Out of My Mind: Dracula’s A Pain in the Neck

Bram Stoker’s Dracula will always have a special place in my heart.  It was not just the first classic horror novel I ever read, but the first classic novel I ever read period.  I’ve read it for the first time when I was in the sixth grade, and I’ve read it many times since.

In a way, I kind of feel bad for Bram Stoker.  He wrote many novels in his lifetime, but the only novel that he is known for is Dracula.  Still, I guess having one of your creations being famous around the world is better than having none of your creations being famous.

A lot of people call Dracula the first vampire novel, but there was actually a novel written 26 years before Stoker’s.  This was Carmilla, written by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu (and no, I have no idea if I’m spelling that name right).  Carmilla was not just the first vampire in fiction, but also the first lesbian vampire in fiction as well.  It’s a shame that Carmilla is not more well known, but I understand that there have been multiple adaptations of the book, so it’s not like she’s been completely forgotten.

Getting back to Dracula, the original novel was written in a style that you don’t see in fiction anymore.  The entire book is written as if it were a collection of journal entries, letters, and newspaper clippings.  This made the book more interesting as we got the perspectives and insights of multiple characters.  It also made the book more suspenseful, as it meant that any of the story’s narrators could die before the story ended.

Before we talk about Dracula as a character, we have to talk about vampire lore.  There have been a lot of various traits and weaknesses given to vampires over the years, and a lot of them seem to contradict each other.  The fact that vampires started out as a bunch of superstitions without any kind of mythology behind them didn’t help.  Creators tend to pick and choose which parts of vampire lore apply to their work, and Stoker was no exception to this.

Now, vampires have existed in the mainstream popular culture long enough that I don’t need to tell anyone what a vampire is.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m still going to.  I’m just acknowledging the fact that I don’t have to.

When a person is transformed into a vampire, they gain a lot of powers.  They tend to stronger than regular humans, although people tend to have different ideas on just how strong a vampire is.  A lot of a vampires powers are mystical in nature.  Turning into mist, transforming into animals, and hypnotic powers have all been associated with vampires for centuries.

With all these powers, vampires also have a lot of weaknesses.  The most commonly known weaknesses are the inability to walk in sunlight and an aversion to holy symbols.  The lesser known weaknesses include the inability to cross running water, being unable to open their coffin lid if a wild rose is placed on top of it, and an obsessive compulsive need to count things like grains of rice or sand.  As far as I know, the only vampire in modern media to show that last weakness is the Count from Sesame Street.

When Bram Stoker wrote his novel, he kept a lot of the strengths of the vampire (shape-shifting, hypnotic powers, superhuman strength, etc.), but left out a lot of weaknesses.  For instance, the vampires in Dracula don’t actually burn in sunlight, but they do lose their supernatural powers during the day.  Fortunately for the heroes of the story, garlic, holy symbols, and wooden stakes still work.  At the end of the story (spoilers, although I shouldn’t have to put in a spoiler warning for a book that’s over a hundred years old at this point), Count Dracula is killed with ordinary steel blades before sunset, which is something that would never happen in a modern vampire story.

The main plot of the book involves Count Dracula’s plan to conquer London.  It was a pretty ingenious plan; since no one in London believed in vampires or even knew what a vampire was, he could create an army of vampires long before anyone discovered what he was doing.  The only reason that the heroes win is that one of the characters (Abraham Van Helsing) is both old enough to have grown up in a more superstitious age and educated enough to recognize the signs of a vampire attack when he sees one.

The movies tend to cut out most of the characters from the original book, leaving just enough characters to make the story work.  Normally it bugs me when a film adaptation cuts out characters, but the 1931 film Dracula is still a masterpiece even with these cuts.    If you somehow haven’t seen this movie yet, I highly recommend tracking down a copy.  Bela Lugosi is the perfect Count Dracula.  Naturally, this film made a ton of money for Universal Studios, so they decided to make sequels.

The first sequel was Dracula’s Daughter, which took place immediately after the events of the 1931 film.  The vampire of this movie is Countess Marya, the titular daughter of Dracula.  She is a much more tragic figure, spending most of the movie trying to cure herself of being a vampire.  She even burns her father’s corpse in a ritual that she hopes will free her from the curse, but to no avail.  I’m guessing that this movie didn’t fare as well, because she is never referenced again anywhere else (I’m not counting the daughter from Hotel Transylvania because she has a different name).

The next sequel in the series was Son of Dracula, which centered around Count Alucard.  The title of the movie may be a misnomer, as the film heavily implies that Alucard is Dracula, disguising himself as a son that may or may not exist.  Unlike Countess Marya, Alucard has persisted in popular culture, sometimes being Dracula in disguise and sometimes being Dracula’s actual son.

Son of Dracula never explains how Dracula survived his fates from the previous two films.  That became the standard for the rest of the Universal Studios movies that Dracula appeared in:  House of Frakenstein, House of Dracula, and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (one of my personal favorites) all start with Dracula being alive, despite the fact that he dies in every film.  I should point out that the Hammer Horror films that ran from the 1950’s to the 1960’s did have scenes that showed Dracula coming back to life in each sequel.  I never watched any of the Hammer Horror films, so I won’t be including too much about them in these posts.

When it came to the “Monster Mash” movies, Dracula has always been portrayed as the smart one.  This makes sense, as he was the only one out of all the classic monsters to actually have any semblance of a plan.  This also means that he is one of the two monsters that is usually the leader of the group.  The other leader is usually Doctor Frankenstein.

Dracula is also the darkest of the classic monsters; while some adaptations will turn characters like Frankenstein’s Monster or the Wolf Man into heroic figures, Dracula is only ever portrayed as a villain (except in more comedic roles, of course).  In these stories, Dracula will typically be the villain that the heroic monsters are fighting against.  Granted, these were mostly stories that were designed for a child audience, so the darker parts like drinking blood and turning people into undead servants were typically left out.

And with that, we say Rest in Peace to Dracula.  Come back tomorrow when we talk about one of Dracula’s contemporaries, who probably had an even bigger impact on popular culture than Dracula has.  That’s right, tomorrow we’re talking about Frankenstein’s Monster.

 

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