Dracula by Bram Stoker amazed me by how thoroughly Christian it portrays it’s 19th century worldview. Published in 1897, this late Victorian novel doesn’t proselytize, but accepts Christianity like the rising of the Son. Dracula is about a creature of the darkness invading the world of the light. More than that, Dracula is about a royal citizen from the land of superstition making a beachhead on the Mecca of Modernity, London. Dracula is about evil attacking the divine, which is very strange when when you compare this most famous of all vampires to contemporary vamps of the big and little screen.
Dracula presents a scared world, whereas True Blood and Twilight represent secular vampirism. How did our pop culture go from women pleading for their hearts to be staked, their heads to be cut off, and their mouths crammed with garlic, if they were kissed by the vampire, to our modern times where virginal tweens willing dream of letting blood sucking monsters pop their cherry, but only if he’s really really really cute, dresses fabulously, and loves to cuddle. Talk about living in Bizarro World.
Now, let me set up my definition of evil and divine. Evil has become a debased word in our language. For example, we might hear a kid whine, “That’s just evil,” when told he must turn off the TV and do his homework. Most grownups would use Hitler as their prime example of real evil, but even for that example I will disagree. I see the word evil coming with a more precise definition. To be upfront, I’m an atheist, so any discussion of religion by me is from an outside observer.
My definition of evil, is any action that’s under the influence of Satan, whereas the divine, is any action inspired by God. Modern grammarians will knock my prescriptive definition over more mundane descriptive grammar. Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a novel with easy metaphors. Light shines from God, dark is Satan blocking the light. Vampires are agents of evil, stealing souls from the forces of goodness.
I plead with my readers to read the history of vampires at Wikipedia. I was totally shocked by examples of vampirism showing up in all the cultures of history. Superstition has dominated thinking for most of homo sapiens time roaming this Earth. Vampires and similar scary ghoulish characters are deeply rooted in all our folklore, and its very shocking how crazed our ancestors became over common fears.
Count Dracula is just the most famous vampire in Western pop culture, where Bram Stoker hit a vein of subconscious literary gold. Dracula is not the first novel about vampires, but Bram Stoker has invented such a successful fictional character, Count Dracula, whose fame is on the order of Sherlock Holmes (1887) and Tarzan (1912), the true eminent Victorians. Stoker may have used Vlad the Impaler as inspiration for his character Count Dracula, but he is mostly a fantastic fictional invention.
I’ve always avoided reading Dracula because I expected it to be as hokey as the Béla Lugosi films, so I was greatly surprised by how literate and well-written this epistolary novel is compared to all the cheesy films it has inspired. By using letters, telegrams, diaries, phonograph cylinders, newspaper clippings, etc., Stoker gives an immediacy to his story that the standard third person narrative would have lacked, and was still too confining to express in the standard first person tale. The novel is full of rich details, especially about living and travel in Europe in the late 1800s. The story progresses slowly, relying on a slow buildup of horror, with little direct stage time for Count Dracula himself. This works very effectively to showcase life in 1897, when news traveled very slowly, and generally came by word of mouth or newspapers.
I claim Dracula is a Christian novel because its worldly philosophy is based on the British viewpoint at the peak of its empire, with it’s stout, stiff-upper lip embrace of Jesus, scientific progress and world conquest. Abraham Van Helsing, a Dutchman, is the real hero of this novel, but he’s not the action hero of the Hugh Jackman film Van Helsing. He’s an older doctor and lawyer, wise man of science, and early X-Files philosopher, who is deeply religious and accepting of the Christian faith. Makes no bones about it, Count Dracula is an invader of England and the divinely backed civilization of Christ.
Dracula is an intimate novel, with Van Helsing, the prototype for Rupert Giles I’m sure, as Watcher, leading his merry band of vampire slayers, who must keep their war secret because they know few people can accept the truth about the undead, and nothing they can ever say will be believed, and all their actions will be considered law breaking and criminal.
Out on the border between darkness and light, Count Dracula lives in remote Transylvania, where the medieval mind still dominates the peasant population. The story begins with Jonathan Harker’s long trip to Dracula’s castle, that chronicles moving backwards in time as he leaves the civilization of the west, heading east, via devolving forms of transportation. The descriptions of his travels are rich with details, making me think Stoker had made the trip himself.
The story involves two women, Mina and Lucy, and five men, Harker, Seward, Morris, Holmwood and Van Helsing, and takes a leisurely time to unfold. Each get to tell their story in first person through the trick of the epistolary novel. This could be confusing with so many characters, but I listened to a version of the novel narrated by John Lee, which was fantastic in its presentation, making quite clear the identity of each narrator. This novel is well worth the trouble of listening to slowly, in a good audio book edition.
I especially loved the character of Quincey Morris, a laconic Texan that greatly reminded me of another American cowboy, Lee Scoresby, also inhabiting a British fantasy novel, set in the 19th century, The Golden Compass, and played by Sam Elliot in the film, who has lassoed and hogtied many a laconic Texan role, even to the point of satire, as in The Big Lebowski. Quincey Morris is a young Lee Scoresby in Dracula, and one of Lucy’s three suitors.
Psychiatry even plays a roll in Dracula, with John Seward, a head of an insane asylum that contains yet another fascinating character in the novel, R. M. Reinfield, whose mind swings between vivid sanity and raving madness. It’s a shame his story couldn’t have been in on the round-robin of first person narratives. Reinfield’s madness and Mina’s hypnosis induced telepathy, is used by Stoker in a creative way to drive the plot forward, beyond the standard letter and diary knowledge. For its time, Dracula is a very creative novel, that remains fresh and powerful in its narrative techniques.
