Vampires and Cannibals in American History

Hulk, you just got HARDINGED.Link #1: Asawin Suebsaeng proposes some follow-ups to Abraham Lincoln, Vampire-Hunter, including John Adams: Mummy Shanker, Thomas Jefferson: Big-Pimpin' Zombie Drop-Kicker, James Monroe: Cthulhu Pile-Driver, and my favorite, Warren G. Harding: The Man Who Tamed The Hulk.

Link #2: Historian W. Scott Poole pushes back against some scholars who seem nonplussed about the Lincoln movie. Poole hasn't seen the film yet, but he likes the book, which he assigned to one of his classes:

I wanted my students to think about how primary historical sources, the raw material of history, can be repurposed in surprising ways. If you've read the novel, you know that [Seth] Grahame-Smith uses materials from Lincoln's speeches and 19th century newspapers to recreate the 19th century, indeed to give it a lived-in sort of feeling. Many of my students came away from the book wanting to read some good Lincoln biographies and histories of the era....

But we talked about another aspect of the book that I'm hoping serves as a major theme in the film. If you've read the novel, you know it's a dark rendering of America's secret history, the idea that dark powers have moved through the structures of American culture since the beginning. These evil powers, which in 1860 wanted a nation of their own, see human enslavement as a way to feed their appetites.

President BuffyIn my early discussions with my students, this was actually one aspect of the book that troubled me a bit. Didn't this equation of vampire conspiracies and slavery serve to undermine the struggle to move slavery to the center of the American narrative, especially in discussions about the meaning of the civil war? Fictionalizing it seemed to deal with a serious subject in a silly way.

My students helped me to see it a little differently. On some level, the elements of the fantastic in the novel point to deep, if hard to bear, truths about America. Grahame-Smith actually ties the great vampire plot to notions of "the Slave Power" in American life, an image employed by the abolitionist movement to describe how southern political influence, even over the Founding Documents, had left the republic twisted by inhuman bondage.

Moreover, its not that horror narratives of various kinds haven't always been a part of the story of slavery. Slaves in the colonial era created a complex folklore about the southern master class, worrying that slave traders were cannibals. My research uncovered at least one case in Louisiana [where] newly imported slaves became convinced that the masters were witches and vampires (after watching them drink red wine).

I've read a fair amount about this fear of white cannibalism. Like many conspiracy stories, it emerged through a combination of empirical observation and frightened guesswork. One man captured in Africa remembered seeing "parts of a hog hanging, the skin of which was white -- a thing which we never saw before; for a hog was always roasting on a fire, to clear it of the hair, in my country; and a number of cannonshots were arranged on the deck. The former we supposed to be flesh, and the latter the heads of the individuals who had been killed for meat."

Pass me a mint julep.

The idea was widespread. One slave recalled his fellow captives jumping overboard "for fear that they were being fattened to be eaten." As Poole mentions, Africans arriving in Louisiana and Haiti reportedly mistook their masters' red wine for blood. Worries about white appetites would persist after slavery ended, as with the long-lived legend that Caucasian scientists were using black bodies' blood to make medicine. During the Atlanta child murders of 1979–1981, a gruesome rumor claimed the government was harvesting the kids' genitals to make aphrodisiacs.

When a piece of conspiracy folklore is this popular, it says something true about the anxieties and experiences of the people who believe and repeat the tale, even if it says nothing true about the objects of the theory itself. The slave traders really were conspiring against their prisoners; it was just the nature of the conspiracy that was misunderstood. The captives were to be consumed by the white economy, not by white mouths.

Nor should those stories about white scientists be surprising. In the antebellum south, the medical historian Todd L. Savitt reports, doctors "took advantage of the slaves' helplessness to utilize them in demonstrations, autopsies, dissections, and experiments." The 20th century saw scandals like the Tuskegee Experiment of 1932–1972, in which the federal Public Health Service offered free medical care to several hundred black sharecroppers without telling the patients that they had syphilis, which the doctors deliberately left untreated in order to study whether the disease affects blacks and whites in different ways. Beyond that, on a simple day-to-day, non-conspiratorial level, blacks had plenty of first-hand familiarity with high-handed mistreatment at the hands of white doctors. Those experiences were translated into folklore.

As for Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter: I'm sure it's a deeply goofy movie. I hope it turns out to be a fun goofy movie, not a dumb goofy movie. And fun or dumb, I hope it's a hit, if only for the faint chance that it might inspire a studio to greenlight that flick about Harding and the Hulk.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    William Clinton: Shrew Tamer

  • Almanian's Evil Twin||

    George W. Bush: Ummmmm....I....if...

  • Almanian's Evil Twin||

    Better yet...

    George W. Bush: Windtalker

  • Ben the Duck||

    Barack Obama: Rent Seeker

  • Whiterun Guard||

    Mitt Romney: Dog Terrorizer

  • Almanian's Evil Twin||

    Pat Paulson: Dead Head

  • R C Dean||

    I think Barack wins that one, too, WG.

  • Ben the Duck||

    At least Mittens' dog survived his experience.

