Lankester Merrin, Abraham Van Helsing, and the Traditions of Kosmic Kombat in Popular Christian Media

by William S. Chavez

Note: Page numbers from the print version are indicated in brackets and should not be considered part of the text of the article. 

[page 71] Abstract: This article examines the role of Father Lankester Merrin in The Exorcist (novel, screenplay, and film) to discern the popular and religious milieu from which the character stems—namely, the cumulative tradition of kosmic kombat associated within historical Christianity and gothic horror movie icons like Dracula and Abraham Van Helsing. Merrin, a veteran of spiritual warfare, ritually bested Regan MacNeil’s Pazuzu demon years earlier in Africa at the cost of his health. Their rematch functions as a theological treatise on the necessary steps taken when confronting supernatural evil. As possessed Regan taunts Merrin in the novel: “This time, you’re going to lose.” Through a historical and media contextualization of the character, I argue that Merrin simultaneously operates as the “old guard” of Catholic faith and tradition and as a priestly incarnation of the Van Helsing archetype, both of which the ritual novice Fr. Damien Karras is meant to emulate.

Keywords: kosmic kombat, Lankester Merrin, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Hammer Film Productions, theology

In 2019, I interviewed a Midwestern exorcist—Father “Drexel,” let’s call him (Chavez 17). This priest, like many of my other interviewees, is a fan of horror cinema and its exorcism subgenre—especially evident in the following exchange.

Chavez: Aside from [the rite of exorcism], have you also found … certain prayers, pieces of scripture, or Latin phrases, [helpful in drawing out] demons?

“Drexel”: Yeah, certainly, I mean, all of those things would be true. [U]sing sacramentals themselves, blessed objects, holy water, blessed salts, [s]acred places, prayers, litanies. [A]ll of those things, [but] sometimes it’s relics of [page 72] the Saints, blessed candles. It can be a whole host of things. You never know what’s gonna be the trigger.

Chavez: [This] reminds me of a Van Helsing vampire hunting toolkit. The garlic and stuff. And a lot of those [items] have Christian symbolism too: the hawthorn bush, the cross, holy water.

“Drexel”: Absolutely, and it’s kind of all part of that. You know, Lankester Merrin walks in with the satchel. But also, too, it does help us by way of reflection in another direction, of the things we’ve lost or forgotten about, in a sense of the sanctity, the value, the role that all of these things play as part of the rich treasure we have.

How do we explain this popular contextualization? “Drexel,” a contemporary priest-exorcist operating within Vatican sanction, situating himself within 1) a Christian history of cosmic dualism, 2) a culture of crucibles, heroism, and martyrdom, 3) Catholic traditions of sacramentals and apotropaeum, and 4) modern conditions of religiosity? These are the issues at stake within this comparison between The Exorcist’s Father Lankester Merrin and Dracula’s Professor Abraham Van Helsing. 

I contend that Merrin draws from a dual network of representation which includes, first, a cumulative tradition within historical Christianity that I call kosmic kombat and, second, the related kombat tradition associated with popular gothic and horror movie icons. The former tradition refers to the exorcism ministries throughout Christian history but especially those of Jesus and Early Church Fathers (see Sorensen; Twelftree); the Desert Monks of Egypt and the Near East who isolated themselves in the wilderness as an invitation for battle (see Brakke); the saints of late antiquity and Middle Ages who could journey into hell to retrieve a lost soul from a Faustian bargain (Russell, Lucifer 80–81; Mephistopheles 62–64; De Huszar Allen 155); and the medieval and early modern witch-[page 73] hunters of Europe (see Mackay). The latter popular tradition—the primary focus of my study—is exemplified by the character of Abraham Van Helsing and those in his likeness.

Cinematic adaptations of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) tend to embellish the character of Van Helsing, a trained physician and disease specialist, and making him a full-fledged religious warrior. The popular sensationalism of Van Helsing, I argue, ultimately influences Merrin’s role in William Peter Blatty’s novel The Exorcist (1971) and the 1973 film, directed by William Friedkin, for which Blatty wrote the screenplay. As a character, Merrin is constructed as a veteran of spiritual warfare, having ritually bested the demon Pazuzu years earlier in Africa at the cost of his own health. Their anticipated rematch, especially as dramatized in the novel, functions as a theological treatise on both martyrdom and divine grace. Through a historical and media contextualization of this character, I argue that Merrin simultaneously operates as the “old guard” of Catholic tradition and a priestly incarnation of the Van Helsing archetype popular within gothic horror cinema, both of which the inexperienced Father Damian Karras is called to emulate in Blatty’s narrative.

To demonstrate this argument, I employ an explicitly textual methodology—that of discourse analysis. In addition to their on-screen actions and narrative functions, I analyze the expository dialogue, sermons, and similar utterances attributed to Merrin and various iterations of Van Helsing. The examination of such popular discourse extrapolates the prominent cumulative traditions mentioned above. In short, the discursive religious framework of kosmic kombat refers to a narrative motif prominent within Western storytelling—a longstanding, divinely-oriented yet anthropocentric conflict waged between two oppositional forces (benevolent and malevolent). The neologism that I propose to designate this popular Christian tradition discursively injects the Greek kosmos (celestial order and ultimate level of concern) into the combat tradition fueled by strict senses of dualism. For the remainder [page 74] of this article, let the reader understand that kombat and kosmos are tied in signification. 

