We recently finished reading Dracula at our bookclub, and while I have already written a review on the book
, I felt that not only was there much more I could say, but I simply cannot leave the book at simply the book because of the huge amount of influence that it has had on our society. For instance, people have said that after reading the book as young person they so fell in love with it that they ended up carrying it everywhere and regularly consulting it (I have a problem – what will Dracula do?). Well, I’m actually not all that sure whether Dracula can be considered a practical guide to life in the way that the Bible is, but also I am not surprised that there are such reactions to the book.
Personally, I would be surprised if there was anybody out there in the Anglo-American world who hadn’t heard of Dracula, or vampires – the image of the vampire that first appeared in Bram Stokers books is incredibly pervasive, to the point that there is at least one movie a year that is released where the vampire is the villain (or hero). On top of that there are countless numbers of books, TV series, and even a roleplaying game based around these creatures, however the creature that we are so familiar with, the lord of Transylvania, and member of the Order of the Dragon, wasn’t always the creature that we know and despise.
However, before I go into that too deeply, first I will look at the book (and the author), and then explore the history of vampires. Then I will tackle some of the themes of Dracula, including ideas on immigration, evil, and of course the idea of sexual frustration (which I suggest is actually a modern invention as opposed to something that was intended at the writing of the book). Finally, I will close by exploring the legacy of Dracula, mostly through the films, but also in some other areas as well.
Abraham Stoker was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1847 and had a passion for writing and theatrical criticism. He developed this during his time at University, where one of his teachers connected him with the Dublin Evening Mail. Through this he came into contact with Henry Irving when he was in Ireland, was invited back to London to work in the Lyceum Theatre (which Irving owned) as his personal assistant and business manager. The job wasn’t an easy job, and Irving was a pretty harsh taskmaster, but Stoker persevered.
It was here that Stoker conceived the idea for the novel, and over a period of ten years, while working at the Lyceum, he put the novel together. The novel itself is nothing new since there were a few vampire stories that had been published earlier in the 19th Century, and Gothic Horror was a genre that had gained a lot of traction, thanks in part due to the success of Frankenstein. Further, the style of the book, in that it was made as if it was a collection of letters, newspaper articles, and journal entries all put together, was a standard way of writing (quite a number of novels were actually written in the first person, in the form of a journal or a letter). Yet it was a novel that while it experienced some initial success, and was warmly welcomed by the population, it wasn’t till some time down the track that the concept, and the character, really took off.
The story is basically about how Dracula, a lord in Transylvania, travels to London to wreck havoc on the British capital, and how a group of intrepid adventurers eventually defeat him. The story opens with one of the protagonists, Jonathon Harker, traveling to Transylvania at the behest of his boss to finalise a land transaction. It is this opening scene, with Harker being imprisoned in the castle, that has become a staple of many haunted house/castle, stories (including The Rocky Horror Picture Show).
There is a theory that Stoker based his character on Vlad the Impaler (or Vladislav II of Wallachia), however it was Vlad II (his predecessor) that first earned the title Dracula, which was in relation to him being admitted to the Order of the Dragon, which was an order of knights. However, there are references to Dracula (which was actually the family name) and him being involved in the war against the Turks. Further, much of Stoker’s concepts came from him researching a lot of superstition that came out of Transylvania.
History of the Vampire
I’m not going to go too deeply into the vampiric legends from which the story of Dracula eventually came about namely because the wikipedia article
is so detailed it would take me quite a while not only to read it, but to also regurgitate it into a more simplified manner. However, what I will suggest is that the story of the vampire is nothing new, but rather a collection of ancient legends that Stroker brought together to create his book. Obviously, Stoker’s vampire was a mish-mash of a lot of legends, and the blood sucking fiends that wander around castles in lounge suits, hypnotising their prey, and having control over the animal kingdom aren’t necessarily the original monsters – rather these are a creation not only of Stoker, but of those who came after him (and even then there were a number of vampire stories already in existence – it is just that Stoker’s rendition ended up being the best).
In all honesty the vampire isn’t even necessarily a bloodsucker – rather it is a creature that feeds on the life force of other humans. Sure, they are actually dead, or should I say undead, which is why they are attracted to humans, and the lifeforce – it is the life force of the living that keeps them alive. One thing that sticks in my mind was an anecdote that was mentioned at the book club. The thing is that for most of history vampiric creatures were actually believed to be real. The suggestion was that if somebody in the village was suffering from a wasting disease the belief was that there was a vampiric creature in their midst, and they would actually dig up graves to see if there was a corpse that hadn’t actually rotted.
The term vampire is also relatively recent, having come over to the English language in the 18th century. According to Wikipedia, the term came from the French word vampyre
, which in turn came from the German vampir
, which in turn came from Serbia, no doubt through the Austro-Hungarian empire. Etymologists believe that the term was at least Cyrillic in origin, having been found across the region. One theory is that it originated from the Turkish word for witch. However, I will leave it at that, refer you to the wikipedia article
, and move on to the themes of the book.
