Friday, October 14, 2011

For the Dead Travel Fast: Dracula

Bela Lugosi as the classic Count Dracula in Tod Browning's 1931 classic.
Two facts of our existence is that we exist in a certain location at any given moment and we exist in a moment; as I have stated before, time and location are two essential features of each person's being. "For the dead travel fast," a quote a peasant speaks to Jonathan Harker in Bram Stoker's 1897 novel Dracula, means that, not only is "the dead" breaking the boundary of the eternal separation between the living and the dead, but breaking that boundary by the regulated physical laws of motion and metaphysical understanding of identity; these are important facets of understanding what a "vampire" is: those who revolt against the natural order of existence.
Sir Henry Irving, actor and friend to Bram Stoker. He served as the role model for Count Dracula, particularly the high, aquiline nose, symbolic of his ability to smell fear in his victims but not smell the stench of his own sins.
While Stoker isn't the father of "vampire tales," he is the father of our conception of the father of vampires, and because there are so many wonderful details of the story which are overlooked, that is going to be the focus of this post (some of the more obvious themes, i.e,, appearance of Dracula, why he changes into a bat, telepathy, sexuality and the three brides, I will be writing about in upcoming posts). In a day when vampires are everywhere, even seen as heroic, it's imperative that we understand how this character is twisted to undermine Christian values and beliefs.
The Vampire by Philip Burne-Jones, 1897. Dracula was published the same year and illustrates, graphically, the "animal passions" which Jonathan Harker must overcome within himself: his passive desire for Count Dracula's three brides to have their way with him. The act of shaving graphically illustrates Harker's identity (his face) being overtaken by his desire (the growing hair). Because much is made about Dracula's mass of hair, and the thick mustache hiding his mouth, Stoker choosing to detail an incident of Dracula revealing his "appetites" while Harker is shaving draws symbolic attention to, what otherwise and in normal circumstances, would be a mundane activity.
Why do vampires die the way they do?
Vampires cannot see their reflections in mirrors because they cannot "reflect" on their state in life, they don't know what it means to be a vampire. This is what happens to people when they are "living the good life," it's hard for them to deny their appetites for a moment and realize that they are really not "fulfilling themselves." Vampires are those who are so lost in their appetites they cannot reflect. Interestingly, in Stoker's novel, when hero Jonathan Harker is shaving and using his mirror (there are none in Castle Dracula) Dracula suddenly appears behind him, causing him to cut his throat with his razor. As Jonathan removes his hair, the signs of his own animal passions, he is reflecting as he does so. "Hair" is a constant indictment throughout the novel, because Harker notes that Dracula even has hair in the palms of his hands.
Attic Vase woman looking at her reflection. The mirror is a "two-way"symbol, the vice of vanity, but the virtue of self-knowledge; without self-knowledge, we are unable to overcome inner and outer forces which threaten us.
For Harker to remove the hair from his face (shaving) demonstrates how Harker's own animal tendencies need to be "removed" and only by using his mirror can he do so without hurting himself. Having cut himself, Stoker writes, "When Count saw my face, his eyes blazed with a sort of demoniac fury, and he suddenly made a grab at my throat. I drew away, and his hand touched the string of beads which held the crucifix. It made an instant change in him, for the fury passed so quickly that I could hardly believe that it was ever there. 'Take care,' he said, 'take care how you cut yourself. It is more dangerous than you think in this country,'" and then Count proceeds to take Jonathan's mirror, calling it a "foul bauble of of man's vanity" and dashes it to a 1, 000 pieces out the window. 
Author Bram Stoker about 1906.
