There are few names from literature and popular culture that are as well known as that of Dracula. Dracula stars in more than two hundred films, appears in numerous television shows, has taken to the stage not only in drama but also musicals, ballet, and opera, features in video games and comics, and, of course, appears in many vampire fictions in addition to the original novel that bears his name.
They cannot die, but must go on age after age adding new victims and multiplying the evils of the world Abraham Van Helsing
He is, as he is called in Bram Stoker’s 1897 text, the King Vampire. He is a menacing spectre in a foreign castle. He is a balding, long-fingered, shadowy ghoul. But he is also a handsome Hungarian man in a tuxedo and cape. He is an African prince, the leader of the monster squad, Gary Oldman in a top hat, a nemesis of slayers such as Buffy and Blade, and even (heaven help us) Adam Sandler as a hotel proprietor. He can be identified in Sesame Street’s puppet Count von Count and the cartoon on the cereal box for Count Chocula.
But what draws us to this king of the undead? How has he become such a prolific and contradictory figure of evil and seduction, glamour and horror, pathos and comedy?
As he appears in Stoker’s text, Dracula is hardly the figure new readers might expect him to be. He is no antihero, no handsome, tortured stranger who shares an immortal love with the heroine. Rather, he is a monstrous ‘creature…in the semblance of a man.’ Dracula first appears as an old man with a ‘cruel-looking’ mouth, an ‘extraordinary pallor,’ and a profuse amount of hair, even in the centre of his palms. He communes with wolves, scales castle walls like a lizard, sleeps in the dirt, and feeds infants to the vampire women who, mysteriously, roam his castle. And as the vampire hunter Abraham van Helsing tells it, he is of a ‘criminal type’ with an ‘imperfectly formed mind’—a selfish creature with a ‘child brain,’ incapable of progress or real, modern intelligence.
New readers might expect Dracula to say that he will ‘never drink…wine,’ but that’s a line of Bela Lugosi’s (Dracula, 1931) and, much later, Gary Oldman’s (Bram Stoker’s Dracula, 1992). They might expect him to burn up in sunlight, but that would be Max Schreck (Nosferatu, 1922) or Christopher Lee (Horror of Dracula, 1958); the original Dracula walks in the daylight without smouldering.
As these titbits suggest, Dracula as we popularly know it today is almost a palimpsest, its story overwritten with multiple iconic portrayals and imaginative revisions of its monster.
Yet Dracula’s undead potential to rise again and again in new forms is evident in Stoker’s novel: Dracula overflows with tantalising images and (sometimes undeveloped) ideas. Critical readings identify how the novel engages with numerous fears and concerns of the Victorian era: about colonialism at the peak of the British Empire; consumerism in modern capitalism; homosociality and homosexuality in the era of the Oscar Wilde trials; the patriarchal repression of women and the emergence of the ‘New Woman’; anti-Semitism; evolutionary theory; theories of the mind and emerging psychoanalytic theory; the development of new modern technologies; and even modernity itself. As Ken Gelder writes, ‘there is always more to be said about Dracula, always room for further interpretation and elaboration: this is a novel which seems . . . to generate readings, rather than close them down.’1
This is because, as a vampire, Dracula is what Judith Halberstam describes as a ‘meaning machine’: he is a monster that ‘can represent any horrible trait that the reader feeds into the narrative.’2 In other words, through his monstrosity, Dracula functions as a means by which we can negotiate and refract any number of our own very real cultural anxieties. It’s no surprise, then, that each new adaptation of Dracula engages with his story as well as with its own contemporary cultural context.
As for the conception of Dracula as a figure of equal parts romance and horror, in the 1970s, for the first time, a number of texts reframed Dracula as more lover than monster. In 1973, Dan Curtis’s film Bram Stoker’s Dracula rewrote the Dracula narrative as a romance in which Mina Harker was the reincarnation of his long lost love. The comedy Love at First Bite (1979) parodies this storyline as Dracula attempts to join the twenty-first century of New York City. Nina Auerbach additionally highlights Fred Saberhagen’s novel The Dracula Tape (1975) and Jon Badham’s film Dracula (1979) as significant texts in this period. These retellings of Dracula all depict a feeling vampire who forms a romantic relationship with a human woman.
