Fact or Symbol? Where does the Truth Lie?
[Sorry for the delay in posting. It is the busy season. I’m working on a long piece about Shakespeare’s Folio that is taking a while to bake.]
A few weekends ago, I came home after a pub crawl with a friend. I flipped on HBO to watch a few minutes of ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER. I expected to dismiss it as crap in a few minutes and paddle off to bed. To my surprise, I watched and enjoyed the entire film. And, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it.
If you haven’t heard of it, the feature film is a mashup of Lincoln’s biography and vampires. The movie is based on a book by the same name written by Seth Grahame-Smith, who first gained literary fame (or infamy) with his best selling mashup PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES. VAMPIRE HUNTER imagines an America infested with vampires ruling the south to feed off of the African slave trade. Who’d have thought that the American Civil War was fought to defeat the rising power of Vampires?
ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER is schlock. It is full of dramatic impossibilities: physics, history, storytelling, psychology, you name it. However, the way it is telling this story is brilliant. Mr. Grahame-Smith and the filmmakers are telling the story of Lincoln, slavery and the civil war through parallel truths.
They tell the historical/biographical story of Abraham Lincoln, his rise to the presidency and Civil War. It contains his origin and early traumas; his struggle to become a lawyer and rise in society; his courtship and marriage to Mary Todd[i]; his turn to politics, the brutality of the Civil War; the death of his son; the decision to free the slaves; and the success at Gettysburg that led to winning the war. The film, more or less[ii], follows Lincoln’s actual story. It is his factual truth.
At the same time, the writer and filmmakers tell Abraham Lincoln’s story in symbolic and mythic language. Vampires are used as a metaphor for the evil perpetuated by the culture of slavery. The vampires feeding on the blood of the slaves is a metaphor of how slavery was feeding on the lives of the Africans and infecting the entire nation. The ax swinging Lincoln is driven to fight and end this evil. When he discovers that there is little he can do with his ax, he runs for office and becomes the President. He leads the country in the fight against the evil of the vampires who would take the southern states as their own sovereign blood-sucking nation.
This mashup of fact and symbol effectively (ok, that might be a stretch) speaks the truth using our opposing world views. The two sides of our brain approach and create the world with opposing systems. The left brain seeing everything one at a time sees the world as concrete, objective fact. The right brain seeing everything all at once sees the world through a symbolic, subjective lens. This mashup gives us a vision of the world where both truths are the same and different.
We experience our world as both concrete and imaginative, both factual and symbolic, both real and illusory at the same moment. This is the challenge of the 21st Century. We must learn to live in these two conflicting visions of our world simultaneously and fluidly.
The truth of this film in many ways exceeds the more critically acclaimed film LINCOLN by Steven Spielberg. And, it’s a lot more fun.
ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER is grade D schlock. And yet, it speaks a greater truth and helps us to experience our world as it is.
[i] As I write this, there is a large piece of furniture, called a secretary, looming in my office. It was once owned by Mary Todd Lincoln. Adele, my wife, inherited it from her paternal grandmother, Adeline Cabot, who was distantly related to Mary Todd Lincoln.
[ii] I’m no Lincoln historian. I’m sure those that are would definitively say the film was less, much less, historically accurate. My point is that the facts are in the realm that most reasonably educated folk would know about Lincoln’s life.