The Nature of Evil
When I was in my final year of highschool, I had to do a project where I studied three books with a similar theme. One of the books that I chose was Dracula, and thanks to the Copolla film (more on that later), I was going to write a project on love in literature. However I pretty quickly found out that Dracula had nothing to do with love, so instead decided to explore another aspect – evil. The thing is that Dracula is the epitome of all that is evil. Notice how he is repelled by anything that is holy. For instance they despoil his grave with communion bread, and also repel him through the use of the cross.
The thing with Dracula is that he has cheated death, and it seems that the idea of cheating death only comes about if you are willing to give up all that is good within you. As such he can only survive by feeding on the life blood of humans. Also notice that while he doesn’t necessarily live alone in his castle, he might as well be alone because the only other creatures that he lives with, the female vampires, detest him, and he detests them. Dracula is a loner, simply because when you have become so overwhelmed by evil, you can no longer experience the joy, and the goodness, of a relationship with other people.
While I have already mentioned an aspect of his undeath, another aspect is that our life is actually a good thing, and it seems that nothing good can actually come Dracula’s way. He cannot go out into the sun, and is tied to the grave in which he was buried. He doesn’t have friends, and he doesn’t trust anybody – he locks Harker up in the castle because he simply is unable to form a friendship with him. Further, notice how Renfield, while a servant, is simply using his connection with Dracula in the hope that he will also be blessed (or rather cursed) with unlife – however, he never gets his wish, but instead is driven to madness – Dracula is pure evil, therefore there is no reason why he would keep a promise.
Superstition and Science
Another interesting thing about Dracula is how scientific much of the book is. This is not surprising considering that two of the protagonists are scientists, or more specifically doctors. In a way what we are seeing here is a movement further into the scientific age. Sure, we had been living in the age of reason since the 17th Century, however the idea of science had been slowly filtering down to the masses. Take Frankenstein, the book that popularised the Gothic Horror Genre – it is about a mad scientist that uses technology to create a human being.
In a way what Stoker is trying to do is demystify the supernatural, and we see this a lot in many of films and books that come afterwards. The idea of the monster, and of the supernatural, is being pushed to the edges, and an age of scientific dominance is taking hold. However, another aspect is that we have the supernatural going head to head with the scientific – Transylvania is a backwards land still ruled by superstition and inhabited by the ignorant. London is the centre of the greatest civilisation known to man, a civilisation built on reason and technology. What is happening is that the superstition and the scientific are coming into conflict.
This is something that seems to be a constant theme in our society, especially where the church is concerned. There is still a huge debate over evolution vs creation, and the church is either trying to reconcile this new scientific worldview, or actively fighting against it. The interesting thing is that we tend to see the traditional arise in the regional areas, though this is not necessarily the case in Australia – there are still many churches in the city that consider the idea of evolution to be anathema. While one might suggest that there hasn’t been a religious war in centuries, I would say otherwise, if we look at the struggle between the church and the secular world.
Actually, I’m not really sure of the extent of Imperialism that comes out in Dracula, and my comments here probably are better explored in the section on Immigration. What we do need to consider is that the book was written when the British Empire was at its height, and there seemed to be nothing that could stand in its way. Mind you, that was before the horrors of the First World War, a war that started the decline of the empire, however at this time Britain stood at the top of the world and there seemed to be nothing that would stand in its way.
Thus it has been suggested that Dracula is a form of an invasion story – an invasion by a dark force from beyond that seeks to either undermine the power of the empire, or to take control. Thus we have a struggle in a different form – both a struggle of science against superstition, and the forces of the empire against the forces of darkness. I guess in that light what we have is the idea that the Empire is an empire for good, and what the empire is doing is spreading civilisation to the corners of the world. However, at its height a being of darkness descends from the backwaters of Europe, no doubt in an effort to fight back against this tide of civilisation.
In a way Dracula represents not just the supernatural and the evil, but also the uncivilised part of the world, and it is a part of the world that is not lying down – in Dracula the forces of the uncivilised are fighting back. This is something that we have seen in the past, with Rome. Rome was the great civilising part of the world, however it was always fighting the barbarians at the fringes, the forces that represented the uncivilised world. However, as it turned out, this force of uncivilisation was not happy to keep Rome in check, it wanted to undermine, and destroy, the empire, which it eventually did.
In light of this we can picture a reason as to why Dracula chose to invade England. England represented light, Christianity, and civilisation, three things that Dracula despised. As such he wasn’t content to allow the status quo to continue, namely because there wasn’t one – progress was ever moving forward, and the civilisation of the British was moving out to all corners of the Earth. Thus, if Dracula didn’t act first, the forces of civilisation would sooner, rather than later, come for Transylvania.
