Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Gospel According to Dracula

I have a confession to make: I love monsters. When I was a kid,  I never missed an episode of  the Outer Limits. I bought every issue I could of “Famous Monsters of Filmland.” I saw just about every movie Vincent Price was in. But what I really loved were those old Universal Pictures that they showed every Saturday afternoon on Channel 11, the only independent TV station in St. Louis. I saw every movie about the Mummy, the Wolf Man, the Invisible Man, and Frankenstein’s Monster. But there was no doubt of who the King of the Monsters was: Dracula, that suave corpse in a cape. He had the strength of 20 men, could change into a bat or wolf or even into a mist. He could hypnotize people to do his will. And he slept in a coffin. Cool!

And that was about as sophisticated a reaction as you could expect from a 9 year old boy. But here I am, nearly a half century older, and I have to admit that I might still stay up late to watch an old Christopher Lee/Dracula film. What is it that attracts us to this evil creature? Why does he have such a grip on the imagination? Why is it that of all the various types of monsters that Hollywood keeps coming up with, vampires are the most frequently portrayed? 

Vampire stories are nearly universal, occurring in some form in almost every culture. And those without native stories have adopted the Eastern European version popularized by Bram Stoker’s novel “Dracula” and its endless cinematic reincarnations. In fact, in this global culture, Dracula has swallowed up his rivals, so to speak. Why?

Well, for one thing, Stoker based his vampire on a real person. In doing his research he came across a Romanian warlord named Vlad Tepes. Tepes ruled Wallachia and is a national hero for resisting both the Turks and the Hungarians. It is said that he discouraged the invading Turks by lining the roads with countless people impaled on huge stakes. After marching several miles surrounded by these grisly roadside markers, the Turks turned and left. They decided not to fight anyone who had so little regard for the lives of his own people. This gave the Romanian prince his nickname, Vlad the Impaler. But we know him by another name. His father was called Vlad Dracul, which may mean “The Dragon.” He was a member of the Order of the Dragon, established in 1418 to honor Christian rulers who opposed the enemies of Christendom. But Dracul might also mean “devil.” So Vlad Tepes was called Dracula, literally “Son of the Dragon or Devil.” How could Stoker resist making this bloodthirsty tyrant into his evil king of vampires?

Another thing Stoker’s creation has going for him is that most vampires in folklore are not that attractive. They tend to look like corpses or have grotesque bodies or facial features. The Chinese Kuang-Shi has green fur and the African Adze looks like a hunchbacked dwarf . Vampires may not even be human in some cultures. In Yugoslavia, for some reason, they have vampire watermelons! And American parents think they have trouble getting their kids to eat their fruits and vegetables.

But even Bram Stoker’s Dracula is not the matinee idol his portrayers tend to be. In the novel, he has pointed ears, hairy palms, long nails and bad breath. Stoker’s fiend compensates by being cultured and possessing old world charm. But movies are a visual medium and it would have been a real challenge to communicate the Count’s charisma  if he looked like that. (In an unlicensed version of the story, the silent film Nosferatu,  the vampire's appearance  was closer to Stoker’s description. Even today Max Shrek’s makeup is uber-creepy.) It was a smart bit of casting that gave the role to Bela Lugosi, who won fame in his native Romania playing Shakespeare’s Romeo. With few exceptions, vampires have since been portrayed as physically very attractive.

Many commentators feel that this is the primary appeal of vampires. They are sexually attractive. They feel that the novel was a thinly disguised attack on prudish Victorian morals. I don’t deny the probably unconscious symbolism in the book, which as become more and more explicit in the movies. But I think it is the theological symbolism that Stoker deliberately put into the story that gives it such power. “Dracula” is not chiefly about physical seduction; it is about the seductiveness of evil.

It was Woody Allen who once said, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve it through not dying.” As Queen sings in the theme to “The Highlander,” “Who wants to live forever?” Well, just about everybody. And for the past two millennia the church has been preaching the way to eternal life. Ah, but this way requires commitment and sacrifice. Those who wish to enter the new life must observe certain rules of conduct. We must turn the other cheek. We must go the extra mile. We must even--Choke!--love and forgive our enemies! For many the cost of eternal life seems too high.

Dracula is a fantasy of another way to live forever. Vampires can indulge in just about any kind of behavior and get away with it. And, yes, women find Dracula irresistible. He is powerful and rich. Isn’t that worth a little bloodletting?