An Understudied Merrin

Most scholarship on The Exorcist concerns the abjection and salvation of Regan MacNeil, the possessed adolescent who rebels against her single mother Chris such that it is only through the Catholic patriarchy that order is restored within the fatherless home (see Creed; Poole 164). Blatty, meanwhile, asserted that his kosmic drama concerns the salvation not of Regan but of Karras, the young, doubt-ridden, ritual novice who eventually chooses a martyr’s death as an extension of his priestly vocation. Karras, a priest-psychiatrist who struggles to see the clergy’s place in the secular age, represents the Western decline of Catholic piety post-Vatican II. Yet, Blatty writes, as the broken hero of the story, “the demon himself [is] the crucible of Karras’ salvation” (William 278). Karras’s faith in both God and religious institutions is ultimately restored. His spiritual crisis resolves once he sees the way that Catholic clergy can be of service to modern laity; a Catholic “truth” that continues after his sacrifice (cf. McDannell 220).

The major character studied least within this academic discourse is that of Merrin, the veteran priest-exorcist who likewise dies in battle against Pazuzu, the demon possessing Regan. Merrin signifies another side of the post-Vatican II era: an exemplum of unwavering Catholic piety and the transcendental authority of the Church. His height and extraordinary conviction convey a commanding presence while his withered age and body tremors signal a general lamentation with respect to the Church of old. Michael Cuneo goes as far as to frame the “priest-as-exorcist” motif as a consistent staple within the popular American imagination; a hero trope exalting the otherwise scandalous priesthood of Roman Catholicism (17). For these reasons and others, let us examine closely the character of Merrin and his role in the popular presentation of dark supernatural content. [page 75]

Kosmic Kombat in the Modern Age 

Merrin! the philosopher-paleontologist! the soaring, staggering intellect! His books had stirred ferment in the Church; for they interpreted his faith in the terms of science, in terms of a matter that was still evolving, destined to be spirit and joined to God. (Blatty, Exorcist 270)

This passage reflects Merrin’s reputation as understood by Karras. At this point in Blatty’s novel, however, readers understand Merrin’s narrative importance. Following his return from an excavation in Northern Iraq, the elderly priest rests and awaits notification of the inevitable battle. Though his health is questioned, his Jesuit superiors cannot deny his “experience,” an exorcism in Africa “ten or twelve years ago” that supposedly lasted months and “damn near killed him” (263). Though Blatty confirms that Merrin is modeled after Teilhard de Chardin, philosopher-paleontologist-priest of Jesuit fame (William 282–3), this article will demonstrate that Merrin and the character of Van Helsing offer two complementary profiles not just of Christian kombat but of the modern sensationalism of religion. 

Nöel Carroll argues that Merrin, like Van Helsing in Dracula, functions within a larger plot of discovery—“comprising onset, discovery, confirmation, and confrontation”:

[A] well-known example of [this plot] can be found in the widely used theatrical popularization of Dracula [1924], adapted by Hamilton Deane and John Balderston. … Van Helsing is the quintessential discoverer figure. Though it appears that he already comes to England suspecting that the problem is a vampire, he sets about piecing together the evidence to support his view and, of course, he has to identify the vampire. Initially, he thinks that it must be an Englishman (since vampires must sleep in their native soil), but eventually he discovers that it is Count Dracula [transporting himself across European seas via [page 76] shipping vessels carrying his native soil]. Dr. Seward resists the idea of vampires as unscientific, but Van Helsing and Harker, Lucy’s lover, argue the case in a drama of proof that shows how the vampire hypothesis is irresistible. The process of confirmation is nowise as sustained as in The Exorcist, and by the second act Seward seems converted. The play then turns to a series of confrontations, culminating in the staking of Dracula in the secret passage between Seward’s asylum and Carfax Abbey. (106-107)

This detailed analysis of Van Helsing aside, such a comparison overstates Merrin’s role as the “discoverer figure” in both Blatty’s novel and the cinematic adaptation. By the time that Merrin is enlisted to perform Regan’s exorcism, the work of “discovery” had already transpired under Karras’s skepticism. Merrin arrives at a household already convinced of the possession hypothesis; there’s no need to gather evidence, yet Carroll’s union of these two characters illustrates the modern-premodern conflict from which numerous religion-themed horror films stem. 

As Douglas Cowan observes, medical and psychiatric science are often set in opposition to “superstitions about vampires, werewolves, and demonic possession,” reducing modern religion to a “relatively simple conviction that this is not all there is” (63). The popular imagination condenses the “collision” between modernity and premodernity, “between science (or simple skepticism) and the supernatural,” into a narrative subplot concerning “those who think they know and those who know better.” Thus, in addition to paradigm-shifting discoveries and/or profound existentialism following a challenge to human agency, the religion-themed horror films with which this article is concerned frequently render widespread secular security into a punishable offense; a demise initiated by “narrow-mindedness” (72).

“The modern occurs only by performing the distinction between the modern and the nonmodern,” Timothy Mitchell argues; “each performance open[s] the possibility of what is [page 77] figured as nonmodern contaminating the modern, displacing it, or disrupting its authority” (26). It is then fascinating to see how popular Christian media refashions the “premodern”/ “nonmodern” polarity into an occasion for kombat. As A. N. Wilson observes, though Dracula’s monstrosity signals for some a sympathetic abjected condition, others register his abomination as an opportunity to reinforce the larger cultural order:

Stoker’s myth is powerful because it allows evil to remain mysterious. Virtuous action has no more power over Dracula than Jonathan Harker’s shovel. The high virtue of Lucy can simply be drained away, as her blood is drained away, until she too joins the vampire brood. Van Helsing’s high thinking and scientific skill has absolutely no power over the dreadful potency of the undead. (xviii) 

This article will illustrate how the inclusion of Van Helsing, specifically as a religious torchbearer in the age of scientific reason, influences the tone of the general narrative. Though characters suffer and die, evil is ultimately vanquished, specifically by premodern religious power. 

