Exclusive Interview with J.W. Morehead; Topics Include Bill Schnoebelen & Vampire Religion
J.W. Morehead is a scholar who made it his mission in life to learn more about obscure religions, and counter-culture, such as Vampirism, Satanism, Wicca, Spiritualism, and other subcultures, as well as their role in modern society. He’s also the Director of the Western Institute for Intercultural Studies, which makes its mission to educate Christians about new religions, and subcultures. He wrote a great comment on our coverage of Bill Schnoebelen’s ‘Interview with an Ex Vampire’, and we thought you’d like to hear some opinions (other than mine) about vampire and other alternative culture from a Christian with an open mind.
Q. Tell us about your philosophy on the vampire subculture, and its evolution through the popular film culture eras, –what do you think about vampire culture and its changes over the decades and what do you think of today’s vampire culture?
A. Thank you again for the invitation to respond to some questions. I came across your website through a Facebook post by Merticus Stevens with the Atlanta Vampire Alliance who shared a website post on Bill Schnoebelen. Of course, he is notorious for his claims of being an “ex-” from any number of religions, new religions, and identity groups, including a former vampire. I initially took your post to be referring to Schnoebelen with some kind of credibility in terms of an “expose,” and I decided to share my concerns with you on your website and through email. I’m glad to see that I mistook your understanding of Schnoebelen. I’m happy to engage in a conversation about my thoughts on vampires, and that related to Schnoebelen’s claims.
By way of background, I am a scholar with a background in cultural and religious studies, as well as theology, with a special emphasis in new religious movements. Some of my research foci include what has been called popular “occulture” and various groups, movements, and identities within this, including vampires. I also have an interest in religion and film studies related to the fantastic genres of horror, science fiction, and fantasy. These elements come together as personal and academic research areas which gives me an opportunity to write on related topics in various venues.
As to my “philosophy on the vampire subculture,” I agree with fellow religion scholar Joseph Laycock in his great study Vampires Today: The Truth About Modern Vampirism (Praeger, 2009), that while religion scholars tend to classify vampires beyond fictional literature, cinema, and television as a new religious movement, or as a subculture, it is probably best understood in general as a personal and social identity. I am more open to the possibility of considering those who self-identify in this fashion as making up a subculture at times, but an identity group is probably the best classification.
Of course this identity has not arisen in a vacuum, and there have been various sources of influence, including the vampire in folklore, literary fiction, cinema, and television, and most recently through other forms such as the Internet and various forms of gaming. In various ways these have contributed to what Christopher Partridge has called popular occulture, with literature and film being some of the strongest contributors. It is difficult, if not impossible, to know how the vampire community has evolved in relation to film in popular culture since the history of the vampire community is so speculative.
In terms of my thoughts on today’s vampire culture, as someone with a lifelong interest in horror, the Gothic, the paranormal, and the vampire, and as a scholar working in religion and popular culture, I think it is a fascinating time to become aware of and understand the contemporary vampire culture. There is an unfortunate history of the misunderstanding, stereotyping, and at times persecuting minority or marginalized groups, whether Catholics and Mormons in the past, or Wiccans and vampires in the present. Certain groups seem to push people’s buttons more than others, which contributes to misunderstanding and fear, and vampires seem to be near the top of the list of such groups for people today, even as they have a higher media profile at times. Beyond my academic interests to understand and represent vampires accurately and fairly, I have a few relationships with vampires and find them to be as valuable as my relationships with those in other contexts.
Q. Why do you think Bill Schnoebelen is being recirculated once again? The ‘interview’ is a few years old, and it’s now resurfaced for sale. Are people really this desperate for answers about vampire subculture?