Dracula represents an entire spectrum of communication, from God’s divine will, to the woo-woo world of ESP and the scientific telegraph, to shadowy unconscious minds sending up clues to the conscious minds of our heroes to decipher, while Satan commands his legions of undead with his will of evil whispering out of the darkness. And here is where we define evil, where dark and light fight for the soul of humans, by claiming evil is the force that chaos uses to conquer order, and the divine is that force that civilizes. This definition should work for my spiritual friends, as well as me and my secular unbelieving pals.
Dracula is an agent of the devil, so, why do our modern vampire scribes like Charlaine Harris and Stephenie Meyer secularize the vampire, exorcising its true evil nature? Women often lust for the bad boys of society, and these women writers are making alpha vamps the sexiest of the stereotype. Why is that? Maybe women no longer want cavemen, Conan the Barbarian types, but prefer the better dressed, well-mannered vampire, with his suave sophisticated ways. Or, is the enticing appeal of vampires, their power to give everlasting youth, something all women would sell their souls to get? But something weird is happening. Women have switched from wanting Van Helsing and Quincey Morris as males to swoon over, to wanting their fictional dream dates to be Edward Cullen and Bill Compton.
Sookie Stackhouse and her lady friends of Bon Temps, Louisiana, would be considered vamp tramps in Bram Stoker’s time. If you want to know the philosophical difference from 1897 and 2009, read Dracula and then watch True Blood on HBO. If we could send Victorian readers a television set and DVR loaded HBO’s True Blood and Deadwood and ShowTime’s Dexter, they would all believe that Van Helsing lost the battle in Dracula, and Count Dracula succeeded in his invasion of the British Isles and eventually conquered the Western world.
And don’t you find it rather ironic that an atheist is pointing out that popular modern entertainment represents the success of 19th century evil over the providence of the divine? In the Sookie Stackhouse Southern Vampire Mysteries, the Christians are seen as the bad guys, and portrayed as buffoons impassioned by gun love, but ignored sexually and made cuckolds by lusty wives tempted by bad boys.
I love watching True Blood and Dexter, but then I’m an unbeliever. It’s what my conservative friends expect of a yellow-dog, scum sucking, NY Times reading, liberal. What I’m wondering is why all those hordes of Twilight fans, those young girls and their clean-cut moms, women who wouldn’t unzip their jeans for nice boys, and bitch at any bad boy they met, have fallen madly in love with the pretty vampire. When I grew up, the only good vampire was a staked vampire. I was taught it was perfectly ethical, even heroic, to kill vamps and Nazis, neither of which had souls. Now Spike, the Vampire, will go to the ends of the Earth to find a soul and gain the love of Buffy, The Vampire Slayer. We certainly live in topsy-turvy times.
But let’s get serious here. What is really happening? Are secular vampires really a product of liberal thought, where every frail human action must be forgiven and understood? Charlaine Harris presents her vampires seeking civil rights, and compares them to gays coming out of the closet. But is this going too far, isn’t civilizing vampires wrong? Isn’t it unjust to compare civil rights and gays to savage killers? Why does popular culture now romance the evil? Dexter wins sympathetic feelings for serial killers, so should we expect a lovable but loopy child molester in some future premium channel drama that will warm our hearts? If we could see ourselves from some outside pop culture viewpoint, would we look like skinheads embracing a warm and fuzzy Hitler?
Or is it just good clean fun, like when we let our tykes play with Grand Theft Auto. Personally, I wonder if it is wrong, either ethically, or morally, to have the entertainment appetite of a Roman at the Coliseum. Or can I justify my entertainment tastes by rationalizing that it explores the edges of social reality? Dracula is good clean fiction, but what has Bram Stoker planted in Victorian times, that has flowered in our modern world, causing us to love the vampire? Actually, I don’t love the vampire, and still want to see them dusted, so maybe I just jealous of Bill, Edward and Eric.
This leads to the next level of psychology of vampire stories, the one below good and evil. Something is happening here, and I don’t know what it is, but I’m thinking it has to do with the changing roles of women in society. Bram Stoker started it by giving Mina and Lucy, equal time with men, and equal bravery, showing that Count Dracula only converts women to his way of life. Why are the leading writers of modern vampire stories, Anne Rice, Charlaine Harris and Stephenie Meyer, all women? What would Sigmund Freud make of all of this?
Does the acceptance of vampires merely model the acceptance of male psychology by women? Vampires are violent killers, but so are men. Vampires enslave the souls of women, but so do men. And if biting throats are equated with sexual intercourse, vampires and men both seek to penetrate the female body. Maybe Harris and Meyers just want tame the savage beast, dress him in romantic garb, polish his behavior and put his lustful appetite on a diet. If this is true, then the trend of accepting modern vampires is merely women recognizing how far they have to go to get guys to dress GQ and stop our killing ways.
Up till now vampire stories have always been Christian stories because the standard issued weapons to fight vampires were the cross, host and holy water. Vampire fiction in recent centuries are metaphors for the Catholic Church supplanting the ancient religions and superstitions. Charlaine Harris’ vampire world has regressed to a pre-Christian pagan worldview in direct conflict with Christians. Does that mean she’s a witch? But then her vamps only fight Protestants.
Contemporary revamp vamps represent a loss of Vatican power. Is it any wonder Anne Rice and Charlaine Harris stories are set in Louisana, a former Catholic stronghold? But as the power of God grows fainter, so does the power of Satan. Vampire Edward is downright prissy compared to Count Dracula. If this trend continues, the bottle blood drinking vamps of today will be supplanted by even wimpier vamps in the future. Without God there is no Evil, leaving a reality of random dangers fought by the force of evolution to produce order. Vampires are supernatural creatures, and if our secular world erases all belief in the supernatural, what happens to vampires?
In other words, atheism kills vampires just like Holy Water.
JWH – 7/20/9