Dracula in Today’s Pop Culture

In his novel Dracula Bram Stoker addresses the fundamental clash between good and evil. In this view vampirism, in terms of the fascination that it holds to the modern citizen, is indeed a direct consequence of modernism. It is but a reaction to modern tendency to ignore the mystery of death. Stoker is squarely confronting the brazen attitude of modern science which believes that everything has an explanation, and which thereby proceeds to ignore the ineffable. Science cannot explain death, and simply chooses to ignore it, says Stoker.

It has introduced the hustle and bustle of modern city life, where all is engaged in a mad rush towards material possession, and the frenzy is meant to erase the recollection of death. Stoker’s message is that the modern ploy of evasion will not succeed, and that death will eventually catch up with the modern citizen. This is not to say simply that someone will die, but that the process of death will be forced upon him. From the point of view of religion, especially Christianity, all life is but a preparation for death (Delany, n. p. n. ).

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It is not as simple as science believes, that the biological body simply stops working. And if one is not prepared at the moment of the biological cessation, then one remains “undead”. This is the vampire that Stoker, and Gothic writers in general, describe. The vampire will continue to function as long as the soul remains ignorant of death. It will prey on the living, in order to sustain a material body that is soulless. Though we cannot pronounce on the theological implications that Stoker evinces, yet it is sure that the modern fascination for vampires finds its source here.
While hardcore science continues to ignore it, mass culture becomes the outlet for something that cannot be suppressed. And because Stoker’s novel is the exceptional instance in modern literature that squarely confronts the issue, the character of Dracula has become the definitive representation of the vampire in pop culture. Much of what Stoker has to say is voiced by the Dutch doctor Abraham Van Helsing, who is the real protagonist of the novel. John Seward is the representative of conventional science, a qualified medical doctor who approaches the mysterious condition of Lucy Westenra with the equipment of modern science.
But it is clear that Dr Seward is completely out of his depth here, and the intervention of Van Helsing is vital. “It is the fault of our science,” he tells him, “that it wants to explain all; and if it explain not, then it says there is nothing to explain” (Stoker 228). Vampirism cannot he handled with the tools of experimental science, and therefore it reacts as if it doesn’t exist. Van Helsing is not an ignorant quack, but is a qualified scientist himself. The difference is that science is not a fanaticism to him; is useful to the extent that it is applicable.
Science is properly restricted to material evaluation, and therefore it will fail if it tries to explain matters pertaining to the soul. Vampirism, as Van Helsing tries to make out, is something entirely concerned with the soul. Thus, to overcome it he must become the agent of God, and not simply a rational doctor. He knows that ancient wisdom contains truth that is inexplicable by the yardstick of science. Therefore his is an open mind, which takes in both the old and new, with intelligence and common sense as the guide. It is the middle way which Stoker presents as the ideal.
The modern fascination with vampires must be put in its proper historical context. We must take note that it is a universal theme, and that people of all cultures and all epochs have tales to tell about the vampire. For example the ancient Hindu goddess Kali is depicted as bloodthirsty, and is decorated with a garland of skulls. In Indian lore it is believed that if death is not consummated then the soul is trapped in the material sphere, and it becomes a Pret, attacking the living for its sustenance. Similar legends appear in other places, and Christian Europe is not exempt.
In the eighteenth century Voltaire, in his Philosophical Dictionary, was able to give a succinct and graphic account: These vampires were corpses, who went out of their graves at night to suck the blood of the living, either at their throats or stomachs, after which they returned to their cemeteries. The persons so sucked waned, grew pale, and fell into consumption; while the sucking corpses grew fat, got rosy, and enjoyed an excellent appetite. It was in Poland, Hungary, Silesia, Moravia, Austria, and Lorraine, that the dead made this good cheer. (Ibid 371)
The Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries is the specific social phenomenon which we need to consider in this regard because it is the particular point where the old wisdom and new part ways. The Enlightenment was specifically directed against the Roman Catholic Church, but it was also against religion par se. Replacing religious doctrine, it took scientific measurement as the new criteria of judgment, declaring that science has the explanation for all things. That which did not find explanation with science was immediately judged to be superstition, meaning an irrational belief, and therefore false.
