Space Vampire vs. American Fundamentalist

A showdown in the heartland starring religious fundamentalism and Buck Rogers

Susan Gray Blue
6 min readOct 31, 2020

I know lots of you have been baking sourdough bread during lockdown, but I found a channel in London that shows American television shows from the ’70s and ’80s, so I’ve been rewatching some classics — or classics — instead. Among them, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.

Meet the space vampire aka “the Vorvon.” Illustration by Mike Capozzola.

My family watched this show almost every week during its run. The weeks we didn’t watch were whenever it looked like the wicked temptress Princess Ardala was making a guest appearance, at which point the TV would be firmly turned off. A heavy click of the dial signaled our disapproval of her space bikini wardrobe and her longing for Buck.

Many TV shows were altogether off limits in my fundamentalist, evangelical Christian household. We definitely didn’t watch anything scary, but I got all the fright I could handle straight from the pulpit anyway. We believed in a literal hell, a physical place where you could be sent to burn for eternity. But re-watching the space vampire episode just in time for Halloween this year reminded me of the most freaked-out I ever was as kid.

In case you didn’t watch the show, Buck was an astronaut from our time who somehow drifted in space for four hundred years or so and then returned to Earth. The twenty-fifth-century inhabitants who found him lived in futuristic apartments and protected the planet from interplanetary foes. Buck earned their trust, and they joined forces. Colonel Wilma Deering played a role in every episode, adeptly piloting spaceships, shooting laser guns, and remaining chaste while wearing the type of skintight pantsuit known to be favored by ladies in the future.

I loved the adventure each week, I loved when my dad mimicked the sounds of a helpful robot named Twiki, and I loved Buck’s slick space-age kitchen. (He just put his dishes on the bright red countertop and some kind of conveyor belt took them away? A dutiful Midwestern girl’s dream.)

On meeting the space vampire

Back in 1980 — which, it occurs to me, does feel like four hundred years ago — that space vampire episode scared the livin’ bejesus out of me. Wilma goes to investigate some unidentified trouble on a spaceship and encounters the Vorvon, the vampire in question. You know the type: huge head, bulging veins, pointy incisors, pops up when you least expect him. The vampire takes over Wilma, and she proceeds to lurch around the spaceship like a drunk soap opera star.

Space vampire aka metaphor for fundamentalism: once petrifying, now preposterous.

I’d never seen anything like it, and I’d never been so scared. In bed the night the show aired, I laid awake, keeping vigil, petrified, afraid to close my eyes even to blink. I’d been taught to take stories literally. I believed Jesus was coming back on a horse to kick off the apocalypse. The space vampire seemed every bit as feasible. I saw how that creepy thing could materialize wherever it pleased. Why would my bedroom be an exception? I didn’t even get around to fearing he might work his vampire skills on me. Just the notion that he might show up held enough terror.

It occurs to me now that maybe I didn’t fear the vampire taking me over because, on some level, what it threatened to do had already happened to me. Vampires go for the throat, you know, right where our voice is located, our ability to express ourselves, to assert our will. And that’s something I never learned to do as a kid.

Fundamentalist parents even use language like “breaking a child’s will” in describing their disciplinary techniques. No need to fear a vampire coming for it, I’d long ago given over my will to the authority figures in my life. I was in the thrall of religion.

Psychological truths scarier than a vampire

Psychologists have been catching up with vampire lore over the past few decades and have named this phenomenon “learned helplessness.” During the 1960s, Dr. Martin Seligman coined the term when he conducted research and discovered that dogs receiving small electric shocks became so listless that they’d eventually sit still for the shocks even when presented with a chance to escape.

My fundamentalist life had a similarly pervasive background hum of learned passivity. Years later, recognizing that tendency for what it was helped me to take my will back. Just realizing I had options helped. That part also is borne out by the research. After Dr. Seligman’s dogs were picked up and shown a couple of times that they could move their legs and escape, they started to move before the shock would get them.

But, whoa, think about that. They had to be shown physically over and over that they had any power in that environment before they regained the confidence to do anything about it.

The same was true for me. I hadn’t just invited Jesus into my heart as a young girl — I’d given my life to God. I went forward to kneel at an altar more than once to show my commitment, and it wasn’t something I forgot about when the service ended. I wanted nothing more than to please Jesus.

It took me a long time to realize that fundamentalism is a vampire that takes your will to live. After years of doing what I was told, my will had been drained right out of me. (I’m not talking about all types of religion here, by the way, just the specific fundamentalist interpretation known to so many of us in America.)

Unibrowed creature, begone!

But now I’ve re-watched that space vampire episode, and — guess what? — it’s not petrifying! It’s all-out campy fun. The only scary thing about that vampire is his gravity-defying unibrow. His red glowing eyes make the same sound effect each time he takes someone over, he shoots weird purple light from his palms, and he wears way too much white makeup. It’s all so silly.

And guess what else? Fundamentalism has no more hold over me today than that pasty vampire. It’s done. I took it on. I mean “took it on” in that fundamentalism first took me over; and I mean “took it on” in that I eventually stood up and kicked it in its stupid vampire face.

I know, I know — you’re not supposed to kick vampires in their stupid vampire faces. You’re supposed to stab them with pointy sticks or fire silver bullets at them or arm yourself with garlic or crosses. Every story is different, and I’m just letting you know that I found face-kicking to be helpful. I was careful to face-kick only the stupid system itself, of course, and not the other people who’d also fallen prey to it.

I loosened the grip of fundamentalism on my life slowly, letting go of my beliefs one by one, until entire philosophies starting crumbling from my psyche like legions of vampires disintegrating in the light.

Then one day I knew its power no longer worked on me: I felt completely free. That realization felt like every happy ending ever. It even felt a little bit like that unmistakable moment at the end of every Buck Rogers episode, when the foe of the week had been vanquished, and Wilma and Buck and the crew gathered to share a laugh or a knowing smile.

May your story also end with knowing glances or a smile.

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