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Netflix’s Castlevania takes aim at religion

Warren Ellis’s script takes the game’s themes to a new level

Netflix’s Castlevania animated series Netflix

When I first sat down to watch the four short episodes of Netflix’s Castlevania series, I did not expect to walk away with a newfound distaste for organized religion. I mean, why would I? The show started out as a straight-to-DVD animated film, and for the most part, it hits all of the usual beats of the genre. Castlevania is a competent anime-style adaptation with decent action, solid animation and a reasonably compelling arc in which Trevor Belmont must overcome his apathy to save the city of Gresit from Dracula’s demon army.

The following contains spoilers for the first season of Netflix’s Castlevania.

What’s odd is that Dracula is only nominally the villain for much of the first season. After several appearances in the pilot episode, he unleashes his army and then drifts into the background, a looming presence akin to Sauron in the early stages of The Lord of the Rings. Warren Ellis’s script instead makes the Church the primary antagonist, positioning organized religion as a malevolent force that perpetrates cruelty and evil.

Though the specific sect is never identified – the iconography and the late medieval time period suggest a generic Catholicism – the Church is the source of much of the misery depicted in the show, and is directly responsible for the inciting incident. When Castlevania opens, Dracula is a recluse living in voluntary exile. The skeletons on his front lawn indicate that he is still dangerous, but he does not present an imminent threat to the rest of Wallachia. His demon army is an outpouring of vengeful grief, summoned only after an unnamed Bishop accuses Dracula’s human wife, Lisa, of witchcraft and burns her at the stake for her alleged crimes.

In truth, the execution is the first hint at the show’s brazen anti-religiosity. Lisa is not a witch, but a compassionate doctor practicing modern medicine while attempting to kickstart the enlightenment. Unfortunately, the Church has established itself as the final authority on all matters both worldly and divine, and therefore tries to expunge chemistry, curiosity and anything else that would challenge its intellectual hegemony. The Church is portrayed as a political body that prioritizes fealty over service, rejecting anything that would benefit its citizens if it contradicts the existing dogma.

Castlevania Netflix Netflix

The subsequent catastrophe is a manifestation of the Church’s rigid attempts to maintain control, and leads to an official response that exacerbates the situation. The Bishop claims to speak with the will of the divine. When he finally encounters Trevor, he tells him, “The people of this city are mine and our Lord’s now, and they’ll do as I ask in his name.” By elevating himself to godhood (the Bishop later declares, “I will be the Church”), he claims the right to enact policy without any checks on his authority.

That gives marginalized groups no recourse when those policies turn out to be monstrous. The Speakers are a nomadic minority residing in Gresit. Convinced that they are unholy, the Bishop plans to murder them in order to cleanse the city, a brutal scheme that does nothing to address the demonic presence.

As a result, the Bishop makes those lives significantly worse, exposing Gresit to repeated attacks from the undead through his own actions and his refusal to accept assistance from those he considers unholy. Prior to the show, the Church excommunicated the Belmont family for using holy relics to combat demonic forces, thereby alienating the only clan with the practical knowledge needed to defeat Dracula. Even as Gresit crumbles and the body count rises (Castlevania can be jarringly gruesome), the Bishop perceives Trevor as a destabilizing threat rather than an ally. The same is true of the Speakers, whose knowledge the arcane is equally useful against Dracula.

Of course, the Bishop’s proposed massacre has little to do with Dracula or Christianity. Channeling unrest towards vulnerable scapegoats allows him to take advantage the instability, manipulating people’s fear in order to consolidate his own power. His efforts fail, but not before the loss of countless innocent lives, a preventable act that speaks to the collateral damage caused by zealots (once again, the Bishop is culpable for Dracula’s grief -- and the subsequent rampage).

That’s the basis of the show’s critique. The Bishop – and by extension, the whole religious infrastructure – will doom everyone to annihilation before admitting fault, and thus cannot be trusted to protect the interests of a secular population. His comeuppance drives that home with particular violence. The leader of the demon army enters the cathedral and devours the Bishop at the altar, but not before forcing the Bishop to confront his own hypocrisy and recognize that he is an arrogant, ignorant and ungodly human being. Castlevania’s message is not ambiguous: Organized religion is an instrument of evil that leads straight to Armageddon.

It’s not the most nuanced take on the subject matter, but it is a welcome one given the circumstances. The shock is not that Castlevania is so explicit – though that is a surprise – but that Castlevania takes a stance at all, because it’s not as if Castlevania is known for being a socially conscious franchise. Though the games have religious iconography, the series is more famous for pioneering the Metroidvania style than it is for any anti-religious tendencies.

At the same time, Castlevania is a more interesting show – and a better adaptation – thanks to that bravado. If nothing else, it gives viewers something to talk about. A conversation about any of the Castlevania games can focus solely on gameplay, as players trade secrets and swap strategies for overcoming the game’s toughest bosses. The same is not true for something presented in a non-interactive format. A TV show needs some thematic substance, and the stark anti-religiosity seems like a mark of clear authorial intent, especially given Ellis’s public declarations of atheism in interviews and his other works.

Castlevania Netflix Netflix

It turns what could have been a disposable distraction into a blunt allegory with modern implications. Organized religion can still operate in much the same fashion, as reflected in Prosperity Gospel televangelists like Kenneth Copeland and Creflo Dollar, who asked for $65M in donations because god wanted him to have a bigger private jet. Castlevania does not have any immediate bearing on current events - that would be a stretch - but the patterns depicted in the show are still evident today. Influential people frequently use religion as a PR tool to achieve personal or political goals.

That’s ultimately what makes Castlevania so effective. Ellis’s portrayal of the Church is not subtle, but it fits the genre and the obvious parallels feel appropriate on a modern television show set during the middle ages. Even though our knowledge of science has improved, we still fear what we don’t understand. When someone in a position of authority demands obedience, it usually expresses a desire for power rather than a promise of salvation.

Despite the anti-Church sentiment and Ellis’s own leanings, Castlevania is not truly atheist, or even strictly anti-religious. During the final showdown, Trevor enlists a “properly ordained” priest with the ability to make holy water, an act that introduces a traditional weapon from the games and suggests that there is indeed a divine being with some kind of connection with Christianity.

However, that small act makes the critique of organized religion all the more scathing. It implies that the corrupt priests we’ve seen up to that point – the ones bullying civilians in back alleys – are not observant members of the clergy. Rather, the Bishop is knowingly staffing his ranks with hired thugs, placing loyalty over charity. Directly or indirectly, the Church is responsible for nearly all of the destruction that happens in the first season, standing as a far more immediate threat than the distant Dracula.

It’s unclear if that will remain constant throughout the show. The Church as an organization seemed to die along with the Bishop (one of the villains needed to fall in the first season), potentially removing the Church as a central player or creating space for a more sympathetic representation. Either way, Dracula will likely take on a more prominent role in future seasons, evolving into a more conventional supervillain imbued with unholy powers.

The point is that Castlevania has already set itself apart, giving the lie to the persistent notion that games (and game adaptations) should not be political. Castlevania is compelling precisely because it’s not afraid to skirt controversy, enhancing the source material in a way that will drive debate and keep fans satisfied long after they’ve consumed the brief first season.

Future game adaptations would be wise to take note of that success (Castlevania was renewed for a second season on the day of its release). Good TV needs to have something to say. A show based on a spooky video game about killing Dracula should be no exception.

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