"God's Wounds!": How Dracula Bled Christianity Dry

So, how do you kill a vampire?

It is difficult in this most academic of settings to imagine that this question was, not so very long ago nor so very far away, not merely of academic interest. We are trained, in this rational era, in this rational venue, to interpret the supernatural as artifactual examples of crude folk belief, as the token of psychological trauma or repressed desire, as literary conceit: quaint, perhaps, but certainly not threatening. But to travelers in remote parts not so very long ago, the question was anything but theoretical -- it was a matter of life and death. There is ample evidence that belief in the potential threat of the undead flourished in some regions well into the early twentieth century, even among supposed sophisticates. Elaborate vampire-slaying kits, with engraved components nestled in velvet-lined compartments, were sold to travelers wishing to visit Eastern Europe throughout the nineteenth century. The quality and expense of some surviving vampire-slaying equipment suggests that tourists granted surprising credibility to reports of the undead stalking the highways and passes of Hungary and Romania, and were prepared to deal harshly with any bloodsuckers they encountered.

One such kit, currently held in a private collection in Austin, Texas, contains in part, a pistol with a mold for making silver bullets, a sharpened wooden stake, vials of holy water, a cross with ivory overlay, and a pocket new-testament, printed in England. These items reveal, among other things, a remarkable consistency between the vampire beliefs circulating during this period and those commonplaces of vampire fiction which Western literature inherits from Bram Stoker's seminal novel, Dracula. In both cases, the pistol and the stake, which indicate both the vampire-slayer's technological superiority and the reversal of the vampire's penetrative attack, are reinforced and sanctioned by the spiritual authority of the cross, the sacrament, and the holy words of the Christian bible.

When Stoker's vampire slayer's trot out these very weapons, therefore, they are invoking an associative relationship which we may assume would be a familiar one to Stoker's audience. Van Helsing and his disciples are not merely arming themselves with the most appropriate weapons available, but allying themselves with the forces of purity and goodness in explicit contrast to the spiritual depravity incarnate in the bloodsucking Count.

This dichotomy between ultimate good and ultimate evil is forwarded throughout the novel. In the very first chapter, for example, when Jonathan Harker reveals his infernal destination to his rural Carpathian hosts, they offer him a crucifix to wear, and they refer to the count not merely as "vrolok" (vampire) but as "Ordog" (Satan), and his domain as "pokol" -- hell. The moment that Jonathan Harker discovers himself to be in actual danger, he peppers his diary entries with invocations of "Great God!" and "Merciful God!" and begs God’s assistance against the fiendish Count -- invocations which are repeated throughout the text by each of the vampire slayers, even the scientifically motivated Dr. Seward. And God, for His part, seems convinced by these exhortations to lend his power to the vampire-slayer’s cause -- the holy icons send the Count fleeing, the undead Lucy Westenra is held at bay by Dr. Van Helsing’s crucifix, and when Mina Harker is infected with the Count's evil, Van Helsing inadvertently burns her with the touch of a holy wafer: evidence that the taint of the Count’s evil is enough to render even the otherwise angelic Mina repellent to God.

Van Helsing is kind enough to make the opposition between the Christian slayers and their Satanic nemesis explicit. During a long strategic session in which he categorizes the vampire as "a blot on the face of God’s sunshine; an arrow in the side of Him who died for man."

This emphasis on the Count’s Infernal nature has been interpreted as part of the cultural centrism of Stoker's project. The identification is, of course, only part of a grand scheme of oppositions which drive the novel: Dracula is Satanic, pagan, medieval, emotional, foreign, Eastern, sexually threatening, personally and socially other ; the vampire slayers are Godly, Christian, modern, logical, English or Western, sexually conservative, devoted to the institutions which drive British imperialism. Dracula's infernal characterization naturally implies that Christ favors England and the Empire, over the heathen hinterlands, and that the subsequent normalization of ethnic others within and without England is sanctioned by God.

However, I'd like to argue that this popular reading is precisely backwards. It is not true, (or not merely true) that Stoker's text suggests that England is "God's Country." What is interesting is not that the text elevates nationalism to the status of religion, but that it consequently devalues religion to the level of nationalistic rhetoric. The novel accomplishes this by associating and investing both English nationalism and English science with supernatural powers, a radical appropriation of the very notion of what can constitute the supernatural. By doing so, Dracula reduces religion itself to the status of an unmotivated, even absurd, signifier.

Despite the degree to which Stoker’s vampire-slayers mouth pious rhetoric, they are still very much dependent upon their technological prowess, their "English know-how." The phonograph, the railroad, the steam-ship, the asylum, the chemical morphine -- these tools are just as important to the vampire-slayers’ task as the wooden stake and the crucifix. And indeed, many critics have suggested that their reliance upon technological apparatus implies that, within the novel, God’s sanction extends to the industrial revolution as well as to imperialism.

But why, if "Almighty God" frowns so severely upon the Count, is human intervention, technological or otherwise, necessary at all? In effect, doesn’t the very existence of the Vampire imply that God is perhaps not so very "Almighty" after all?

Such questions go right to the heart of the furious debates which characterized religious life during the Victorian period. In particular, the existence of true evil (such as the vampire’s) brings into question the very nature of the Christian church’s traditional view of divine Providence, omnipotence and omnibenevolence. Is the vampire outside the natural world order by virtue of his or her supernatural powers, and thus able to visit misfortunes on upstanding Christians despite God’s will? Or is the vampire merely the agent of divine providence itself, through which God exercises His judgments on an individual or community? The latter possibility implies that the victims of vampirism are merely being punished for their own sinfulness, while the latter seems to deny the omnipotence of God.

