Why do crosses repel vampires? What does the afterlife mean in a world of ghosts? With fewer Americans attending formal religious institutions, traditional religious affiliation has been on the decline since the 1950s. But as Americans have turned away from congregating, they’ve turned on their TVs, finding another forum for the supernatural in shows like The Munsters, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and The Walking Dead. In these fictional and fantastical worlds, according to NYU Gallatin professor Gregory Erickson, vampires, zombies, aliens, and other eerie characters represent different facets of humanity and help us make sense of concepts like good and evil and life and death.
In his book, Speculative Television and the Doing and Undoing of Religion, Erickson argues that, far from just entertaining, TV and movies have allowed for “exploration that exceeds questions allowed within most religious communities or on mainstream news and documentaries.” From depictions of rituals in True Blood to standoffs between devotion and atheism in Battlestar Galactica, the spookiest elements of our favorite shows present viewers with nuanced and conflicting messages about faith and religion.
Ahead of Halloween, NYU News asked Erickson to talk through the symbolism of some classic on-screen monsters and the theological questions they raise.