Exorcism and vampire tales alike showcase not only ritual expertise and religious piety but reification of a dualistic system of kombat. Following Merrin’s arrival at the MacNeil home in Georgetown, he calls upon Karras to retrieve various items from the nearby clerical residence: “I should like you to go ... and gather up a cassock for myself, two surplices, a purple stole, some holy water and two copies of The Roman Ritual” (Blatty, Exorcist 277). Within the story’s powerful climax, Blatty’s novel clearly illustrates how Merrin weaponizes these items of holy significance: “trac[ing] the sign of the cross above the bed [and onto Regan’s brow],” “pluck[ing] the cap from the vial of holy water,” “routinely press[ing] a portion of the stole to Regan’s neck while continuing to pray,” all “while [the demon] lashed him again obscenely” (283–291). In contemporary Catholic practice, the priest-exorcist “toolbox” includes various iterations of the rite, the litany of saints, the [page 78] recitation of scripture, the laying on of hands, symbols of faith, the Latin language, and many other sources that demonstrate, in the words of Fr. “Drexel,” an institutionalized return to the “rich treasure” of Roman tradition (Chavez 17). Proximity to the sacred, a restorative measure following humanity’s supposed secular drift, is the power of Catholic exorcism in both myth and practice (cf. The Devil and Father Amorth).

A Kosmic Tether

Both Blatty’s novel and his subsequent publication detailing the writer’s creative process present Merrin as one kosmically tied to the Pazuzu demon. Blatty writes that he regretted various sacrifices made in his original screenplay to appease the director’s artistic sensibilities; 

[One notable removal was] the clear understanding that the demon in Regan is the same one that Merrin had met—and bested—in a previous exorcism in Africa. The African exorcism reference remains in the film. ... But gone is the demon’s crucial line to Merrin: “This time, you’re going to lose.” ... This, plus other hints, created an aura of vendetta, and further indicated that Regan’s possession is a setup; that the target all along is Merrin—at least, as the demon has constructed it. (William 277–278)

Within the theatrical release of The Exorcist, the two most overt references to this long-awaited rematch occur during the main exorcism sequence (as the large Pazuzu statue in astral form looms ominously over a possessed Regan) and, much earlier in the film, whenever Regan yells out Merrin’s name in distress. 

The former is a visual cue to the film’s prologue and Merrin’s time in Iraq. In the novel, as the exorcist gazes into the statue’s eyes, Blatty assures his audience of Merrin’s pious resolve: “He knew. It was coming. [H]is heart encased in the icy conviction” (Exorcist 17). Blatty’s screenplay further explicates this kombative framing narrative, as “the statue and the [page 79] old man confront each other, like two ancient enemies squared off in a massive arena” (William 289). Even when the old priest receives notification that his ritual skillset is needed in Georgetown, Merrin accepts the evil to come—without having to open or read the telegram: “He knew what it said. He had known. He had read it in the dust of the temples of Nineveh. He was ready” (Exorcist 264). Regarding the latter overt reference to kombat, the original script details the demon’s own sense of premonition. “Fear the priest,” Karras hears on the tape recorder. Other voices interject: “Give us time,” “He is ill,” “No, not this one. The other. The one who will,” and “Merrin ... Merrin” (William 213–214). Later, when the elder priest enters the MacNeil home, he’s greeted with an invitation for kombat: “‘Merriiiiinnnnnn!’ [But he] hadn’t moved. He was still staring upward [with not] a hint of surprise. It was more ... like recognition” (Exorcist 276). 

The Exorcist is a complex narrative stringing together multiple subplots on a collision course—namely, Chris’s struggle to raise her adolescent daughter, Detective William Kinderman’s investigation of film director Burke Dennings’s death, Karras’s crisis of faith and existential helplessness with respect to his dying mother, and, finally, Merrin’s inevitable rematch with Pazuzu. Ignoring the epilogue—in which a restored Regan thanks Father Dyer as a substitute for the fallen Merrin and Karras and Kinderman’s friendship with the same priest concludes the story with a rekindling of human kindness—Merrin’s subplot properly bookends Blatty’s modern tale of kosmic kombat. The story positions demon and priest as warriors engaged in perpetual conflict for the soul of humanity. Pazuzu is concerned with Regan’s corruption, Chris’s torment, Karras’s despair, but especially Merrin’s defeat. We see this in Blatty’s original screenplay as the demon feels cheated in kombat following Merrin’s heart failure: “Would have lost and you knew it! You scum, Merrin! ... Karras, heal him! Bring him back ... that we may finishhhh iiiit!” (William 253–254). The proceeding discussion of Van Helsing is ultimately aimed at uncovering new scholarly direc-[page 80]tions for research on The Exorcist and the religious precepts that inform Blatty’s character constructions and story structure. Merrin and Van Helsing present a modern analog to the kombants of Christian history, but within a popularly sensationalized mechanism of kombat renewal.

The Van Helsing Archetype

There are various iterations of the Van Helsing character from Stoker’s epistolary novel, select cinematic adaptations, and spin-offs. I will focus especially on the legacy of Peter Cushing and the Dracula films produced by Hammer Film Productions in the United Kingdom from 1958 to 1974. First, this decision allows for the examination of source material from a corresponding era (preceding and coinciding with Blatty’s Exorcist novel and film). Second, these films, more than simply transitioning Van Helsing from supporting character to protagonist, further establish the vampire hunter as a pop culture icon (Rasmussen 84–128), a mythological face associated with modern piety. 

