The most famous of vampires is Dracula. Why are we mesmerized by this character created more than a century ago?
We owe our acquaintance with Dracula, a figure who has laced himself through western culture and has been portrayed on film more than Sherlock Holmes, to the mind of Bram Stoker, who wove him from legend and his own imagination with daring skill. Stoker was known during his lifetime chiefly as the personal assistant to actor Henry Irving and the manager of Irving’s theatre, the Lyceum, in London. It is ironic that his name would eclipse that of Irving, only to be overshadowed by his greatest creation, the aristocratic vampire known as Count Dracula.
Origins of a Monster
Stoker spent seven years researching vampires before writing Dracula, with particular attention to the strigoi, or undead, of the Balkan peninsula. The strigoi were peasant men and women who came back from the dead to feast upon the blood of their own kin. Although he was excited by the animal ferocity of these creatures, who often transformed themselves into wolves or bats, these folktales were not completely satisfying to Stoker, who wanted to create a character to be played by his own employer, Henry Irving, a regal and noble presence who often played impressive villains onstage. Much to his delight, he ran across the history of a Wallachian prince of Transylvania, now a region of central Romania, renowned for his unspeakable cruelty and bloodlust. This prince was called Vlad Țepeș, the Impaler, after his habit of impaling his enemies on long wooden stakes, but not while he was within earshot. His title was Vlad Dracula, son of the Dragon, after his father who had been knighted into the Order of the Dragon and was thus sworn to keep Christianity safe from the invading Ottoman Turks. In fusing the strigoi with this infamous historical warrior, Stoker produced a menacing and enduring personality who contained both aristocratic and uncivilized elements.
A Shadow of Victorian Values
Contrary to what we often see in movies, Stoker’s Dracula is not charming and seductive, nor does he seem susceptible to romance. He is a violent and methodical predator who is capable of taking what he requires by overwhelming and out-thinking his victims against their will. Although he cannot enter a home without being invited in, he has, over centuries, amassed techniques for tricking the inhabitants into doing just that. Thus he uses Lucy’s sleepwalking to trap her and his power over the insane Renfield to gain access to Seward’s asylum and his guests. With the exception of a quick glimpse on the street, neither Lucy nor Mina ever meet him in a normal social situation.
If he is not conventionally seductive, why are Dracula’s victims women and why do they end up under his power? Here lies a deep shadow. At the time Stoker wrote Dracula the push for women’s rights and universal suffrage was beginning, hence there are many references to the “new women”, usually spoken by Mina or Lucy in a pejorative fashion that belies considerable fascination. In addition, Sigmund Freud was promoting his ideas about sexuality and the subconscious. Victorian blood was beginning to boil. We see the men in Stoker’s novel trying to protect their women from the vampire while seeking to retain the proper distance and decorum between genders that was required by society. This strategy very nearly gets them all murdered and the ladies turned into immortal killing machines. It is ultimately Mina’s coordination and communication across the gender divide that provides hope for overcoming Dracula, not the overprotective schemes of Van Helsing and his crew, who consistently make quite a mess of things. These men are crippled by their own refusal to see women as complete beings and their idealization of the feminine. Unfortunately, it is usually the women who pay the price for their ignorance.
She is one of God’s women, fashioned by His own hand to show us men and other women that there is a heaven where we can enter, and that its light can be here on earth. So true, so sweet, so noble, so little an egoist – and that, let me tell you, is much in this age, so sceptical and selfish.
–Professor Van Helsing, speaking of Madam Mina, Chapter 14
The Victorian lady was presented with few options: she could retain an innocent, angelic personality and show childlike devotion to a husband whom she would regard worshipfully without lust, she could become a spinster on the edge of society who would always be dependent on male relatives and regarded with some suspicion, or she could become a lady of ill repute. Female sensuality was taboo and any woman who admitted to enjoying sex, even within the bonds of wedlock, was not considered wholesome or healthy, although mothers were revered. There is a sense in Dracula that, rather than see their women as sexual creatures, these men would see them dead and their bodies desecrated. Are they engaged in battle with a vampire, or are they victim to their own fears and imaginations?
The unfortunate Miss Lucy has three suitors. In her letters to Mina, she expresses dismay at having to choose between them, admitting to having the scandalous thought of marrying all of them. Later, in an attempt to keep her alive, she will receive blood transfusions from each of these suitors, as well as one from old man Van Helsing himself. Is it this underlying sensuality which condemns her, and if so, are the men guiltless in this regard? Perhaps Dracula is terrifying because he lies at the intersection of female sensuality with male aggression.
Dracula in the 21st Century
Dracula takes place in a culture where women are not permitted to make choices vital to their own survival and where they are stigmatized for their natural sexuality. Old habits die hard, because these issues are front page news these days, although women have many more options and a stronger voice than they did in the Victorian era. Maybe we can put a stake through the heart of misogyny some day in the future.
Dracula may seem like your grandfather’s vampire, but there is life in him yet. A foreign invader possessing skill, intelligence, and animal sensuality, he remains a persuasive argument against eternal youth at a time when our culture seems ready to embrace it as a path of little risk. Come to think of it, maybe the vampires of the 21st century are more frightening. Would anyone want to spend eternity as a sparkly teenager?