A. First, it’s important to understand Schoebelen in his subcultural context. When those groups that would come to be known as “cults” came to public attention in the late 1960s with the rise of the counterculture, there were a variety of responses to them. One was the secular anti-cult which was more concerned with “deed rather than creed.” In other words, the concerns of parents and others who made up the anti-cult movement was what the new religions did rather than believed was of primary importance. Here allegations were made of brainwashing or mind control, as well as sexual and financial improprieties. Another response to the “cults” was religious in nature, coming from Protestantism, a dominant force in American Christendom, and it was known as the “evangelical counter-cult” approach. While this group had concerns over the actions of those in the new religions, they were primarily concerned with the beliefs of the new religions, which the counter-cult would consider heterodox or heretical in nature. Both the anti-cult and counter-cult continue today, but they have far less influence as our understanding of the new religions has increased through scholarship, and as we have adjusted somewhat to the pluralism of the public square.
Schoenbelen arose as an “authority” on various new religions out of the evangelical counter-cult movement. We might also consider that within this movement there are certain models or ways of approaching the new religions. One of these has been labeled the “apostate” or “former member testimony” model. Here a number of former members, or “ex-” Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Catholics, what have you, have arisen that have published books and gone on the evangelical speaking circuit to share their personal experiences of their past, and to warn of the dangers of their former groups. With the increasing visibility of various spiritual traditions like Wicca and Paganism, and the increasing public profile of those claiming a vampire identity, we now have personalities like Schnoebelen claiming to be a former vampire, and offering his story to the Protestant evangelical and fundamentalist communities. Much like Mike Warnke, the now debunked alleged former Satanist in previous decades, Schnoebelen likewise claims to be an “ex-” from many groups including a former vampire, but a careful analysis of his claims, and representation of various groups, indicates that his claims are questionable at best if not fraudulent.
As to why his older interviews on the vampire might be recirculating again, again, with the increasing visibility of vampires as a subculture in popular culture various segments of society are seeking to understand what this means, and how to respond to their fears and perceptions of an increasingly post-Christendom (not post-Christian) society which includes frightening individuals and subcultures like the vampire, so they seek those within their own religious subculture who claims to have answers, and when this is coupled with alleged personal experiences, it becomes a resource, even if it is a problematic one. In addition, there has always been some kind of disconnect between good scholarly literature on a topic, and the average person in pop-culture, so folks will naturally gravitate toward poorly researched materials rather than good academic and less accessible treatments on such subjects.
Another individual that concerns me is Don Rimer, a former law enforcement officer who now goes around the United States and Canada presenting training seminars to law enforcement and other civic groups on alleged “ritual occult crimes.” I took a look at his handout online, and watched an online video introducing his presentations on YouTube. In addition, I read the assessments of him by various Pagan and vampire community websites. In my view he misunderstands and misrepresents various esoteric groups and identity subcultures within popular occulture. In addition, he perpetuates the claim that certain aspects of pop-culture, such as Dungeons and Dragons (an old claim) and new video and fantasy role playing games, along with films like Twilight, contribute to an ethos that corrupts youth and leads to violence and criminal activity. In so doing he perpetuates and extends the unfortunate life and legacy of satanic panics. I tried offering bibliographical suggestions to Mr. Rimer in academic and primary source literature to correct his misunderstandings, but sadly he simply reasserted the accuracy of his views. I hope that law enforcement officials will actually pursue due diligence in checking out his accuracy in such things and seek out responsible members of the academic communty on such things. Whether Schnoebelen, Rimer, or others like them, caveat emptor.
Q. And what kind of outcome would you predict, if for some (extremely unlikely) reason, Schnoebelen gained instant media credibility?
A. In my view Schnoebelen will never receive media credibility outside of certain niche markets and subcultures, such as those in Protestant evangelicalism and fundamentalism. So the danger is minimized in terms of the broader culture. Nevertheless, we have a problematic situation in that two large religious subcultures may develop their understandings of the vampire subculture with reference to poor sources of information, thus exacerbating our illiteracy and poor dialogue skills in regards to such things. By contrast, I must say that there are individuals like myself who work with an eye toward providing a quality alternative for those in the Protestant community.
