Vampires, Gay Rights, and the Political Underpinnings of HBO’s True Blood
By Joseph Laycock | August 27, 2012
HBO’s True Blood has always been saturated with political commentary. The first episode aired in September of 2008, just months before the passage of California’s Proposition 8. That November, as Californians voted to alter the state constitution and deny marriage rights to gay citizens, millions of viewers were watching the plight of “vampire Americans” in Bon Temps, Louisiana. The show’s opening sequence featured footage of Civil Rights marches in the South juxtaposed with a roadside sign that declared, “God hates fangs.” The New York Post quickly labeled the show a “gay-rights analogy” and writer Alan Ball was voted one of Out magazine’s “Power List” of influential gay Americans.
The fifth season, which ended on Sunday night, continues to blend paranormal fantasy with contemporary issues. A veteran appears to be having a psychotic break. In reality, he is being stalked by an Ifrit (a malevolent fire spirit from Arabian folklore) sent to avenge the death of a wise woman he reluctantly killed in Iraq. Meanwhile, a hate group called “The Obamas” has been murdering and terrorizing the show’s supernatural characters. The group’s name is derived from the Halloween masks they wear—which depict the president—when waging their war to restore America from the subversive presence of “the supes” (supernatural minorities).
The show often looks at religion as well. Previous plots have involved charismatic Christian exorcists, mega-churches that fund anti-vampire militias, and characters who become practitioners of esoteric religions such as Santeria and Wicca. Last season, we learned that the Spanish Inquisition was actually a front for vampires who had manipulated the Catholic Church into providing them with a steady supply of victims.
The main plot arc of the current season is particularly dark and portrays a horrific blend of vampire politics, religion, and secrecy. This too is meant as a reflection of our current political landscape. In an interview, Alan Ball explained:
Some of the things being said by some people during the Republican primary were so horrifying to me that I thought, “What if vampires wanted a theocracy? What would that look like?” Whenever anybody thinks they know what God wants and wants to apply that to government, whether Americans or the Taliban, it’s kind of a terrifying thing.
In the first season of True Blood, vampires revealed their existence to the world and attempted to “mainstream” into American society as one more identity group within a robust democracy. Vampires formed “The American Vampire League” to lobby for equal rights for the undead. But while many vampires are sincere in their desire to live openly among humans, the most horrifying aspects of their society remain hidden from the public.
The American Vampire League is actually funded and controlled by a sinister cabal called “The Authority” that rules vampire society. The show’s vampire characters must obey the Authority, which acts as a secret state within a state. Vampires who step out of line can expect execution or elaborate torture involving silver and ultra-violet light.
The Authority was introduced in the first season and each plot arc has revealed a little more of the organization’s nature and motives. In the fifth season, we meet the members of the Authority and its leader, Roman Zimojic (Law and Order’s Christopher Meloni). It turns out that the Authority is actually a secret theocracy that worships Lilith, which the drama depicts as the legendary first vampire. Vampires claim that their sacred text, “The Book of Lilith,” predates the Hebrew Bible.
Ball borrows the name “Lilith” from Jewish folklore. Lilith is precedented in several ancient Mesopotamian texts before appearing as a female demon in the Babylonian Talmud. By the Middle Ages, she was described as the spurned first wife of Adam who seeks revenge on the children of Eve. Popular culture frequently re-imagines Lilith as a primeval vampire because of her associations with the demonic, sexuality, and ancient civilizations. In True Blood, The Book of Lilith states that vampires were created in the image of God. Adam and Eve were merely sustenance created for God’s first creation and the first vampire, Lilith.
Authority leader Zimojic, who supports cooperation with humans, applies a liberal reading of the vampire holy book. He regards its teachings as metaphorical and opposes fundamentalist vampires who believe that the indiscriminate slaughter of humans is their God-given right. In fact, Zimojic is so certain that his reading of the text is correct, that he tortures other vampires for days to discern if they have any fundamentalist leanings. But despite his paranoid and despotic regime, he is still overthrown in a coup led by his lieutenant, Salome Agrippa (she became a vampire shortly after lobbying for the death of John the Baptist). Her fundamentalist sect, the Sanguinistas, begins to run vampire society. They murder a Pentagon liason to the Authority, leaving America teetering on the brink of a civil war between the living and the dead. Next, they turn on each other after each council member experiences a vision of Lilith, who appears as a naked woman covered in blood. Each comes to believe that he or she alone has a divine mandate to rule vampire society and sets out to murder fellow members.
How exactly did Alan Ball come up with this by watching the Republican primary? More importantly, what can be gained by analyzing a show where sexy actors pretend to drink each other’s blood? True Blood should be taken seriously for two reasons. First, there is the show’s massive audience. With an average viewership of nearly 12 million per episode, it is one of HBO’s most successful series, second only to The Sopranos. Episode summaries appear in blogs hosted by CNN and the Wall Street Journal. This kind of audience means that True Blood represents a public conversation about contemporary issues.
