What the Ever-Changing Dracula Tells Us About Society and Ourselves

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on print
Share on email

Some things never change, they say. But some things do.

Take Count Dracula, for instance—not the historical Vlad III of Wallachia, of course, but the vampire of Bram Stoker’s imagination. His literary legend, through book and movie and television show and videogame, has been pretty constant in two respects: One, he’s technically dead. Two, he remains fairly lively by drinking the blood of various living victims.

But outside those two critical characteristics, Dracula has changed a great deal over the 123 years since Stoker first stoked some life into the guy. Sometimes he’s an unholy monster. Sometimes he’s sexy antihero. Netflix’s newest take on the vampire (it also had a go at the fiend in 2017’s Castlevania) depicts him as a bisexual quipster with a plethora of psychological hang-ups.

Yes, for someone so dead, Dracula has certainly donned a variety of black hats. And every decade, it seems, happily gives its own take on the bloodsucker, making Dracula a telling cultural Rorschach test: What does society fear? What does it value? What, even, does it worship? Dracula, in his own Transylvanian way, tells us.

Let’s take a little sampling.

When we think of Dracula today, most of us immediately imagine Bela Lugosi’s 1931 version: A suave, cultured, fairly handsome man in a black cape from an exotic country. But when we first meet the Stoker original, so sharply drawn in his 1897 novel Dracula, he’s hardly someone you’d swipe right for on Tinder. The Count (as poor Jonathan Harker describes) is impossibly old, frighteningly pale (his face also bears a long white mustache), and he has hair growing on the palms of his hands. He doesn’t have fangs, exactly, but he does have quite sharp teeth. Oh, and his ears are pointed, too.

Dracula gets younger as he feeds, and he does seem to have a certain charismatic magnetism about him. But the Count, in Stoker’s take, is obviously more monster than man. Indeed, he’s an earthbound demon, an unholy mockery of God-given life. Indeed, Abraham Van Helsing (Dracula’s most durable enemy) calls the vampire’s feeding process(and the process by which his victims ultimately become vampires) as a dark “baptism of blood.” Dracula hates any display of Christian imagery. He really hates crosses, and in the book, Van Helsing “contaminates” all of Dracula’s boxes of Transylvanian dirt (he needs to sleep on his native soil) with blessed communion wafers. Dracula’s legend, like most of the folklore vampires that preceded him, was definitely linked to God and faith. Oh, and while Dracula was apparently weaker in sunlight, he was totally capable of moving around in it without being burned to a crisp.

By 1922’s silent classic Nosferatu, though, Dracula had developed a serious allergy to light. This, too, was rooted in folklore, common sense and, yes, spirituality. Historically, we humans had good reasons to be afraid of the dark, because we couldn’t see what was in it. But Christianity (along with other religions) helped bring a metaphorical power to these natural states: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it,” we read in John 1:5.  That verse, in some ways, is intentionally illustrated at the very end of Nosferatu, complete with Christ figure, when the innocent heroine Mina willingly offers her blood and life to Dracula (renamed Count Orlok here, due to some copyright issues). She thus keeps the vampire busy until the sun rises, and Orlock is burned to a crisp.

And so it went for a good chunk of Dracula’s cinematic history: Crosses, holy water and sunlight were all quite bothersome to him. Bela Lugosi’s 1931 Dracula despised religious iconography. In the 1950s and ‘60s, Dracula, played then by the truly terrifying Christopher Lee, was even more monstrous—a reflection, some have speculated, on the age’s Cold War fears and superstitious threats to enlightened modernity. But moviegoers were still overwhelmingly, and traditionally, Christian, which meant that the power of the cross—even in an age increasingly placing its face in science—still held sway over the Prince of Vampires.

But things began to change when Frank Langella donned the cape for 1979’s Dracula, tagged with the telling line, “a love story.” Langella made the Count more human. “I decided he was a highly vulnerable and erotic man, not cool and detached and with no sense of humor or humanity,” Langella was quoted as saying. “I wanted to show a man who, while evil, was lonely and could fall in love.” Instead of a fearsome “other,” Dracula had taken a turn toward being a wee bit more sympathetic. And instead of being horrified by the brandishing of a cross, Langella’s Dracula smirks at the sight of it—then grabs it and sets it ablaze by touch.

This is a telling change. The cross, and thus Christianity, is still significant, and the bloodsucker is still infernal. But by the late 1970s—an age of societal change and hedonism and, of course, disco—the evil Count had become more powerful than this mere symbol of goodness.

That change set in motion a vampiric age in which fewer bloodsuckers were put off by religious iconography. Sunlight has been a more enduring deterrent for vampires, but not always. In Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight books, vamp Edward Cullen does just fine in the sun, albeit he gets a little sparkly. And Edward does see vampirism as a detriment to communion with God. He feels, at least in the beginning, that his conversion to vampirism as putting himself on the other side of the Almighty’s ledger—but not every vampire would agree. Meyer is herself religious (she’s Mormon), and many readers have spent lots of time sussing out that spiritual influence in her stories. But it’s a telling, and modern, twist on the trope: There’s not such an obvious division between dark and light, the holy and the unholy—at least where vampires are concerned. Rather, the critical element seems to be how the vampires themselves feel about themselves and their natures.

Which brings us to Netflix’s Dracula. (Caution, spoilers ahead.) The miniseries ultimately tells us that Dracula hates the sun not because he’ll be burned to a crisp by it, but because he’s ashamed to show how bestial he’s become in the light of day. It resurrects the Count’s aversion to crosses, religious wafers and all manner of Christian symbolism. But that aversion is not rooted in their inherent holy-ness, but rather in Dracula’s own shame and guilt in being undead and, just as critically, his selfish unwillingness to die. As Zoe Van Helsing (familiar name, right?) tells him, crosses remind Dracula of Christ—a man who willingly died on the cross. “It speaks of the courage you long to possess,” Zoe tells him. “The courage it takes to die.” Whether Christ is actually the Son of God, it seems, is immaterial.

This is, in my opinion, a super-lame climax to the Netflix story. If Dracula really just hates himself because he can’t commit suicide, and if he’s set off by symbols that emphasize a willingness to die, it seems like that would encompass a lot more symbols than the cross, y’know? In the first episode, he watches someone purposefully jump off Dracula’s own castle turret to end himself: By the show’s logic, the Count would never be able to look at a turret again without screaming.

But, of course, the more significant takeaway is, again, how today’s secular culture (or, at least, that culture as represented by the show’s creators) seems to see the place of spirituality: It can still profoundly impact us, the miniseries suggests; but whether there’s a factual base for what we believe in doesn’t seem to matter. Is there any inherent power in the cross and, thus, Christianity itself? Netflix says no.

This is not only a sad diminishing of faith within these secular Dracula stories, but a diminishing of Dracula himself. He’s still a fearsome guy to be sure. But his vampirism—along with all its abilities and drawbacks—are products of a naturalistic world, where the presence or absence of God seems entirely beside the point.

The best creators of horror understand that the scariest monsters are those we can’t see clearly. There’s an inherent terror in mystery, and I think an inherent mystery in terror. Dracula—Bram Stoker’s Dracula—isn’t just a monster: He’s all the more terrifying because his mere presence speaks to a reality beyond the empirical veil we see. His monstrosity speaks to a light and darkness beyond day and night, to holy and unholy realities, the “resent darkness” of which Paul spoke of in Ephesians. When Dracula is diminished to the equivalent of a rabid dog—dangerous and diseased, but not diabolical—something is lost in the translation.  And as a result, the light offered in Netflix’s Dracula is very dim indeed.