Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter had a tepid opening in the box office last weekend, bringing in only $16.5 million. From the title, one might expect a goofy and irreverent comedy, akin to Jesus Christ: Vampire Hunter. Instead, the film takes itself quite seriously and features our 16th president dispatching with the undead in long, drawn-out combat sequences that lean heavily on elaborate choreography, wire stunts, and gratuitous explosions. Critics have dubbed ALVH a “violent ballet” and a “joyless, deafening cinematic headache.”
This adaptation is clearly aimed at audiences more familiar with the mechanics of vampire slaying (their special powers, their vulnerability to silver, etc.) than they are with American history. Which is a shame because Seth Graham-Smith’s bestselling work of historical fiction is infinitely cleverer than its flashy cinematic counterpart. In a way, the novel is also more disturbing. Despite the fact that its premise demands not to be taken seriously, ALVH draws on and conflates two very powerful symbols: American civil religion and the archetype of the vampire.
Seth Grahame-Smith, author of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, has a talent for taking unserious projects very seriously. It takes a rare skill set to describe fighting undead horrors using 19th-century prose. ALVH not only attempts to mimic the writing style of the Great Emancipator but to tell his biography in a way that accounts for his imagined battles with vampires without contradicting the historical record—a stunt the movie adaptation didn’t attempt. Lincoln’s mother and his son, Willy, did not actually die of disease but were poisoned by vampires. John Wilkes Booth was a vampire (which explains why breaking his leg at Ford’s Theater never slowed him down). But the most significant insertion of vampires into American history is the connection between the undead and slavery.
In a conversation between Lincoln and Edgar Allen Poe, Poe reveals that it was vampires who fought to free the colonies from England. The undead not only sank their fangs into the British at Lexington and Concord, but used their political influence in France to procure its assistance. The United States was created as a haven where vampires were safe from European vampire hunters and enjoyed the freedom to feast on the blood of whomever they wished. Most importantly, the vampires wanted to secure the institution of slavery, which gave them easy access to human blood. Slave auctions were, for American vampires, the equivalent of grocery shopping.
The Civil War reflected a schism in America’s secret undead government. Lincoln was recruited by a cabal of scrupulous vampires known as “The Union,” while Southern vampires sought not only to preserve slavery, but to complete their domination over humanity. In this version of history, The Emancipation Proclamation served a strategic function by depriving Confederate vampires of their food source.
Vampires remain a powerful symbol of evil, and stories about hunting vampires naturally invoke a Manichaean worldview: a struggle between absolute good and evil. A consequence of Grahame-Smith’s historical fiction is that it utterly vilifies the South, portraying them as enemies of humanity itself. Jefferson Davis, as vampire collaborator, explains, “Mr. Lincoln, vampires are superior to man, just as man is superior to the Negro. It’s the natural order of things, you see.” In the final chapter, World War II is described as “the second vampire uprising,” implying that the Nazis and the Confederacy represent a single and continuous source of evil.
But in creating a great darkness for Lincoln to slay, ALVH also looks at an aspect of our national history that we are often unwilling to confront. Like the return of the repressed, Grahame-Smith’s vision of an America founded by vampires raises the problem of reconciling the hallowed stories of our founding fathers with the historical reality of slavery. Historian W. Scott Poole has argued that Americans often tell their own story as that of a nation with no shadow. Monsters, he argues, are one way in which disturbing aspects of our history and our national character manifest themselves. Grahame-Smith’s novel is a stark example of this process.
The idea of America as a nation secretly created and controlled by vampires actually builds on a long history of popular “subversion myths” in which Freemasons, communists, or other conspiracies have secretly taken control of an otherwise good nation and threaten its social order. Like vampire stories, subversion myths frame good and evil in clear, unwavering terms. As nocturnal creatures who attack unseen, the vampires of folklore represent one of the oldest forms of subversion myth.
With full knowledge that I am now taking Grahame-Smith’s book far more seriously than I ought to, what is the significance of an Abraham Lincoln hunting the monsters of American history? Does this story attempt to reconcile pride in our founding fathers with the historical reality of slavery, acknowledging the evil without dishonoring the good? Or does the vampire conspiracy actually serve to maintain a national history in which good and evil are never in question? Or perhaps the vampires are a metaphor for own baser instincts, or a scapegoat for any evil committed in our nation’s past, leaving us once again a nation with no shadow.