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

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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.

Who wrote this?

Paul Asay has been writing for Plugged In since 2007 and loves superheroes and finding God in unexpected places. In addition, Paul has also written several books, with his newest—Burning Bush 2.0—recently published by Abingdon Press. When Paul’s not reviewing movies, he hikes with his wife, Wendy, runs marathons with his grown kids, Colin and Emily, and beats back unruly houseplants. Follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.

Have something to say? Leave a comment.

Anonymous 3 months ago
One of my favorite scenes was from the movie Fright Night (the original) when Peter Vincent holds up a cross and the vampire laughs at it and dryly comments, "You have to have faith for that to work on me, Mr. Vincent." In that aspect, it wasn't much different than the Seven Sons of Sceva who got stomped in Acts 19:13-16.
Anonymous 3 months ago
Hi! So, I love the idea of a Dracula through the ages sort of post.

However, I have to correct your assessment of the 1979 Dracula, and after having seen the movie multiple times throughout my adult life, I feel empowered to do so.

There are two instances of Dracula being confronted with a cross in the 1979 version, not just the one instance you mentioned in your article. They really need to be told together or the message gets lost, which is what happened here.

The first instance is the one not mentioned in your article but should be. Van Helsing, a man of great religious faith, pulls a tiny Eucharist from his pocket and barely points it in Dracula's direction, at which point Dracula panics and tries to attack. However, Dracula is powerless when the cross is held by Van Helsing. He can't attack or harm Van Helsing in any way. All he can do is shapeshift into a wolf and leap out the window to escape.

The second instance is when the very secular character of Jonathan Harker holds up a massive crucifix in Dracula's face. That is the moment when Dracula smirks at Jonathan, grabs the cross, and it explodes in flame.

The 1979 Dracula really is a powerful lesson of faith and not just iconography. A cross in the hands of an unbeliever is nothing, which is what happens when Jonathan Harker tries to wield it. But a cross in the hands of a Christian (or Catholic like Van Helsing) is a powerful item indeed to which Dracula has no option but to run away. It is faith that determines whether a cross can defeat a monster and that is the story of the 1979 Dracula.

Otherwise, your article was fascinating. Did you know that the scenario of Van Helsing tainting Dracula's coffins is actually reenacted in the 1979 Dracula as well? It's a terrific scene watching Sir Laurence Olivier's Van Helsing break communion wafers and plant them in Dracula's coffin. I had no idea it was in the original book, though. That impresses me that the '79 version stayed faithful to that aspect of the story.
charitysplace 3 months ago
Dracula is also unable to mind control Harker when he's holding the Eucharist! 
Rocketshipper 3 months ago
What, no mention for Dracula 2000?  In that movie Dracula was actually an undead Judas, cursed when he committed suicide after betraying Jesus.  That was how they explained his aversion to crosses and holy items.

Definitely an underrated horror classic, IMO.  I thought it was really good.  and Gerard Butler is Dracula ^^.
charitysplace 28 days ago
I remember that, though I haven't seen it in forever. I found that a really unique, interesting twist on Dracula lore.
charitysplace 3 months ago
Dracula is one of my favorite concepts (books, adaptations, etc) so this may turn into a long comment. I tend to gush about the things I love. ;)

The original Dracula reflects the Victorian apprehension about a future in which traditional beliefs are abandoned. It's no coincidence that Dracula is frightened away by religious imagery nor that Stoker attacks feminism. It's these themes, as well as those of faith / belief and Dracula's aversion to faith (because he is an unholy creature, he survives on the blood of the living in a perverse reversal of Communion) that have made me revisit all kinds of adaptations, including the most recent one.

You mention in Langella's Dracula, he grabs a cross and it bursts into flames. It has an important context, since it highlights Jonathan Harker's lack of faith. Van Helsing is a man of strong moral and religious beliefs. He can keep Dracula at bay with a symbol of the Eucharist. Jonathan Harker is a "modern" man of the 1912s -- with modern ideas. He's ambitious and sneers at traditional morals and methods. He is using the cross purely to ward off an evil he does not understand, assuming he has the authority to do so, despite lacking faith. It reminds me a bit of the story of the demons in the New Testament, who turned on those attempting to cast them out in Jesus' name -- "We have never heard of YOU!" Elsewhere in the movie, Van Helsing shows Lucy, in the process of becoming a vampire, a crucifix -- it not only drives her vampiric spirit out of her temporarily, but she clings weeping to it, hoping for redemption. So, faith is very much alive and well in that adaptation. (It's my favorite for a variety of reasons, Langella's charming take on the Count notwithstanding.)

The writers for NBC's Dracula are Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss -- and they originally wrote the miniseries for the BBC. They are better known for writing Doctor Who and Sherlock. You'll notice the shows all have certain themes in common -- gay coding / bisexual characters, atheism vs. belief, and the emotional hang-ups of their erratic main characters, who have psychopath / sociopath traits but eventually "redeem" themselves in some way. (The Doctor and Sherlock find their humanity, Dracula gets over his emotional hang-ups and does himself in.)

I wholeheartedly agree that it's absurd Netflix rated their adaptation TV-14. I must assume it an error of some sort. They pushed far beyond the boundaries of good taste in every conceivable way. It was a literal bloodbath.

Personally, the first two episodes for me were interesting and engaging takes on the source material and on decades of adaptations (there are little nods to a bunch of them, plus a lot of other vampire lore) but they botched it big time with the final episode. SPOILER. Leaping forward in time instantly made me lose interest. I eagerly consumed (ha ha) the first two installments, but had to force myself to watch the final one. They should have left it a Victorian horror story, as it was originally intended.
Caleb Lancaster 3 months ago
I just read Stoker’s Dracula, and now see why it’s considered a classic. It was fantastic! And Dracula the character was terrifying. I tried watching the Netflix show, and was disappointed in the changes. You summed up my thoughts exactly
charitysplace 3 months ago
If you want an accurate adaptation to the book, see if you can find the Louis Jourdan version ("Count Dracula") from the 1970s. It has some cheesy special effects, but it most resembles the book.