A Contemporary Look at Dracula

Having recently re-read “Dracula” (technically reading it for the first time, since I realised that at an earlier point I read a cleaned up, PG version), I came fascinated by the thematics and the relevance of the story in the time it was written. Bram Stoker’s famous novel is an intriguing period-piece, giving a striking image of English society in the late 19th century. It’s suspenseful, brilliantly paced but also blatantly sexist and xenophobic. Critics have often qualified it as part of the invasion literature craze that dominated the market in between the Industrial Revolution and the First World War. The symbolism behind the titular nemesis has been attributed by many scholars to subjects as widely varied as capitalism, latent homosexuality, race mixing and colonialism. In a similar way the depiction of Mina Harker and Lucy Westenra have been interpreted as a response to the feminist New Woman movement of the time. Stoker displays a highly conservative view of women in his story; outright diminishing them to mere victims and incapable weaklings who have to leave the dangerous work to the men.

Despite its flaws, it’s still a thrilling and highly entertaining novel to this day and I had great fun reading out loud some of the passages to my wife and friend who were with me the time I was reading it. The archaic language (“Van Helsing ejaculated” – meaning he yelled out loud), and the painfully awkward sexism of Mina’s diary’s whenever she considers herself blessed with the brave men looking after her, made us cringe-giggle. Referring to a good mood as “gayer spirits” also became a thing.

Contemporary Fears

Purely for fun, I started imagining a cast for a gender flipped film version of the story. So, male actors for female characters and vice versa. You can check out my little brain fart here.
It made me fantasise about my hypothetical movie for a bit, and I continued to think up scenes and dialogues and how they would play out in my version. Obviously, I imagined a version with genders reversed, because I figured it a neat way to modernise the story. But then I realised that to be truly a modern re-imagination should also take place in today’s world.
Not because strong female leads and feminism would not fit a 19th century Britain, oh no certainly not. For that purpose the story could easily retain its historical setting. No, my realisation is based on the type of fear the novel is trying to convey.

What made Dracula so scary back in the day? It was scary because of the format of the story: a collection of diary entries, newspaper clippings and interviews. It was scary because for that time it was a very contemporary story, and very relatable for readers. In a world where distances grew shorter because of steamboats, trains and international trade, people were confronted with a fear of the unknown. Stoker explores the ways the dreaded Count stalks his victims and does this in a way that draws a sharp contrast between old vampire lore and modern techniques.

Vampires are traditionally limited in movement because of certain aspects of their folklore. They sleep during the day and can’t survive in the daylight, they can’t cross streaming water and they have to be in close proximity of their birth ground. On the other hand, they can transform into bats and wolves or even a patch of mist. But then again, a vampire can’t enter someone’s house lesst they have been invited in by its owner.
Stoker combines these rules very cleverly with the dynamics of modern travel of the late 19th century and adds a very pragmatic, realistic approach to how a vampire would deal with these limitations.
That’s what makes the story so relevant to readers; it takes old folklore and puts in a context of the modern day. That’s the way it conveys a constant terror and angst that’s palpable throughout the story. The heroes of the story are always one step behind Dracula. They try to keep Lucy and later Mina out of his clutches and disable his means of transportation. But as reader we never feel safe and comfortable believing the beast is contained.

Invasion Literature

This is exactly the reason why the story often gets categorised into the genre of invasion literature. It plays into the public fear of strange powers entering Great Britain. In older times the sinister Count would terrorise the mountain folk of Romania, in this modern times he can just show up in our streets. A very real example is Jack the Ripper, the infamous and real life serial killer who is currently believed to have been a Polish immigrant living in London. The Whitechapel Murders occurred exactly in the same period of time as Dracula was written.

If you read Dracula today, it takes a little imagination to understand that level of dread and oppressive horror. We subconsciously put it in the context of today’s world and we can’t relate as much to the fear of the main characters. In this world of mobile phones, webcams and modern alarms systems we would take different measures. Now that we have e-mail and Skype and air transport, travelling from the Balkans to London or for a solicitor to reach a client in a foreign country isn’t such a big deal.

So for my re-imagination to work, I had to dive deep into what currently makes us tick. What are our fears? What is the modern interpretation of Dracula in a way that we can relate to the terror of his person? This can only be executed in our world, in our day and age. The Count would have to be familiar with modern communications: stalk people online and manifest himself through different online personas. He would be able to hack into people’s accounts, dig up their personal information. Instead of unable to cross a doorpost without being invited in, he would be unable to access someone’s digital identity without that person’s initial consent. Perhaps his supernatural abilities would stretch to the point of being able to travel through digital means. Not a sliver of fog, but a electric pulse ripping through the cable?

New Ways

Instead of beaching a ship, he’d make a cargo plane crash. Reaching Renfield wouldn’t be as easy as purchasing a building next to the asylum; Dracula would have to bypass the advanced security of a modern psychiatric hospital. Maybe hijack the surveillance system, or contact Renfield through a mobile phone, smuggled in by a possessed warden. Instead of telegrams and letters, the protagonists of the story would obviously be able to handle quicker and more coordinated than in the original. Yet Dracula would possess the means to wiretap, hack and otherwise spy on their communication channels. In a less rigid way than I describe it now of course, aided by his supernatural abilities. But the point is that in the same way as in the original story he would always be a step ahead of our heroes and his victims can never truly feel safe.

For the foreign invasion part of the original tale, I’d prefer to stay clear from the xenophobic sentiments Bram Stoker utilised. Instead of a Romanian count I might go for an ageing business owner. A former magnate, oligarch perhaps trying to reclaim his lost glory. In the times of the Industrial Revolution the aristocracy was the dying breed; nowadays a bankrupt venture capitalist would fit the contemporary picture better. Not a medieval castle, but a shabby and badly maintained villa. Not the fear of foreigners invading England, but shady investors screwing up the economy for the working class?

Dracula is a tale of all ages: a the personification of an ancient fear and delightful horror creature that plays into our everyday worries. The setting of Bram Stoker’s Dracula is not the selling point of the novel: it was the brilliant adaptation of an old folklore implemented in a modern setting. If we were to remake it today, we would have to do exactly that.

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