This weekend, everything you learned in history class takes a backseat to blockbuster entertainment as Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter unleashes itself upon the masses. It’s the story of our nation’s sixteenth president and his secret campaign against the bloodsucking undead. This is not the first fantastical cinematic recasting of historical figures. Earlier this year, James McTeigue’s The Raven offered the supposition that Edgar Allen Poe not only wrote chilling horror stories, but also matched wits with serial killers. Nor will Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter be the last example of this trend. Later this year, we’ll see FDR: American Badass, in which Franklin Roosevelt hunts werewolves, and there’s even talks of a pending movie in which sailor John Paul Jones battles sea monsters.
So what’s the deal with all these history/fantasy mash-ups? Did Inglourious Basterds instill in us a desire to revise history to more satisfying ends? Are we so desperate for twists on familiar movie tropes that we have begun trying to incorporate them into historical context simply to lend them some sort of added subconscious legitimacy? It’s not as if there weren’t enough movies hitting theaters this summer that we absolutely needed a high concept action horror film to entice people to the multiplexes.
It could be that this new craze is the natural evolution of something that’s been a part of our shared national heritage for hundreds of years: the tall tale. There was a time—before the inception of social media, the Internet, or even film itself—in which people would hand down these fish stories of legendary figures accomplishing unbelievable deeds or facing down incalculable odds. Characters like Johnny Appleseed, Paul Bunyan, Calamity Jane, and John Henry became American folk heroes. Their feats and their stories were mythic and they were born of the frontier spirit. They were fearless, self-reliant, and possessed of either gargantuan stature or inhuman strength; thematically communicating the zeitgeist of manifest destiny and pioneer survival.
Most interesting about folk heroes, the fodder of tall tales, is the instances wherein tall tales and history begin to overlap like a Venn diagram of fiction and fact. The best example of this crossover has to be Texan hero Davy Crockett. His actions during the battle of the Alamo canonized him into American folklore. Yet, if you believe the folksong, he also killed a bear at age three. Even though some of the finer details of his exploits are the subject of controversy, the fact remains that there is documented proof of his existence; a (once) living legend.
Take a slight step further and arrive at one of history’s greatest leaders: Abraham Lincoln. This is a man who saved a young nation from being ripped apart by secession and took the first decisive steps toward racial equality; eradicating generations of bondage and oppression. So why then add a fictive vampire hunting hobby to the man’s story? It’s possible that his actual deeds are so heroic that they had to amplify his legend with genre trappings in order to market it to modern audiences. Our need for heroes has advanced to the point that we begin retrofitting comic book sensibilities to even those figures who once earned monuments by virtue of their actual accomplishments.
Yet therein lies the catalyst for the evolution of the tall tale. The boundaries of our nation became tangible, the qualities we admired shifted, and eventually tall tales became so tall they were able to leap buildings in a single bound. As comic books began to redefine heroism, they actually began to push the concept of a tall tale into a more exaggerated and graphically pronounced medium. Leave that to stew for a few decades and superheroes are the new representations of mythic idealism. Spandex-clad folk heroes, their metaphor-laden origins and spectacular talents becoming pop culture lore as they move from the confines of literature to the silver screen. But it’s reaching a tipping point now wherein superhero films are so ubiquitous that the tall tales they weave are losing their appeal. The larger-than-life factor, a requisite for the tall tale, is taken for granted.
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, and all historical fantasies of that ilk, is both a look backward at what used to distinguish a folk hero and the next logical stage of development in the evolution of the tall tale. Now, if they could only get that Johnny Appleseed: Zombie Slayer off the ground, we’d be in business.
[Photo Credit: 20th Century Fox]