When Vampire Novels Get It Wrong–Part III

by Jimmy Akin

in Fiction

After writing my previous post on the transfusion issues in Dracula, I ran into another factual problem with the novel. This time it isn’t medical; it’s religious.

Someone had told me about it years ago. In fact, though I was an Evangelical at the time, a friend of mine who was reading the book asked me about it to see if it squared with my understanding of Catholic belief and practice, because it sounded wrong to him.

My friend was right: It was wrong.

Or at least it would be in the real world.

Here’s the issue: Y’know how Dracula is vulnerable to crucifixes? Crucifixes are symbols of Jesus. So if he’s vulnerable to those, he ought to be vulnerable to Jesus himself. (And who isn’t?)

Now, in the novel as in the real world, Jesus isn’t available to descend from the heavens with a shout to rescue the heroes.

But he is present in the Eucharist.

And so Van Helsing (a Dutch doctor who is the leader of those arrayed against Dracula) uses the Host to ward off vampires. Specifically, he uses it in five ways:

  1. He (and others) hold up pieces of the Host in order to ward off vampires–just like they otherwise do with crucifixes (only the Host is more effective since it is more sacred as it isn’t just a symbol of Jesus).
  2. He places pieces of the Host in vampires’ coffins to keep the vampires from being able to take refuge in them.
  3. To help a woman who Dracula has been praying on, he touches a piece of the Host to the forehead, but since she is already infected with latent vampirism it burns a scar on her forehead (this was not Van Helsing’s intent, and the scar disappears when Dracula is killed, signalling that she is free).
  4. A couple of times he draws a circle on the ground, passes the Host over it, and then places fine crumbles from the Host in the circle so that vampires cannot enter or leave the circle.
  5. He takes a whitish material that is described as being like dough or putty and, after putting crumbles from a Host in it, he uses it to line the cracks of a tomb so that a vampire can’t slip into or out of the tomb through the cracks.

To any well-formed Catholic from the real world, this kind of use of the Host is profoundly offensive to pious sensibilities.

In the novel, all of this is done with great reverence, and the novel makes it very clear that Van Helsing considers the Host to be the most sacred thing there is in the whole world. He also tries to avoid using the Host in this way if he can, not wanting to expost it to the presence of evil unnecessarily.

And he explains that what he is doing is okay because he has "an indulgence."

My friend wanted to know if that sounded right to me concerning Catholic belief and practice.

Even as an Evangelical, it didn’t.

The subject is a little ambiguous, though, because what Stoker means by all this isn’t clear. For example, Van Helsing’s remark that he has an indulgence is ambigous.

Stoker may be calling to mind the common misunderstanding that an indulgence is a license to do something sinful (it’s not). If that is what he means then the novel portrays Van Helsing’s use of the Host as something that is sinful in and of itself, but it’s "okay" because Van Helsing is a Catholic and has a hoojoo way of being forgiven in advance through his indulgence.

If that’s what Stoker means then this element of the novel is based on a misunderstanding of Catholic theology, because indulgences do not give one a license to sins. Sins are always sins and cannot be forgiven in advance, only when the person repents of having done them.

On the other hand, Stoker may have meant (and badly phrased) the idea that Van Helsing has an indult allowing him to use the Host in this manner. In other words, he’s received special permission from a competent ecclesiastical authority authorizing him to do this.

If that’s what Stoker meant then the question of how the Host is used in the novel becomes more complex.

In our world, you certainly would never get an indult allowing you to use a Host in this manner. Canon law has no provisions for anything like this. But then vampires aren’t real in the real world, and so in a world where vampires are real canon law may have taken note of this fact and allowed for procedures to deal with this threat.

In fact, in such a world the Church might even have vampire extirpators who are equivalent to exorcists in our world, and Van Helsing may be such an individual.

Supposing such to be the case, what are we to make of Van Helsing’s use of the Host?

Vampire literature has already established the use of sacred things (crucifixes, holy water, rosaries) to ward off or injure vampires and if these lesser holy things do so then it would be expected that the Host would be all the more effective–in fact, the most effective thing possible. (One wonders that vampires don’t burst into flame the moment that a Host is held up to them.)

Where the revulsion comes in is the idea of exposing something so holy to something so evil. It feels like profanation.

But then . . . God allowed the devil to have access to heaven for a sigificant amount of time (see, e.g., the beginning of Job). And Jesus allowed himself to suffer for our sake on the Cross, which was certainly a profanation.

In the Host he can’t even be hurt by the presence of a vampire, nor can his heavenly beatitude be disturbed. So, intrinsically speaking, he suffers no injury.

That is true, though, of any situation in which the Eucharist is profaned, yet profanation is still morally impermissible.

The reason would not seem to be that profanation injures Jesus (it can’t) but that it involves a disrespecting ON OUR PART of the holiness of God.

