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Guillermo del Toro’s Augustinian Vampires: A Review of “The Strain”

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The Strain, a horror series produced by Guillermo del Toro, ended its second season this month. The series is based on del Toro’s trilogy of novels, and it has all his hallmarks. But it also has a quality that’s less familiar, but vital for understanding his work—a religious sensibility.

But first, let’s start with the hallmarks. The plot sounds like something imagined by a twelve year old. A master vampire—from Romania, of course—travels to New York in the cargo hold of a jumbo jet. With the help of an evil billionaire and undead Nazi officers, he unleashes a plague of zombie drones to take over the world. The only hope for humanity is a doctor from the CDC, a reformed car thief, and an exterminator with an ambiguous accent. They are led by Abraham Setrakian, an octogenarian holocaust survivor who is a pawnshop owner by day, and worldwide vampire hunter by night. His weapons are a modified nail gun and a giant silver sword, and he wields them with a crusty fierceness.

An absurd plot is nothing new for del Toro. Hellboy is about a demon creature from another dimension whom the FBI recruits to fight Rasputin. Pacific Rim is about giant robots fighting giant space aliens on the bottom of the ocean. This is all part of the del Toro charm. His movies overflow with a boyish delight in subjects that appeal to our inner twelve year olds.

But The Strain is not for kids. In further del Toro fashion, he imbues his absurd premise with imaginative depth and seriousness. His creations aren’t abstractions: The vampires are grounded in a real world. Every trait has a biological explanation—del Toro doesn’t spare any of the oozing, throbbing details of vampire anatomy—and everything has a backstory. Whether it’s the Master vampire’s elaborately carved coffin or Setrakian’s endless folklore, there’s a feel of an ancient world we only get a glimpse of.

These elements are all classic del Toro. But there’s also a religious sensibility that’s common to his work—and The Strain especially—which gets less attention.

Del Toro’s background is so typical that he could be a stock character in his own movies. He grew up in Guadalajara, Mexico in a Catholic family. His family’s religion manifested itself in a morbid way, and del Toro turned from his faith. He’s now part of that great drove of “lapsed Catholics”—the ones who claim they don’t believe in God, but don’t quite seem to mean it. “I’m an atheist, thank God” he once quipped to Charlie Rose.

But even someone who knew nothing about his background could guess he’s a troubled Christian by watching The Strain. The whole series is an exercise in Christianity that keeps all the severity with none of the grace.

Religion is obvious at the surface level—three homes in the first six episodes are obviously Catholic. This is partially because of the easy juxtaposition: paintings of Mary in the living room; vampires in the basement. But it’s also the default religion for all of the religious people in the series. The show’s entire aesthetic could be described as “Catholic macabre.” Picture a nightmarish cathedral with gaunt saints and gargoyles leering over you from the red glass and stone buttresses, and you get a general feel for the series.

But the religious themes run deeper than the surface. The most unexpected theme is a connection between vampirism and an Augustinian view of sin. Del Toro’s vampirism is caused by parasitic worms. They burrow into the skin and slowly consume the host from the inside out, hollowing its organs and replacing them with a six-foot stinger that shoots from the mouth. They eventually take over the brain, leaving only a hunger for blood and a compulsion to do the Master’s bidding.

When Setrakian describes the worms, however, he ignores the biological and focuses on the moral. Vampirism, he explains, is “a corruption of both flesh and spirit.” Like sin, vampires don’t have an existence of their own. They only exist by corrupting the good—in this case their human hosts. In the same way that Tolkien’s orcs were parodies of elves, vampires are a parody of humans.

In a final Augustinian flair, the vampires make a total privation of love. After the worms take root in the victims, the first place they go is home. The freshly turned vampires desire most of all to devour the ones closest to them—their daughters, their fathers, their spouses. The love is perfectly perverted, and now compels them to destroy those they love most.

If del Toro tacitly accepts an Augustinian view of sin, he goes against Augustine in his view of evil. Rather than being a privation of the good, evil in The Strain is a pulsing, tangible entity. In a sense, it’s the most present thing in the series.

While watching the show, I kept wondering if there was any supernatural element. It’s easy to construe everything in materialist terms. Vampirism is merely caused by a worm, and a hunger for blood is simply a symptom of its infection. They obey the Master vampire the same way drone bees obey the queen.

