This article was originally posted on A Clear Lens.
Based on the popular video game series, Castlevania is Netflix’s latest foray into the fantasy world with original content. Far from a lighthearted fantasy show, however, Castlevania breaches many topics of religious and sociopolitical importance. How does its approach compare with Christianity?
The lore of Dracula has a grand and varied history. Though not the first vampire ever to be introduced in fiction, he did popularize the concept, and formed many of the tropes that grew to be associated with the subgenre. A product of what could be called a Puritan sexual ethic, vampires were in many ways cautionary parables of sexually transmitted disease. Syphilis in particular was increasing at the time of publication, and the sexual edge to Dracula, and other vampiric figures, imagined desire embodied with a deadly result.
Then, many years later, we have sparkling vampires that are simultaneously stalkers and wonderful husbands. Who knew.
Castlevania is certainly more informed by the former. The Middle Ages setting mirrors a more traditional setting for a Dracula-centric tale, and the show’s opening scene mirrors what you’d expect to find in any Dracula film – a female traveler entering his castle, supposedly unaware of the monster that lies within. But in Castlevania, Dracula is not quite the wholly evil monster that we’re used to seeing. Of course, the fact that he brings an army of demons down on all of humanity doesn’t make him a good guy, but he’s slightly more sympathetic. That’s because the true villain of this first season of Castlevania isn’t really Dracula. It’s the Church.
Sexual ethics are not really on display here, but the story does take the classical themes of Dracula in flips them. This Dracula is, in a way, a legitimized Dracula – he marries, and lives as a man for the sake of his human wife. The Church, in contrast, burns his wife at the stake as a witch, because they do not understand the science she uses to heal people. The true villainy is not departure from a Puritan ethic, but rather strict adherence to it.
The Church of Castlevania, it should be noted, is distinctly Catholic. And so, when the bishop is presented as the great villain of this narrative, it does not come across as a theme hostile to theism, but rather hostility towards organized religion specifically. This becomes apparent in a particularly compelling scene in which a demon is confronting the bishop, and he says, “Your life’s work makes Him puke . . . but we love you.” One could certainly hope for better character witnesses than demons. But the point is made rather effectively – you claim God, but He does not claim you.
This is certainly reminiscent of scriptural truth. For instance, I think of Matthew 7:21 – ““Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven,” as well as the harsh truths that Jesus tells the Pharisees in Matthew 23. Verse 15 of that chapter is particularly applicable: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.”
It was brought to my attention recently that Jesus seems to reserve His harshest words for the hypocritical religious leaders of His day. In that vein, we can certainly see the value in critiquing religious hypocrisy – and the idea that malice with the mask of good is even more dangerous than evil that shows its true face. This too is reminiscent of scripture, this time in James 3:1 – “Let not many of you become teachers, brethren, knowing as such that we will incur a stricter judgment.”
But we have not yet spoken much of our primary protagonist, Trevor Belmont. From a long line of vampire hunters (and hunters of other kinds of evil), Trevor has all of the necessary skills to defeat evil. But he doesn’t. He abdicates this responsibility on the basis of the treatment that he and his family have received. He has a great deal of apathy towards humanity, and the evil of the Church’s hypocritical leaders drives him even farther into that apathy. But this begins to change when he meets the Speakers, a nonviolent alternative religion of sorts. They are perceived by the Church as being friendly towards dark magic, although one of their own clarifies, “I serve no demon.”
It is not terribly clear what worldview, if any, these Speakers are intended to represent in our own world. They are vaguely spiritual, and filled with goodwill, although they do not seem to have any particular theological framework. But it is largely their own kindness and self-sacrifical nature that Trevor changes, and decides to take up his responsibility to defend his fellow man. In the absence of a particular theology we can at least say that much – that in a similar fashion, we ought to “overcome evil with good.”
None of this is intended to shrug off the harsh nature of Castlevania. The show is rated “TV-MA” and includes lots of blood, violence, disturbing images, and a fairly hefty amount of foul language. But if you do decide to undertake the show, you may find some principles that apply fairly well to Christianity, even if the picture is incomplete. For in the absence of good spiritual leaders, there is no one to bridge the gap between the hypocrisy of the bishop and the true will of God. That’s where we can enter the conversation.