Next week, I will be participating in a conference, “Open Graves, Open Minds: Vampires and the Undead in Modern Culture,” at the University of Hertfordshire in the UK. I will be presenting a paper entitled “True Blood, Real Life?: Religious Fundamentalism, Gay Rights, (Non)Violence, and the American South in True Blood.” Below is my section on the portrayal of religion in the series. I welcome any and all feedback from both fans of the show or fans of the vampire genre in general.
As a native of the American South and a student of religion and popular culture, I am both attracted to and repelled by the depiction of religion in True Blood. While it is highly caricatured, it still draws attention to some of the more subtle shortcomings of American evangelicalism. Furthermore, the nature of the series’ representation of religion falls in line with a long history of film and television religiosity.
All that viewers need to do to get a sense of religion in True Blood is to watch the title sequence, which some critics claim is better than the series itself. Unlike other series that might change up its opening credits, True Blood’s has remained the same over 24 episodes, thus consistently establishing a particular tone. Accompanying Jace Everett’s theme song, “Bad Things,” viewers are hit with a barrage of images that begin with a swamp and conclude with an old-fashioned outdoor baptism. In between, images of sexuality (flashes of couples engaged in sex or a couple gyrating on the dance floor) are rapidly juxtaposed with clips of highly ecstatic religious ceremonies (people jumping up and down during worship services, dancing, or being slain in the Spirit). The line between Saturday night and Sunday morning in True Blood’s title sequence is non-existent. James Poniewozik of Time writes, “It’s a fever dream of Eros wrestling Thanatos in the middle of a tent revival.”
This title sequence is problematic for a number of reasons. First, it depicts either African American or significantly racially integrated worship settings that never feature prominently in the series itself. In fact, we only see the interior of a church, The Fellowship of the Sun, at the end of the first season and in a couple of episodes in the second. Second, the juxtaposition of erotic and religious images sexualizes American evangelical life, particularly the African American variety. As such it continues a stereotypical portrayal of evangelicalism that finds precedent in films like The Green Pastures (1936), Hallelujah! (1929), and Elmer Gantry (1960), to name a few.
Along with the title sequence, the episodes offer very little definitive information on the type of religion that the residents of Bon Temps practice. If I had to guess, I’d say it is most certainly Protestant, Baptist, and perhaps even Independent Baptist. Taking religious historian Bill Leonard’s study of Independent Baptists into account, and substituting liberals with vampires (a much safer metaphor than the homosexual one I dare say), then this comment might be helpful. Leonard writes, “[…They] refuse to associate with any groups that they consider to be theological liberals. […] For these Baptists ‘to know a liberal is to be a liberal;’ thus they reject any participation in community or ecumenical alliances that might include those whose views and practices are heretical.” The most conservative residents of Bon Temps make no distinction between vampires and “vampire sympathizers” in doling out their disdain.
Leonard’s description of Independent Baptists’ reactions to homosexuality might as well be a description of The Fellowship of the Sun’s, True Blood’s only explicitly religious organization, reaction to vampires. Leonard writes, “Independent Baptists are among the most outspoken Baptist opponents of what they often call the ‘homosexual agenda,’ publishing extensive criticism of the sin of homosexuality and the warning of the dangers that homosexuals and their supporters pose to ‘family values’ in the American Republic. They insist that gays claim ‘rights’ to which they are not entitled and are determined to secure laws that permit same-sex marital unions.” Unfortunately, The Fellowship is, more often than not, a telling reflection of American evangelicalism in both appearance and theology, or lack thereof…more on that in a moment.Although we don’t see a religious organization in the series that is open and affirming to vampires, individuals are. Such diverse approaches to vampires distance characters from one another in the series. When Sookie first meets Bill at Merlotte’s, she tells him, “Don’t worry about Sam. I know for a fact he supports the vampire rights amendment.” Bill responds sarcastically, “How progressive of him.” This brief exchange defines many American congregations’ approaches to homosexuality and many gay and lesbian’s critiques of them. Homosexuality has become a litmus test for American congregations’ liberalism but also, occasionally, an implicit permission slip to not deeply engage other social ills.
There is no positive religious identification in True Blood. That is to say, there is no clearly defined religious or theological worldview to which the residents subscribe. More often than not, they are defined by their negative reactions to vampires. Steve Newlin never gives a clear definition of what the Fellowship believes, only what it doesn’t. His argument against vampires: “If death has no meaning, then life has no meaning.” Later he asks, “How can you be a God-loving person and love something that God detests?” His wife Sarah is downright clueless in her description of what they are fighting for: “We’re fightin’ for God’s green earth, and daytime, and Christmas, and Easter eggs and all that is sacred and good…we are fightin’ for…?” Steve interrupts: “HUMAN RIGHTS! HUMAN RIGHTS!” They then fight with each other on national television.
Such theological ambiguity mirrors much of Mary Hallab’s discussion of the religious/theological implications of vampire literature in her book, Vampire God: The Allure of the Undead in Western Culture. She writes, “So then, what do we need the Devil for? Or vampires? […] The answer, for many people, is that we need them to confirm the existence of the Good, of the supernatural and transcendent Force or Providence that compels all life toward a worthwhile and rewarding future.” Yet like its predecessors, True Blood falls victim to one of Hallab’s pointed critiques. She writes, “A problem is that there often seems to be a little too much of horror and a little too little of God. […] Almost all the good people in such works are shown as weak-willed and easily misled by Satan’s emissaries. In contrast, the depiction of evil […] is more interesting, active, and graphic than seems necessary to prove the existence of goodness, which gets much briefer notice.” Moreover, in modern vampire literature and films “defending God and righteousness often requires so much violence and cruelty that it is difficult to tell the good from the evil.” Again, Steve Newlin is a case in point both with his weapons cache that represents the Light of Day Institute’s research and development and the “Meet the Sun” ritual in which a vampire is tied to a cross on a podium at sunrise.
A third aspect of religion, or religious folk, in True Blood is sheer hypocrisy. In an article on the theological implications of the vampire, A. N. Wilson writes, “[Evil] is a projection, a symbol, and provides something of a catharsis for the viewer/reader. It helps us face the darkness of life at a safe distance. It is a deflection, too, for by looking at a fictional evil, totally out there, we avoid what is here and now, around us.” As long as the residents of Bon Temps can point to the sexual deviance of vampires they can ignore their own illicit behavior, whether it is an adulterous sheriff or Sarah Newlin having sex with Jason in the church balcony. Sookie can hear the townspeople’s perversion through her telepathic abilities. Contrary to Lisa Nakamura et al’s assessment of the series, these thoughts are often highly sexist, racist, and homophobic. Steve’s attraction to Jason in the second season borders on the homosexual. Closeted or not, Steve is almost sexually aroused by the idea of an exploding vampire: “That’s gotta’ be awesome watching God’s mighty power obliterate evil right in front of your eyes.”
To be sure, there’s loads of charicatures and stereotypes wandering around in True Blood, but name me a television series that doesn’t suffer, to some degree, from this. That True Blood is HBO’s most popular series since The Sopranos says much about our obsession with vampires and the supernatural in contemporary popular culture and demands that students of religion take note.
True Blood returns for its third season in June.