Vampires and Cannibals in American History


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.

In 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."

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.