Thus this brings me to the idea of immigration. Maybe it wasn’t as much of a concern back then as it is now, but we can also picture Dracula as an immigrant. In a sense, as the Empire expanded and brought more people under its protection, it would open the doors to people from the far flung corners of the world, especially people with money, to come to England to set up shop. This is a concern to nationalists as what immigration does is that it strips away their identity. All of a sudden the streets that were lined with pubs and fish and chip shops now find themselves fighting of the curry restaurants and the Thai massage parlours.
The other concern is that people from abroad don’t necessarily have the same values and beliefs as the nationalists do, and this brings about a concern as to further undermining their identity. These days we encounter people from all walks of life from all over the world, and it is a sad thing to note that there are certain ethnic groups that simply aren’t trusted. The belief is that back in their own country they lie and cheat each other, so when they come here they do the same. The reality is that lying and cheating simply do not exist on ethnic lines, and in fact anybody and everybody is capable of such behaviour.
One interesting thing is the idea of the bogan
(though such individuals exist in pretty much all societies). An English colleague told me than in England they had a group called the Chaz, who are basically pure born Anglos, but tend to be incredibly rough and in her words ‘will punch you in the face simply by looking at them’. She tried to tell me that this didn’t happen in Australia, but I assure you that it does. The thing is that these groups tend to be incredibly anti-social, but not only are they white, they are also born in the country, yet the media, and the extreme right, seem to want to focus our attention away from these ghettos and point to the easy targets from overseas.
Before I move onto the legacy I wish to say a few things about the idea of vampires and sexual frustration. Honestly, I believe that it is rubbish and is only a construct of modern intellectualism. The thing is that people in Victorian England didn’t actually see themselves as being sexually frustrated, and the only reason that we look back on them as such is because we live in a world where we are supposedly sexually free. The problem is that we are simply reading way too much into the book.
However, if there is one thing we should note, and that is that Dracula isn’t necessarily sexually frustrated. In fact, if anything, he is pretty free and easy with the whole thing. Okay, he is a vampire, therefore sex isn’t necessarily an issue, but notice how the only people he seems to turn are woman. I am not saying feeding on them because there are plenty of people that Dracula feeds on, and plenty of them are male. However, when he is creating vampires he is only targetting women. Maybe, the idea is that in doing so he is liberating them, but notice how the three sisters despise him. It is as if by liberating them he is actually imprisoning them. Maybe, also, he is coming to Victorian England to liberate the women, but once again it isn’t as if they women seem to want him to liberate them if the three sisters are anything to go by.
It seems as if this post has become quite long, but I feel that I can’t finish it off without a few words about the legacy, and in doing so I will briefly look at a number of films and other media that has since come out. Also, if I have written a review on the film elsewhere I will provide a link, since I am only touching on the subject here.
One of the classic films of the silent era which follows the plot to an extent. It is more of a cut down version, though the film does seem to rush a bit at the end. Two thirds of the film follows the first third of the book, and the creators then seem to finish it off just a little too quickly, particularly with the way that Count Orlok dies. While this film didn’t necessarily generate the huge interest in the book, it did flag the story to an extent. Also, the film was actually an unauthorised reproduction, which is why a lot of it was changed (including the name of the vampire), though did pave the way for later films.
Being a German film, the story is set in Germany, in Breman to be precise. While the themes of the book are still present, I feel that by setting it in Germany, and in the background of the Weimer Republic, we can look at it slightly differently. Whereas the book explores an invasion of the Empire, the film could be reflecting on the struggles facing Germany at the time. Here the nation was burdened by excessive war reparations, and the country was facing serious struggles. In a way the vampire represents the external force that comes into the country to dominate it. In the same way that Dracula buys up land in Breman, the allies were holding the war guilt over their head and draining the country dry. Where as Dracula could be seen as the evil, external, uncivilising force in the book, in this film, he becomes to represent the victors of the war. In fact I could probably write an entire post on that alone, but I’ll leave it at that for now.
Horror of Dracula
I understand that this is the film which gave birth to the modern schlock horror genre, and it certainly is quite a cheesy film. Not that it is bad, but rather it is incredibly dated. Further, I wouldn’t even consider the acting to be worthy of greats like Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, though I have to admit that it is cool actually seeing the character that Lee is going to be remembered for. The film is basically a retelling of Stoker’s classic, though with quite a lot of poetic license (for instance Harker is killed near the beginning of the film, and Van Helsing is the main protagonist). While it isn’t worthy of some of the great films of the era, it is still a great movie to watch for nostolgia’s sake.