In these adaptations, Auerbach argues, ‘the women, victims no more, embrace vampirism with rapture as the sole available escape from patriarchy.’3 Romance-hero versions of Dracula offer to share their immortality and their supernatural power with the women upon whom they feed; this power thus disrupts the heteronormative relationship models and patriarchal family structures that have limited women socially. In this sense, the Dracula narratives of this era can be linked with the broader social disruptions of second-wave feminism.
What’s more, each new adaptation of Dracula’s story is highly intertextual, building on what has come before, selecting and rejecting parts of his mythos. We come to every Dracula with some understanding of the rules of his narrative. As Gelder argues, ‘each vampire film is required to take a relational position (reproducing something, disavowing something else) to everything that has generically gone before.’4 Each version of Dracula must establish how it fits into the Dracula story, a game in which audiences are invited to participate: Can he turn into a wolf, a bat, or mist? Is he still severely allergic to garlic and the sun? Does he still have the accent? Must we invite him in? And, really, is he more lover or monster this time?
Newer representations of Dracula may, as in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997–2003), wink at his supposedly supernatural powers of seduction. They might challenge his origin story, revealing Dracula’s ‘true’ identity as Judas Iscariot (Dracula 2000, 2000) or exploring his history as Vlad the Impaler, the Wallachian prince (Bram Stoker’s Dracula, 1992; Kostova’s novel The Historian, 2005; Dracula Untold, 2014). They might even flummox us with an American-accented Dracula who is deeply concerned with inventing a sustainable power source (as in NBC’s short-lived series Dracula, 2013–2014).
As the last example might suggest, Dracula’s narrative is continually updated as a vehicle for the concerns of the current era. When else but in an era of looming climate change would we find a Dracula intent on discovering a renewable alternative to fossil fuels, so that he can undermine the wealthy, evil cabal who controls the world’s oil supply?
As for where Dracula will go next, we shouldn’t have to wait long to find out—it’s been reported that Mark Gatiss and Stephen Moffat will soon be producing a new Dracula for the BBC, while horror-film director Robert Eggers will be remaking Nosferatu. As Roger Luckhurst writes in the recently published Cambridge Companion to Dracula, ‘The tiles of this mosaic will keep being re-arranged. This is only testament to Dracula’s place in the pantheon of modern myths.’5
Selected Further Reading
- Abbott, Stacey. Celluloid Vampires: Life After Death in the Modern World. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2007.
- Abbott, Stacey. Undead Apocalypse: Vampires and Zombies in the Twenty-First Century. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016.
- Arata, Stephen D. ‘The Occidental Tourist: Dracula and the Anxiety of Reverse Colonization.’ Victorian Studies 33, no. 4, (1990): 621–45.
- Auerbach, Nina. Our Vampires, Ourselves. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.
- Craft, Christopher. ‘“Kiss Me with Those Red Lips”: Gender and Inversion in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.’ Representations 8 (1984): 107–133.
- Gelder, Ken. New Vampire Cinema. London: BFI, 2012.
- Gelder, Ken. Reading the Vampire. London: Routledge, 1994.
- Halberstam, Judith. Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters. Durham: Duke University Press, 1995.
- Luckhurst, Roger, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Dracula. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018.
- Moretti, Franco. ‘The Dialectic of Fear.’ In Signs Taken for Wonders: On the Sociology of Literary Forms. Translated by Susan Fischer, David Forgacs, and David Mille. 83–108. London: Verso, 2005.
- Schaffer, Talia. ‘“A Wilde Desire Took Me”: The Homoerotic History of Dracula.’ ELH 61, no. 2 (1994): 381–425.
- Senf, Carol. The Vampire in Nineteenth-Century English Literature. Bowling Green: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1988.
- Williamson, Milly. The Lure of the Vampire: Gender, Fiction and Fandom from Bram Stoker to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. London: Wallflower, 2005.
- Ken Gelder, Reading the Vampire (London: Routledge, 1994), 65.
- Judith Halberstam, Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters (Durham, Duke University Press: 1995), 21.
- Nina Auerbach, Our Vampires, Ourselves (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 140.
- Ken Gelder, New Vampire Cinema (London: BFI, 2012), vi.
- Roger Luckhurst, ‘Introduction,’ in The Cambridge Companion to Dracula, ed. Roger Luckhurst (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 8.