SLAMMING CHRIST TO THE CROSS: THE SEMIOTICS OF THE CRUCIFIX: PART III

That a Crucifix must be an icon can not much be debated. The full import of this struck me while I was watching The Horror of Dracula from Hammer Films (1958), starring Christopher Lee as the Count and Peter Cushing as Dracula’s nemesis, Dr. Van Helsing. In the climatic show-down between the two, Van Helsing crosses two swords on the floor. The Vampire, being intimidated by Christian symbols, is forced into the sunlight coming in through an open window, and perishes….

But wait; there’s something wrong here. The film is extremely well-made, well-written, well-acted, and brilliantly paced. It rushes by like a ride in a coach with a runaway horse. Consequently some problems are not only easy to overlook, they are hardly noticed. It took me several viewings over some twenty years before I realized that the crossing of the swords actually posed no threat to Dracula at all. In fact the gesture is down-right silly.

The swords appear on the floor before Dracula as intersecting in the shape of a cross, “+,” much as we should expect as symbolizing the instrument of the death of Jesus. But only as long as Dracula stands at the end of one the swords. All he really has to do to mitigate the effect of the symbol is change perspective – say, step to the right, so that the crossed swords would then form, for him, the harmless letter “x” – is Dracula stupid or what?

And, indeed, think of all the moments in our lives when we have “+” images and “x” images surrounding us – crossed window panes; fallen twigs; cross-walk signs (etc.). Even at night, Dracula would surely find himself visually bombarded with threatening symbols. Why, he could hardly leave his coffin to get out for a cool drink.

So what sort of mistake has been made by the producers of the film Horror of Dracula – and many others like it? And why is this almost never noticed by audiences?

Horror of Dracula is a film produced in a Protestant culture for consumption by a predictably majority-Protestant audience.

But according to the old legends, as they arose among rural Catholics in predominately Catholic cultures, no “cross” could have stopped the vampire; what one needed was a Crucifix.

Although fears of animated corpses sucking the life out of victims has a long history and can be found in many cultures, “the term vampire was not popularized until the early 18th century, after an influx of vampire superstition into Western Europe from areas where vampire legends were frequent, such as the Balkans and Eastern Europe, although local variants were also known by different names, such as vrykolakas in Greece and strigoi in Romania. This increased level of vampire superstition in Europe led to what can only be called mass hysteria and in some cases resulted in corpses actually being staked and people being accused of vampirism.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vampire)

The importance of this is that, despite more than a hundred years of Reformation upheavals, south-eastern Europe was then still dominated by conservative Orthodox and Roman Catholic beliefs. We would rightly expect that the cultural drift of the vampire legends would carry along the full baggage of the meaning of the creature, as well the spiritual armament necessary to combat it. But exactly because of the Reformation, this could not be so:

“Some of the Protestant reformers, in particular Andreas Karlstadt, Huldrych Zwingli and John Calvin, encouraged the removal of religious images by invoking the Decalogue’s prohibition of idolatry and the manufacture of graven (sculpted) images of God.
(…)
‘We broke down about a hundred superstitious Pictures; and seven Fryars hugging a Nunn; and the Picture of God and Christ; and divers others very superstitious; and 200 had been broke down before I came. We took away 2 popish Inscriptions with Ora pro nobis and we beat down a great stoneing Cross on the top of the Church.’ William Dowsing, Haverhill, Suffolk, January 6, 1644” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iconoclasm#Protestant_Reformation)

Eventually the Reformers softened their stance (“Now if it is not sinful for me to have Christ’s picture in my heart, why should it be sinful to have it before my eyes?” noted Luther), but the damage had been done. Protestants could accept symbolic portraiture of the Christ – but could no longer accept any such as a sacred icon.

So the vampire came west out of Catholic Europe and found a home in Protestant Europe, but without all the necessary “apotropaics” – “Apotropaics, items able to ward off revenants, are common in vampire folklore. (…) (These) include sacred items, for example a crucifix, rosary, or holy water.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vampire)

Well, but the Protestants, nearly scared out of their lives by the threat of vampiric possession (much like the many fears of viruses. terrorists and aliens from space we share among us today), made do with what they had. They could no longer use the iconic Crucifix to ward off the Undead, but perhaps a symbolic cross would do as well.

However, such was mere wishful thinking (and who knows how many Protestants have succumbed to vampirism due to failure to grasp this?). The old legends of the vampires in south-eastern Europe really do not make sense unless the Crucifix functions iconically as direct representative of the crucified Christ. As I’ve shown before, a symbolic cross will not do, because it can be reconfigured in perspective by moving to one side of it (and, as suggested before, the vampire has to be able to do this, simply to survive in a world filled with cross-like objects). For the crucifix to be a Crucifix, there must not only be the cross, but also, as though nailed to it, a representation of a man, in suffering, presumed to present the very likeness of Jesus of Nazareth, assumed crucified in that manner.

The vampire cannot walk around the Crucifix and change perspective, thus changing its shape in his mind – for the importance is not in the shape, but in the iconic re-presentation of Jesus on the cross, and all that this was assumed to mean in the cultures that gave the (modern) vampire birth.

Of course that leaves some unsettling questions. Generated in conservative Catholic cultures, and assumed to have very physical manifestations, both the Crucified Christ and the modern vampire are representations of death – death-before-afterlife on the cross, afterlife as animated death beyond the grave. The Christ is said to have saved all souls; the vampire cannot even save its own. Both god-as-man and man-as-demon seem condemned to a body that will not continue, and a soul that will not let go.

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