Hammer ushered in a second wave of gothic horror, rebooting many classic movie franchises like Universal Pictures’s Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Mummy. What undoubtedly gave Hammer the marketing edge over its predecessors, in addition to production quality, was the use of color, gore, and sexual content. For our purposes, gothic Hammer horror films are especially instrumental in the popular celebration of religious kombat, the genre conventions involving the necessary destruction of the enemy. For this dramatic confrontation between the forces of good and evil, Dracula (almost always played by Christopher Lee) and/or his vampire associates are consistently defeated and destroyed by various members of the Van Helsing lineage, all portrayed by Cushing, in five films: Horror of Dracula (1958, released as Dracula in the U.K.), The Brides of Dracula (1960), Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972), The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1974), and The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974). Though Lee reprised his role in [page 81] Dracula sequels without Cushing, none of these fall within the scope of the current discussion about how the five films above embellish Van Helsing’s role as a trained physician and vampire autodidact into that of a vampire hunter, professional monster expert, and/or sworn enemy of Dracula. 

Science and Research

Van Helsing presents scholars with a modern recourse to religiosity, reducing the religious imagination into a heightened kombat-oriented kosmos, whereby explicitly supernatural entities are coded as sinister yet susceptible to the apotropaic icons of premodern religious institutions. Van Helsing enters this conversation not as a Karras-like skeptic or novice but as a Merrin-like expert and specialist. Dr. Seward summons the professor from Amsterdam due to his “absolute open mind,” “iron nerve,” “indomitable resolution, self-command and ... all-embracing sympathy” (Stoker 111–2). Stoker instantly associates Van Helsing’s name with credibility and repute, extensive research background, and unparalleled expertise. The audience knows to take Van Helsing seriously; his exposition details a foreshadowing of the vampire’s inevitable attack on the story’s main characters and the way said attackers meet their demise.

Like this introduction in Stoker’s novel, Professor Lorrimer Van Helsing, a descendent living in the 1970s, is recommended for professional consultation within a police investigation of London’s rising cultic underbelly:

There’s a man I worked with once. He’s an academic type, but he knows about this sort of thing. ... He’s a university lecturer in anthropology and Eastern European history. He’s a scientist. But what may prove to be even more important to us, he’s an authority on the occult. He really knows about the black arts, satanic rites and ... other things. (Satanic)

No matter what era or which of his descendants is featured, Van Helsing is always in pursuit of disease patterns, post-[page 82]mortem experiments, and general precautionary measures: “[He] is off to the British Museum, looking up some authorities on ancient medicine. The old physicians took account of things which their followers do not accept, and the Professor is searching for witch and demon cures which may be useful later” (Stoker 274). Such “ingrained curiosity,” “the hallmark of a true scientist” (Satanic), leads the professor out of Europe and into a new cultural context, itself reflective of both Orientalism and the exotification of the occult:

[M]y studies and research into this subject and my own confrontation with an arch vampire leave me in no doubt whatsoever as to the validity of this particular story. If vampirism exists in Eastern Europe, and I can assure you it does, there is no reason to question its existence in other parts of the world. Its foundation, its very beginnings, may have stemmed from ancient China. But no one knows better than you, the faculty of Chinese history at this renowned university, that many of your legends are based on truth and documented experience. … I would like to continue my research with your help and use your knowledge, your facilities, work with you, have access to your documents. Vampires do exist. I know they exist. I beg of you to listen to me, take me seriously. I am an outsider. I accept that. But I have experienced the horror! And the aftermath. (Legend)

Indeed, Van Helsing’s experience confronting global occult forces allows the audience to immerse themselves within the film’s individual cosmology, to accept the inner workings of dark supernaturalism as presented in less than ninety minutes. 

Dualism and Demonology

From Van Helsing’s research, the audience becomes educated in regard to the film’s monster, its nature, and its innate capabilities. In Hammer’s first Dracula adaptation, for instance, the professor makes it abundantly clear that vampires trans-[page 83]forming themselves into bats or wolves is nothing but a “common fallacy” (Horror). However, these “movie rules” are reset within the franchise’s next installment, where bat transformation occurs quite frequently: “[The undead are] repelled by holy things and Christian images. They’re thin. They have an air of hunger about them. They cast no reflection. ...  And some have the power to transform themselves into bats” (Brides). Narrative consistencies aside (cf. Maxford 229, 717), horror films like the ones selected function as “social rituals,” to cite Thomas Schatz, designed to “portray our culture in a stable and invariable ideological position” (31). “Terror,” indeed, “often arises from a pervasive sense of disestablishment; that things are in the unmaking” (King 8). And yet, most horror films adhere to a story structure of “threat and deliverance” (Rockett 30), with tension ultimately dissolved and normalcy restored. Horror movie conventions convey stability within our dominant ideological frameworks but, more specifically, our registry of their inner workings. 

For the audience to understand a film’s conflict resolution, filmmakers make explicit the “rules” by which abjected threats (like vampires) are powerful yet vulnerable. In a role different from that of Merrin in The Exorcist, Van Helsing consistently exposits this type of information within the film’s first act, setting the stage for the dangers to come. Van Helsing enters each of the selected films already acutely aware of the mechanics of vampirism, already suspecting of supernatural foul play. He gathers evidence to support his suspicions and eventually confronts and defeats his vampire opponent. “Onset, discovery, confirmation, and confrontation.”