Garlic is said to repel vampires and one old reason is that, as Satan was cast out of hell, when his foot touched the earth, that's where garlic first sprang up so garlic reminds demons of being cast out of heaven. However, garlic literally offers a "reflection" for vampires, because the foul taste and oder is just like themselves, the "stench of sin in their soul" that forces them to see how they really are; similarly, when garlic is placed in the decapitated head of Lucy, it's symbolic of the "taste of sin," sin without the sweetness we get from it when we commit an act of sin, but only the "raw pungency" of what we have done. The reason a "wild rose" will ward off vampires is because the rose is a traditional symbol of Mary, the mother of Jesus, who intercedes on behalf of sinners (recall, for example, the rose that is formed around Mary in Dante's Paradiso; because Mary intercedes on behalf of sinners, this is also the reason Dracula cannot touch the crucifix).
Hunyad Castle where Vlad the Impaler was imprisoned for 7 years after being deposed by his brother, it's considered to be a model of Castle Dracula. In the novel, the Castle sits on "a terrible precipice" where a man could fall 1, 000 feet without touching ground. The drama of this is as a comparison to Zion, which is built on a rock as a fortress but Castle Dracula is built as a prison for those whom the Count captures and feeds upon with his brides. Dracula's residence in London is an abandoned Abbey, close to a immense, private lunatic asylum: when the Abbey is empty, the nut-house is full.
Mountain ash is also a repellent because ash is a sign of humility and our recognition that we will die soon ("From ash you came and to ash you shall return," as opposed to the "undead" who "live forever"). Why decapitation? Because the head symbolizes the "governing" function, so to cut off the head is to cut off the "ruling of the appetites," which is necessary for "reflection" to begin and bring healing to the soul.
Stoker's handwritten notes on Dracula.
Why does a wooden stake through the heart kill a vampire?
The stake symbolizes the wood of Christ's Cross (which symbolizes the debt from eating the forbidden fruit in Eden), and driving the stake into the heart of the vampire symbolizes the Cross being planted into the earth at Golgotha (or "the place of the skull," where it is believed Adam is buried) where Christ won redemption for all men. The hardened heart of the vampire symbolizes the rock and sins of the earth which Christ's Blood covers and cleanses. Sacramentals of the Church--holy water, rosary, recitation of prayers--are able to repel and weaken vampires because of the power of Grace which they release and protect the one invoking their power.
Altar at Golgotha where Christ was crucified.
What does not kill a vampire?
Anyone who is too spiritually weak to contend with them. For example, Harker sees Dracula in his coffin and, in despair that he is trapped in Castle Dracula, Harker wants to kill the Count in his coffin: "There was no lethal weapon at hand, but I seized a shovel which the workmen had been using to fill the cases, and lifting it high struck, with the edge downward at the hateful face. But as I did so the head turned, and the eyes fell full upon me, with all their blaze of basilisk horror. The sight seemed to paralyse me, and the shovel turned in my hand and glanced from the face, merely making a deep gash above the forehead. The shovel fell from my hand..." The shovel represents "meditation and self-knowledge," for one has to "dig" within themselves to root out sin and overcome their weaknesses (this is a nice juxtaposition to Alice Hunt in The Village because she "digs up" her feelings for Edward Walker; please see I See Dead People: M. Night Shyamalan). Since Harker hasn't been doing this (this is discussed below) he isn't strong enough to withstand the power of Dracula's "evil eye" but Jonathan's will is enough to "graze the Count's head," so the "governing function" which Dracula has been exercising over Jonathan has been wounded, but not killed.
A Slavic "vampire hunt" where the dead are dug up and suspected vampires exposed to various rituals to destroy them so they cannot destroy the village.
Who is Count Dracula?
Count Dracula has a very ambiguous identity and this is a feature of the "undead," they have lost their identity. When we are "enslaved" to our appetites, we are slaves, and we are owned, we are not free, meaning, we are free to be who we were created to be. In the Romanian language, "dracula" literally means "dragon" and in the native Wallachia language of Count Dracula, "Dracul" means "devil" so "Dracula" translates to "son of the Devil." The "dragon" imagery of Dracula ties in historically with the Book of Revelations in which the devil is described as a dragon. It is on the (Eastern) feast day of Saint George the Dragonslayer that Harker arrives at Castle Dracula, but--unlike St. George--Harker is no dragonslayer and can't do anything about his imprisonment in Castle Dracula. 
