Dracula – A Religious Reassessment

Bran Castle

Dracula is one of the greatest horror novels of all time, if not the greatest. It brings together a range of folktales and legends, mixes them with real world characters, and presents a coherent whole within the conventions of the Gothic novel. It’s a trope establisher in terms of how vampires would be depicted, vampiric characteristics (e.g. bat transformation and seduction) and weaknesses (crucifixes, garlic, sunlight). Even the accent!

It’s kind of weird to me that there hasn’t been an accurate retelling of the Dracula story in movies or TV shows. That doesn’t mean there haven’t been some great films. Personally, I’m a big fan of Dracula (1979), Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) and Dracula Untold (2014). I also enjoy deconstructed TV versions such as Dark Prince: The True Story of Dracula (2000) and Rise of Empires: Ottoman, Series 2 (2022-3). Christopher Lee’s 1970 version seems to be the closest of them all to the original novel.

Unfortunately, in my judgement, the bad outweighs the good. What we’re left with today are hunky, teenage versions. Cartoon versions. [Insert any hero] vs Dracula storylines. Dracula toys and video games. Not to mention the large quantity of poor-quality film adaptations and TV shows. Dracula has become a victim of his own success.

What I want to do here is go back to the original novel by Irishman Bram Stoker and throw up a few angles that might surprise you about it. It has become so common to analyse Dracula by themes such as sexuality and race that I want to ignore them completely. Instead, I want to mention two points: religion and region. The two are linked.

Dracula as a Religious Novel

I recently came across an interesting article by D Bruno Starrs called Keeping the faith: Catholicism in “Dracula” and its adaptations. The article was published in the Journal of Dracula Studies 2004 (6). In it, Starrs argues that although Dracula might be understood against a backdrop of “combating semitism and evolutionism”, it is essentially a religious, specifically a Catholic novel.

“The novel’s religious analogy is obvious: in the most basic of his many perversions of Catholic lore, Count Dracula is the figurative anti-Christ who promises eternal life through the ingestion not of sacramental wine representing the blood of Christ, but of actual human blood.”

D Bruno Starrs

The team fighting against Dracula are mostly Anglicans led by a Catholic Dutchman, employing weapons such as crucifixes and the Holy Wafer. The core correlation between life and blood is based on a biblical verse in the novel itself (Deuteronomy 12:23), with multiple references to blood-letting and blood transfusions.

Perhaps one of the most interesting arguments made by Starrs is that the novel’s covert purpose was “proselytization to Catholicism or syncreticism between the faiths” of Catholics and Protestants, a “union of Protestant word and Catholic sacrament”. This is set in the historical context of Stoker as an Irishman and the political upheavals of his day.

Starrs traces the wane of this religious core to the story in the different film adaptations over the years. It became typical for Dracula and vampires in general to be portrayed either as disgusting, hairy, undead monsters or sexually alluring and culturally refined gentlemen. The enemies of Dracula are more like strapping secret agents (see the 2004 film Van Helsing for this). But the novel portrays them all rather differently.

“Count Dracula was arguably the anti-Christ who was particularly vulnerable to Catholic sacraments and could apparently only be killed by Catholics and converted Protestants.”

D Bruno Starrs

Dracula in its Romanian Setting

On a lesser note, I’d like to add that visiting Romania, where many of the events in Dracula took place, has changed my view of Dracula. I’ve taken the train from Bucharest to Transylvania. I’ve had a tour of ‘Dracula’s Castle’ (actually called Bran Castle) and stood beside a bust of Vlad Tepes at the old Princely Court. It made the entire story less cartoonish, more historical to me. Dracula became less of a text and more of a drama.

Here are a few of my takeaways.

  • Romania is a very religious country. They take it seriously, far more than we do in the UK. Our secular worldview is not shared by Eastern Europe in general, including Romania. The main religion of Romania is not Catholicism but Orthodoxy. About 74 % of the popular describe themselves in this way. Less than 1% claim to be atheists, agnostics or non-religious.
  • Many Romanians are quite proud of Vlad Tepes. He’s considered a national hero who courageously defended their country from Turkish invaders. There are many streets in Romania that are named after Vlad Tepes and places associated with him. Some see his bloodthirsty tactics as necessary for the times, and point to his strengthening of law and order.
  • As for the fictional character of Dracula, Romanians see him as good for tourism but little else. So-called “Dracula tourism” has provided Romania with a consistent flow of cash over the years and shows no signs of diminishing. The government attitude towards this is mixed – good for economics, bad for image.
  • As well as Bran Castle, there are other castles in Romania associated with Dracula. Poenari Citadel is a ruined castle that was the home of Vlad Tepes. Corvin Castle is a place where Vlad Tepes was held prisoner. Romania has a fantastic range of castle in general, some of the best of which have no connection to Dracula but are simply magnificent to see, such as Peleș Castle in the Carpathian Mountains.
  • There are creatures form Romanian folktales that helped form the basis of Stoker’s modern vampire legend – the moroi, the strigoi, and the nosferat. It’s probably fair to think of the Dracula myth as a successful fusing of old world, peasant legend with heavy Christian symbolism and historical touchpoints, told in a modern, gothic style.
  • Vampire legends are old – even older than the Hebrew Bible. On this topic, see my Are Vampires in the Bible?

Maybe a Freudian or feminist analysis of the novel can reveal hidden themes and engage with oh-so-modern political concerns. Or, maybe a return to what Stoker intended can find the story a fresh following. I for one am tired of dandified vampires, superhero vampires, and vampires that glitter. Vlad would impale the lot of them, and I wouldn’t blame him if he did.

Photo by virgil maierean on Unsplash

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