What makes a vampire scary? Is it that they’re immortal? Is it that they can shapeshift, physically overpower you, and drain your blood with their teeth? Is it that their undead nature might be tied to Satan himself?
Well, in Netflix’s Castlevania, vampires are scary because they’re smarter than you.
Created by Warren Ellis, Castlevania is based on the video game series of the same name. Ellis grounds the series in its setting, 15th century Europe, and puts the characters between the rock of the church and the hard place of the forces of Hell. Under this arrangement, the average resident of one of Castlevania’s mud-drenched towns is completely fucked — figuratively, literally, generally, and specifically.
Where an average vampire story might portray the core struggle of the church vs. vampires as one of good vs. evil, Castlevania plays like an aggressive atheist’s version of a vampire story, though it’s not so insufferable as that might sound. The inciting incident of the show’s first two seasons is the death of Dracula’s wife, burned at the stake by a psychotic bishop for practicing advanced medical science, which he perceives as witchcraft. It’s not often that the villain in the first season of a vampire show is a very clear avatar for Christianity as a whole, but Ellis isn’t interested in giving an easy way out. Do you want to deal with vampires, and risk death or worse in exchange for learning their accumulated secrets? Or do you want to deal with the church, remain ignorant and oppressed, but likely alive?
Dracula reacts to his wife’s murder by launching a crusade to exterminate the entire human race. The only ones who can stop him are Trevor, the drunkard last member of the legendary Belmont family, Dracula’s half-vampire son Adrian (aka Alucard), and a member of a clan of magicians named Sypha.
The axes of power here move on scientific knowledge, which naturally includes the arcane arts. Dracula isn’t just a vampire, he’s a researcher and magician, a scholar who has unlocked some of the deepest mysteries of the universe. He wasn’t given a magic teleporting castle when he became a vampire — he had to learn the magic necessary to build and operate it. Defeating Dracula requires more power than the trio possess at the end of the first season, and the way they acquire that power is through research. They have to find the Belmont’s ancestral library, full of secret knowledge on defeating supernatural terrors, and retrieve tools and information to trap Dracula and defeat him.
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A Secret Science
Dracula’s knowledge is what drew his wife to him in the first place, and what makes his story so tragic in his son’s eyes. Alucard resolutely refuses to be complicit in his father’s homicidal madness, but he weeps over how he has lost his once-reserved, intelligent father to a deluded, suicidal war. Knowledge is power, but knowledge is pain, too, as learning everything there is to know about the human race can only lead to a painful, deadening list of atrocities. Says diplomatic vampire queen Lenore in the third season: “Humans forget things, and vampires don’t.” Is the only thing keeping us from hating our fellow humans the fact that we don’t know all their miserable piles of secrets? Do vampires devalue human life simply because they remember all that they’ve done?
The third season has four distinct storylines, somewhat unique in that none of them affect the others at any point during the ten episodes. They all hinge on arcane knowledge; Dracula’s two forgemasters, humans who can summon demons from Hell to inhabit human bodies, have to decide what to do with their training and they each get a subplot that plays out over the course of the entire season. Alucard, meanwhile, sits in the wreckage of his father’s castle pining for companionship until two young wannabe vampire hunters ask him to teach them the trade. Trevor and Sypha help a scholar find a gateway between worlds, which naturally leads straight to Hell. Knowledge is power, and all of these characters have to decide how to use it. Three of these plotlines end in unforeseen consequences –– the characters want to share what they’ve learned, but a world marked by mistrust and abuse of power turns their good intentions into tragedy all too easily.
The vampires of Castlevania are terrifying and tantalizing not only because they’re both dangerous yet sexy, but because they’re both dangerous and potential fonts of nearly unlimited knowledge. Every part of the plot flows through scientific advancement and arcane knowledge –– the characters are invested in the story on an emotional level, but frequently, the broader stakes are the information and techniques that get lost in violence. Humans lose and discard so much, the show seems to argue — how can we hope to defeat an immortal with a library?