True Blood: Religion and Despair (1)

When the HBO show, True Blood began its now multi-season run, most of the stories and themes centered on Bill Compton and Sooke Stackhouse and their struggles to survive a world where reality had no clear and rational foundation and where their love for each other was both dangerous and avant-garde. The first few seasons also circled around relationships between the undead and the living using invocation, prayer and magic to explain the inexplicable. The lifeblood of the show was its use of special effects to conjure up ghosts and various other strange deviations of the human form and human reality. This season, the show has morphed into a profound critique of religion and fundamentalism in the United States and elsewhere.


True Blood is not only examining the rise of religion in American life, it is also exploring the pagan underpinnings of so many of the rituals and beliefs that are the foundation for religious obsessions. Religion is unveiled as an alternate reality suffused with rules and processes that are embedded with superstitions, fears and fantasies, medieval in content, outlook and action.

The show's characters find themselves in a world that is governed by magic, superstition and enchantment. The medieval Louisiana village that the characters inhabit is peopled by men and women who can transform into dogs, birds and sorcerers. These people can invoke powerful spirits and control the bodies and minds of the innocent while themselves succumbing to the nether worlds that surround their everyday activities. In this village, there are fairies and fairy worlds. There is necromancy, reincarnation, witchcraft and much more. There are magic spells that overwhelm the bodies of those that use them and an endlessly erotic interaction between vampires and humans that is entirely other worldly in its intensity.

Vampires represent everything that religion promises to humans, from eternal life right through to institutions designed to protect the faithful from themselves and their enemies. But, they are also repugnant figures born from death and always at the edge of extinction. They are the creatures from the borderlands between the living and dead who neither fit into society nor know how to control their desires. When they invoke morality, it is always with ulterior motives. Their bodies are empty but their 'blood' can heal the wounds of humans. As metaphors, vampires represent all the urges humans have to repress and negate. They are weirdly religious and come from the other side, the dark side of humanity. 

Incantations abound in every show. Words can release a vampire child from his or her maker. The right incantation can bring humans back from the dead, awaken spirit worlds, exorcise devils and define the future. The right statement at an appropriate time can shift and even reality allowing it to be shaped by vision and thought.

In fact, it is the power of words that best describes the show's exploration of religion. The right words formulated properly confer upon objects not only the power to be subjects but give willpower and subjectivity to nearly everything and everyone. This is simply an extension of the belief that the words of a priest for example, are enough to forgive the transgressions of sinners or that the baptismal act has the power to cross the line between innocence and belief. The language characters use is steeped in religious symbolism and the power of words is strong enough to bring spirits and witches back from the dead. Bodies can be inhabited by the devil or by other forms of black magic. Make an oath, take an oath — and you have done something sacred with consequences that reach backwards in history and forwards to your own survival. 

True Blood proposes that our culture and our society has returned to pagan times. The enlightenment never happened in 'Bon Temps' — so named because it is a town that has become a repository for the consequences of paganism, a place that exists outside of history. Miracles, both good and bad happen in Bon Temps everyday. Reality is stripped of pretense as the interaction between vampires, witches and magicians becomes a normal part of everyday life. The interface between the supernatural and the real has dissolved in Bon Temps. 

Part Two…