The Halloween Victim
Since Bram Stoker’s iconic work, there’s been no going back for the Count. Withstanding numerous adaptations, his story and that of the vampires continue to populate our collective imagination. The vampire legend runs so deep that real people paid real money to sit through two hours of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Moreover, more than 200 movies featuring Dracula have been made in the past 120 years; that's more than one flick releasing each year. Not to mention the endless representations on television, music, and art. However, a ground reality has stayed constant — Dracula has endured 120 years as a victim of gender and racial stigmatization.
Before examining the extremely problematic aspects surrounding Dracula's depiction, I want to make my intention clear. This piece is not a ‘woke’ attempt to lurch at social justice. I do not believe that social equality can come about mere armchair intellectualizing. Nonetheless, it is extremely relevant to realize the subliminal discrimination that surrounds an extremely powerful story to understand ourselves as an audience.
To examine the presence of queer sensibilities in Stoker’s Dracula, it’s worthwhile to acknowledge the heteronormativity of its milieu. Stoker’s close friend, Oscar Wilde was jailed for sodomy when Stoker was writing his novel. Moreover, scholarly research such as those conducted by David Skal reveals Stoker’s repressed sexuality. Modern critics such as Eszter Muskovits have established that Dracula’s sexuality has been shaped by his creator’s orientation. One only has to skim through the original classic to gauge the homoeroticism Dracula’s interaction with Jonathan is steeped in. The recurring phallic symbols such as the quintessential wooden stake along with how Dracula destroys the heterosexual monogamy between Jonathan and Mina by effeminating Jonathan and masculinizing Mina amplify these claims.
Tragically, the modern adaptations of the Count have stripped him of the Otherness that encapsulates his sexuality. These portrayals mischaracterize Dracula’s ‘bloodlust’ into a restrictive heterosexual desire. Instances of such ‘straight-washing’ range from Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) where the cinematic gaze favors Monica Bellucci over Keanu’s Harker and Brides of Dracula (1960) infamous for the sleazy representations of the so-called ‘brides’ for entertainment purposes.
While there can be other vampire characters with creators looking at different aspects of the Dracula myth, Count’s sexuality is an inherent part of his essence. Only due to Dracula’s indiscriminate picking of his victims did the novel transcend the narrow confines of an ‘old wives tale’ to become the cult classic it is today. The moment we snip at it, we reduce the character to a caricature which may definitely be compelling art but is not an authentic portrayal of the Count. The film franchise Hotel Transylvania exemplifies this sentiment perfectly. Though Disney’s Count Dracula is extremely lovable, by casting him into the structure of a stereotypical nuclear family, we lose out on the essence of the original.
The charm of Stoker’s Dracula stems from the antagonist’s ability to personify the worst fears of the Victorian audience. Stephen Arata, a prominent scholar of Victorian Literature, identifies how the idea of reverse colonialism from the East haunted the audience. He examines how the Count’s Eastern European origin provided a face to the English anxiety that contributed to his current standing in pop-culture. The then prevalent bias against Eastern Europe only fanned the flames of this paranoia. What is problematic is the white man’s burden surrounding the quest to exorcise Dracula. Hence, Van Helsing's bravado is somewhat a crusade against the subaltern miasma that threatens to violate the sanctity of his homeland. To do so, Stoker has to depersonalize the Count by reducing him to a satanic force bereft of even basic human touches like speech. Hence, Stoker deployed Count Dracula’s race as a prop to make him more fearful. Such a representation goes a great way in stigmatizing Dracula’s race which is evident from how even the modern-day Romanians have to deal with exasperating Dracula stereotypes.
Unfortunately, even the modern adaptations of the story rely on dehumanizing Dracula or vampires in general to garner goosebumps. A view which is endorsed by Alyssa Gammello in her thesis, Biting Back. We don’t have to go too far to find an example. Even in 2020, despite being courageous enough to subvert Van Hesling’s gender, BBC has to feature Count’s ‘primitivity’ to make him scary. The macabre depiction of the vampire traveling inside an animal belly is completely unnecessary when the anti-hero could have just flown to the convent.
All is not to ban Dracula or to trample on a deep-rooted cultural icon that has enthralled people across the planet. However, we must be cognizant of how the Count has been wronged to prevent future pathologization of race and gender as instruments for fear-mongering. Since the dawn of history, our society will create and recreate legends. Of course, we cannot go back to seek retribution against centuries of mischaracterization, but can certainly prevent indiscretions in the future. I hope next time you see someone dressed as the Count this Halloween, you would understand the tragedy cloistered in the cape.