These recurring battles with vampire menace reflect the dominant cultural attitudes towards modern religious fervor; anxieties related to Western occultism and whatever deviant behaviors are supposedly associated (e.g., ritual violence and drug abuse). “[Though] Dracula ... is dead,” reads the opening narration of the second film, “his disciples live on to spread the cult and corrupt the world” (Brides). “Have you heard of the cult of the undead?” Van Helsing asks a local in the same film. [page 84] “[It could] spread unless ... stamped out. That’s why I am here,” he asserts. The Satanic Rites of Dracula, released in theaters at roughly the same time as The Exorcist, similarly constructs a horror movie plot around a “premodern” evil being unleashed into the “modern” world, specifically the streets of London overtaken by sinister occultists. Evil walks the streets near Scotland Yard, for which Hammer filmmakers playfully nominate the ancient menace of Dracula as to blame. 

The association of Dracula with sacred inversion and unholy congregation is present in the original novel: “The Count had his own purposes when he [bit Mina and] gave her what Van Helsing called ‘the Vampire’s baptism of blood’” (Stoker 322). Yet Dracula A.D. 1972 remains unrivaled in its explicit presentation of Dracula as a supreme evil. Consider the following incantation delivered by the vampire’s human devotee Johnny Alucard, whereby Dracula is resurrected to once again feed on the living:

I call on Andras, Grand Marquis of Hell, Provoker of Discords, and upon Ronwe, Demon of Forbidden Knowledge, and upon Behemoth, Arch Devil of the Black Delights. I call upon Asmodeus, the Destroyer, and Astaroth, friend of all the great Lords of Hades. I call upon the many names of Prince Satan, Beelzebub and Lucifer. I demand an audience with His Satanic Majesty! Lower demons, support me. Come, Mammon, Urobach, Leviathan, Belphegor, Lord Balberith and Verinne. Hear me. Rosier, Gressil, Sonneillon, and Oeillet. I made a pact of blood with you, the baptism of the walking dead. Come to me, Carreau, Carnivean, and Count Dracula! I call to you in your dark, eternal caverns. (Dracula)

The vampire’s business with London occultists is given astrological and temporal significance, with both parties participating in the “Sabbat of the Undead,” a “celebration of supreme blasphemy” that would bring about the “Biblical prophecy of Armageddon” (Satanic). As such, Van Helsing’s vampire hunting crusade is bestowed ultimacy via the framework of [page 85] cosmic dualism; he acts to protect the kosmos itself.

In Stoker’s novel, following Mina Harker’s bite from Dracula, the heroine falls victim to the fiend’s powerful trance, the two forming a psychic bond with the former drifting closer to vampiric transformation. Van Helsing, upon recognizing Mina’s bodily aversion to sacred items, hypnotizes Mina to use her telepathic abilities to track Dracula’s secret movements (see also Mina’s character abilities in the Fury of Dracula board game, 2005). This conflict reveals Van Helsing’s tactical acumen and tendency to orient the action of the story towards divinity. To bring Mina into holy union, Van Helsing utilizes the Eucharist as both a precautionary measure and diagnostic procedure: “‘On your forehead I touch this piece of Sacred Wafer in the name of the Father, the Son, and—’ There was a fearful scream which almost froze our hearts to hear. As he placed the Wafer on Mina’s forehead, it had seared it—had burned into the flesh as though it had been a piece of white-hot metal” (Stoker 296). Though Dracula remains out of sight for most of the novel, Mina’s scar and possession-trances serve as immediate reminders of the vampire’s presence in the story. As Jonathan Harker writes in his journal, Van Helsing uses this opportunity to assure his band of novice hunters of their allegiance with God: “[O]h, Madam Mina ... may we who love you be there to see, when that red scar ... shall pass away and leave your forehead as pure as the heart we know. For so surely as we live, that scar shall pass away when God see right to lift the burden that is hard upon us. Till then we bear our Cross, as His Son did in obedience to His will” (297). Though Stoker introduces the character as a pious strategist and “quintessential discoverer figure,” with the Universal monster films of the 1930s expanding his narrative function to include dramatic confrontations with the Count (Rasmussen 86), the Hammer horror films further embellish Van Helsing’s role as a kosmic kombatant—one kosmically tethered to the vampire archfiend as a true nemesis.

“The year 1872”—so begins Dracula A.D. 1972. “[T]he nightmare legend of Count Dracula extends its terror far [page 86] beyond the mountains of Carpathia to the Victorian metropolis of London. Here in Hyde Park the final confrontation between Lawrence Van Helsing and his arch enemy, the demon vampire Dracula.” With this narration, the film opens with the two foes brawling atop a runaway carriage. The kombat continues until Van Helsing stakes Dracula in the heart with the wooden carriage spoke. This conflict between Dracula and the Van Helsing lineage transcends both time and space in films that move across Eastern and Western Europe and eventually into East Asia once Dracula is petitioned by a mysterious traveler to “resurrect the Seven Golden Vampires” of Ping Kwei, China (Legend). Dracula obliges purely out of self-interest, dispatching the traveler’s soul and adopting his outward appearance to infiltrate Chinese society. Little does he know that Van Helsing eventually will take a research assignment in the Szechwan province. Fate, it seems, perpetually brings these two into battle. “Van Helsing!” Dracula exclaims at the film’s climax. “Across the globe, even to this very place, do you plague me.” “Count Dracula,” Van Helsing responds. “I knew you had to be here.”