We expect vampirism to have faded in such a climate, because many other “superstitions” were being discarded during this period of boundless faith in science. But instead we take note that there was a marked resurgence of vampire related activity. Reports start flooding in of vampire sightings, of graves being violated, and similar efforts to overcome the evil menace. The increased fascination with vampires is reflected in the advent of Gothic literature, which is a genre that the eighteenth century gave birth to. The fact that science and rationalism cannot overcome the reality of the vampire is the central theme of Stoker’s novel.
This is reflected in Jonathan Harker’s first impression on Count Dracula in his secluded castle, and he comments that “unless my senses deceive me, the old centuries had, and have, powers of their own which mere ‘modernity’ cannot kill” (Ibid 87). In fact modernity itself has become the target of the renovated vampire. The first thing we notice about Count Dracula is his suave and civilized appearance. This is in contrast to earlier depictions of the vampire as evil incarnate, and therefore gruesome in appearance at all times. The explanation for this is that subterfuge is not necessary when everyone knows that the vampire is real.
But in the modern context such recognition is absent, and there is a concerted effort by society to dismiss it as superstition. In this situation Dracula has needs to practice deception, and therefore Stoker presents him to us as a refined gentleman with subterranean motives. It is not just the blood of the living which Dracula requires for his sustenance, but he is also motivated by revenge. When he has finally made it to the hub of London, to the Piccadilly quarters of Van Helsing, the Count declares, “My revenge is just begun! ” (Ibid 347). The revenge is directed against modernity, that which denies his very reality.
When he is hosting Jonathan Harker is Castle Dracula, he expresses a lurid curiosity about “the crowded streets of your mighty London” (Ibid 51). To him the city stands as a monumental statement of defiance against him. With a barely disguised gloating at the prospect of his revenge, he tells his guest, “I long … to be in the midst of the whirl and rush of humanity, to share its life, its change, its death, and all that makes it what it is. But alas! ” (Ibid). Apart from the ethereal aspect there is also a palpable human dimension to Count Dracula.
To Harker he introduces himself as a descendant of the noble lineage of the Severinys. The description he provides about the exploits of his ancestors leave no room for doubt that he is indeed descended from the real-life Dracula, and later on in the novel Mina Harker is able to confirm this, when she expresses in her journal: He must indeed have been that Voivode Dracula who won his name against the Turks… If it be so, then was he no common man: for in that time, and for centuries after, he was spoken of as the cleverest and the most cunning, as well as the bravest of the sons of the ‘land beyond the forest’.
(Ibid 280) The real-life Dracula in question is Vlad III Dracula, who ruled over the Wallachians in the fifteenth century. He was inordinately cruel and bloodthirsty, and was even nicknamed “The Impaler”, because he used to impale his victims, watching them die slowly, after he had first lured them into his castle (Skow, n. p. n. ). A resemblance is found here with the ancient wisdom that a vampire may only be killed by impaling through the heart by a stake. But apart from such similarities, Vlad the Impaler has also a direct connection to vampirism.
Like his father he was initiated into the Order of the Dragon, an occult organization with rites pertaining to the vampire. Stoker was very likely to be privy to these secrets of occultism being a Freemason himself, and a member of the Order of the Golden Dawn, a cult organization deeply involved in the arcane arts (O’Connor D27). He is known to have traveled much in Eastern Europe towards his research to discover the roots of vampirism. The character of Count Dracula must therefore be declared as both ethereal and historical at the same time. Another agenda for revenge is from the point of view of being a descendent of Vlad III Dracula.
He laments that the “warlike days [of his ancestors] are over. ” He lusts after blood and glory, and tells Harker that “blood is too precious a thing in these days of dishonorable peace; and the -glories of the great races are as a tale that is told” (Stoker 61). The fascination that the character of Dracula commands is finally of religious implication. In the end it is the stance of science against religion that lies at the root of the preponderance of evil. Modernism is at heart a step towards irreligion. Its goal is to shed the light of science in all areas so that the mystery of religion is finally eradicated.
