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The vampire’s mirror

The Undead: Dracula 125 years on

Artillery Row

This year marks 110 years since the death of Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula, in 1912. His literary progeny is most certainly still alive and a ubiquitous figure in contemporary culture. From the latest television version of the novel, complete with vampiric nuns, to a novelistic attempt to imagine Jane Austen in Dracula mode: Jane Bites Back. Not to mention video games, hallowe’en costumes  and home décor. Gothic fiction, indeed, has provided the past century or so with its self-understanding, with Robert Louis Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde revealing humanity’s inner warfare and duality, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein our propensity for playing God and creating our own monsters. The atheistic attempt to banish the supernatural from our culture leads to a demonic backlash.

The inverse Christian motifs in Goth culture owe their origin to Dracula

Stoker’s lengthy novel has been mined as a rich source of repressed material by Marxists, who see the count as the free movement of capital in a globalised world. By those more psychoanalytically inclined, such as Maurice Richardson in 1959, Dracula has been seen as “a kind of incestuous, necrophilious, oral and sadistic all-in wrestling match”. Yet this sexual material all lies open to view on the surface: it is hardly repressed. My own explanation for the longevity of the novel’s influence, apart from its superb plotting, is that it tests the limits of the materialistic universe that nineteenth century positivism shut us inside: what philosopher Charles Taylor terms, “the immanent frame”.

For the vampire is pure materiality: all blood and fangs, as it were. Dracula is not alive and not truly dead either but exists in a twilight half-life. His very denial of death represents the truth that without a metaphysical root to the physical, there is neither life nor death but merely a rearrangement of molecular structure. In Dracula’s desire to live we see the protest of a disenchanted universe at its own failure to mean anything, trapped as it is in the circularity of purely physical processes.

No wonder then that Dracula apes religious motifs. He is a kind of parody or inversion of Christ, who takes the lives of others rather than giving his own life. He lures the lunatic Renfield to ingest an evolutionary ladder of ascending creatures to claim for himself the blood that is their life, which belongs only to God in the Jewish scriptures he invokes. The bloody staking of the vampiric Lucy and the reverse resurrection scenes at her tomb are all in the service of returning true realism to the material world, in which blood can truly cry out. The inverse employment of Christian motifs in Goth culture owes its origin to Dracula and shares something of the same longing for the power of the symbol to signify.

Stoker’s answer to this self-contained materialism is religious and even ecumenical. It involves Protestants and Catholics banding together across their differences to defeat Dracula and free his victims from entrapment. Stoker grew up as a Church of Ireland Dubliner, a member of the Anglo-Irish ascendancy (albeit of a non-landed variety), and he was a supporter of Home Rule. Dracula can also be read as an image of the self-destructive violence and domination by the past of Irish history. The way forward is ecumenical co-operation and acts of self-sacrifice, which are represented in the novel by the way that the men give blood-transfusions to the dying Lucy Westenra (an Anglo-Irish surname) and how the heroine, Mina Harker, uses the medium-like capacity of her cursed status to know Dracula’s mind, to track him down.

As befits this Christian novel, Dracula himself is saved

Protestantism privileges the word, and so the vampire-hunters employ everything from phonograph records to journals, while the Catholic Van Helsing offers sacramentals — holy water and the eucharistic host — to aid the quest. I need not add that no Catholic would be given a dispensation to stick bits of the Host as glue in a tomb to prevent vampiric egress, but the very vulgarity and bizarreness of the novel is part of the strength of its protest at this materialism. It wishes to restore a religious worldview in which every part of the cosmos speaks of God.

In the end, as befits this Christian novel, Dracula himself is saved. In his dying face there is a look of peace because he can truly die and be released from the cycles of predation. Similarly, Lucy, redeemed to her old self, stops being a “Thing” and regains marks of time and suffering. She too can speak as a sign of a life beyond the grave and a true death that values the physicality of temporality. The re-enchantment of the world is in the service of restoring the material to us in its full presence. 

The character of Dracula serves many ends but this disquiet about the limits of our world continues, both in the contemporary fascination with the heroic vampire as a tragic figure who carries the burden of materialism like an Oedipus, but also in our fascination with zombies and other expressions of pure matter. The BBC series Silent Witness is also celebrating its longevity this year, with a run of twenty-five years. Its pathologist heroine too is a kind of vampire, who pierces the human body to discover its life and secrets as well as a vampire hunter, who looks to the pure physicality of the poor corpse to make it speak. If our culture is materialist and atheist, then we are not as comfortable with our worldview as we would like to think. Why else would these figures who question physical limits be so compelling to us that we tell the story of the undead Dracula over and over again?

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