This motif of foes tethered in kombat resonates with the “aura of vendetta” that Blatty constructs around the Merrin-Pazuzu conflict. The global arena in which good and evil wage war transpires into Pazuzu’s unexplained spatial migration: how a Sumerian demon finds its way into East Africa and later North America. While the Hammer films explicitly sensationalize the Dracula-Van Helsing conflict as a marketing gimmick to capitalize on brand recognition, Blatty seemingly tethers Merrin to Pazuzu to illustrate the kosmic significance of Regan’s possession. Religion itself is used as a form of sensationalism. 

Apotropaeum / Demonifuge

What is the religious ideology that informs this kombative worldview? Note that traditional “premodern” forces terrorizing the dramatis personae of horror typically stem from a pre-Christian context. As Van Helsing explains, Vampirism is [page 87] “a survival of one of the ancient pagan religions in their struggle against Christianity”: “The vampire, by its kiss, the taking of blood from its victim, makes of their victim another vampire. So the cult grows infinitely—slowly, but it grows” (Brides). The Hammer films effectively fuse an imagined non-Christian, pagan cultus with a playfully fictional, supremely evil monstrosity; one that must be “stamped out” at all costs. Church icons are used to thwart and, indeed, damage such abjected terrors. 

Beginning with Stoker’s novel, such icons are supplemented by folk tradition. Vampire hordes are susceptible to garlic, sunlight, crucifixes, running water, and more (203, 334). As relayed in Seward’s diary, Van Helsing enters the room of assembled novice hunters providing direction as if they were catechumens: 

[H]e took from his [long leather] bag the lantern, which he lit, and also two wax candles, which, when lighted, he stuck, by melting their own ends, on other coffins, so that they might give light sufficient to work by. [I]n his methodical manner, [Van Helsing] began taking the various contents from his bag and placing them ready for use. First he took out a soldering iron and some plumbing solder, and then a small oil-lamp, which gave out, when lit in a corner of the tomb, gas which burned at fierce heat with a blue flame; then his operating knives, which he placed to hand; and last a round wooden stake, some two and a half or three inches thick and about three feet long. One end of it was hardened by charring in the fire, and was sharpened to a fine point. With this stake came a heavy hammer, [as] used in [a] coal-cellar for breaking the lumps. (213–4)

Soon after, “Van Helsing opened his missal and began to read,” with others following “as well as [one] could” (216). 

In the Hammer films, Van Helsing’s exposition of apotropaeum occurs an act or two before the final confrontation: 

Dracula A.D. 1972: “Silver bullets are impractical, and [page 88] garlic is not 100% reliable but it is true to say that the monster abhors ... silver of any kind, especially, for instance, a silver-bladed knife.” 

The Satanic Rites of Dracula: “[I]t lives in mortal dread of [clear running water, symbolizing purity. So too with the] Hawthorn tree which provided Christ with his crown of thorns, the light of day, and a wooden stake driven through the heart.” 

The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires: “[Vampires] abhor anything that has a holy significance. They fear the word of the Lord. In Europe, the vampire walks in dread of the crucifix. Here [in China], it’ll be the image of the Lord Buddha. These are our protection.”

Most of the Van Helsing films conclude with the professor besting Dracula or his vampire legion through spontaneous implementation of established iconography or demonifuge. During the principal interior photography of Horror of Dracula, for instance, actor Peter Cushing suggested a “Douglas Fairbanks-like jump” off a rectory table to pull down the drapes and expose Dracula to deadly sunlight, and also suggested the “use of crossed candlesticks by way of finishing off the job, given the number of crucifixes he pulls from his pockets elsewhere in action” (Maxford 78, 221; cf. the 8” Van Helsing Maxi-Bust from Titan Merchandise, 2011). This crafty disposition is replicated in later films like The Brides of Dracula and The Satanic Rites of Dracula. While in the latter Van Helsing simply lures Dracula into a hawthorn grove, the former is perhaps the most extravagant: Van Helsing jumps onto the sails of a nearby windmill, his weight causing a rotation, “casting a giant cruciform shadow over the [vampire antagonist], who finally succumbs to the force of the cross” (Maxford 78). 

For The Brides of Dracula, reportedly, the original intention was to have Van Helsing “summon up a hoard of bats to vanquish” his foe, “in addition to the use of the holy water and the sails of the burning windmill” (78). Peter Cushing “objected to Van Helsing’s sudden use of dark forces” as a betrayal of the [page 89] character’s ideology. Unlike, for instance, the recent Doctor Strange films (2016, 2022), where the hero succeeds due to his willingness to use his order’s “restricted” black magic texts (though they’re implied to take a spiritual and physical toll on his personage), the Van Helsing Hammer films are clear to never mix the forces of good and evil.

Constant Vigilance 

In Stoker’s novel, Van Helsing and Dracula never cross paths directly. The closest the two come is with the professor’s exorcism-like interrogation of one of Dracula’s spellbound victims: “‘Go on! Go on! Speak, I command you!’ said Van Helsing in an agonized voice” (Stoker 346). In contrast, the Hammer films render the two as foes kosmically tethered in kombat (a popular framing narrative also surfacing in Blatty’s novel and screenplay for The Exorcist). Van Helsing, like Merrin, assures the audience that humanity will ultimately weather the storm. His character not only explains the gravity of the supernatural drama but calls for immediate action: “I know I ask a great deal of you, but you mustn’t weaken now. We have it within our power to rid the world of this evil. And, with God’s help, we’ll succeed” (Horror). To confront evil, one must be prepared to take the necessary steps. As Cushing’s Van Helsing commands in his Hammer debut: “Please try and understand. This [vampire] is not Lucy, the sister you loved. It’s only her shell, possessed and corrupted by the evil of Dracula. Liberate her soul and give it eternal peace. We must destroy that shell for all time! Believe me, there is no other way.”