The rise of irreligion runs parallel to the rise of modernism. If the visitation of evil is a consequence of this, then it must be combated only through a return to religion. Van Helsing makes this clear when he declares, “Thus are we 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” (Ibid 360). In the words and deeds of Dracula we notice a distinct resemblance to Satan – the devil is Christian lore. This comes across clearly when we notice his particular approach to his revenge.
We take note that it is through the woman that he wants to perpetrate his corruption. The Biblical parallel is where the devil, disguised as a serpent, intrudes into Eden and tempts Eve to eat of the fruit of knowledge. ‘Dracula’ signifies the dragon, which in turn denotes the Biblical serpent (Vere 76). We know about the act of temptation and the impending corruption when he boasts to the men, “Your girls that you all love are mine already; and through them you and others shall yet be mine” (Stoker 347). We also take note that Dracula’s target for temptation is Lucy Westenra and not Mina Harker.
While both are taken in by modernism, and may be describes as “progressive women”, Mina accommodates her modernism to the limits imposed by Christianity. She tries to keep in touch with the latest mores and technologies; for example, she is intent on learning to use the typewriter, at that time at the cutting edge of technology. But if she does so it is only because she can become of use to her husband. The opportunities that modern life affords do not tempt her to stray beyond the bounds of a Christian wife, whose prime duty is towards her husband and children.
Van Helsing summarizes her for us in this way: “[O]ne 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…” (Ibid 226). Lucy, on the other hand, turns liberty into license. She is so flattered when three men propose to her at once she laments “Why can’t they let a girl marry three men, or as many as want her, and save all this trouble? ” (Ibid 91). We are led to believe that she is aggressively sexual, and in some ways a siren.
We understand why Dracula finds a ready target in her, whereas he cannot seduce Mina after repeated attempts, and despite his challenge thrown to the men that he will. Van Helsing’s mission is concerned with saving the soul, and it is not the physical life which worries him. In the second half of the novel the principal issue becomes whether Mina’s purity remains intact, and it is not at all about saving lives from a violent monster. The purity of Mina is vital because on it depends the spiritual condition of the men folk of England. She is depicted as the paragon of womanhood, and therefore suggestive of Eve in the Garden of Eden.
For her to fall to the temptation of “the Dragon” is of the highest consequence, we believe. After Lucy is killed, it is the fact that she is ‘undead’ that spreads unease, so that her three suitors are determined to kill her again (or, kill the vampire that she is become), in order that the soul of Lucy attains peace and passes into the otherworld. When she is finally killed properly, by impaling her heart with a stake, her suitors, including her fiance Arthur Holmwood, look on as a hideous visage is transformed into one of “unequalled sweetness and purity,” which is reflecting the condition of the soul within (Ibid 225).
Stoker’s masterpiece crystallized the various trends in Gothic literature, and became the benchmark for all successive efforts in the genre, especially in film and television. Next to Sherlock Holmes, there is no other fictional character with more depictions in film and television than the character of Count Dracula (Dyson, n. p. n. ). The gothic genre is not especially known for quality literature. Outlandish landscapes, ancient castles, the evocation of dread, gruesome details, violence met upon ravishing young ladies, such were features that made the gothic novel, and Stoker does not depart much from the convention.
But his effort is special in that he grapples with the fundamental issues, for example the visitation of evil in the wake of modernism. Stoker was not merely concerned with horror, but with evil itself. Paul Santilli points out a distinction between the two in terms of existentialism: “Evil is defined within a cultural matrix; horror is the undefined other of a culture. Evil represents the negation of being; horror shows the sickening presence of being as being” (173). Because the typical writer of Gothic literature is bound by the dictates of the horror genre, he tends to lose sight of the underlying theme of evil.
Thus we notice in nineteenth century vampire literature a trend towards sympathizing with the representation of evil, a fundamental error. The vampires that we find in James Malcolm Rymer’s Varney the Vampire and Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla are sympathetic characters to some extent (Silver et al, 40-41). Stoker’s novel stands firm against such deterioration and presents to us evil in its most pristine form. This is why Stoker’s characterization of Dracula has become iconic, and also the standard bearer for all subsequent depictions of the vampire in popular culture.