Q. Have you ever had any contact with Bill, by the way? If so, tell us about your interaction… if not, what is your personal opinion about his views and unabashed quest to make a profit, while also creating a hateful image for these many different cultures?
I have never met Mr. Schnoebelen, and I don’t know the inner workings of his mind and motivations, so I can’t comment on his personal issues. I can only assume his sincerity, however, one of the commandments often violated by Christians is the one about not bearing false witness against our neighbor. We have a responsibility to seek out the best possible information about religious and identity groups, and to develop fair and balanced understandings about them and the people that comprise them. We might also keep Jesus’s commands in mind to love our neighbors as ourselves. When these religious commandments are kept in mind then alleged personal testimonies like those of Schnoebelen that are problematic if not fraudulent must be avoided. I should also point out that there is a new movement among certain Protestant scholars and practitioners who have been seeking a more fair and accurate understanding of various religions and subcultures who have been making their contribution to the academy, as well as to their religious communities, in the hopes of changing the atmosphere so as to help resuscitate the reputation of Christians in this area, and to make Christians more responsible followers of Jesus, as well as better participants in the public square.
Q. Why do you think vampires originated; what spurred the folklore? Some people believe it was early diabetic symptoms, which would appear pretty demonic to early Christians, steeped in folklore and Pagan beliefs. Where do you think the vampire myth began and why?
A. I don’t have a personal theory as to how vampires originated in folklore. I’ve read about it, and have seen documentary television addressing the topic. Rather than looking at one particular theory as an all embracing explanation, in my view it is more likely that there were a variety of medical conditions as well as the process of the decay of the corpse, coupled with the beliefs related to supernatural creatures of varying cultures that all came together to give rise to various expressions of the vampire. I don’t know that we have to clearly dig away the archaeology behind the folklore and myth to appreciate the power and enduring nature of the vampire through history that shows no signs of slowing or abating in our time.
Q. What’s your favorite vampire legend? Film? and why?
A. Like many I suppose my favorite vampire legend comes from Stoker’s writings. He came along at the right time in order to scoop up aspects of folklore and history and combined them within a compelling horror framework in ways that have captivated the human imagination for quite some time. Whatever expression of the vampire in the present day, many times Stoker’s myth is not far away. As to my favorite film, it would have to be Dracula, or Horror of Dracula in the United States, produced by Hammer Films. This British studio’s horror films captured my imagination and informed my fears as a child and teenager, and Horror of Dracula was a big part of that. The stirring music, Technicolor blood, sexy female vampires, and the great performances of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing as Dracula and Van Helsing all come together to make for a wonderful Gothic and British treatment of the myth. It may seem tame by today’s standards in light of 30 Days of Night (another great vampire treatment that gives our zombies a run for their money in terms of being our culture’s favorite monstrous icon,) or perhaps too little romance for those who prefer that their vampires sparkle in the sunlight, but it is a great vampire and Dracula film, and one of the gems of the Hammer horror films.
Q. Last, why did you decide to pursue scholarship in spirituality and theology?
A. As to why I pursued scholarship in the area of spirituality or religion and theology, I have always been interested in what people believe and why, and the more I researched and wrote the more it appeared that I had academic abilities that should be pursued. But that’s probably not the major question. A better one is why the combination of religion or theology and things like popular occulture and horror? It is a natural extension of my lifelong interest in such things, even before pursuing theological studies, and I think our quest for the sacred surfaces in many aspects of our culture, including things like horror. In fact, I believe that horror, and related genres like fantasy and science fiction, are ideally suited to as vehicles in which to express our quest for the sacred, transcendent or numinous. This is especially the case in our late modern or postmodern period where the fantastic genres might be understood as including what one scholar has called the “fantastic postmodern sacred.” Plus, my interest in exploring theology and the fantastic in pop-culture has given me unique opportunities to discuss the sacred with a much wider audience, and a very diverse one, than merely focusing on theology in ecclesiological circles would ever give me. Our discussion here at Vampires.com is an indicator of that.