But the series as a whole makes a materialist reading ridiculous. Every scene, even the ones with natural explanations, are permeated with an otherworldly air. The fact that del Toro clumsily incorporates the Nazis as the Master’s allies makes it even blunter. Because they’re the one group everyone in polite society recognizes as evil, it’s the simplest way of screaming to the audience that the vampires are evil too. The most obvious case is the Master himself. He’s more than simply patient zero in the disease outbreak. Setrakian explains that he’s bent on enslaving the whole world, replacing their humanity with “a raging thirst” that can never be fully quenched. The Master “excels at manipulation and misinformation,” and drives the other vampires by “his horrible will.” Del Toro may question the existence of God, but he never questions the existence of evil.

Evil’s brooding omnipresence explains another theme in The Strain—the lone hero fighting the hopeless battle. This is one the most distinguished themes in literature, and can be found everywhere from the Norse gods at Ragnarok to Gerard Butler in 300. With del Toro, the theme is especially common—it’s also in Hellboy and Pacific Rim. And it’s weirdly specific. In all three cases the heroes are dying. Stacker Pentecost, the commander in Pacific Rim, has a terminal illness. So does Trevor Bruttenholm, the wizardly father of Hellboy’s FBI bureau. And in The Strain, Setrakian fights this latest vampire attack knowing he’s too feeble to succeed. In one scene, he fails to kill a vampire because he didn’t take his heart pill.

This dynamic is strongest on the first night of the infection. Setrakian tried to warn the authorities of the vampires’ scheme, and was promptly thrown in jail for trespassing. While there, he’s visited by an old nemesis—a vampire occupying the corpse of a Nazi officer.

The vampire, after commenting on how old and withered Setrakian has become, tells him of the Master’s plan, already in motion, which cannot be stopped. He then asks Setrakian where his God is and why, after all this time, God remains silent amidst the vampires’ schemes. Setrakian’s only response is a hardened glare and exaggerated bravado.

There’s an almost identical scene in Hellboy, where Rasputin taunts the absence of Bruttenholm’s God before killing him. Bruttenholm dies clutching a rosary. Repetition of the exact scene makes it fair to assume this idea weighs on del Toro’s mind—the lone man, past his strength, fighting an ageless evil he knows he can’t beat. The hero is glorified not for his power, but for charging on despite his weakness.

The Strain says nothing here that couldn’t be echoed by the Psalmist. Feeling helpless against a dark and decaying world, enduring taunts from the godless, realizing our inability to even help ourselves. These are standard Christian tropes. But in Christianity, the next step is God stepping down into our weakness. And that’s where The Strain diverges. Instead of grace filling the gaps in our frailty, the frailty presses on against hopeless odds.

This attitude gives the series a permeating bleakness. And frankly, it gets draining. The blood-smeared walls, the gorging vampires, the Master’s gleeful indifference to human suffering takes its toll after a while. That’s why I only made it through two of the books in the trilogy, and why I had to take a break from the series early into the second season. There’s too much night, and no hint of dawn.

More troubling than the series’ grimness is my suspicion that del Toro’s worldview doesn’t equip him with a satisfying solution. Again, there’s a Hellboy parallel. Both movies open with a narrator waxing eloquent about love. In The Strain, Setrakian tells us that love is the counterpoint to hunger. It is what “defines us,” and makes us human. And it is “an unquenchable thirst that cannot be extinguished.”

That’s all well and good, but these easy platitudes can only take us so far. They don’t seem nearly sufficient for dealing with the actual world, let alone one filled with Nazi vampires.

And that may be the real downfall of The Strain. It’s not the totality of the evil, or the grimy vampires feasting on New York. It’s the inadequate response to the evil. In this way, The Strain reflects a lapsed Christianity. It’s like spending all your time in church staring at the scowling statue of the emaciated saint, without later being drawn to the cross. It’s all sin and feebleness with no grace. Perhaps the series will find the other half of the coin someday—perhaps even del Toro himself will. Until then, I’ll see how long I can watch Setrakian, arm tremoring but eyes blazing, in his hopeless rage against the dark.

Matt Mellema

Matt Mellema is an attorney in Colorado Springs, where he specializes in work with religious institutions. A Yale Law graduate from 2014, he explores evangelicalism and quitting cynicism at mattmellema.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Matt_Mellema.