However, popular culture being what it is, the trend towards sympathizing with the vampire was resumed once mass media took hold of the character of Dracula and made it part of its own province. The picture of Dracula in the popular mind is now wholly derived from Hollywood films, and is very different from how Stoker describes him in the novel. For example in the novel he is described as having white hair and a drooping moustache; but the popular imagination sees him as dark haired, clean shaven and immaculately groomed.
Bela Lugosi’s portrayal of the Count in the 1931 Hollywood production is most responsible for this picture. By most accounts this film, directed by Tod Browning, is the best adaptation to date, though it is not the first. This distinction must go to the 1922 German production Nosferatu, directed by F W Murnau, which makes the vampire particularly gruesome, and therefore is a return somewhat to the traditional depiction. But with films there is always the danger that villains become heroes, which happens when the film becomes very popular and even negative characters assume the charm of being famous.
Once Browning’s depiction of Dracula entered the public imagination it set of a trend towards sympathizing with the embodiment of evil. In this trend must be included the series of films is that which issued from the Hammer House of Horror Studio in England. The first film appeared in 1958, with Christopher Lee in the role of the Transylvanian Count, and was largely faithful to the original novel, both in the plotline and in the depiction of the vampire. But as the series dragged along the tendency was to indulge in the evil exploits of the Count.
This is in line with the general trend in Hollywood to lean more and more towards the “antihero”, and to glorify socially subversive activity. Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 production Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a consummation of this process, so that the vampire here is almost a Christ-like figure. Regarding Coppola’s cinematic technique Humphries-Brooks points out that the subjective camera is used from the Count’s point of view, “which frequently lets us see the world through Dracula’s eyes and allows a visceral empathy with the character.
” The major sacrilege is of introducing a love affair between Dracula and Mina Harker, thereby reversing the entire tenor of the original novel. Despite such misguided efforts, the sheer preponderance of adaptations of Stoker’s novel in film, as well as the insatiable appetite of the public for vampire films in general, is a measure of the iconic status that Stoker’s Dracula has acquired. In conclusion, the modern fascination with vampirism must be viewed as a symptom of modernity. We must trace its origin to the Age of Enlightenment, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, in which we identify the roots of modernism.
It was a concerted effort to overcome the religious worldview, and to replace it with a scientific representation. The resurgence of the public fascination with vampires must also be dated to this period. The explanation of this lies in the tendency to ignore the reality of death, or the consequences for the soul after death. Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula, at the turn of the twentieth century, crystallized this fascination with a masterful study of vampirism with a thoroughly entertaining plotline. Like all Gothic literature, it aimed primarily to please.
But at the same time it tackled the issue of evil in the most fundamental way, and in this way recovered focus to Gothic literature. It identified modernism as the root cause behind the re-emergence of the vampire, and outlined the battle lines in which modernism and traditional belief clashed. For all these reasons the character of Count Dracula has come to acquire an iconic status in popular culture, and it continues to spurn adaptations and imitations in film and television. Works Cited Delany, Joseph F. “Preparation for Death. ” New Advent.
Internet. Retrieved: 23 March 2008. < http://www. newadvent. org/cathen/04660c. htm> De Vere, Nicholas. The Dragon Legacy. Contributor Tracy R. Twyman. New York: Book Tree, 2004. Dyson, Jeremy. “Battle of the bloodsuckers. ” The Guardian. Wednesday October 31, 2007. Internet. Retrieved: 23 March, 2008. <http://film. guardian. co. uk/features/featurepages/0,,2202187,00. html> Humphries-Brooks, Stephenson. “The Body and the Blood of Eternal UnDeath. ” The Journal of Religion and Popular Culture. Volume VI: Spring 2004. O’Connor, John.
The Enduring Fascination Of ‘Dracula’. The New York Times. March 5, 1978, Sunday. Santilli, Paul. “Culture, Evil, and Horror. ” The American Journal of Economics and Sociology. Volume 66, Number 1, January 2007, pp. 173-193. Skow, John. “Vlad the Impaler. ” Time Magazine. Monday, Jan. 15, 1973. Silver, Alain & Ursini, James. The Vampire Film: From Nosferatu to Interview With the Vampire. New York: Limelight Editions, 1997. Stoker, Bram. Dracula. New York: Broadview Press, 1998. Voltaire. Philosophical Dictionary Part 2. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing, 2003.

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