A physicist loose among the liberal arts

The Evolution of Dracula

Warning: I am going to disagree with both Corey Olsen and Tom Hillman in this post, so I am wrong about at least some part of it.

I have just finished listening to the Episode 14, the last of the Mythgard Academy classes on Bram Stoker’s Dracula. They wound up with a discussion of how Dracula evolved over the twentieth century, from the novel to Dracula 2000. Corey and Tom both expressed some surprise that the “Christian spiritual elements” of the films had gotten more pronounced over time, even though society became more secular.

This trend does not surprise me at all.  I think they were misled by the word “spiritual”.  I would, instead, describe the Christian elements in Dracula as “ritual”.  From this point of view, in the novel, an ancient, supernatural being threatens modern secular society.  To defend itself, our quintet of heroes (a cross-section of society) calls on Professor Van Helsing to drag out of the dustbin of history the rituals developed by an older society to defend itself.  An exact analogy is the discovery of digitalis among old folk remedies, which was refined to treat cardiac disease in modern hospitals.

The religious ritual elements in the movies have been getting stronger because over the last half-century, Christian ritual elements are becoming much more prominent in American society.  It makes good business sense that they should be played up more in the movies.  (And of course, that is the only sense that matters to movie producers.)  One example: Donald Trump, who has based his entire campaign on breaking rules, felt obliged to pretend to be Christian to win the nomination (the famous “two Corinthians” episode). Public obeisance to religion is one rule he dared not break.  Another: After every mass shooting, every elected official sends out a communiqué about how their “prayers are with the families of the victims”.  It seems clear that “pray” in this context means “do nothing”.

I suggest that anyone who is surprised by the growing importance of Christian ritual in Dracula movies over time has been misled because they are thinking of Christianity in terms of its moral or ethical teachings.  If they think of it instead in terms of the inch-deep religiosity that dominates current American politics and culture, along with Hollywood’s natural attraction for superficiality, they will see two trends marching in lock-step.

P.S.  Bram Stoker looks like a feminist (not proven, though few feminists would find any problems in Dracula) because we naturally compare him with the blatant sexism of twentieth-century Hollywood.  Yeah, I’m kinda down on movies these days.


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  1. Joe, I cannot begin to say how wrong you are.

    Because you’re not. If I said ‘Christian spiritual elements’ I was mistaken on two accounts. First, as you rightly say, ‘ritual’ more accurately describes those elements we see increasing. Second, now that you have straightened me out on that, I will try to straighten us both out on something else — this falls under the rubric of “who’s more foolish, the fool, or the fool who follows him?” So beware. — To call these ritual elements Christian casts the net (note the fishing metaphor — appropriate don’t you think?) a bit too wide, since not all Christians believe in the use of a crucifix rather than an empty cross. Even in the context of Dracula, I could not just call it “Catholic” since the peasants who warn Harker and give him the crucifix were likely Orthodox. But I would point out that it always seems to be a Catholic priest people call when dealing with vampires and demons.

    • Joe

      I was imprecise: Tom didn’t say “spiritual”; the podcast only has one voice on it. Corey seemed to be using it as shorthand for “iconography” or “semiotics” or some other word that makes him successful because he doesn’t use it.

      Of course the Transylvanian peasants were Eastern Orthodox, though I’d never thought of that before. That opens up some fascinating doors!

      The next remake of Dracula should be told from the point of view of the Bishop of Bistritz (played by Danny Glover), who is baffled by the fact that Van Helsing is succeeding at containing a vampire with that bizarre Latin mummery. The plot then turns into a buddy film, with lots of entertaining bickering about whose methods to use. They go around Transylvania clearing out undead scourges until Mina points out that they’ve invented an experimental method of testing theological claims. The film ends with a meeting between the Pope and the Patriarch who undo the Schism of 1054 and form a joint theological research institute. The last few vampires are turned into lab animals, living in cages where Jonathan and Mina subject them to randomized, controlled incantations in Latin, Greek, Old Church Slavonic, and Navajo (as a placebo).

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