…I thought it only fitting to link my pal Deacon Steven Greydanus’ essay “Vampires, demons and the cross: Catholicism and horror“:
“When it comes to fighting vampires and performing exorcisms, the Roman Catholic Church has the heavy artillery” is how Roger Ebert opened his review of John Carpenter’s Vampires. “Your other religions are good for everyday theological tasks, like steering their members into heaven, but when the undead lunge up out of their graves, you want a priest on the case. As a product of Catholic schools, I take a certain pride in this pre-eminence.”
Of course, the association of Catholicism and uncanny evil cuts both ways; a priesthood that knows ancient secrets of dispatching the undead might understandably be suspected of harboring arcane secrets of conjuring them as well. (Ebert’s review goes on to mention a Spanish mission with an ancient “Black Cross” used centuries ago in an “ancient forbidden form of ritual” resulting in an “inverse exorcism” that expels the human spirit of a possessed person, leaving the demon in possession of the body.)
There’s no denying that Catholic culture and tradition has its creepy, macabre side. We have severed heads, hands, feet, fingers and other body parts of honored saints in golden, bejeweled containers or caskets prominently displayed in important churches. Sometimes these body parts go on tour and visit other churches. Sometimes saints’ bodies or body parts go on tour and visit other churches, as is happening now with Saint Maria Goretti, whose body is in the midst of a US tour.
The famous Sedlec Ossuary in the Czech Republic, with its charnel house elaborately festooned with skulls and other human bones — most astonishingly the immense chandelier made entirely of bones, containing at least one of every type of bone in the human body — is just one of many such “bone chapels” and “bone churches” in Europe and elsewhere.
Carved gargoyles and other grotesques, often representing animal and/or human chimeras, sometimes overtly demonic, loom from the walls of Catholic churches, their cultural and symbolic significance uncertain and debated. The dans macabre or “dance of death” was a genre of literary, visual and dramatic arts depicting Death personified summoning human beings of every class and category — popes and emperors, merchants and robbers, men and women, old and young, rich and poor — to the world beyond in a procession of fleshy and skeletal figures. Here the moral was clear: memento mori, “remember that you must die,” though elaborated with a grisly élan.
For film buffs, the dans macabre is overwhelmingly associated with that quintessential art film, Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, which begins with a famous, much-parodied encounter of Max von Sydow’s knight and Death on a beach, and ends with a haunting image of a parade of hand-holding figures silhouetted on the horizon, Death and a number of the film’s characters departing this life.
The Seventh Seal is one of the 45 outstanding films called out on the 1995 Vatican film list. Another is F.W. Murnau’s 1922 silent masterpiece Nosferatu, the first great vampire movie — though not a film that contributes to the iconography of Catholicism as the great enemy of uncanny evil.