We can handle the Eucharist in ways that God permits (e.g., receiving holy Communion, reserving it in the tabernacle, carrying it in Eucharistic processions) but not in ways that God does not permit. As long as we are handling the Eucharist in a way that God permits, no profanation is committed.

So in a world where vampires are real, would God allow the Eucharist to be used to ward them off?

I don’t know. He might. (He can do what he wants. He’s God.)

Certain specific ways in which Van Helsing handles the Host seem to me to be more plausible than others (at least in terms of real-world sensibilities.)

For example, holidng up a Host to cause a vampire to stop or flee seems to me to be the least problematic. In fact, something in my memory says that at some points in history (I’m NOT recommending this NOW), consecrated Hosts may have been used in exorcisms–e.g., seeing if the possessed person can tell the difference between a consecrated Host and an unconsecrated host (and thus displaying supernatural knowledge) or holding one up or touching it to the person’s forehead to compel the demon to flee.

If so then we would have a potential real-world parallel to a couple of the things that Van Helsing does (i.e., #1 and #3).

#2 is more problematic because it involves leaving the sacred species to be corrupted by the elements. By plaing the host in a dirt-filled coffin, it will be soiled and eventually the species will corrupt and the Real Presence will cease. Before that happens–in the novel–the deposition of the Host will hallow the place, though, so that it cannot be used by vampires.

#4 is more problematic yet because it involves the destruction of a Host not by the elements but by human agency–APART from the way that God has ordained–in the real-world–for humans to disassociate the sacred species (i.e., by consuming them and, when this is not possible, by dissolving them in water).

#5 is the same and even worse because not only is a Host destroyed but the remnants are then mixed with another substance.

In the novel, when #4 and #5 occur Van Helsing is said to finely crumble up a piece of the Host. If he crumbles it very finely then it will cease to appear to be pieces of bread and the Real Presence will cease, which would partially ameliorate the situation. (I.e., it would be worse to scatter or embed species that still held the Real Presence in something than to scatter or embed species that no longer held it). Unfortunately, I don’t think Stoker knows this, and I think we are meant to understand that Van Helsing believes that the Real Presence continues in these cases.

Ultimately, it’s up to God the ways in which he chooses to authorize man to handle the Eucharist, and I can’t gainsay what he might sovereignly choose to do in another world.

What I CAN say is that all of this (particularly the latter numbers) is PROFOUNDLY offensive to pious sensibilities and that it is a LITERARY FLAW in the novel for Bram Stoker to have handled things the way he did.

I suspect (as I’ll explain in a future post) that he simply didn’t understand the theological implications of significant parts of what he was writing, and so this may to some extent be a case of "Forgive them, for they know not what they do."

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Paul Smith December 28, 2005 at 8:21 am

I remember reading an article by an exorcist (in Crisis, perhaps?) where he stated that when he is investigating a possible posession, one of his steps is to approach the person with a consecrated Host in the proper holder (the name of which I forget) in his pocket. A “normal” person wouldn’t know it was there, but a demon possessing a person has a very negative reaction to the Host.
I always found that interesting.

Alan Phipps December 28, 2005 at 8:22 am

Doesn’t “indult” come from “indulgere”? I believe Stoker here is using “indulgence” in the most generic sense — a sort of permission to do these funky things.
Remembering that this is largely a fantasy novel with vampires, I’m willing to allow for certain strange differences between that world and the real world. Those elements seem to have always been a part of vampire literature in some way.

Patricio Acevedo December 28, 2005 at 8:24 am

If the author of Dracula were a catholic, and aware of the thing you are explaining, would it be a sin for him to write such book? Would it be a sin to read it?

Dennis_Mahon December 28, 2005 at 9:45 am

Bram Stoker was a Protestant, IIRC.
I doubt that reading the book Dracula would be sinful simply because characters in the book engage in sinful activity- if that is the case, I’m in trouble for reading Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins!

BenYachov(Jim Scott 4th) December 28, 2005 at 12:56 pm

In the Real World if a person treated the Divine Eucharist in the manner Van Helsing would recieve the Highest Excomunication possible in that ONLY THE POPE could lift it.
However in the world of the novel different rules apply since we are not dealing with reality.

Gene Branaman December 28, 2005 at 1:03 pm

“I doubt that reading the book Dracula would be sinful simply because characters in the book engage in sinful activity- if that is the case, I’m in trouble for reading Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins!”
And I’d be in trouble for reading such popular fiction by folks like Tolkien, CS Lewis, Flannery O’Connor, Shakespeare, Jane Austin, Grahame Greene and even St Augustine’s Confessions! Ect, etc, etc.

Anonymous January 12, 2006 at 1:40 am

you should check out a book called “the dracula tape”. it is stoker’s story from dracula’s point of veiw, it makes alot of the same points as you.

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