How Can Musty Old Dracula Scare Sophisticated Viewers in the 21st Century?

Over the past few years, American film and television has revamped the undead for contemporary audiences, closing geographical, socioeconomic, and emotional gaps between ourselves and our bloodsucking fellow travelers. But the (un)holy trinity of Twilight, True Blood, and The Vampire Diaries is more than a sexed-up rehash of a lucrative franchise with no pesky licensing fee. Since the publication of Dracula, creators have used vampires as a vessel for our collective societal fears, and the most recent crop of films, novels, and television series signals a major shift in what vampires mean about us. Now, even as the Twilight saga passes its torch on to such works as Warm Bodies and Beautiful Creatures, these sparkly heartthrobs may prove to be beacons of a more integrated, compassionate, and pluralist society.

Let’s take a step back here, and look at the monster that made this all possible: Count Dracula, the great fanged patriarch. Dracula is the most pervasive and ubiquitous vampire in any medium, portrayed more frequently than any other horror movie monster. But what’s more, he acted as a unifying figure for the multitudes of vampire myths in existence. The vampire of Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel set the precedent for vampires in popular culture, cementing the vampire’s role as antagonist in addition to the connection between vampirism and sexual deviance through its exploration of malevolent seduction and topsy-turvy gender roles.

Max Schreck in Nosferatu (1922)

Dracula’s cinematic debut came in 1922 with the release of the German Expressionist film Nosferatu. Although Stoker’s story was half-heartedly altered for copyright reasons, the Count remains an incontrovertible villain, grotesque and disturbing in both appearance and practice. When the United States entered the vampire film scene in 1927, it carried on this perception of vampires as a species with London After Midnight. But America’s first Dracula film changed everything.

Tod Browning’s 1931 adaptation of Dracula was the second American vampire film ever released, and film buffs consider Bela Lugosi’s iconic portrayal of Count Dracula therein to be the catalyst in the vampire’s transformation from hideous, uncouth adversary into the seductively smooth object of romantic interest. The film sold 50,000 tickets within 48 hours of opening, revitalizing Universal Pictures during the Great Depression and paving the way for sequels and remakes that continued lining the studio’s coffers.

Though the response to Dracula may have been indicative of economic anxieties, illustrating the link between financial instability and an audience’s appetite for fear, its conception and production seem more reflective of social ones. The 1920s had been rife with xenophobia and racial tensions, bearing witness to the revival of the Ku Klux Klan and consequent mob violence, as well as staunch isolationism in the aftermath of World War I. America’s first Red Scare placed anyone with radical political views—especially those who were foreign-born—under scrutiny. It reached a peak in the 1927 execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, two Italian anarchists accused of murder in an extremely questionable trial. As the Bolshevik Revolution tore down the entrenched autocracy in Russia, Americans began to see any political ideologies and actions that even dimly resembled Communism as a threat.

In Browning’s film, Count Dracula swoops into England from the mysterious Carpathian Mountains to prey on the blood of two chaste young women. Prior to Dracula’s production, aforementioned residual isolationism and the association of Russia with Communism primed Americans for a decidedly foreign, specifically Eastern European, antagonist. And Lugosi, himself Romanian, delivered: he’s memorable in the film for his thick accent and halting manner of speech, a characteristic replicated by anyone wanting to be instantly recognized as the Count. But what’s fascinating about this rendition is that while it clearly takes advantage of its audience’s xenophobia, Dracula isn’t seen, at least not physically, as a monster—like Communism and radicalism, he’s outwardly appealing but dangerous in actuality.

Francis Lederer in Return of Dracula (1958)

Let’s fast forward to the year 1958, when Cold War tensions found their way into an even more overt anti-Communist allegory. The Return of Dracula placed Stoker’s story in then-present-day America rather than Victorian England and transformed the Mina Harker figure into a teenage girl called Rachel Mayberry, making it easier for contemporary audiences to relate to the tale. The producers once again fixated on the vampire’s foreignness. This time, the Count hails from the Balkans, and tricks his way into the protagonist’s home by posing as her Czech cousin, whom Dracula murders en route to the States.

By the time this movie was under production, Soviet Russia and the United States were official enemies, and the threat of atomic warfare engendered a constant fear of nuclear Armageddon. Children of the Cold War practiced duck-and-cover drills to be prepared for the seemingly inevitable bomb, and some families constructed fallout shelters in their backyards. America’s second Red Scare, an out-of-control anti-Communist witch-hunt, permeated homes and strained relationships in communities across the nation. The nuclear arms race was on, stakes were brutally high, and Communism was explicitly presented as the enemy of truth, justice, and the American way.

Hollywood picked up on this, and played off our irrationally pervasive paranoia about Communism in The Return of Dracula. First, this Cold War Count was played by the fittingly Czech actor Francis Lederer (who also made an appearance as Dracula in Rod Sterling’s 1971 Night Gallery), once more lending him an Eastern European accent and harkening back to the xenophobia of Browning’s Dracula. Next, he displays an exaggerated sensitivity to crucifixes. The rise of Communism in Russia struck down the authority of the Russian Orthodox Church in favor of atheism, Communist troops destroyed Church property, and believers faced persecution. If 1958’s Dracula represented the harbinger of such a hostile ideological system, a symbol of traditional faith would be a fitting mode of protection against him. Finally and most convincingly, this incarnation of Dracula harbors a desire to spread vampirism specifically to create an empire of blood-sucking minions.

The passage that introduces the Count’s background and origin has almost unequivocal implications for the real world, detailing the threat he poses not just to his victims, but to society as a whole. It ensures that the audience knows the vampire is from central Europe, and warns that “though human in appearance and cultured in manner, he was in truth… a force of evil.” This phrasing, like Lugosi’s debonair performance in 1931, characterizes Communism as a quiet threat, or at least one that presents itself as safe and reasonable in order to infiltrate the lives of its victims easily. Moreover, this introductory monologue accentuates Count Dracula’s ambitions: he does not feed for sustenance alone. His larger aim is to turn unsuspecting innocents into vampires, “thus spreading his evil dominion ever wider.”

Gary Oldman in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

Dracula (1931) and The Return of Dracula have more in common than similar plotlines and thinly-veiled anti-Communist and xenophobic themes: in both cases, Dracula is seen as an unambiguous villain. His malevolent actions are never justified or explained away by anything further than his evil nature, and the audience never really gets insight into Dracula’s point of view. Though the sympathetic vampire wasn’t new at the time, Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 adaptation of Dracula, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, brought a deeper, more human Count Dracula into the public’s view, to the sweet tune of over $200 million brought in worldwide. This version of the Count had something neither of the others did: a back story.

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.

Meredith Wade hangs out at the intersection of art, history, and social change: a place where pop culture is a force for the greater good. She aims to understand and harness that power, mainly by overanalyzing fear-based media and country music. Meredith has written for YouthRadio, The Intentional Quarterly, and The Huffington Post, and her blog can be found at mjwade.wordpress.com.

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