by Alicia Biscoe
There is no doubt Dracula has maintained its popularity. In the one hundred and seventeen years since its publication, Dracula has never been out of print and has been the inspiration for many modern vampires of today. There’s always a price though, for having a concept linger for so long, and in the case of modern vampires, we’ve paid the ultimate price of sacrificing what vampires truly represent to our society. Vampires have only prevailed into modernity through a vast degeneration of cultural symbolism and biological purpose, due to modern interpretations stripping away the scaffolding of the once-prolific character that was Dracula. A vampire of today resembles nothing of the Dracula of old in its purpose and distinction. Gone is the purpose of using the monstrous vampire to examine society’s, and in turn, humankind’s, most prevalent fears and anxieties. Interview with a Vampire, Blade, Vampire Diaries, the Twilight franchise, True Blood…the list of vampire interpretations has only skyrocketed in the past century, each one chipping away a large piece of the original purpose of the vampire figure. Luckily, though, there is another monster willing to take up the challenge, willing to be the manifestation of humankind’s fears and anxieties. A replacement for Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the culturally relevant and biologically formidable zombie prevails where the modern vampire falls by the wayside, leaving the modern vampire to be an empty shell of entertainment.
In beginning to evaluate this bold claim, first there must be an analytical inquiry into what Bram Stoker’s Dracula symbolized, not only for Victorian society, but mankind as well. What makes Dracula so special as a vehicle for complex biological and cultural issues in society and mankind? There is a distinction between society and mankind, as Dracula not only preys on cultural fears, but pressing, biological ones as well. First, let’s examine the wide cultural aspect Dracula represented.
When Bram Stoker published Dracula in 1897, Victorian society was plagued with fear for the changes the fin-de-siècle, or turn of the century, would bring. A burgeoning middle class aspiring to reach the upper class through rigid morality and conservatism had generally ruled the past 60 years (Ping 3). Towards the end of the 19th century, the middle class seemed to be tightening their moral grip in fear of the small pockets of change in societal circles and new advances the 20th century would bring, “The Victorian body, social and individual, felt itself under perpetual assault from all quarters within and without, and responded to the perceived threat by adopting manifold defensive and retaliatory measures through various reform laws, regulations, and forms of moral policing” (May 16). That being said, there were lots of societal concerns that characterized the time period, but a few prominent ones were laid bare through the birth of Dracula, “…cultural anxieties peculiar to the Victorian fin-de-siècle darkly reflected in Dracula: fears over degeneration (Dijkstra), reverse colonization (Arata), homosexuality (Schaffer), the ‘New Woman’ (Senf), Darwinian materialism and the dissolution of the soul (Blinderman), and so on” (Clasen 379). Even more simply, Dracula seemed to break through boundaries forged by the oppressive middle class. “Dracula is about undermining and transgression of many of those protective limits and boundaries most essential to the bourgeois Victorian’s demarcation of individual selfhood and social identity” (May 16). Given all of these boundaries, how was Stoker capable of writing a book so keen on the unspoken societal fears of the time? How did he get it through a censorship board at the time, and why does it remain so prolific today?
According to Tanya Pikula, Stoker had the ultimate control when writing about “impure or dangerous material,” understanding how far to push the envelope and in what ways:
…distanced by Eastern European vampirism and contained by insistent expressions of patriarchal ideology, the erotic clichés of Dracula nevertheless titillate its readers, many of whom have already been conditioned in quick response by direct or indirect knowledge of erotic lingo and tropes. In this sense, Stoker’s text, like many Victorian advertisements, reassures the reader with its loud, declarations of traditional ideology, while stroking them in the right places. (302)
While Pikula speaks mostly of sex in her article and the quote above, this holds true for most of the cultural anxieties showcased in Dracula. It takes a fine hand to write something that lampoons present society while still captivating the same society into wanting to read it. Stoker does this balancing act throughout the novel with such careful consideration that he not only succeeds in talking about prominent social issues of the day no one wanted to discuss, but also in making people genuinely enjoy the story as well. If no one enjoyed the story, it wouldn’t have been so widely publicized and if the story didn’t have so many societal implications, critics would have discarded it by now. This is the balancing act that makes this novel so special and is part of the reason why Dracula has retained its popularity and relevancy through the ages.
While the cultural aspect is one part of the Dracula success equation, there is another component that may be even more important when we talk about Dracula: biology. Dracula has existed for one hundred and seventeen years and as stated earlier, in all of that time, it has never gone out of print, even as far as being translated into several dozen languages. This idea of Dracula certainly seems to transcend the Victorian society of England and it is through the universal, biological aspects that this occurs. Like Mathais Clasen describes in his research, “the vampire’s longevity and universality stems not just from metaphor and social symbolism, but also from biological roots of contagion and predation of the character” (386).