But like real evil, this fantasy doesn’t bear up under deep scrutiny. The vampire is a predator who extends his life at the expense of others. Far from being a liberator of women’s libidos, he is a lethal Lothario, the ultimate in “love ’em and leave ’em…dead.” Dead and worse than co-dependent. Dracula is at the apex of a truly worst case scenario pyramid scheme, in which everyone involved ends up a slave of an all consuming hunger. It’s tempting to see it as satire of our dog-eat-dog world. I think it is a parody of something else.

Dracula, the Son of the Devil, drinks the blood of his followers condemning them to eternal death. He is a fictional parody of Christ, the Son of God, who shed his blood to free his followers of sin and death. And so it is appropriate that Jesus is represented in the book by the consecrated host, the body of Christ. The movies usually substitute a cross, a bigger, more visually arresting, and more obvious symbol. But understanding the theological underpinnings makes Dracula’s repulsion by holy things more comprehensible.      

Dracula is opposed by a group of people bound by their love for his victims and led by the learned and compassionate Abraham Van Helsing. Again the contrast is sharp. Dracula is the ultimate user, charming and amoral. He may seem to be a cooler character than stodgy professor Van Helsing but Van Helsing is willing to risk his neck for others. Dracula will snap the neck of his followers, if they become assertive or inconvenient.

What does this have to do with real life? I said that Dracula can be seen as a commentary on secular life. This world promises a lot: wealth, health and ever longer-lasting youth. But the price of these is often never-ending strife and consumerism. The world rewards those who grasp the most and are the most adroit at stealing credit and betraying others--in other words, grabbing, blabbing and backstabbing. The irony is that what you give up is often worth more than you gain. Vampires give up normal family relationships, sunlight, and, to prevent their detection over the centuries, even their original identities. Those who play the world’s game likewise often sacrifice their families and even, the case of celebrities, who they really are. Those who achieve the pinnacle of worldly success often find themselves surrounded by soulless yes-men, not much different from the living dead who serve Dracula. And don’t many of us who toil far from the top of the heap sometimes feel like zombies, shut away from sunlight and our families, slowly being drained of the joy of living?

How do we fight these evils? Let us follow the lead of the good Dr. Van Helsing and arm ourselves first with faith. We must inoculate ourselves against the seduction of evil by placing our trust in God’s goodness. We must commit ourselves to the proposition that his ways are better, even though the world inverts them. One of the best protections is to remind ourselves continually of God’s never-failing love and forgiveness, especially in our own lives.

Next comes wisdom. Van Helsing knows his vampire lore. Let us be sensitive to the signs and symptoms of selfishness, greed and materialism. Let us get to know ourselves as well. The vampire cannot stand mirrors and the person who has bought into this world cannot endure self-reflection because he will see how hollow are its promises and how empty he is. Similarly he shuns the light because in the light of the truth, the lies he tells himself evaporate.

Compassion is next. Van Helsing does his work out of compassion for its victims. He uses all of his knowledge and skills to save Mina and Lucy from the curse of the undead. Even when Lucy succumbs and begins feeding on children, what he proposes doing to her is a mercy. He enlists her fiancé and suitors in putting her soul to rest. In the real world, God does not sanction driving stakes into bodies. But sometimes when a loved one is in the grip of something that threatens to destroy him or her, we are called to perform an intervention. Without glee or gloating we may have to get to the heart of the matter, no matter how much it hurts. In the book, the reward is the look of peace on Lucy’s face. It is interesting that just before Dracula’s body crumbles to dust, Mina notices on his face “a look of peace, such as I never could have imagined might have rested there.” In real life the reward is the peace of the person who has stopped struggling against God and accepted his healing love.

Along with compassion, we need community. In the novel, the group that fights Dracula are originally rivals for the affections of Lucy. As she sickens they band together to save her, even giving their blood in the then-risky medical procedure of transfusion. After she dies they say together, first to rescue her soul from living death and then to end the evil reign of the vampire king.

Finally there is sacrifice. In the novel, one of Lucy’s suitors is mortally wounded just before he dispatches Dracula. While we may not be called to die for our faith, we can expect to make sacrifices for it. Just as a parent makes sacrifices for his or her children, we may have to deny ourselves certain pleasures or trinkets if it impedes our spiritual growth or even that of others. Jesus says, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the good news will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?”

Look at Dracula as a parable about what happens to a man who gives up his soul in order to gain the world. Look past the glamor and you will see that the world he gains is one of darkness, death and decay. Then look closer and you will see a small band of ordinary people, bound by faith, wisdom and self-sacrificial love. They are the true heroes. They know the true secret of eternal life is not giving in to the desire to take all that you want but surrendering to the love that asks for all you can give…so he can give it back again a hundredfold.      

1 comment:

  1. Aye well done my friend!I shalt print and review for future comments.So miss our long chats yet here they can start anew.Timothy