Interview with a Vampire
I have to admit that I haven’t read the book, so I am only going by the film here. However, the suggestion at bookclub was that this was the turning point with the perception of the vampire. No longer was the vampire seen as an external, dark, and menacing threat, but rather a creature to be sympathised with. The vampire is no longer all powerful, but rather it is a human struggling with their bestial fury in an attempt to remain civilised, but also knowing that to survive they much sucuumb to it sooner of later. It is here that vampires start to drink from animals, though it is clear that the blood of an animal is only a pale substitute for that of a human.
It is not so much Lestat that we are to sympathise with, but rather Louie. In becoming a vampire, he becomes an outcast, no longer able to live in the world of humanity. Rather he lurks in the shadows, forever struggling with that inner beast that seeks to rise up an dominate him. In a sense the vampire ceases to be the other, and starts to reflect ourselves, and our constant struggle to remain civilised while all of our urges command us to be otherwise.
Now we come to Buffy, and once again I have to admit that I am not all that familiar with the series, though I have watched the movie (and hated it). In one sense it takes the idea of the vampire out of the dark and horrific and thrusts it into the realm of pop culture. Sure, they are monsters of the supernatural, but they are suddenly weakened so that a teenager (and a rather attractive one at that) can easily defeat them with a round of martial arts. However, we also see elements of the struggle between the bestial and the human, particularly with characters like Angel. However, I am only speculating, namely because it is a series that I doubt I will ever go out of my way to watch.
It has been years since I actually watched this film, and it was this film that inspired me to actually do my year 12 project on Dracula. However, I am not all that keen on spending the time to sit down and watch it again, namely because it is actually really bad. I guess turning Dracula into a love story between him and Mina really doesn’t seem to work all that well. However, I should point out that in Horror of Dracula, when Dracula is about to bite Mina, there is a bit of sexual tension here, however we should remember two things – sex and love do not necessarily go together, and also Dracula does have the ability to charm his victims.
Vampire: The Masquarade
I probably should make mention of this particular roleplaying game. The reason I do this is because here we once again see a movement away from the vampire as a monster and towards the idea of a vampire as a human struggling with the inner beast. The game revolves around you playing a vampire, and the vampires fall into roughly two categories – those who seek to embrace their inner beast and rule humanity, and those who seek to deny their inner beast and not only live as humans, but to also guide humanity. Honestly, the concept of the game was brilliant, but the issue I had with it was not so much the game, but the people who were playing the game.
The thing with roleplaying games is that they tend to attract those of us who feel on the outer. In the world of the game we are suddenly somebody, and we can do things that we could never dream of doing in the real world. As such there is a danger that we can become trapped in this imaginary world. However, the problem arises when you get a huge group of people together, and all of a sudden they want to vie for control, and then use this imaginary world to behave towards others in a way that they wouldn’t dare do in real life because, well, it is just a game.
I watched the first movie, and have no intention of seeing any of the others, or even wasting my time reading the books. However, this is a step further from the idea of the human vs the beast. However, this is also where the idea of the vampire being sexually frustrated seems to have its origin. In one sense, Edward knows his powers, but in another sense he is not only trying to keep them hidden, but he is torn to pieces over them. His fear of the relationship seems to reflect a fear of sex. It is almost as if the sexual human can be equated with the bestial human. This seems to stem from the erroneous Christian teaching that sex is only for reproduction, and at all other times it must be repressed. Yet the denial of one’s sexual self isn’t just a Christian thing, since Buddhism also teaches this.
What is also interesting is how the books are also moving away from the concept of the vampire being a supernatural being. One scene I clearly remember was when Edward exposed himself to the sun and he shone likes diamonds. I was a scene that was a betrayal of everything that was vampiric and put me off the series for good. However, what we have is a movement away from Stoker’s object of horror, and Rice’s object of sympathy, to bringing Coppola’s object of romance to the front and centre.
Shadow of the Vampire
I’m included to suggest that with this film we come back full circle, but it turns out that this is not the case. Firstly, as I have since discovered, it predates Twilight, however even though it was made in 2000, I still feel that I should end this post with this film. Basically it is a retelling of Nosferatu, or rather it is sort of a behind the scenes look at the creation of the movie, but with a twist – Orlock, or Max Schrek, is a real vampire. However, we see something different because once again we are slowly moving away from the idea that the vampire is the monster and the humans as the heroes – here the concept of the monster is blurred, and it only comes out at the end who the real monster actually is.
If also reflects one of the themes of the civilised warring against the barbarians, yet it raises the question of whether the civilised are actually civilised. The major characters reveal to us that the lives of the actors, and indeed all of the film industry, is one of debauchery. As they drink, and indulge in drugs, we raise the question once again as to whether we actually live in a civilised society. Sure, Schrek is a monster, there is no doubting that, but what happens to us when our desire to create the perfect work of art overwhelms us and we sacrifice our humanity for the sake a beauty and perfection? Is it the case that we then become the monster?