Victorian society was preoccupied with degeneration, and while that certainly means degeneration of morals, there was also an excessive fear of disease and contamination as forms of degeneration as well. At the time, even though the atmosphere seemed to be one of staunch moral conservatism, prostitution was a rampant problem in 19th century Victorian society. The problem with prostitution, besides being a moral transgression, was the spread of disease, especially syphilis. Sexually transmitted diseases were a bodily and societal invasion caused by “minute particles” from “morbidic matter” according to doctors and social reformists of the time period (May 17). Does this concept of disease sound familiar? Perhaps it is because Dracula himself seems to be a parasitic, contagious pathogen. Jonathan Harker hints at a similar idea in the novel: “this was the being I was helping to transfer to London, where, perhaps, for centuries to come he might, amongst its teeming millions, satiate his lust for blood, and create a new and ever-widening circle of semi-demons to batten on the helpless” (Stoker 71). We know at this point in the story that “satiate his lust for blood” refers to the vampire method of draining someone’s blood through an intimate puncture wound, as Jonathan almost experiences with the three vampire women (54). Looking at this quote, it’s easy to see the parallel of Dracula and contagion. Dracula delivers his pathogen through a puncture wound, invoking the “minute particles” from “morbidic matter” to enter the blood, as Dracula is somewhere between living and dead, and in doing so creates more and more contagious parasites like him. To fuel the fire, Dracula is not only analogous to a disease carrying pathogen, hell bent on infecting all of London, but does so while dripping with disgust. Disgust, as a biological function, is ingrained in humans to avoid diseased and harmful things. It would make sense then that Dracula, and other vampires, who are the epitome of diseased contagions, would inspire disgust from the humans they come into contact with. The novel portrays this disgust rampantly throughout the novel: when Jonathan first sees the fresh fed Dracula in his coffin (71), when the men first see Lucy as a vampire (271), and when the men encounter Mina drinking Dracula’s blood (362-363). Almost every instance of humans encountering a vampire is characterized with disgust because they represent harm and disease to those living.
Speaking of harm, when it comes to human and vampire interactions, there is no beneficence to be had because, at their core, vampires are predators to humans. Vampires are presented as disgusting, diseased predators, with the sole goal of draining humans of their blood for food or turning humans into vampires to join them in their debauchery. This is one of the reasons the fascination with vampires has retained its freshness for so long. Invoking the terror through the biology of the creature is a must have in order for people to fear and subsequently be fascinated by them. Dracula, frequently throughout the text according to Clasen, is compared to an animal or beast of some sort, “Dracula is fundamentally bestial, and has prominent fangs…He is repeatedly described as an animal…and he has fiery, red eyes, superhuman strength, and a volatile temper” (386). Clasen goes on to claim that Dracula is not your average alpha-predator because besides his beastly nature, he has the ability to infiltrate polite society with his highly evolved social intellect and charisma (386). However, despite the high intellect and some supernatural powers, the humans in the novel were never swayed by Dracula to willingly become a vampire. Stoker made sure Dracula and his vampires served a distinct purpose in being “soul-less, vile, ungodly creatures” dividing what we know to be evil (vampires, undead) and good (humans and life) (390). Even when Dracula infected Mina, she makes all the men promise to kill her should she make the complete transformation, because death is better than vampirism (Stoker 425; Clasen 390). Combine all of these biological and societal components, and what Stoker has created is a monster so memorable and so formidable that, despite its antiquated Victorian origins, Dracula still assimilates seamlessly into modern society.
It’s clear that Dracula is more than just an entertaining character; he represents a societal and biological face that has transcended space, time, and culture and has remained relevant for subsequent generations. Unfortunately, this has not been the case with modern vampires. When you have vampires such as the Cullens from the Twilight series or Erik Northman from True Blood trying to represent the same face, you lose the essence of Bram Stoker’s vampire and create another entity in its entirety. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that they are too busy glittering in the sun, feeling guilty about their monstrous nature, or looking like Calvin Klein models to have time to convey relevant social symbolism and biological prowess anymore. Critics like Nina Auerbach claim that the modern vampire is just the same as Dracula, but has conformed to each generation’s societal issues (Clasen 390). However, the more accurate description, and the description this paper defends, comes from Tenga and Zimmerman, who claim that the modern vampire has been thwarted by the cumbersome conscience, preventing it from remaining the horrifying monster it once was (76).
Vampires have been distorted, not enhanced, by modern culture and the entertainment business to make us believe vampires are, “everything we wish we were: beautiful, strong, rich, and happy beyond measure” (Clasen 390). The overt humanization imposed on the modern vampire has obliterated any of the original concepts Stoker had in Dracula. Gone are the “soulless, carnal, egoistic monsters” Clasen claims Stoker wanted humans to “transcend” (390). Instead, vampires have become Stoker’s true nightmare, since modern society projects that we need to embody vampires, not destroy them. Longing for vampirism is a popular trend in the modern vampire narrative, with countless humans preferring the vampire life to human life (390). Bella’s goal in Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series was to become a vampire. Sookie Stackhouse from the True Blood TV series, based on the novels by Charlaine Harris, also was in a love triangle with two male vampires, one of whom disdained his own creation, and the other a veritable sex god who owned his own nightclub business, both undeniably attractive with a sensitive side. Brad Pitt’s character in the film Interview with a Vampire, based on Anne Rice’s novels, was a weary vampire telling a modern journalist about his life of regret as a vampire. The tag line for the film from the International Movie Database reads, “A vampire tells his epic life story: love, betrayal, loneliness, and hunger” (“Interview with a Vampire”).
