difference being the woman are no longer presented as needing and wanting no help in life, so the guy can no doubt go back to his flat where he lives with his unwed live-in girlfriend and not do the dishes or the yardwork.

In the same vein, I am not sure what message it send to thirteen-year-olds to normalize or romanticize necrophilia and bestiality and sexual congress with Unclean Spirits of the Dark (well, maybe the movie vampire boys are not that bad. Angel and Edward are clearly Unclean Spirits of the Dim).

But I do notice that the same people who complain that Barbie dolls damage girls by imposing an unrealistic body image on them seem not to complain about the realism of the body image of bodies able to hurl long-fanged vampire-demons through a plate glass window, twenty yards across the street, and into a conveniently untended gasoline tanker truck filled with nitro. Not to mention able to run in high heels.

You see, the conspiracy does not really care about whether women are treated as non-person sex dolls or not—or, if it does care, the conspiracy wants to degrade women as much as possible, particularly the most sacred aspect of womanhood, which is maternity, gets degraded–what the conspiracy wants to do at the moment is uproot the masculine sense of chivalry, because this contains two things Hell cannot tolerate at all: a sense of humility and a sense of sacredness. Chivalrous men think femininity is sacred, even if the individual woman is neither fair nor a damsel. Once you take chivalry out of the picture, all that is left is the pagan worship of power.

And power-worship is what is behind portraying leggy blond nymphs as world-saving monster hunters: the idea is to make the women seem more powerful than previous tales portrayed them. But it is not feminine power, it is masculine: brute strength, force, directness, domination, aggressiveness, competitiveness, all those qualities routinely condemned in men and routinely bred out of modern boys.

Power-worship is what is behind making the vampires be the boyfriend instead of the enemy: the modern idea of a vampire is not a thin and bald cadaver with pointed ears and rabbit teeth, but a buff dude with brooding eyes who looks good with his shirt off, has killer abs, a mocking smile, and can throw a normal man out the plate glass window window, twenty yards across the street, and into a conveniently untended gasoline tanker truck filled with nitro.

Old Fashioned Vampire

New Fangled Vampire. I know which one I want MY daughter to date!

Another and more important element in the conspiracy is to make sure that Crucifixes do not actually drive back vampires in stories, or (what amounts to the same thing) any symbol of any faith, including the toy plastic lightsaber of the Jedi religion (now recognized as legal in Great Britain!), will be equally effective in evil spirit repellification department.

To add insult to injury, you writers who are cooperating with the Conspiracy, should make sure to make it so that the symbol does not draw on any real power or real authority outside of the personal self-affirming self-hood of the badass leather-skirt clad heroine, so that is it is HER faith, and not the power of Gaea or Isis (or whatever) who is abolishing the bad spirits.

That makes it nicely All About You, and nothing bigger or better than You need ever come on stage: none of the things honest nature-worshipers actually worship, the sublime things showing the frightening grandeur of nature and the littleness of man; Wind and Welkin, Oak and Ash and Sacred Fire, or the Never-Setting Stars that shine on the Land of the Young beyond the Western Seas where no man goes.

No, have your heroine use her pagan ‘faith symbol’ of some safely nondescript New Age description, without venturing too near into the waters of real paganism, which are deeper than you know, and have strange under-currents sometimes leading pagans to other and richer and truer faiths. It would truly be awkward in a story if your heroine was blasting vampires with her mistletoe of Freyr or somesuch, and Brunhilde the Valkyrie showed up to kill her and make her an Einheinjahr-ess or Shield-maiden in the Last Battle, so that she could die at the side of Odin, father of gods and men, when Fenrir eats him alive, and tramples the golden roof of Valhalla to ruin: those old fashioned notions of dying while defending the ashes of your fathers and the altars of your gods do not have much emotional sway over the “You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby!” generation.

A survey of the modern vampire literature and movies is dispiriting. We have not returned to the level of the pagans: we should be so lucky. We are far below it. Even the idol worshipers were not so idolatrous as to worship themselves.