While discussing the Fright night remake, I dealt with the way the vampire's fear of the cross has been inverted, subverted, averted and cast away. I said, 'If this is supposed to be an edgy rejection of the "rules", well, it's a cliche in itself.'
Very true. In fact, TVtropes' 'Clap your hands if you believe' page has a whole section on vampires regarding this aspect of modern vampire lore. However, the part which says, 'Similarly, a cross does not work on a vampire in Stephen King's Salem's Lot because its owner has lost his faith' isn't quite true. At least, not from the get-go. It's not so much that the wielder didn't have faith, it's that he didn't trust it enough to square off against the vampire.
Here's what the 'owner' [Father Donald Callahan] says when asked to participate in a vampire investigation:
"I'm not going to say no, not at this point," Callahan said. "And I ought to tell you that if you'd gotten a younger priest, he probably would have said yes almost at once, with few if any qualms at all." He smiled bitterly. "They view the trappings of the church as symbolic rather than practical—like a shaman's headdress and medicine stick. This young priest might decide you were crazy, but if shaking a little holy water around would ease your craziness, fine and dandy. I can't do that. If I should proceed to make your investigations in a neat Harris tweed with nothing under my arm but a copy of Sybil Leek's The Sensuous Exorcist or whatever, that would be between you and me. But if I go with the Host . . . then I go as an agent of the Holy Catholic Church, prepared to execute what I would consider the most spiritual rites of my office. Then I go as Christ's representative on earth." He was now looking at Matt seriously, solemnly. "I may be a poor excuse for a priest—at times I've thought so—a bit jaded, a bit cynical, and just lately suffering a crisis of . . . what? faith? identity? . . . but I still believe in the awesome, mystical, and apotheotic power of the church which stands behind me to tremble a bit at the thought of accepting your request lightly. The church is more than a bundle of ideals, as these younger fellows seem to believe. It's more than a spiritual By Scout troop. The church is a Force . . . and one does not set a Force in motion lightly." He frowned severely at Matt. "Do you understand that? Your understanding is vitally important."1
Later, while wielding a cross against the vampire, Callahan is faced with a decision: is he willing to cast aside the item protecting him, to save the lift of a boy? Is he willing to meet the vampire on purely spiritual terms?
Softly, almost purring, Barlow said, "The will you throw away your cross and face me on even terms—black against white? Your faith against my own?"
"Yes, Callahan said, but a trifle less firmly.
"Then do it!" Those full lips became pursed, anticipatory. The high forehead gleaned in the weird fairy light that filled the room [from the cross].
"And trust you to let him go? I would be wiser to put a rattlesnake in my shirt and trust it not to bite me."
"But I trust you . . . look!"
He let Mark go and stood back, both hands in the air, empty.
Mark stood still, unbelieving for a moment, and then ran to his parents without a backward look at Barlow.2
The boy escapes and Callahan is left standing off against the vampire, the cross still keeping it at bay.
"Then fulfill your part of the bargain, shaman."
"I'm a priest!" Callahan flung at him.
Barlow made a small, mocking bow. "Priest," he said, and the word sounded like a dead haddock in his mouth.
Callahan stood indecisive. Why throw it down? Drive him off, settle for a draw tonight, and tomorrow—
But a deeper part of his mind warned. To deny the vampire's challenge was to risk possibilities far graver than any he had considered. If he dared not throw the cross aside, it would be as much as admitting . . . admitting what? If only things weren't going so fast, if one only had time to think, to reason it out—
The cross's glow was dying.3
As Callahan's temerity weakens, as does the cross's light until it fades out. Callahan perceives it as 'a piece of plaster that his mother had bought in a Dublin souvenir shop'. When the glow is gone, the vampire takes the cross out of Callahan's hand and snaps it in two.
Interestingly, and what few people have noticed about the use of religious items in the novel, is that the Christian element, itself, is subverted. The 'Force' Callahan spoke about, may be foreshadowing what occurs later on. Mark Petrie and Ben Mears find the vampire's root cellar hiding place, which Mears breaks into with a holy water infused axe:
The back of his shirt had split between the straining wings of his shoulder blades, and the muscles writhed beneath the skin like ropes. He was a man taken over, possessed, and Mark saw without knowing (or having to know) that the possession was not in the least Christian; the good was more elemental, less refined. It was ore, like something coughed up out of the ground in naked chunks. There was nothing finished about it. It was Force; it was Power; it was whatever moved the greatest wheels of the universe.4
The 1979 mini-series, however, dispenses with this exploration of faith. So when the priest confronts Barlow with a cross, the vampire simply yanks it out of his hand. No explanation. Strange, since crosses work on other vampires. The 2004 mini-series, however, restores the 'shaman' baiting.