Why We’ll Always Return to Dracula

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When Dracula premiered at the Roxy Theatre in New York on February 12, 1931, it was the first time there had ever been a film about the famous vampire. Sensibilities were shaken. A local paper reported that audience members actually fainted—a fact that conveniently doubled as a viral marketing campaign. A new genre, horror, was minted. Bela Lugosi, who had played the role on the stage, mugged his way into horror film history with his now-famous cape over the shoulder disappearing technique (as dissected in the 1994 film Ed Wood.) The character bit its way into the American pop-culture lexicon.

Since then, over 200 films have been made about the iconic bloodsucker, including contemporary takes including Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), Dracula 2000 (2000), and Van Helsing (2004). While it may seem that we’re currently fighting a sense of vampire fatigue, brought on in no small part by having to explain that no—their skin doesn’t sparkle in the sun—there’s a very good reason why we’ll be seeing more takes on the Dracula story in the future.

Any version of the vampire myth, highbrow or not (re: Dracula: Dead and Loving It), is tailor-made to speak to modern anxieties. Although it was written in 1897, Dracula, a novel by Bram Stoker about the vampire who moved from Transylvania to London to unleash hell among the living, easily translates to 2020. Even over a century ago, the novel barely veiled the sexual assault connotations of drinking blood. (“And oh, my God, my God, pity me!” a character in the novel screams. “He placed his reeking lips upon my throat!”) But the act of unexpected violence resonates with anyone who has ever worried about a terrorism, sudden illness, or even getting home safely at the end of the night. Going even further back, Stoker’s source material, Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia, or as he’s better known, Vlad the Impaler, is likewise the stuff of nightmares. Just imagine having a landlord with a taste for violence so intense he’s earned himself a nickname like “Impaler.”

Dracula is the perfect metaphor for our fears—one dimensional enough that we’re not asked to consider his motivations, or even desires outside of total destruction. Through him, we’re allowed to pretend the world works without shades of grey, because if someone truly that unredeemable exists, then surely that means untainted heroes are also real. Watching these movies (or by that extension, dressing up like a vampire for Halloween or wearing supernatural-inspired accessories) allows us to take ownership of evil and create a sense of power in otherwise powerless situations. Given that, perhaps Dracula’s final monologue—briefly cut from the film in 1934 due to the Production Code Laws—can be seen in a positive light:

“Just a moment, ladies and gentlemen! A word before you go. We hope the memories of Dracula and Renfield won’t give you bad dreams, so just a word of reassurance. When you get home tonight and the lights have been turned out and you are afraid to look behind the curtains—and you dread to see a face appear at the window—why, just pull yourself together and remember that after all, there are such things as vampires.”

If that’s true, then maybe we’re the good guys after all.

Pass the popcorn.

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