Vlad's Still Beating Heart
Bram Stoker’s Dracula features Gary Oldman as the Count, and he is introduced to the audience much earlier than in most adaptations of Stoker’s book. The film opens in the year 1462, when Vlad Dracula is a prince of the Holy Roman Empire, just returning from successfully besieging Constantinople. Though the Empire is victorious in its war against the Ottoman Turks, Dracula’s patriotic duty has kept him painfully separated from his beautiful wife, Elizabeta. By the time he comes back to her, though, she is dead: convinced that her beloved Vlad had been slain in the battle, she threw herself into the river surrounding Castle Dracula. A grief-stricken Vlad is informed that because Elizabeta committed suicide, her soul is eternally damned.
Overcome with passionate sorrow and anger, Dracula violently and irreverently rejects not only the Church but also God altogether. This is his transformation into a monster; unlike the other versions of Dracula, Oldman’s character has reason to be evil, and reason that audiences can understand and relate to, albeit on a less extreme level. When Jonathan Harker witnesses the horrors that go on in Dracula’s castle four centuries after the Count’s terrible loss, audiences do not see them as entirely senseless.
Gary Oldman in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
Furthermore, Count Dracula’s pursuit of Mina Harker is not motivated by base bloodlust—or even lust for flesh—but by something more tender: love (of course, that fails to stop him from sating his hunger for blood with that of innocent women and children). When Dracula arrives in England, he immediately recognizes Mina as the reincarnation of his lost love Elizabeta, and knowing that she does not remember him, begins to cultivate a relationship with her. Mina is intrigued and succumbs to his wiles while her husband is away, though unbeknownst to her, the charming Prince Vlad, as he introduces himself, is responsible for her best friend Lucy’s decline and eventual death and reanimation. Audiences see here something deeper in Dracula than Stoker’s novel ever portrayed. They see Dracula as capable of experiencing a love for life and a true, unique love for Mina, far more meaningful than his lust for the “brides” at his castle or for Lucy.
Unfortunately, Elizabeta once again shatters Vlad’s heart: Mina receives word that Jonathan has become gravely ill while traveling and she must go to him to be married. The dejected Dracula turns his energy to exploiting Lucy, who soon finds herself at the wrong end of Van Helsing’s stake. It’s worth noting that in most other adaptations of Dracula, and in Stoker’s original text, Lucy starts out as a pure young woman, and her transformation into a vampire is noticeable to onlookers like Van Helsing because she becomes visibly and overtly sexual. Not so in Bram Stoker’s Dracula: Lucy is pegged as sexually vivacious in her very first on-screen appearance, and remains so throughout, casting double entendres and smoldering glances left and right. Her relationship with the Count is hyper-sexualized, and she even exchanges a passionate kiss with Mina, though the idea of their relationship as a romantic one is never revisited and the duo’s sexual tension fizzles.
But why did these novel components of Bram Stoker’s Dracula resonate with contemporary audiences? Having achieved some level of directorial invincibility following the success of the iconic mafia movie The Godfather, Coppola could have changed anything about Stoker’s story. But he chose to emphasize sex, disease, and the power of emotion to help audiences process the advent of AIDS awareness that was unfolding in America. Dracula is driven to vampirism by exceedingly strong emotions, which might be comparable to a person being motivated by a powerful lust or drug addiction that leads them to contract AIDS. Vampirism is a blood-borne disease in virtually all film presentations of it, so vampires would have resonated strongly with a population newly paranoid about AIDS. In fact, this adaptation’s Van Helsing, played by Anthony Hopkins, makes his first on-screen appearance lecturing students on venereal disease and diseases of the blood, joking that “civilization and syphilization have advanced together.”
The idea of vampirism as a metaphor for sexual deviance had been well-established by the time Bram Stoker’s Dracula was released, at which point the American public had begun to see extramarital sex as not only taboo and controversial, but potentially very dangerous. It follows that the film makes frequent use of overtones that have to do with sexual indecency in order to tap into that new fear. The film also takes advantage of the newly developed fear of bodily fluids as vehicles for disease through the computer-generated images of blood cells that comprise its transition sequences and through Lucy’s death scene, in which she spits a fountain of blood at Van Helsing while he attempts to destroy her.
When Lucy becomes one of the undead, her taste for the blood of young children is clear. This is a feature of Stoker’s novel that most other film versions hardly give a second thought to, but Coppola’s version places particular emphasis on children and infants as victims of the vampires’ thirst. HIV can be transmitted from mother to infant during pregnancy or childbirth, and if one were to look at that circumstance from a very literary point of view, the child could be seen as an innocent victim of its parents’ sin. The sacrifice of children and infants in this version of Dracula appears to be analogous to the suffering of infants born with HIV.
Robert Pattinson in Twilight (2008)
So here we are, in 2013, having seen vampires used to process xenophobia, anti-Communist sentiments, and a fear of AIDS, as well as compassion for those living with the disease. What, then, does the most recent crop of vampire media tell us? What is it that we’re afraid of now? There are theories, of course: True Blood’s equal-rights-seeking vampires are a metaphor for the LGBT community. Twilight is an allegory for abstinence from premarital sex, and protagonist Bella’s near-fatal pregnancy in the fourth installment stems from pro-life philosophy. These works raise concerns about the intersection of sex and violence, understandably: Bella and Edward’s relationship fits 15 of the criteria of an abusive relationship put forth by the National Domestic Violence hotline. But there’s something deeper at work than propaganda. The 21st century’s wave of vampires represent an evolutionary leap in the collective conscience.
Current vampire media focuses on relationships unfolding between members of the species: Twilight, True Blood, and The Vampire Diaries all feature human female protagonists who fall in love with or are sexually attracted to vampires. Sympathetic capacity, three-dimensionality, and characterization are prerequisites here—we as an audience have to recognize them as extant in the vampire before we can understand the creature’s ability to experience such deep and vulnerable emotions as love. The fact that we can even categorize Edward Cullen as an abusive partner demonstrates how far vampire media has come in assigning complexity to bloodsuckers.
Vampires have, to a shallower degree, been portrayed as round, sympathetic characters before, even as early as 1945 in Universal Pictures’ House of Dracula. The romantic plotlines in question echo those of 1987’s classic duo of vampire films: The Lost Boys and Near Dark. But the resolutions of both films involve some combination of killing the hostile vampires and “curing” the compliant ones. Today, humans interacting with vampires on the silver screen tend to accommodate them in their true state, or go as far as to sacrifice their own humanity and join them.
Obviously, the vampires themselves have changed. But what this really tells us is that we have, too—our attitude towards vampires as characters parallels our attitude towards the unknown. The generation of Americans that is responsible for Twilight grossing almost $40 million on its opening day is the first to grow up in a world of inexorably visible diversity, with a mentality that—while certainly not free from bigotry—no longer allows them to stratify a group of “others” without at least subconsciously recognizing the inherent depravity of such denigration.
Jonathan Rhys Meyers in NBC’s Dracula (2013)
The vampire started out as a monster, a flat character into which we channeled our anxiety about foreign peoples and ideologies. The 20th century bore witness to vampires taking on more appealing characteristics and honing their ability to elicit sympathy from viewers, but continued to embody our greatest fears. Now, in an age of globalization and dogged political correctness, we’re learning to see the vampire as we now know how to see members of any demographic group different from our own: as humans.