A blog series about Gothic horror media that inspired Project Vampire Killer, my novel about vampires, cinema-as-sorcery, space weed, and the glorious Gothic ascendant
As a youngster, my horror education was woefully inadequate. I was rarely exposed to horror movies, usually only through what I happened to catch on late-night broadcast TV, whose slim offerings were edited down and sanitized, or those “bad” films my cousins recorded off of satellite TV that I wasn’t supposed to watch. The horror book selection in our school library and Bookmobile system was paltry and kid-focused, laden with books with happy endings or the “it wasn’t really a monster or supernatural after all” trope that pissed me off back then as much as it does now.
It was a video game, not a movie or a book, that led me into a lifelong love affair with Gothic horror. For several Halloween seasons, I would arrive home after an hour-long bus ride to play a borrowed copy of Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse. I did—and still do—greatly enjoy the music, the gloomy background art, and the monsters’ lovingly rendered sprites.
It was the game’s opening cinematic—complete with film strip borders—that first captured my attention. It begins with atmospheric music (which, while incredible in the US release, is exceeded by the richer Japanese version) that leads to an establishing shot of Dracula’s purple castle set among the Carpathian mountains. Lightning strikes reveal the title, and a text scroll follows. While “He practiced sorcery to create a bad world filled with evil” may not be high-minded writing, the story outlined by the sparse copy and the evocative sprite illustrations primed my young mind for the adventure ahead.
The moody music in the name entry screen, followed by the explosive opening cutscene of Trevor Belmont standing up to throw his cloak back beneath a massive cross lit by flashes of lightning, is about as cool, concise, and effective a shot one might encounter in vampire cinema, let alone a video game.
The gameplay is slow and deliberate—but not boring—requiring precise timings for attacks, movement, and leaps of faith. Flying medusa heads, gargoyles, goblins, dragon skeletons, zombies, undead pirates, vampire bats, and more threaten and attack across stages that evoke the Gothic horror films that I would see years and decades later: a besieged European village, a haunted forest, stone ruins, catacombs, trap-filled dungeons, a ghost ship, and of course Dracula’s castle.
These environments (and many of their hazards) are pulled directly from The Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism, The Haunted Palace, The Bloody Pit of Horror, the Blind Dead series, the Universal monster films, and of course, Hammer’s Dracula and Frankenstein pictures. When I finally saw these movies as an adult, I realized that it was Castlevania that had first burned these images into my subconscious, giving me the initial visual and thematic vocabulary for one of my preferred styles of horror, a tool set that I would ultimately employ in Project Vampire Killer.
That the game was far too challenging for me as a kid was an issue, of course, but passwords, the extra lives code (“HELP ME”), and extreme boredom helped me stick with the game, even if I did not beat it until I was an adult. With the release of the Castlevania Anniversary Collection on all major gaming platforms, I’ve played through the game multiple times, only using save states to record my progress between levels, and not to mitigate the consequences of losing a life. Playing the game with only the lives and continues the game offers is a satisfying experience—you actually get better at the game, rather than relying on experience points and stat buffs to brute force your way forward. I would however recommend that players start with the Japanese version, Akumajō Densetsu, as it is balanced better, less frustrating to play, uncensored, and has a stronger soundtrack. (It is also included in the Castlevania Anniversary Collection.)
Super Castlevania IV came next, and was a step forward in graphics and gameplay, but only featured one character and no branching paths. It remains a personal favorite, as does the original Castlevania, Castlevania: Bloodlines for the Sega Genesis, and Rondo of Blood that capped off the traditional side-scrolling era of the franchise. Symphony of the Night would emerge as a remix of that classic formula, expanding upon the mechanics first introduced in Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest but delivering on their promise through refined design and the incredible audio and graphics capabilities of the Sony PlayStation.
What followed was an age of “metroidvania” style action-RPGs that did not, for me, live up to the dark, challenging, more straightforward, Gothic horror of the original games. I never played the reboot series, and the “spiritual successor” Bloodstained series strays too far from those Gothic roots into overwrought anime design for my tastes (although the Ritual of the Moon subseries has some great platforming action more in line with Castlevania III). Bloodborne is the closest thing we have to a contemporary Castlevania game, taking the inspiration the series provided to Dark Souls’ gameplay and running full bore into Gothic (and cosmic!) horror territory.
Castlevania III helped ignite in me an appreciation for Gothic horror tropes and imagery well before I ever encountered the source material that inspired it. I did not have anyone to show me the way, until Hitoshi Akamatsu and his team at Konami came along, delivering a game that would help shape my taste in culture, film, and literature for decades to come. Project Vampire Killer references the iconography and themes of Castlevania, and had I not played Dracula's Curse when I was younger, I doubt the book would exist at all.