BY JESS PEACOCK
This weekend marks the 121st anniversary of the publication of Bram Stoker’s seminal novel Dracula. Stoker’s epistolary horror classic was neither the first (Varney the Vampire, published as a penny dreadful from 1845 to 1847, actually established many of the vampire tropes used by Stoker, minus the sacred icons) nor last vampire tale to be written, but it succeeded in thrusting the vampire into mainstream consciousness and effectively demarcating a specific contemporary interpretation of the mythological figure for the next one-hundred years. Beyond that, Stoker used the fictional Count to examine themes of patriarchy, sexuality, and the role of religion to monitor and enforce norms surrounding these issues.
Within the novel Dracula we are witness to a consistent theme of a depraved and foreign sexuality, embodied in the vampire threatening the virtue of England’s women, destroyed by the desperate patriarchy determined to maintain societal norms. This motif, that of the spiritually defenseless female needing protection from invasive evil behind the shield of the “sacred” masculine, arguably found purchase in Bram Stoker’s classic taleand resonated in the vampire narratives thereafter. This is reflected throughout Stephen King’s novel ‘salem’s Lot with its all-male contingent of vampire hunters, as well as in Fright Night, with Charley Brewster and Peter Vincent battling vampiric evil in the hope of rescuing Amy, the chaste love interest. However, it is the character of Mina Harker in Draculathat truly embodies the eagerness of the institution of patriarchy to maintain dominance over the accepted societal (and perceived natural) order, and placing the male above the influence of evil and sin.
While Mina’s then fiancé Jonathan was trapped and enticed by Dracula early in the novel, he was able, through the strength of his own (male?) agency, to resist and ultimately escape the clutches of the Count. Mina, however, having partaken in the unholy blood communion of Dracula, had been contaminated by evil (as evidenced by her being singed by a communion wafer) and has no power of her own to ultimately decide her own fate, whether theologically or relationally.
“We’ve all become God’s Madmen. All of us.” – Van Helsing
These were, by no means, the only issues at play within Stoker’s novel. For example, it is difficult to not read the book as a portent against immigration, Dracula representing a perceived invasive other that threatened the very existence of England. When watching news footage of fearful and angry citizens spitting invectives toward busses filled with undocumented women and children, the ongoing debate over a Muslim ban, images of dead children fleeing war and famine – only to be turned away by countries that could provide asylum and protection, and the refrain of “Build the wall” echoing throughout the culture, one cannot help but be reminded of the relentless pursuit of the vampire hunters out of England into Transylvania where the immigrant Dracula is subsequently brutalized and stabbed to death.
Of course, most obvious within Bram Stoker’s Dracula are the religious themes. While the idea of Christian technologies serving as weapons against the vampire pre-existed the novel to some extent, the eventual success of Stoker’s work effectively canonized the connection between the crucifix, holy water, and wafer with the fight against the undead. As a result, the figure of Dracula, and thus the vampire, took on a spiritual dimension within western culture.
The issue becomes, of course, one of perspective. For example, if one believes that Bram Stoker sought to inject his novel with a distinctly Christian worldview, what must one make of the use of violence used by Van Helsing, Harker, et al. in their Crusade-like effort to restore the religious order that Dracula succeeded in unsettling? And what of Dracula’s ability to, in fact, stand in opposition to the natural order – to even exist at all? If the presence of the vampire does indeed serve as a representation of sin and temptation (a metaphor to which I don’t subscribe), we are seemingly trapped in the frightening realm of theodicy and the conundrum of an angry/loving God who needs humanity to do the dirty work of the Divine. As Van Helsing states in the novel, “Thus we are ministers of God’s own wish: that the world, and men for whom His Son die, will not be given over to monsters, whose very existence would defame Him.”Ultimately, salvation from and victory over Dracula (the supposed embodiment of sin) is not an issue of faith, but one of brute force, a disturbing – though not uncommon – perspective on the use of religion throughout history.
Dracula can, of course, be read apart from any scholarly analysis and enjoyed as simply an amazing work of fiction that still captures the imagination over a century after it was first published. However, there is a reason that Count Dracula’s image is still the focal point of Halloween decorations and costumes, movies, countless novels, and repeated cameos in all mediums of genre fare. Stoker managed to create a literary figure that was horrifying and somewhat tragic. More importantly, he created a timeless monster that could serve as a metaphorical dispersive prism, easily divided up and adapted to whatever boogeyman a culture needed to embody, a demonic corruption of humanity that was both easily manifested and, ultimately, killed, thusly reassuring a frightened society of the sanctity and power of the existing hierarchy.