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“Dracula”: A Bland Betrayal of Vampire Lore

January 22, 2020


Vampires are literary and cinematic representations of what St. Peter tells us about in Scripture: “Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). But Christ has given us very basic means to resist Satan and his allies, and the best vampire stories play them up for edifying effect, whether the writers are believers or not. In fact, vampire fiction usually presupposes the truth of Christ and the Church’s sacraments, and the inevitable victory of the Holy Spirit over the enemies of the Gospel. Demons are scary, but they’re losers. Here’s one example: A vampire has to be welcomed into a home or building in order to enter. This is a particularly frequent deterrent in Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, where bloodthirsty creatures of the night are routinely stopped in their tracks at the threshold of humans’ abodes. Agents of evil have no power in the world except what we give them.

In the classic 1958 film The Horrors of Dracula, the first of nine Dracula films by Hammer Studios (seven with Christopher Lee as Dracula), the Count dies in an oft-repeated illustration of John 1:5: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” The vampire hunter Van Helsing (played by Peter Cushing) chases Count Dracula around the castle, throws open the drapes, and holds his blood-sucking opponent in the sunlight with a makeshift cross made of two candlesticks. The Count disintegrates into ash. In The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973), the final Hammer Dracula film starring Lee and Cushing, Van Helsing explains various ways to combat vampires. All of them have specific connections to Christ and the Church. He tricks Dracula into touching a Bible, which burns his hand. Van Helsing then holds up a cross to the cowering vampire and cries out in Latin, “Soli deo gloria nisi dominus frustra.” In the end, Dracula dies in a hawthorn bush, the flora from which Christ’s crown of thorns was wrought. Another victory for the King of Kings!

Even in some of the most violent and sexually explicit vampire stories, like HBO’s True Blood, we find an inversion of the Eucharist that depends on the validity of the real thing. Humans are earthly creatures bound for heaven. Our Lord invites us to feast on his own body, blood, soul, and divinity; and the result is eternal life. Vampires are hellish creatures whose earthly immortality is a curse, and their food is mere flesh and blood—a sad substitute for the bread of life and the chalice of salvation. Crosses, Bibles, holy water, and most of all consecrated hosts are repulsive or even deadly to vampires. Just imagine, therefore, how beneficial these things are for us.

Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat innovate on these mainstream vampire tropes in their recent Dracula miniseries for the BBC and Netflix. It starts strong, but the end result is deeply disappointing. Moffat had previously taken over the Doctor Who franchise and stripped it of some of its most interesting spiritual content. Moffat and Gatiss together did the highly successful Sherlock, which is superb, even though it falls needlessly at times into progressive political point-scoring. I was cautiously optimistic about their Dracula. For the first two episodes, it worked. The writing, acting, and cinematography are all excellent. Then came episode three.

Note: spoilers follow.

The series opens with a familiar story from Bram Stoker’s original novel and countless film and television adaptations. A young Englishman, Jonathan Harker, makes his way to Transylvania to enact a real estate deal with the strange Count, played in the style of Christopher Lee by the Danish actor Claes Bang. Dracula imprisons Harker and feeds off of him, but Harker eventually escapes and is aided by an agnostic nun, Sister Agatha Van Helsing, played by Dolly Wells. Sister Agatha tells the woeful Jonathan Harker, “I have sought to find God all my life, and never found a sign of him anywhere.” We quickly learn, however, that her fascination with the occult belies a desperation to believe in the Gospel. This innovation in the Van Helsing character works well. Harker tells more of his tale, revealing Dracula’s aversion to sunlight, crosses, and all the typical stuff. Sister Agatha is mesmerized, declaring: “Dracula, prince among vampires, fears the cross. Do you understand what that means? God is real. He’s real, and I’ve found him at last. If it takes the devil to bring me to my Lord, then I say, bring on the devil!”

So far, so good for people looking for the triumph of Christ that is embedded in most vampire stories. But in episode three, the rug is pulled out from under us. The setting is moved forward to our own time, and the Catholic spiritual depth changes into shallow self-help.

Towards the end of the second episode, Dracula declares that he is afraid of crosses because he has fed on so many people who were abused and manipulated by the Church. I took it for granted that he was being callous. Demons are liars. But in the third episode, it is indeed revealed that all of Dracula’s fears are projections. Sister Agatha’s revelation in episode one is exposed as wishful thinking. There is no objective power of goodness found in Christ and the Church that causes Dracula to retreat into darkness. Rather, he learns that his only weakness is the shame he feels for cowardice he displayed in battle when he was alive. His centuries of murder are a kind of acting out—mere manifestations of his own desire to be included among those who get to rest in peace. In a variation on the normal Dracula death, the new Van Helsing throws the curtains open on Dracula; but he does not burn up. Instead, the darkness comprehends the light for the first time. Then Dracula and Van Helsing end their lives in a suicide pact. Sister Agatha’s original lack of faith in God returns in her twenty-first century successor; and Dracula, one of the greatest cultural representations of evil, becomes a bland morsel of twenty-first century spiritual self-discovery.

Watch the BBC/Netflix Dracula for a lesson in how not to end a promising tale of good and evil. Then return to the Hammer films and the many other offerings of vampire lore that show the world a very sensible Christian truth: “Greater is he who is in you, than he who is in the world” (1 John 4:4).