English woodcut of the life of St. George, Westminster, 1515.
While Dracula is a nobleman--his title "Count" shows he is a member of the nobility--he's lowest on the social scale of the nobility, so he's lowly amongst nobility but noble amongst commoners. Castle Dracula is so decrept it illustrates that Dracula has no "real wealth" because his estate isn't producing anything; his wealth comes from buried treasure he has found, so he lives in apparent poverty but has stacks of gold lying around. While he is a member of the nobility, he has no servants: he is his own coachman and prepares all of Harker's meals, and even makes Harker's bed each day. This is rather like the witch in the tale of Hansel and Gretel, feeding them to plump them up for her own appetites. Harker's bed resembles a coffin (where the dead "sleep") so Dracula making it foreshadows Dracula plotting Harker's death, which he is doing. Such diabolical schemes are not becoming to the aristocracy who should be "above" plotting the death of civil servants. In each of these ways (and more then I have space for here), Dracula inhabits a border region of identity.
How we are vampires in our daily lives.
Why does Dracula suck blood?
As a rebel against God, Dracula symbolizes the one who is unable to partake of Christ's promise to us: "Then Jesus said unto them, 'Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you. Whoso eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him at the last day" (John 6:53-4). For those who do not eat the flesh of Christ and drink his blood, their flesh will be eaten by vampires, and their blood will be drained from them, and they will become like those who feed upon them. Dracula's rebellion against God is the reason that he can "crawl down a wall" like a lizard (a reference to his name meaning "dragon"). Besides the defying of gravity and unnatural as it is, humans should have their face turned towards God but in "climbing down walls" Dracula has his face turned towards the earth, a further sign of his rebellion against God.
"Vlad the Impaler" to whom Dracula is compared.
Who is Jonathan Harker?
First of all, he is a solicitor, a lawyer who doesn't have to go to court. It's interesting because, in all the accounts I have read of Dracula, no one has ever really made a point of this, but I think it's imperative: "Knowing that a man is not justified by legal observance but by faith in Jesus Christ, we too have believed in him in order to be justified by faith in Christ, not by observance of the law; for by works of the law no one will be justified. It was through the law that I died to the law, to live for God. I have been crucified with Christ, and the life I live now is not my own; Christ is living in me. I still live my human life, but it is a life of faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me" (Paul's letter to the Galatians, 2:16, 19-20). As someone who is a "legal counselor," Jonathan Harker is someone "still under the law" and not in Grace.
The Vampire by Edvard Munch, Oslo, Norway, 1893-4.
The first few pages of the novel make it clear that Jonathan Harker isn't at all clear about what is going to happen to him, namely, he has no spiritual training that has prepared him to "meet the devil on his own turf" and Harker suffers for it. Even though St. George is the patron saint of England (Harker's native country) he doesn't know anything about him, even that it's his feast day. If Jonathan Harker had "harkened" to the call of Christ, he would have been spiritually strong enough to overcome Dracula and prevent Dracula's migration to England, which, the way Stoker writes it, is comparable to the Black Death entering England (the word "hark" is not used commonly, but used several times in the novel). It's only after Jonathan tears himself away from the three brides who rape him and feed off him, that he retreats to a convent where he is safe and can be married to Mina (this will be discussed later).
Illustration from Camilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, 1872, one of the earlier vampire stories from which Stoker drew upon for his own creation. In Camilla, it's a vampire with lesbian tendencies who must be slain.
In conclusion, Dracula is a phenomenal tale that every major school of thought has tackled and come up with different readings: Deconstructionists, Marxists, Feminists, New Feminists, Reader-Response, Colonialists, Psychoanalists, etc. and they are legitimate, however, they all leave a great deal to be desired, for example, in their explanations of why vampires do what they do and how we protect ourselves from them; for this reason, while vampires are a part of popular culture, they are also an inherent part of Christianity as representing those forces against which we are constantly called to fight against.