Second, while Alan Ball does not have specialized knowledge in either religion or politics, he has produced stories that fascinate and (especially this season) horrify. Religion scholars such as the University of Waterloo’s Douglas Cowan have noted that successful horror stories are often a useful window into widely held cultural fears, particularly religious ones. He explains in Sacred Terror, “There must be something within the audience that the filmmaker can exploit. In the case of cinema horror, there must be some fear a director can tap into and bring to life on the screen, if only for a moment.” If millions of people find Ball’s tale compelling, this may indicate a widely held fear about where power resides in our own society.
With this in mind, what is the fear portrayed through the Authority and its deadly game of theocratic intrigue? Part of the horror of the Authority is simply that its worldview and values are derived from a religion that is totally unknowable and alien to human sensibilities. Members are willing to torture, kill, and overthrow governments because of a strange book that no human has ever known. Because their ideology is rooted in faith, it cannot be debated rationally. This may well be how the rhetoric of the Religious Right appears to some Americans, particularly those who are not familiar with Biblical literature. For young Americans raised in secular households, the claim that marriage rights cannot be extended to gay couples because of passages found in Leviticus is likely just as unfathomable (if not repugnant) as Agrippa’s claim that humans are food because it is written in the Book of Lilith.
Also frightening is the fact that the Authority operates in secret. In the world of True Blood, it is one of the most powerful groups on the planet, yet its existence is totally unknown to the general public. Perhaps this theme of secret power resonates with a new feature of our political landscape, the superPAC, which greatly enhances the power of wealthy cabals to control elections from behind the scenes. As a religious cabal, the Authority also bears resemblance to recent portrayals of the Christian political group “The Family”––particularly Jeff Sharlet’s book The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power. “The Family” or “The Fellowship” is a secretive evangelical organization with extensive political connections both in the United Stated and abroad. Sharlet attended a meeting in Arlington, Virginia, where leader David Coe reportedly explained, “You guys are here to learn how to rule the world.” Much like The Family, the Authority follows a religious vision that requires political power, which in turn requires secrecy.
But members of the Authority also hide their religious convictions from each other. Agrippa pretends to support cooperation between humans and vampires but is secretly a zealous Sanguinista. Zimojic labels his opponents as “fanatics” while blithely torturing those around him in an effort to detect Sanguinistas. The plot stews in paranoia that everyone is lying about their religious beliefs. Perhaps this storyline also resonates with the current political situation, in which critics frequently cast doubts about the religious affiliation of political candidates. A recent Pew Forum Survey found that 40 percent of voters are unaware that Mitt Romney is a Mormon. Meanwhile, an astounding 17 percent believe that Barack Obama is a Muslim. Ongoing doubts about Obama’s religion now seem about as reasonable as Zimojic’s insistence that anyone who has not undergone torture cannot be trusted.
Finally, those members of the Authority who are not ideological zealots reveal themselves to be hypocrites and megalomaniacs. Steve Newlin was featured in the second season as an evangelical minister and the secret leader of a vampire-slaying Christian militia group called the Fellowship of the Son. But after the Authority makes him a vampire at the end of season four, he happily renounces Jesus and humanity in exchange for political power. Russel Edgington, a particularly unscrupulous vampire, pretends to believe in Lilith only until he decides that feigning piety is not worth the political rewards. Ultimately, no religious vision is fulfilled by the Authority, and its machinations only create a platform for the truly wicked to assume power. This theme reflects contemporary concerns that religious values are easily manipulated by the politically power-hungry. For some viewers, Newlin and Edgington may have more in common with Karl Rove than Vlad the Impaler.
Of course, the Religious Right is not the Authority any more than gay Americans are vampires and shape-shifters. Rather, the Authority articulates fears that Ball experienced while watching the Republican primary. Rick Santorum explained that JFK’s 1960 speech affirming the separation of church and state made him want to “throw up.” Michele Bachmann suggested that Hurricane Irene and an earthquake that struck the east coast were divine chastisements for government spending (Her campaign claimed this comment was made in jest). Rick Perry received wild applause when a moderator asked about his state’s exceptionally high rates of execution. Others cheered when Ron Paul was asked a hypothetical question about a man being allowed to die because he had neglected to buy health insurance. Taken together, these comments portrayed a political culture that was zealous, brutal, and frightening. Even Karl Rove called the primary some of “the worst moments for the Republicans.” It is easy to see how this rhetoric could inspire this season’s True Blood—and the story about a sadistic theocracy with an insatiable thirst for power and human blood.
Joseph Laycock teaches religion at Piedmont Virginia Community College and is the author of Vampires Today: The Truth About Modern Vampirism.
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