On Harry Potter and Vampire Movies: Sin and Biology

Given the recent Harry Potter craze I thought I’d go with the flow. Here, for your consideration, is an extended meditation on Harry Potter, vampire movies, sin, and biology. This will be one of those odd stews I cook up for you. Enjoy!

My friend Jonathan Wade and I have a quirky habit: We like to go to vampire movies. Once, on the way home from a movie, we began discussing recent trends in vampire movies and graphic novels. The classic vampire genre cast vampires as evil and occult. They are undead. Thus, the classic genre (CG) has a heavy metaphysical overlay where the spiritual forces of good and evil fight it out. Thus, weapons against vampires are holy water and crucifixes (along with the non-spiritual weapons of garlic, sunlight, and silver).

But increasingly, the modern genre (MG) of vampire movies is moving away from these metaphysical and spiritual themes. The MG, in contrast to the CG, is non-metaphysical. The MG is biological. Increasingly, you see biological explanations for vampirism and its symptoms. The vampire bite is analogous to a mosquito or rabid dog bite causing a gene-altering allergic reaction or viral infection. Further, the vampire’s reactions to garlic, sunlight, and silver are increasingly portrayed as hyper-severe allergic reactions.

In a correlated manner, we thus see the decline of the metaphysical weapons against vampires. If you assault a vampire in the MG, holding a crucifix aloft, the vampire will chide you for being superstitious. The supernatural is absent in the modern vampire genre. Biology—with its allergies, viral infections, naturalistic ontology, and genetic mutations—is king in modern vampire movies.

Further, in many of these MG vampire movies we see issues of race and eugenics emerge as significant plot themes. See the Blade series or Underworld as examples. Again, this is a very biological theme. And this brings me to Harry Potter.

Despite concerns from religious fundamentalists, Harry Potter is a very non-metaphysical series. The magic seems to come from nowhere in Harry Potter. The etiology of magic is unspecified. Magic just is. No occult forces are described. No devils, gods, or demons. True, there is dark magic. But the darkness is largely a moral issue speaking to uses and outcomes rather than supernatural source. “Darkness” is a pragmatic issue, not a metaphysical one.

But what you do see in Harry Potter are heavy biological themes. Race issues—pure-bloods versus mud-bloods—feature predominately in the series. Further, magical ability appears to be transferred via some kind of rare recessive gene. For example, two muggle parents can have a magical off-spring (e.g., Hermione). Lastly, magical ability in the Harry Potter series seems to be a matter of genetic talent. Some of the children are naturally good magicians (e.g., Harry) while others are not (e.g., Neville). But it is more complex than that, hard work is also a part of acquiring magical skill. Hermione is a good example of this. In short, what we see in the magic of Harry Potter is not a metaphysical portrayal but the classical biological conundrum of nature versus nurture.

The point? God is dead in Harry Potter and in vampire movies.

What I mean to say is that even in classically supernatural and metaphysical genres (vampire or magic stories) we see this de-emphasis on metaphysics and the rise of the biological (i.e., scientific) worldview. It really is a startling shift: Science as the coin of the realm in classically occult or supernatural tales.

But if we think about it, all this is simply a reflection of our culture. More and more often, our psychological and moral states are being defined by biology rather than spirituality. Sins are now addictions. And moral failures are increasingly traced back to genetic predispositions. Our debates are less about good versus evil and more about nature versus nurture. We are no longer bedeviled by demons but are harassed by genetic determinism and chemical imbalances in the brain.

Obviously, if you are a regular reader of this blog, you know I’ve been infected by this scientific age. I repeatedly filter biblical narratives through my scientific grid. Is this good or bad? I see it as a mixed blessing. A gift with lots of warning labels (e.g., Don’t bathe with your toaster.). I think the main issue is to be self-aware and to keep the situation fluid. To not let science or the bible trump each other in an unthinking and uncritical manner. The goal is to pay attention to the influences that are working upon you. And when you are self-aware and analytical you notice things...

Things like the demise of metaphysics in vampire movies and children’s novels...

