Slavery in Recent American Films: "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter"

In "Lincoln" (2012), Stephen Spielberg showed us a noble president, fighting against slavery. The story is clear; right and wrong are distinct; Lincoln's greatness shines through. Everything feels normal. Speilberg's film is middlebrow in that sense. This is not a criticism. Rather, it acknowledges Spielberg's ability to present a story that feels realistic on all counts. This talent was evident in "Jaws" (1975) and another great film, "Saving Private Ryan" (1998). Seeing the landings at Omaha Beach on D-Day, with shaky cameras, washed out colors--except red blood in the water and on the sand--we feel German bullets coming at us. When Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks), our American everyman, loses his hearing we do, too.

The middlebrow is where most of us live most of the time. It is the middle of ordinary consciousness. The D-Day story is easy to understand. One group (our guys) wishes to destroy another group (the enemy). At Omaha Beach our guys need to land, take the beach, kill as many Germans as possible, then drive them inland. Spielberg's film on the holocaust, "Schindler's List" (1993), tells another coherent story, this one is centered on a moral dilemma. An ordinary businessman, Oscar Schindler, realizes that he can save innocent Jews by deceiving the Nazi regime. The movie guides us along to an emotional conclusion. It earned its spot as Americans' favorite Holocaust film.

Spielberg speaks to normal consciousness; other directors speak to primeval parts of our minds. From those parts emerge personal and collective nightmares. "Night and Fog" (1955), directed by Alain Resnais and "The Damned" (1969), directed by Luchino Visconti, yank us from ordinary consciousness. The first takes us inside the death camps. We see through altered lenses, sink into confusion and shadows; the very stuff of nightmares. The second takes us inside the mind of a young man, Martin von Essenbeck, who graduates from molesting young girls, to giving the Nazis control of an industrial empire, to exacting revenge upon his mother by raping her.

Artistic movies disorient--and possibly--change us. Vincent Camby said that watching "The Damned" is "like taking a whiff of ammonia--it's not conventionally pleasant, but it makes you see the outlines of everything around you with just a little more clarity."

Similar to Spielberg's films, horror films do not stray from predictable formulas. Similar to Visconti's films, horror films show scenes of physical and psychic atrocities. However, horror films rest upon a religious premise, that Evil is real, a spiritual force independent of humans. Chief among contemporary evil creatures are vampires. We know a surprising amount about them. Their fear of the sun, how they sleep in coffins, how they love to drink human blood are attributes every child can recite. If we wish to know more we can consult The Vampire Book: the Encyclopedia of the Undead by Jeff Melton.

Lincoln as Avenging Angel of Justice

In "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter," Lincoln becomes a superhero. Experiencing vampiric evil as a boy, Lincoln acquires a magical device--a silver ax--to defeat the undead. In real life, Lincoln experienced the everyday evils of American slavery. The movie's insight is to merge these two story lines: the undead element of American history is our origin as a slave power, created by northern and southern leaders. As clever as the movie is, it has one glaring problem. The problem is that the movie portrays vampires, the vampire part of us, as associated only with the Confederacy. Naturally, this becomes a plot device. The South's vampire allies are destroying Union troops. Drawing upon his vampire-wisdom, Lincoln supplies Union soldiers with silver bullets and silver cannonballs. That does the trick and CSA vampires are slaughtered left and right.

Accessing our knowledge about vampires, this seems sensible. Or is it? Anne Rice, another vampire authority, declared that silver bullets kill werewolves but "Vampires are not particularly affected by silver bullets." Leaving aside this debate, the movie affirms a common illusion of those raised in the North. That illusion is that slavery was a Southern problem not an American problem.

We immerse ourselves in "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" and feel the thrill of destroying those demonic bastards. Later we realize, perhaps, that American slavery was not the product of demonic forces, just ordinary human beings caught in sin.

(Thanks to Robert H. Miller for conversations about these themes.)

Forthcoming Book: On the Pleasures of Owning Persons: the Hidden Face of American Slavery (June 2016).