  • Rick O'Shay||

    On the radio this morning: Eleanor Rossevelt, Truck Stop Hooker.

  • Aresen||

    That would be a movie where the hero does not achieve his goal.

  • fish||

    William Shatner: Horta Toucher

  • Ben the Duck||

    Poole hasn't seen the film yet, but he likes the book

    Precisely the reason Poole is teaching History, rather than English Lit.

  • ||

    This puts the whole George Washington song into perspective.

  • Almanian's Evil Twin||

    Still probably the greatest thing I've seen on the YouTubes to date.

    Love it...

  • Coeus||

    Those guys had a website with a bunch of good stuff on it. Leprechaun rap and un-PC college professors. Anyone remember what it was?

  • Ben the Duck||

    Did someone say "Leprechauns"...?

  • Coeus||

    No, this was more like "bitch, gimme yo gold fillin's"

  • Hugh Akston||

    You know, Jesse, this post was all in good fun until you compared Lincoln to Buffy the Vampire Slayer in your alt-text. Show a little respect to someone who deserves it, and next time compare Lincoln to Hugh Jackman in Van Helsing.

  • ||

    The question, Hugh, is would Abe kill Angel?

  • Hugh Akston||

    If it meant preserving the Republic, yes. If it meant freeing the slaves, no.

  • ||

    What if it meant saving Charisma Carpenter? Think carefully, Hugh.

  • Hugh Akston||

    That's a tough one. He was willing to throw away 500,000 lives to protect an abstract political entity. But even he should see that no ideal is higher than Charisma Carpenter.

  • sarcasmic||

    I hope Kate Beckinsale rips Abe's head off.

  • Libertymike||

    Then, with respect to the lincoln cultists and lovers, we can hear the lamentations of their women!

  • Hugh Akston||

    I'm looking forward to the remake of T2 where the resistance sends the T800 back to stop the man who is ultimately responsible for the rise of Skynet: Barack Obama.

  • ||

    Hugh, Harlan Ellison just entered a civil suit against you in an Ohio court.

  • Hugh Akston||

    He's so prolific!

  • Aresen||

    Andrew Jackson: Genocidal Indian Killer

    Oops. Forgot this was supposed to be fictional.

  • Whiterun Guard||

    Can't have that hulk movie since two different studios own the rights to Harding's life and Marvel Comics. Maybe a fan movie, but it will suck.

    Theodore Roosevelt: Adios, el Chupacabre

  • R C Dean||

    If you've read the novel, you know that [Seth] Grahame-Smith uses materials from Lincoln's speeches and 19th century newspapers to recreate the 19th century, indeed to give it a lived-in sort of feeling. Many of my students came away from the book wanting to read some good Lincoln biographies and histories of the era....

    Nobody does this better, IMO, than Tim Powers. Although he uses more obscure historical figures, for the most part, he does an incredible job of hanging fantastic tales off of (excerpts of) real history.

  • Jesse Walker||

    And he even did a vampire novel...

  • Whiterun Guard||

    Uh, I think Thomas Pynchon could (literarily speaking) eat and crap out Tim Powers without even trying.

  • R C Dean||

    Matter of taste, of course. I'm liking the fantastical side of Powers, and have just never really gotten the Pynchon bug.

  • Whiterun Guard||

    He's great at working in historical figures into the insanity. Pot smoking George Washington, egomaniacal (yet also anarcho-liberal) Nicola Tesla, and a cameo by Franz Ferdinand that is so awesome I won't spoil it.

  • The Hammer||

    The band or the dead guy?

  • T||

    Declare is a masterpiece, although everything Tim Powers writes is pretty good.

    With the possible exception of Dinner at Deviant's Palace. Nobody wants to read about dinner at Epi's house.

  • ||

    Hey, I'm serving foie gras! Well, human foie gras, but still!

  • R C Dean||

    The Last Call series is not my fave. Anubis Gates, Declare, Stress, Stranger Tides, Drawing of the Dark, are great fun.

  • ||

    I'm curious about the source of that picture, and why none of the cannibals are wearing pants.

  • Whiterun Guard||

    Looks like it could be an Impaled or Pathologist album cover.

  • fresno dan||

    Followers of Donald Duck?

  • R C Dean||

    Well, sure, but are they Duckians, or Duckists?

  • Aresen||


  • Ben the Duck||

    I LOL'ed.

  • ant1sthenes||

    You know who else thought that people of a different race/ethnicity/religion drank the blood of children?

  • Ben the Duck||

    Vlad Tepes?

  • Suki||

    Arab Muslims?

  • Juice||

    American Indians thought Europeans drank blood and ate bones because of the wine and hardtack.

  • db||

    If you were a slave being transported to America, shipped like meat across an ocean, being sold like beasts of burden, how far a leap would it be to imagine the same slavers that captured and sold you would just as soon eat you as work you under the whip? Not very, I imagine.


Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Progressive Puritans: From e-cigs to sex classifieds, the once transgressive left wants to criminalize fun.
  • Port Authoritarians: Chris Christie’s Bridgegate scandal
  • The Menace of Secret Government: Obama’s proposed intelligence reforms don’t safeguard civil liberties