Magic and Mental Illness in George Romero’s Martin

What’s your favorite George Romero movie? For most horror fans, it’s probably Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, or Creepshow, and understandably so. Those are some of the best horror films ever made, so they’re all great picks. But personally, I’d have to go a different route. My favorite Romero movie is Martin, an often-forgotten vampire gem that turns the subgenre upside down.

It’s about a young guy named Martin who thinks he’s a vampire, but it’s not clear if he really is or not. Sure, Martin drinks blood, but he doesn’t have any of the supernatural abilities or weaknesses we typically associate with vampires. For example, he can walk around in sunlight just fine, and he doesn’t have fangs or hypnotic powers. Instead, he has to inject his victims with a sedative and cut them with a razor to quench his thirst. It’s a fascinating twist on the typical vampire mythology we all know and love, and it makes for a viewing experience unlike anything else the subgenre has to offer.

What’s more, in typical Romero fashion, Martin also features some biting social commentary. It uses its unconventional premise to shed important light on the topic of mental illness, and it does so in a way that’s a bit more nuanced than you might expect. It’s just a breath of fresh air all around, so let’s take a deep dive into this underseen classic and see what lessons it has in store for us.

“There Isn’t Any Magic”

Cuda holding a crucifix

When Martin begins, the titular vampire travels to Pittsburgh to live with his cousin Tateh Cuda and Cuda’s granddaughter Christina, and almost immediately after he arrives at his new home, the movie starts raising questions about the true nature of his condition. For example, Cuda thinks Martin is a supernatural, Dracula-esque vampire, and when he shows Martin to his bedroom, he unveils a hidden mirror, clearly expecting his cousin to cast no reflection in it.

However, the mirror shows Martin’s image clear as day, and when Cuda sees it, he becomes visibly disappointed. Then, a few moments later, he tries to use garlic and a crucifix to repel the poor guy, but they don’t have any effect, showing once again that Martin isn’t the kind of vampire Cuda thinks he is.

That scene also shows us a black-and-white flashback to Martin’s past, and in it, he utters a very telling line: “There isn’t any magic. It’s just a sickness.” At first, you might just gloss over those words without giving them much thought, but they’re actually really important. Martin repeats that sentiment multiple times throughout the film, so it’s clearly his own understanding of his condition. He acknowledges that he’s a vampire, but he denies that there’s anything supernatural about him. Instead, he thinks he just has a mysterious disease that makes him have to drink blood.

On top of all that, there’s also a third point of view here. Cuda’s granddaughter Christina doesn’t buy into her grandfather’s beliefs about the supernatural, so she agrees with Martin that he’s just sick. However, she disagrees with her cousin about the nature of his affliction and what he should do about it. She thinks he’s mentally ill, and at one point in the film, she suggests that he go see a doctor. She even offers to take him, but he refuses. He says he’s seen doctors before, and nobody has been able to help him.

The Truth About Martin

Martin with fangs

So which of those three viewpoints is right? Martin doesn’t explicitly give us an answer, but there are enough clues that we can figure it out for ourselves. For starters, I think it’s fair to say that Tateh Cuda is clearly wrong. Not only do all of his supernatural weapons and remedies prove completely ineffective, but he’s also a huge jerk. He’s super closed-minded, and he absolutely refuses to acknowledge what anybody else thinks or wants. To take just one example, there’s a scene where Christina cooks dinner for the family, and she says she’s making Cuda’s favorite dish because he usually gets his way around the house.

Admittedly, that’s a pretty minor detail, but it’s in the movie for a reason. It’s one more example of how selfish and stubborn this guy is, so he’s clearly not the kind of character the film wants us to sympathize with. In contrast, Martin’s understanding of his condition is much closer to the truth, but I don’t think it’s entirely reliable either. If Christina is correct and his disease is mental rather than physical, it makes sense that he might have some false ideas about himself.

To be fair, that just leaves us at a stalemate, so to really seal the deal, we have to look at one last piece of evidence. Cuda believes his cousin’s condition is caused by some sort of demonic possession, and at one point in the movie, he even has a priest visit the house and perform an exorcism on the poor guy. On top of that, several of Martin’s flashbacks involve similar exorcisms being performed on him as well, and unsurprisingly, none of those rituals ever work. It’s clear that Martin isn’t actually possessed, and the way I see it, that’s our smoking gun.

Throughout history, mental illness has often been mistaken for demonic possession, and to this day, it’s still the standard naturalistic explanation for alleged cases of possession. So when we see those two ideas juxtaposed in this film, it’s almost certainly not a coincidence. George Romero was a smart and thoughtful filmmaker, so he knew exactly what he was doing. He was intentionally contrasting demonic possession and mental illness and railing against narrow-minded fundamentalists who see demons around every corner. People who are mentally ill need doctors, not exorcists, so if we give them the wrong kind of treatment, we’ll just be adding to their pain.

A Nuanced Message

a priest performing an exorcism

In fact, there are even a few times when the movie seems to renounce exorcism and religion entirely. For example, Martin himself at one point says, “Things only seem to be magic. There is no real magic. There’s no real magic ever.” However, I don’t think Martin is speaking for the film as a whole here. That’s just his own view, but it’s not the only one the movie expresses (and I’m not talking about Tateh Cuda’s beliefs!).

There’s a scene where Cuda invites his new pastor (played by George Romero himself) over for dinner, and they talk about a few churchy things, including demonic possession. He asks the priest, “Do you believe in demons, Fr. Howard? Do you believe the devil can enter  a person’s soul?”. At this point, given everything we’ve seen so far, we might expect the priest to say no, but he doesn’t. Instead, he answers candidly, “I don’t know what to believe about that.” Then, when Cuda pushes him a bit more, he says it’s a “fascinating subject,” and he admits, “Well, I’ve had several conversations about this with some of my associates, and I think, I think it’s a difficult issue. It’s something that has to be dealt with.”

With that scene, Martin backs away from its extreme anti-exorcism stance and nuances its position a bit. Instead of just dismissing all accounts of possession and exorcism as fundamentalist hogwash, Romero himself steps into the film and admits the possibility of these phenomena. He essentially makes Martin agnostic about them, so at the end of the day, the film’s message isn’t that all exorcists should be out of a job. Rather, the point is that regardless of what we believe about demons and the supernatural, we have to take science seriously. People with diagnosable medical conditions should get medical help, and religious faith is no excuse for ignoring that important and obvious fact.

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Written by JP Nunez

JP Nunez is a lifelong horror fan. From a very early age, he learned to love monsters, ghosts, and all things spooky, and it's still his favorite genre today.

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