Where are the ungodly, beastly metaphors? Where are the Mina Harkers forcefully telling their comrades to kill them if necessary to avoid turning into a monster? Stoker would be having an aneurism by now at the modern vampires and humans above. The humanization in each one of those examples goes against the very nature of the vampire as a biological predator and also diminishes the cultural importance of the vampire being a merciless, and brutal predator. The vampire is shown as such a terrible entity because it is meant to uphold the goodness of society. Society wishes to thrive and survive, not to die in order to live fuller lives like modern vampire has us believe. The modern adaptations of vampires that show them close to the original concept, like author Justin Cronin says, focus on “connections between people”, and examining “what part of [our] humanity would [we] be trading away if [we] got to live forever?” (Clasen 391). Cronin assures us that through the evaluation of those questions, we’d find ourselves a whole lot better off remaining human (Clasen 391). It’s easy to be blinded by the shininess of this new, more humanized, sexualized version of the vampire, but it is a one sided version compiled without all of the facts. Dracula and vampires as Stoker presents them are evil, malicious, predatory creatures who show mortality is fragile. Vampires are supposed to show that death is something to fear, not something to wish upon ourselves so we may start our new eternal life, and that humanity prevails when we work together to overcome our fears. As a whole though, it’s not hard to see how this romanticized portrayal of vampires is enticing to our fast paced, we’ll-sleep-when-we’re-dead society. Eternal life sounds so appealing when we look at the modern vampire, because we essentially see better versions of ourselves having it all, while living eternally. The exception, however, is that the gutting of the original vampire for this shiny, plastic, version comes under many false pretenses and is unnecessary, especially when the original idea can translate seamlessly into our culture of today.
How do we know that this idea can transition seamlessly today? It’s been done in a new monstrous face, willing to eat a brain for Bram Stoker’s original vampire concept: zombies. Zombies have literally and figuratively been raised from the dead as pop culture icons within the last several decades to fulfill a job modern vampires are incapable of doing- using a story about a culturally and biologically relevant monster to talk about society’s fears and anxieties.
Culturally, zombies symbolize several major themes: fear of death and aging (Tenga and Zimmerman 78-79), the loss of identity (80), and the idea that large organizations, through their irresponsible globalization of capitalism, greed, and errors cause disasters like the literal creation of monsters (83). AMC’s The Walking Dead highlights what zombies can represent to a society, with episodes focusing on the survivor’s loss of identity in comparison to the zombie’s loss of identity, the fear of death and aging heightened by the fact you are running for your life constantly in a world of peril (79), and the notion that larger entities in society are responsible for the situation (83). While it’s true that Bram Stoker’s Dracula focused on different themes, the unifying moral themes of evil vs. good still apply, and zombie narratives, especially The Walking Dead still take the essence of what Stoker was trying to accomplish with Dracula – examining relevant societal fears and anxieties through a monster.
Biologically, zombies are very similar to Stoker’s Dracula as well. The predation factor comes not from the vampire that stalks and infects its prey cunningly, but from the overwhelming horde of mindless, insatiably hungry for human flesh zombies (80). While vampires and zombies seem to be on the opposite spectrum of what you look like after death, they still embody a threat to humans from the natural order. In terms of disease and disgust, this is really where the zombie shines. According to Tenga and Zimmerman, “Many recent zombie narratives express anxiety about globalization in terms of infection. The T-Virus in Resident Evil and the Rage virus in 28 Days Later are created through scientists and unleashed through human error” (82). Zombies, in recent narratives at least, are literally born from disease and each zombie is representative of the threat of that disease. Not to mention that zombies, on the opposite spectrum from modern vampires, are some of the most disgusting things imaginable, usually portrayed with rapid decay and gruesome mutilation, “the zombie reminds us that we will soon be rotting flesh without thought or control” (78). But most of all, zombies portray what society craves: “a genuinely abject monster” (84), as Julia Kristeva’s quote explains in Tenga and Zimmerman’s article “the corpse…is death infecting life, from which one does not protect oneself as from an object” (78).
That quote certainly does not describe the modern vampire, with all of its humanization and the eschewing of its monstrous responsibilities. What it does though, is highlight just how perfect the zombie is in fulfilling Stoker’s vision for examining social fears and anxieties through the use of a monster that is both culturally relevant and biologically menacing. Ghosts, goblins, witches, and other supernatural entities don’t seem to have the gravitas to inspire fear and force us to analyze why we are afraid because there has been too much dilution of character and spirit. The zombie, like Dracula and the vampire of old, is the beacon for monsters everywhere to aspire to. Hopefully, the zombie can continue to be the abject monster society needs and craves.
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Stoker, Bram, and Maurice Hindle. Dracula. New York: Penguin, 1993. Print.
Tenga, Angela, and Elizabeth Zimmerman. “Vampire Gentlemen and Zombie Beasts: A Rendering of True Monstrosity.” Gothic Studies 15.1 (2013): 76-87. Literature Online. Web. 3 Dec. 2014.