The literary Van Helsing, indeed, functions as a holy man for others to emulate. As Mina Harker writes in her journal: “Dr. Van Helsing is sleeping. Poor dear, he looks very tired and old and grey, but his mouth is set as firmly as a conqueror’s. Even in his sleep he is intense with resolution” (Stoker 361). Seward similarly exalts the professor, but Van Helsing rebukes Seward’s praise, clarifying his role like that of a biblical patriarch: “Far be it from me to arrogate to myself the [page 90] attributes of the Deity. I am not even concerned in His especially spiritual doings. If I may state my intellectual position I am, so far as concerns things purely terrestrial, somewhat in the position which Enoch occupied spiritually!” (269).

I argue that the historical and media contextualization of Van Helsing illuminates further the stakes and implications of his priestly incarnation Lankester Merrin (the “old guard” of Catholic faith): “[The exorcist] removed his hat, and Chris is momentarily taken aback by the eyes that shine with intelligence and kindly understanding, with serenity and unearthly power” (Blatty, William 219). His “icy” conviction, readiness for battle and death, and use of Catholic tradition firmly establish the character within a modern lineage of kosmic kombatants. The elder priest enters the MacNeil estate already acutely aware of the mechanics of demonology, which he exposits for the novice Karras:

“You’re familiar with the rules concerning exorcism, Damien? ... Especially important is the warning to avoid conversations with the demon.” … 

The demon,” thought Karras. He’d said it so matter-of-factly. It jarred him. 

“We may ask what is relevant,” said Merrin. ... “But anything beyond that is dangerous. [D]o not listen to anything he says. The demon is a liar. He will lie to confuse us; but he will also mix lies with the truth to attack us. The attack is psychological, Damien. And powerful. Do not listen. Remember that. Do not listen.” (Blatty, Exorcist 281)

As Edward Ingebretsen writes, “God is rarely mentioned [in The Exorcist] except as ritual curse[, with] the film ... clearly more interested in the demonic’s lurid display of power” (159). Part of this is the result of deleting an important scene from the theatrical cut of the film, sparking a most contentious debate between writer Blatty and director Friedkin: the short hallway conversation between Merrin and Karras that functions like Blatty’s personal sermon on the issue of theodicy (Blatty, William 278–9). Though the scene is included in the [page 91] 2000 extended “Version You’ve Never Seen,” Merrin’s “speech” is condensed into less than thirty words; Blatty’s original novel treatment of the scene is far longer. Karras asks 

“[W]hat would be the purpose of possession? What’s the point?” 

“Who can know?” answered Merrin. “Who can really hope to know? And yet I think the demon’s target is not the possessed; it is us ... the observers ... every person in this house. And I think—I think the point is to make us despair; to reject our own humanity, Damien: to see ourselves as ultimately bestial, vile and putrescent; without dignity; ugly; unworthy. And there lies the heart of it, perhaps: in unworthiness. For I think belief in God is not a matter of reason at all; I think it finally is a matter of love; of accepting the possibility that God could ever love us.” (293)

This excerpt illustrates Blatty’s general understanding of cosmic dualism, of demonology’s relationship to soteriology. Humanity is set in between two oppositional forces, with each attempting to garner influence. At the end of the novel, Chris MacNeil, herself still a “nonbeliever,” confronts Father Dyer with an outlook of cynicism given God’s apparent absence. Dyer responds: “But if all of the evil in the world makes you think that there might be a devil, then how do you account for all the good in the world?” (317).

Blatty casts as a general representative for humanity a sinner convinced they are unworthy of God’s love and immediate presence. For God to still accept a demonically possessed Regan MacNeil, with all the “ugliness” and “bestial” indignity put on display, illustrates Blatty’s theological treatise on divine grace, God’s ultimate allegiance to humanity. As Merrin concludes his sermon to Karras: “‘And yet even from this—from evil—will come good. In some way. In some way that we may never understand or ever see.’ Merrin paused. ‘Perhaps evil is the crucible of goodness,’ he brooded. ‘And perhaps even Satan—Satan, in spite of himself—somehow serves to work out the will of God’ (Blatty, Exorcist 294).  [page 92]

It should be noted that Stoker’s novel features a similar crisis of theodicy (also absent from most cinematic adaptations) delivered by Abraham Van Helsing. The professor concludes, however, with a verdict of resolution more than a theologically sophisticated thesis:

Then, for the first time in [his] life, [Seward] saw Van Helsing break down. He raised his hands over his head in a sort of mute despair, and then beat his palms together in a helpless way; finally, he sat down on a chair, and putting his hands before his face, began to sob, with loud, dry sobs that seemed to come from the very racking of his heart. Then he raised his arms again, as though appealing to the whole universe. “God! God! God!” he said. “What have we done … that we are so sore beset? Is there fate amongst us still, sent down from the pagan world of old, that such things must be, and in such a way? [Oh, how] are all the powers of the devils against us!” Suddenly he jumped to his feet. “Come,” he said, “come, we must see and act. Devils or no devils, or all the devils at once, it matters not; we fight him all the same.” He went to the hall-door for his bag; and together we went up to Lucy’s room. (Stoker 133–4)

Van Helsing’s willingness to continue isn’t sparked by some theologically reassuring sermon. His call for others and himself to maintain a steadfast commitment to God echoes his later statements regarding the healing of Mina’s scar: until God “see[s] right to lift the burden that is hard upon us ... we bear our Cross, as His Son did in obedience to His will” (297).

