Summer break started this week, and it allows some time for reading beyond my list. I've seen several vampire movies and watched a lot of Buffy and Angel, but I'd never read Stoker's Dracula, so I got a copy and started reading it this week. I found some surprises and some expected things, some fun parts and some extremely creepy parts.
Literary analysts say vampire stories are really about sex. But criminal psychologists say rape isn't about sex; it's about power. But theologians say desire for power is really a spiritual matter. So I think someone can read this novel several ways. You might even read it as a story of a guy who needs blood and has conveniently sharp teeth. But surely these other levels are present for anyone who wants to think about them.
I've liked horror stories ever since I first read "The Pit and the Pendulum," and I've enjoyed horror films ever since I first saw The Blob on late-night local TV. But for a long time I got no enjoyment out of vampire movies at all and avoided them; they were just too creepy for me. The idea that a person could be doomed to an eternity of evil with no choice in the matter but solely through the momentary action of another was too horrifying to be entertaining. Following this understanding, the vampire seems as powerful as God, and that dualist view bothers me.
Comedy settings could make the legend tolerable for me. Whether involving Gilligan or Abbott and Costello, the story's assurance of a happy ending meant that the victims had hope, that goodness had the greater power. These examples show the essential spirituality of the happy ending in even the most shallow of comedies.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer got me looking at the legend in an entirely different way. In Buffy, vampires can by their own will and actions only weaken or kill, not take the soul. And that frightening situation is just the world we live in. Our bodies and their life-sustaining fluids are held together by thin membranes that can be ruptured by common objects surrounding us everywhere we go, and virtually anybody could mortally violate a person's fragility at anytime. When I think about stumbles and fumbles around rocks and sticks and kitchen knives, I wonder sometimes that we live at all. So I can deal with a monster who can destroy the body but cannot destroy the soul. To become a vampire in Buffy, the victim has to drink the vampire's blood as well. As Buffy herself explains it, "They suck your blood. You suck theirs. It's a whole sucky thing." (Interesting that the vampire world of producer Joss Whedon, an atheistic materialist, makes so much more sense to me than the dualist world I used to associate with vampires.)
I was surprised at the spiritual content of Stoker's novel. I knew that crucifixes worked as well as garlic in keeping a vampire away, but I didn't know how pious the vampire chasers would be. Van Helsing and others believe in God and in redemption by the blood of Jesus. They see themselves as equipped by God to stop an evil and restore souls. According to Stoker's mythology, a victim becomes a vampire if she dies while her sire is still functioning. From the time of the attack, her blood is poisoned and her soul is separated from God, despite even a most sincere faith. If she dies in this state, she becomes a vampire. She has two hopes, though: her soul is released from the curse if either the attacker becomes dead-dead (i.e., not even undead) before she dies or someone kills-her-kills-her (stake through the heart, decapitation, etc.). The pious victims in the novel agree to do this for each other if the need arises; they know their duty to free a victim's soul to go to Heaven. They know that circumstances may not work out, though; feeling their divine calling to seek Dracula and try to kill him, they also acknowledge their willingness to risk eternal vampirehood for the cause.
The book provides the source for many familiar tropes: the scientist with esoteric knowledge that must continually ask others simply to trust him, the mind meld whereby one person can have the sensory experiences of another, the monster who travels by changing into a mist. I didn't associate them with Dracula before, but I'll think of this book now every time I see one of them. And see them I'm sure I will. I might even use some more free break time to rewatch some favorite episodes of Buffy. So much Whedony goodness.