A clue to a possible solution for this dillemma lies in the fact that Christianity does not stand alone as the only set of supernatural signifiers in Stoker’s novel. In addition to vampirism, other folk-beliefs and pre-Christian superstitions permeate the novel: Jonathan Harker’s peasant coach driver follows a Will-o-wisp into the forest in order to locate buried treasure ; A retired sailor regales Mina and Lucy with stories of a ghostly "White Lady" who haunts the coast of Whitby. These phantoms suggest that, despite the efficacy of the crucifix, conventional Christianity is not the itself the only genuine spiritual institution, but one of many spiritual traditions, each of which wield varying authority. And the ability to make use of these traditions, to intellectually grasp them and to master them, is the most essential part of the vampire-slayers’ preparations -- an effective admixture of their religious sensibilities with the English rationality which drives science and technology.

Consider, for example, Dr. Van Helsing’s attempt to sound out Dr. Seward regarding the latter’s credulousness with respect to vampirism:

You are a clever man, friend John; you reason well, and your wit is bold; but you are too prejudiced. You do not let your eyes see nor your ears hear, and that which is outside your daily life is not of account to you....Ah, it is the fault of our science that it wants to explain all; and if it explain not, then it says there is nothing to explain.

-- Dracula, p.197.

The doctor then lists a number of occult phenomena: telepathy, astral projection, telekinesis, and the scientific evidence which exists to render each one acceptable or unacceptable to Dr. Seward’s scientific scrutiny. Importantly, Van Helsing includes several biblical references, such as Methuselah’s unnatural age, as evidence for the existence of the supernatural. All of these intellectual and spiritual traditions -- parapsychology, scientific analysis, and Christian cosmology -- are forwarded as equally valid, equally subject to the vampire-slayers’ eventual mastery.

There is even evidence that Christianity may not be the strongest of these three competing traditions. At one point Van Helsing laments of Lucy Westenra’s affliction: "God! God! God!....What have we done, what has this poor thing done, that we are so sore beset? Is there fate amongst us still, sent down from the pagan world of old, that such things must be, and in such a way?" For a book which has been almost universally interpreted as unquestioningly supportive of institutional Christianity, this is a slightly shocking suggestion. Of course, Van Helsing is a Catholic, and outbursts may be attributed partially to the schismatic distinctions between his faith and that of his (and Stoker’s) presumably Anglican audience. The distinction is made clear in Jonathan Harker’s discomfort with the Catholic crucifix with which he is presented, but Van Helsing’s pronouncement is, nonetheless, an invitation to recognize the arbitrary nature of God’s providence -- and therefore to question the degree to which the vampire-slayers’ efforts are indeed sanctioned "from on high."

The only scientifically verifiable fact, and therefore the only one which is available to the vampire-slayers’ mastery, is that the symbols of the church are effective. Christianity within Dracula, then, becomes more an issue of social performance than anything else -- and even these ritualistic expressions of orthodoxy are severely undercut. Consider, for example, the many forms which the sacrament of marriage takes on within the novel. Mina's marriage to Jonathan takes place in a hospital in Buda-Pesth, under the auspices of an English missionary -- a slightly unconventional, but certainly recognizable example of Christian matrimony. By contrast, while Lucy Westenra eventually weds none of her three suitors, she does undergo blood transfusions from all three, as well as Dr. Van Helsing -- and these exchanges of bodily fluids are characterized as "marriages," even more binding than traditional unions. In addition to providing Van Helsing the opportunity to make a number of distasteful jokes regarding Lucy’s polyandry, this subversion of Christian marriage foreshadows Mina’s own "infidelity," during which she becomes the figurative "bride" of both Dracula and the remaining vampire-slayers. Clearly if Stokers’ protagonists are meant to be representing a conservative Christian response to encroaching foreign paganism, they are doing a miserable job of it, and such an interpretation, popular as it has heretofore proven, may be undercut as easily as it may be supported

I would like to conclude by forwarding Bram Stoker's Dracula as the ultimate illustration of an historic progression. The erosion of orthodox Christianity encouraged many nineteenth-century authors to engage spiritual and theological themes in alternative forums, particularly in supernatural literature. However, as in Dracula, the freedom with which supernatural literature employed metaphysical signifiers, or devalued conventional Christian iconography by the concurrent and coequal utilization of alternate cosmological approaches such as science and the occult, sped the rate at which these signifiers lost their mythological authority. By the end of the nineteenth century, the process of dissassociation had made such signifiers ripe for commodification, and they were effectively stripped of their original transcendental significance.

In Dracula, and much supernatural fiction of the late nineteenth century then, Christian and supernatural symbols are bought, sold, and exchanged in an arena which fails to acknowledge that they are much more than tools which happen to be effective in completing secular tasks -- certainly not that they are essential components of the religious identities of their wielders. Even as the protagonists profess their orthodox religious sincerity, Christianity and folk-superstition are treated as interchangeable, completely comparable phenomena, divorced from their original significance, and only trotted out as yet more systems of currency to be mastered. The cross is no more effective than the pistol when it comes to slaying vampires, or, for that matter, when it comes to domesticating and normalizing subject populations. A valuable lesson for travelers -- whether one intends to merely visit a foreign country, or to colonize it.

Potter's Field