Dear Reader (Excluding those of you who insist on the Dear Reader gag),
Greetings from Chicago. I’m writing from Iwan Ries & Co., which plausibly claims to be the oldest tobacco shop in America. I can’t believe I’ve never been here before. It traces its origins to 1857, but it’s been in its current location only since 1968. That’s kind of a bummer, because I’d like to think that if some vampire, chased out of town by legendary vampire hunter Abraham Lincoln, came back to the City of Big Shoulders, he could swing by his old cigar shop.
Fun fact: When I googled “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” to get a link, I noticed that the first question in the “People Also Ask” feature is “How historically accurate is Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter?”
Anyway, I have vampires on my mind because I’ve been bothered by the long overdue national conversation on the topic of vampires vs. werewolves introduced by Herschel Walker.
I owe Walker a bit of an apology, because having now seen the extended clip of his ramblings, I kind of like his use of vampires to explain why people need faith to be effective. Now, this isn’t to say I think it was politically wise for him to raise the topic while running for the Senate, but I don’t think you can argue “if not for his vampires vs. werewolves talk he would’ve won.”
But what bothered me about the conversation is that pretty much everyone I talked to said they’d rather be a vampire than a werewolf, and I think this is a symptom of cultural and moral decline.
Now before we get into the nitty gritty here, let me acknowledge that it’s very difficult to talk about this stuff without people slowly backing away from you or yelling, “Oh, I think I left the stove on” and running away. It’s also hard to talk about because there’s probably no pop culture canon more polluted by heresies, retcons, and general nonsense than the vampiric oeuvre. Even zombies, in all their various permutations—fast, slow, magic, biological, etc.—can’t hold a candle to the diversity of vampire versions out there. I mean, sure, if you could be a vampire with a soul, like Angelus or those glorified Subaru driving crunchsters in Twilight, why wouldn’t you?
So I’m going to go with the basic understanding of vampires, like Dracula. This itself is a concession, because Dracula was handsome, rich, and stylish. I could use Nosferatu as my archetype, who looked more like a homeless accountant. And not for nothing—Nosferatu has a lot of antisemitic baggage (Dracula has some, too). Marxists, Nazis, and lots of other garden-variety Jew-haters were very fond of Jew-as-vampire metaphors. But I think when people say they’d like to be a vampire, they’re thinking of a Dracula-like figure, not a creepy and ugly Nosferatu type.
What’s not to like?
Now, I get it. Vampires—at least the 1-percenters—do well with the ladies. They’re effectively immortal, which makes long-term investing in things like real estate a no-brainer. If you’re not a morning person, there’s much to recommend about the lifestyle.
Meanwhile, being a werewolf is a huge hassle. Every month or so you’ve gotta lock yourself away or you wake up the next morning in some field, naked and covered with someone else’s blood. Your car smells like wet dog, etc.
But here’s the thing: Vampires are soulless murderers, essentially evil demons in undead human flesh. Werewolves are merely human beings, unfairly cursed. You can keep your soul and be a werewolf; you forfeit your soul to become a vampire.
In his excellent book, Wild Problems, Russ Roberts—borrowing from a book by L.A. Paul, Transformative Experience—makes an interesting point about vampires. It’s impossible to know whether it’s a good idea to become a vampire until you become one, and once you become one you’re a different being. You no longer have access to the old you, with your old tastes, desires, and moral framework. Roberts writes, “once you become a vampire, what you like and what you dislike changes. As a human you might find narcissism repugnant. But vampires find narcissism refreshing and look back on their humbler non-vampire selves with disdain for their humility. Which ‘you’ should you consider when deciding what’s best for you? The current you or the you you will become?”
Russ leaves out the part about how choosing to become a vampire means affirmatively choosing to become evil. It’s okay, because he’s arguing a different point about how most of the big decisions in life can’t be adequately scored until after you make them. Marriage changes you. Having kids changes you. I think Russ is right about all that.
But when people say they’d rather be a vampire than a werewolf, they’re saying they’d rather be changed in the ways that being a vampire changes you.