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12 thoughts on “On Harry Potter and Vampire Movies: Sin and Biology”

  1. Dr. Beck,
    Not sure if you are aware or not, but the most recent issue of "Time" agrees with you on this topic. Just thought you'd like reassurance that your ideas aren't a load of bunko...well, at least this one isn't. Enjoying the posts, as per usual.
    Andrea H.

  2. Richard,

    This post points out what is often missed in the religion/science "debate": that there is a metaphysical substratum or Grund or Archimedean point to all our human endeavor. However we attempt to explain phenomena we engage in human artifice built on metaphysical foundations. E.g. the scientific method is an attempt to collect, categorize, and measure observed phenomena (sometimes mathematically, sometimes in a laboratory, sometimes in the field)in order to provide consistant, regular, and refined explanations. It cannot handle (literally and figuratively) the ineffable or the unique. There are no perfect geometric figures in nature: crystals coming close to being the exception and maybe a nautilus. Numbers do not exist in nature. We assign numbers to explain constants like Planck's constant, etc.

    And finally, we who speak English assign the word God to, well, God as a kind of naming shorthand. Naming (metaphorically or in methmatical symbols or logical symbols) is our way of explaining, ordering, demystifying and controlling our world (and the world beyond).

    The magic of the classical and modern tales--whether vampires (CG) or Hogwarts (MG) are actually one and the same: they both ignore metaphysics for easy manipulation and control of fearful circumstances.

    The "magic" of a CAT scan may enable us to visualize the brain activity of the rejected lover but it cannot mend a broken heart.

    Selah and blessings,

    George C.

  3. Hey Richard


    Unrelated... but there is an interesting article by Sarah Coakley in the Harvard Divinity Bulletin which talks about her current cross disciplinary project between the divinity school and the mathematical biology department at Harvard. They are examining theology, cooperation, and evolution... right up your alley.

    http://www.hds.harvard.edu/news/bulletin_mag/articles/35-23_coakley.html

    Peter

  4. Hello, I was just wondering if you can equal the absence of god/God/gods (thought of as persons or beings) with the absence of metaphysics ("Harry Potter is a very non-metaphysical series"). The fact that there is a spirit world, some kind of existence after death, and "the veil" in HP suggests some other level of reality, only that it is not caught in the imagery that we are used to being raised in Christian-dominated environment. And as for biology - somewhere else you yourself write that Christians have to come to terms with Darwinism etc., and our world is as heavily loaded with biology as HP's - which doesn't mean that religious thinking, let alone religions, are dead.

    By the way your blog is very interesting, especially for a non-Christian of choice.

  5. As an avid reader of the Harry Potter series, I found your blog to be a confirmation in words of the increasingly pronounced feel I was getting from the books: that in J.K. Rowling's magical earth, God is dead--or simply nonexistent. You are right.

    What came to mind specifically for me while reading this was the recent Twilight series by Stpehenie Meyer, which is centered around modern-day vampires who are the exact opposite of those appearing in CG novels of old. Similarly, the movie "I Am Legend" is worth noting.

  6. Sorry to back-comment, but my metaphysician wife found this post by searching "metaphysics" on your blog.

    It occurred to me right away that Star Wars made the same move you're talking about, between the original trilogy and the newer one. The Force ran in families even in the originals, but once upon a time, the Force was something that flowed through Jedi mystically. In the new trilogy, Jedi have midi-chlorians that live in their cells and help them communicate with the Force.

    Your post helps me put into words one of the reasons I dislike that part of the new movies so much. George Lucas literally tried to remove the old magic.

  7. @Scoots...exactly what I was going point out. Sometimes the scientific focus can be cool (like in the 28 Days Later movies, or Blade) but Lucas really shot himself (and the SW franchise, IMHO) in the foot with that one. Really took the wonder out of the whole thing for me.

  8. Professor Beck, thank you for making your articles available. They are interest to me for teaching and preaching.

  9. Although the Harry Potter books don't mention God or religion explicitly (except for the two bible quotes in the last book), there is a great deal of "implicit theology" to be found in them.

    Below is a link to an article on the website of the university of Innsbruck (by Nikolaus Wandinger and Christoph Drexler) containing an in-depth examination of the theology contained in the Harry Potter series.

    http://www.uibk.ac.at/theol/leseraum/texte/811.html#92

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