The 1990 NES classic Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse opens with a striking image. Our hero, Trevor Belmont, is seen kneeling in front a cross in prayer before heading off to slay Dracula. And, indeed, along with his trusty whip, an axe and a knife, Trevor also makes use of holy water, rosaries and crosses in his battle with the forces of darkness. It’s rare in pop culture – especially in video games – to see a protagonist so unapologetically identified as a Christian. And yet it feels almost unremarkable within the horror aesthetic of Konami’s franchise (imagine, as a thought experiment, the public reaction to a sports game where your character would pray before a cross in preparation for a match).
The premise of Castlevania is quite basic: every century, Count Dracula and his forces rise again to wreak havok upon the world. Fighting him through the generations is the Belmont family, who are almost always inexplicably the only people who can save the world. Its a Japanese take on a lot of Western horror tropes and characters, with particular attention given to the gothic stylings of classic Hollywood monster movies. Familiar faces like Frankenstein’s monster, mummies, medusas, ghouls and zombies all make repeat appearances.
A lot of these monsters strike me as some of the last holdovers of our folklore, emerging as they often do from various legends, myths and tall tales. The quaintness of fairy tale logic still surrounds them; everyone knows a werewolf can only be defeated by a silver bullet, and a vampire with a stake through the heart.
But they can also be holdovers of philosophical and theological anxieties. Mary Shelley’s story of Frankenstein is a reflection on the dangers of playing God and taking control over life and death into one’s own hands. The vampire is really an anti-eucharist: in contrast to the God who gives his own flesh and blood so that his children should have eternal life, the vampire is a selfish, soulless being who prolongs his own life by feasting on the blood of others. Considered in that light it actually seems quite fitting that Castlevania makes Count Dracula the head honcho of evil.
And, of course, if you’re going to have supernatural evil in your story, it makes sense that the good guys would also have a spiritual character to them – especially if you want them to win. Hence why the Church and all her imagery are often associated in some fashion with the protagonists, even if in a superficial or sensationalized way. Trevor knows that he’ll need God’s help to defeat Dracula.
But there is also something inherently dramatic and spooky with Catholic imagery in particular which media like Castlevania makes use of. The Catholic Church is, after all, the one which always depicts the cross with Christ nailed to it, to say nothing of the occasional bone chapel you’ll find in Europe. This aspect of the Church at times has struck people as a bit ghoulish and morbid. But I’ve always found it to be paradoxically consoling in a manner similar to the Psalms of lament in the Old Testament. It reminds me that the suffering we face in life is not only acknowledged by God, but something he is present with us in. Should I show up to Church in a miserable state, the crucifix is a stark reminder of what I’m joining my suffering with.
But back to Castlevania. There’s a manner in which its cyclical story is similar to the story of our own lives. Our salvation is a lifelong process, a lifelong struggle. And, like Dracula rising up again and again, it is often the same sins that we find ourselves struggling with. Even through the generations, the circumstances may change but underneath it all are the same evils to contend with. And we need all the help we can get.
But, perhaps unlike Castlevania‘s convoluted timeline, it’s not an endless fight. After all, Halloween is really just the eve of All Saints Day, where we venerate the saints who have already crossed the finish line, and hope that we’ll get there too.