“Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” is what happens when the nightmare of our nation’s past gets scripted as a Hollywood horror movie. The jarring confusion of race slavery with a supernatural evil constitutes both the cleverness and silliness of the film.
The movie is fluffy summer fare and it would spoil the fun to list every historical inaccuracy. Young Abe probably did not twirl a frontiersman’s ax like a baton. And Mary Todd Lincoln probably did not lead the Underground Railroad to deliver needed weapons to the Union Army at Gettysburg.
But who has time to worry about historical inaccuracy when Confederate leader Jefferson Davis is conspiring with vampires to invade the North?
Historians might scoff at these details. For my part, I was much more unsettled by the film’s claim that silver kills vampires. Everyone knows that’s for werewolves. Likewise, everyone knows that our 16th president was not a gothic slayer. But what’s less clear — and more disturbing — is how the movie simplifies the solution to systemic social problems.
The scripting of slavery as a horror story proves troubling because it represents the historical crisis over the “peculiar institution” as an uncomplicated battle of good versus evil. But many “good” Northerners profited from slavery while many more were indifferent or even supportive of its fundamental denial of black humanity. Even President Lincoln was slow to embrace the idea of black emancipation and citizenship.
Nor was the end of slavery achieved with a few decisive whacks from the legendary rail-splitter’s ax. Historical change in this case required legislative wrangling, long and painful shifts in beliefs and attitudes brought on by the abolitionist movement and a bloody Civil War that claimed far more lives than the roughly four score and seven vampires that meet the sharpened edge of Abe’s ax.
Besides, you can’t kill vampires because they are already dead.
The real horror is the fantasy that racism is easy to overcome. “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” speaks to our desire to imagine the quick eradication of enduring social problems that just won’t die.
Russ Castronovo is a professor of English and American Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.