This research expands a significant archetype constructed by Randy Rasmussen in his study of Golden Age monster movies:

Populated by so many helpless heroines and hapless heroes, the classic horror film often relies on characters of age, experience and arcane wisdom to battle monsters and mad scientists. Withered but crafty, these elder warriors possess a keen nose for evil and an abili-[page 93]ty to conjure up an effective defense against it. While government officials, the police and distraught parents of endangered youth feebly confront a menace with conventional weapons, the wise elder brings something unorthodox to the fight. Though sometimes ridiculed, he or she never suffers from a lack of faith. (84)

The selected Hammer horror films transition Van Helsing’s role from monster discerner/expositor, spiritual beacon, and hunting strategist into a kombatant kosmically tethered to Dracula as archnemesis. These films explicitly sensationalize the Dracula-Van Helsing conflict as a marketing gimmick to capitalize on brand recognition. “Vampire and vampire-hunter meet in one final, bloody conflict!”—so reads one of the posters (Maxford 714). This case study reveals the creative mechanism by which kosmic kombat is renewed and replicated within popular Christian media. The religious ideology of cosmic dualism spawns a prominent motif within Western storytelling: a longstanding, divinely-oriented yet anthropocentric conflict waged between the forces of good and evil. This popular framing narrative eventually surfaces in William Peter Blatty’s novel and screenplay for The Exorcist.

Blatty tethers Merrin to the Sumerian demon Pazuzu to bestow a preordained significance to their conflict, using religion as a dramatic form of sensationalism. The Exorcist, like the Hammer Van Helsing films, reflects a trend in popular media to reduce modern religiosity into, first, a form of entertainment, and, second, a heightened kombat-oriented kosmos whereby explicitly supernatural entities are coded as sinister yet susceptible to the apotropaic icons of premodern religious institutions. The “collision” between modernity and premodernity concerns “those who think they know and those who know better” (Cowan 63); those who put their faith in and, indeed, weaponize the “rich treasure” of tradition. 

“[M]ysteries can only be fought by mysteries” (Wilson xviii). As such, the historical and media contextualization of these two modern kombatants simultaneously narrates a popular lamentation for humanity—following secular distance [page 94] from God and the Church. Proximity to the sacred is the power of Catholic exorcism practice and mythical vampire hunting. Human beings, corrupted via demonic possession and vampiric transformation, are presented in both franchises as “ugly” and “bestial” yet still worthy of divine grace. These popular theological narratives construct dignified kombatants to lecture the audience on the supernatural powers that religious institutions wield in the secular age. Together, Merrin and Van Helsing demonstrate proper allegiance to God (through unwavering Catholic piety) but also God’s ultimate allegiance to humanity. 

The foundation of this argument developed through my Senior Honors Thesis at the University of Rochester (2012-2013).
I remain indebted to the support and guidance of Joshua Dubler and Nora Rubel. Special thanks is also reserved for Rudy V. Busto, Elizabeth Pérez, Dwight Reynolds, David Feltmate, Aaron Ullrey, and Richard Hecht.

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---. William Peter Blatty on The Exorcist: From Novel to Film. Bantam Books, 1974.

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The Brides of Dracula. Directed by Terence Fisher, Rank Film Distributors, 1960.

Carroll, Nöel. The Philosophy of Horror or Paradoxes of the Heart. 1990. Routledge, 2004.

Chavez, William S. “Modern Practice, Archaic Ritual: Catholic Exorcism in America.” Religions, vol. 12, no. 811, 2021, pp. 1–27.

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The Devil and Father Amorth. Directed by William Friedkin, The Orchard, 2017.

Dracula A.D. 1972. Directed by Alan Gibson, Columbia-Warner Distributors, 1972.

The Exorcist. Directed by William Friedkin, Warner Bros., 1973.

Horror of Dracula. Directed by Terence Fisher, Rank Film Distributors, 1958. 

Ingebretsen, Edward. Maps of Heaven, Maps of Hell: Religious Terror as Memory from the Puritans to Stephen King. M.E. Sharpe, 1996.

King, Stephen. Danse Macabre. Everett, 1981.

The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires. Directed by Roy Ward Baker and Chang Cheh, Columbia-Warner Distributors, 1974.

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Rockett, Will. Devouring Whirlwind: Terror and Transcendence in the Cinema of Cruelty. Greenwood Press, 1988.

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Stoker, Bram. Dracula. 1897. Oxford UP, 1983.

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William Chavez is an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Stetson University. A scholar of American folklore and popular culture, he studies the doom and gloom of religious imagination. He received his doctoral degree in religious studies from UC Santa Barbara. His dissertation Exorcism in America: As Practice and Spectacle examines how contemporary exorcists negotiate the popular mediatization of their practice and how exorcism discourse is appropriated in media by marginalized communities to identify and resist Western hegemonies. He is co-developing an edited volume with Valeria Dani (Cornell University) on the material and ideological intersections between horror media and class.

MLA citation (print): 

Chavez, William S. "Lankester Merrin, Abraham Van Helsing, and the Traditions of Kosmic Kombat in Popular Christian Media." Supernatural Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Art, Media, and Culture, vol. 9, no. 1, 2023, pp. 71-96.