For instance, I normally don’t carry a lot of feminist water in this “news”letter, but one of the things that always bothered me about a lot of “heroic” and “romantic” vampire characters is how they reduce age differences to a matter of aesthetics. Of course a 300-year-old dude would want to hook up with a teenager or a hot twentysomething. Of course the young lady would be into a guy three times older than her grandfather, so long as he wasn’t all wrinkly, fat, and bald. There’s something really gross about that.
It’s not an idea original to me, but I’ve long subscribed to the view that religion in pre-modern times was so focused on the hereafter because the here and now was so terrible. Babies and children died all the time. Women routinely died in childbirth. Disease visited constantly. Small cuts and scrapes could fester and kill you. In that environment, the promise of an eternal reward without suffering counted for a lot. This is always how I read Paul Tillich’s writing about religion and faith as being the means and language of our “ultimate concern.” “Religion is the state of being grasped by an ultimate concern,” he wrote, “a concern which qualifies all other concerns as preliminary and which itself contains the answer to the question of a meaning of our life.” When it’s impossible to forget that life is short and often miserable, making sure your soul’s paperwork is in good order is an understandable obsession.
Today, the here and now is much more comfortable, thanks to air conditioning, dentistry, antibiotics, and cable TV, among other things. And I think that’s probably why being a vampire is more attractive. You get to hang out here indefinitely and you look good in the process. Like Bart Simpson selling his soul to Milhouse for five bucks, becoming a vampire seems like a deal.
Meanwhile, being a werewolf just creates hassles. Your lycanthropic self writes checks your human self has to cash. When your werewolvian alter-ego kills, the human you regrets it. It’s a curse precisely because you keep your soul. Vampires don’t regret killing; it’s fun and filling without any annoying carbs.
In a weird way, I think it’s sort of analogous to the two most familiar versions of dystopia. In Orwell’s 1984, things are miserable and it’s a constant struggle to keep your soul and integrity intact. In Huxley’s Brave New World—at least in the popular imagination; Jack Butler has a good corrective on why the popular imagination is wrong—people don’t struggle. They’re drugged up and happy, content with prepackaged joy delivered to them. Like Robert Nozick’s hypothetical “experience machine” that gives us all the pleasures we want without any of the work.
The point is that in the Orwellian dystopia the struggle to keep your soul is real, while in the Huxleyan one the struggle is taken out of the equation.
This tweet by Christian philosopher Megan Fritts has haunted me since I first saw it.
You should read this interview with her if you’re as horrified by it as I am.
Now, I’m familiar enough with the problems of survey research and polling to concede that I’m of course wildly overreading the various conversations I’ve had with people on the werewolf vs. vampire issue. If I asked, “Would you rather trade your soul and become an immortal murderer and rapist or would you rather keep your soul and become a very hungry wolf once a month?” the answers would be different for some people.
But the mere fact that people immediately disregard the downsides of being a vampire and instead focus on the creature comforts and very light skincare regimens strikes me as revealing.
The word “monster” is derived from the Latin monstrare (to demonstrate) and monere (to warn). As Natalie Lawrence writes, “Monsters, in essence, are demonstrative. They reveal, portend, show and make evident, often uncomfortably so.”
Monsters were divine warnings of individual or social sin, decay, or moral corruption. Vampires became popular as a warning about the (alleged) scary direction of society (hence the antisemitic baggage). When people say they’d rather be a vampire than a werewolf, they’re flipping all of that on its head. Rather than a warning of the perils of losing your soul, being this kind of monster is now cast as an indefinite vacation.
Various & Sundry
Canine update: The girls had a very confusing week. On Monday, Zoë had to go to the vet to get a big fluid-filled lump on her back checked out. It’s probably not cancerous, but we’re waiting on test results. But it still may be a problem because it’s growing fast and could comprise organs. So, needless to say, I’m concerned. Also, while Zoë doesn’t despise the vet as intensely as Pippa, she really does hate it.
The girls stayed at Kirsten’s on Tuesday night because I had to be in New York City until very late for a couple CNN hits. They came home on Wednesday and I left town on Thursday. They knew it was coming because I took out the luggage. Heck, Pippa basically tried to get in one of my bags. Anyway, have a good thought about Zoë.
My schedule: I’ll be on vacation for the next week. I’m not ruling out writing while I’m away, but I’m not planning on it. The Remnant will keep chugging along, though.
And now, the weird stuff