Last spring I read1 Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula. You might say I read the book six months early. But in fact, I actually read the book—for the very first time—perhaps twenty years too late.
I enjoyed Dracula way more than I thought I would. Now I may finally “get” horror.
Sure, at Speculative Faith we’ve creaked open the great doors and invited several Christian horror fans into our castle to explore the genre, including novelists Mike Duran and Brian Godawa. (Also, be sure you catch novelist C. W. Briar’s excellent expose of werewolves in this month’s issue of Lorehaven Magazine.)
However, analyzing the genre is one thing. Actually reading a horror classic literally helps me develop personal appreciation for you horror fans. “Ah,” said I, having finally finished this Gothic horror tale for the first time, “so that’s why you love it.”
By no means can this horror newbie analyze the story, review this classic, or try to explain vampire lore and such. Nor would I make this article all about apologetics for the horror genre; our previous writers well cover that topic. Instead, I’d like to share a few responses I had during and after finishing my first read of Dracula.
1. I was weirdly giddy at hearing all the vampire tropes.
When I joined Jonathan Harker, rolling into Transylvania for the first time, I had this bizarre sense: that Dracula might be like one of those old genre books that you suspect doesn’t have a lot of genre in it. It’s a silly suspicion, but I had it. What if the book barely had any vampires? What if it were just some dry pseudo-historical tale, and in fact the modern vampire—cape, fangs, and all—is a modern mutation?
Again, what a silly suspicion. Once our villain himself confronts poor Mr. Harker, the genuine horror leaps out of its supposedly dry, empty coffin of history. And I found that I was weirdly happy about this. Yes, folks, here he was, Mr. The Count, dwelling in the castle in the mountains with lightning and terrified locals and everything. He had everything I expected: creepy gentility, pointy teeth, invisibility in mirrors, craving for human blood, aversion to garlic and religious symbols, and fog– and bat-based transformation powers (at minimum). He also had things I hadn’t expected, such as the ability to control creatures of the night, plus a harem of she-vampires.
However, a bonus: the overly weak notion that vampires explode in the sunlight? That’s a myth at least insofar as Dracula is concerned. Stoker’s vampires don’t do this. They simply lose their powers and become as mortal men. That’s much better.
2. I was repulsed/fascinated by the vampires’ inherent sensuality.
I’m no late-19th-century Gothic literature scholar, so I don’t know how much Stoker’s style and themes followed or diverged from expectations of the era. But I do know that even 120-plus years later, Dracula and especially his three vampire henchwomen were described as overtly sensual and sexualized.
Stoker, to be sure, shows more restraint than a modern author would, at portraying exactly what these henchwomen do and say when they confront a paralyzed Jonathan Harker. That restraint almost makes them worse. He’s fascinated by them, with lips and teeth and all, and I grew rightfully uncomfortable hearing it all. From a biblical perspective, I’m struck with many parallels. For example, see the various frightening fates that befall the victim of the adulteress in Proverbs 7: 21–23.
In our world, people are literally rejecting the gospel of Jesus Christ because he conflicts with particular sexual appetites. I think it’s time for Stoker-style vampires to make a comeback, especially with their fleshly lusts that the story shows for what they are: “dishonorable passions … contrary to nature” (Romans 1:26).
3. I found Stoker’s female characters (mostly) strong.
As a male reader, I love stories in which female characters act like, you know, human beings, with their own wills and opinions and agendas. The best stories do this so well with female characters that their readers don’t even need to write awkward calling-attention-to-it paragraphs like this one.
As for Dracula, the results are mixed. However, many things could have gone wrong with Stoker’s portrayal of the female vampires’ sensuality. He could have tried the “female sexuality is inherently bad” route, but I didn’t see that going on, especially because Dracula himself is shown as super-sensual, with a hyper-“masculinity” that masks his evil. Moreover, female leads Mina Murray (Harker’s fiancée) and her friend Lucy Westenra hold their own so well that, again, you may hardly want to bring up the stigma of the “Strong Female Character” for risk of bringing it all down.
Still, one portion of the novel made me roll my eyes a bit. It occurs later in the tale, when the gentle, elderly scholar (not beefcake action star) Dr. Van Helsing and his posse of male vampire-hunting recruits praise Mina for her most excellent and womanly virtues, and really there is no one equaled in all civilized society who has not the courage and the fortitude for such an endeavor. They’re all correct, of course. But their rhapsodies do go on, seeming to oversell Mina’s genuine strength.
4. I think I can join fans who despise ‘teen vampires.’
Dracula is so captivating and so genuinely evil a figure—with just enough empathy to provoke a finale tinged with tragedy—that I can now empathize with those fans who resent the Twilight-ification of vampire lore.
Sure, I just got here, and I won’t pretend I can “culturally appropriate” the fandom for you professional vampire fans. But I can, at least, see why you particularly loathe the watered-down “sparkling” vampire.2
5. I found Dracula’s religious elements captivating and plausible.
From what I can tell, the reason why Hellboy uses bullets made of saints’ bones, and every other vampire-killing action star has other mystical-related weaponry, is because Dr. Van Helsing uses uniquely religious elements to subdue Dracula. For example, this gentleman scholar (again, not beefcake action star) uses sacramental bread from the ceremony of Mass to keep Dracula out of his places of refuge.
Now, of course, the Irish-born Stoker likely had in the back of his mind the Catholic belief in transubstantiation. This is the belief that bread is literally transformed into Jesus’s body during the Mass. So, in this universe, the evil Dracula is literally defeated—at least in part—by elements of the literal slain body of Jesus Christ.
That works for me. At the same time, I couldn’t help but develop a little headcanon. What if, in fact, it’s the association of these elements—in some spiritual way—with Christ and one of his church’s activities that actually deterred Dracula? For example, would you have to use “consecrated” bread to ward off vampires with spiritual power? Would a page of Scripture work just as well? Or a simple cross necklace?
6. I wanted to learn more.
Here is where I invite actual horror fans to help further induct this vampire newbie.
Sure, I’ve done some research into Stoker and the older tales from which he drew to create the modern vampire template. I’ve also read fascinating articles about the Icelandic translation/remake of the novel, and the fact that Stoker believed at least some of his fictional elements were based in reality. And, of course, I’ve been made grossly aware that some people claim to be “vampires” who drink human blood.
But now I want to hear from you. When did you read Dracula? What did you think or like about it? As a biblical Christian, what did/do you think or like about it? And what pictures of sin—and the power of righteousness over sin—does the story illustrate?
- Technically I listened to it, courtesy a talented team of Librivox volunteers. ↩
- To be consistent, we longtime professional Christian fans of horror stories may also want to add the Hotel Transylvania movies to our withering criticism. That’s because while Twilight tries to positively teen-sex up the vampire, the animated movies seem to turn this evil figure into a crazy cartoon character. ↩