If you’ve been watching NBC’s interesting if inconsistent adaptation of Dracula, loosely based on the novel (and I do mean loosely in the strongest possible way), you will have once again seen an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s oft-imitated classic that turns the relationship between the Count and Mina Murray into one of romance. It’s a favoured trope amongst those who reimagine the tale, although it would be preferable for further adaptations to make the story as gloriously queer as NBC have, because, among other reasons, there’s an evident appeal to the idea of a soulless villain who is redeemed by love.
That doesn’t happen in the book, of course. The overriding metaphor of vampirism as a stand-in for rape and disease does leave the mood a little less romantic.
When Dracula was released in 1897, syphilis was a growing problem, one most doctors were aware of. There was really no effective cure of the disease at this point in time, and there wouldn’t be until penicillin went into mass production before the Second World War. In many creative circles it was the disease du jour. Everyone from Toulouse-Lautrec to Gustave Flaubert to Paul Gaugin were said to have contracted the sexually transmitted disease, which symptoms include nausea, swollen lymph nodes, ulcers, hair loss and, in the later stages, dementia and paralysis.
A certain degree of allure has surrounded these artists in regard to their supposed diagnoses of syphilis. Many scholars attribute the death of Bram Stoker himself to tertiary syphilis, since strokes are one of the symptoms of the disease in the later stages. The twisted appeal of the tortured artist who lived fast and died hard continues to this day, although STDs are usually swapped out for narcotics. There’s no hard evidence to suggest that Stoker was syphilitic, with his own work being presented as evidence of his illness, a justification no doctor would accept in any circumstance. More likely, the metaphor of vampirism as illness came from prevalent fears in Victorian society at the time.
Fear of infection from the continent was common, particularly with stories of the syphilis epidemic in Paris. The disease was known to many in Britain as “the French disease”, although the French called it “the Polish disease”. Every country seemed to have another country to blame for the origin of syphilis, as QI hilariously illustrated in one episode. The fear of the “other” dominated the discussion, so of course the image of an Eastern European Count with a mysterious background coming to London would terrify polite society and the contemporary reader base. The bite that infects the Count’s victims is a visual representation of the disease, one everyone will be able to see, much in the same way the sores of syphilis overtake the face.
Said Count isn’t just a danger to the city. Specifically, he’s seen as a danger to the ladies. On top of being a symbol of contagion, he’s a figure of allure whose bite causes supposedly weak women to entirely lose their morals and turn into crazed baby eating monsters. While Mina is regarded as having the ethical and virginal strength to ward off completely succumbing to Dracula’s powers, even as he visits her multiple times, the flirtatious Lucy is too vulnerable and open to assault.
I use the word assault here because the vampirism present in the novel is one pretty much devoid of consensual seduction. The three brides of Dracula overpower Jonathan Harker and bleed him of his strength, but are stopped from finishing the job by the Count himself and an offer of a baby to eat (insert your veal joke here). Why a baby, other than ease of delivery? Dracula’s perversions have turned women, supposedly driven by the maternal ideals of the time, to relinquish all such responsibilities and literally feast upon that which they are supposed to nurture.
When Dracula stops the women, he claims “this man belongs to me”, leading to further conspiracies that Stoker may have been gay. Once again, there’s no proof of this, but the connection between infection and sexual inversion is pretty obvious in the book, especially when the Count basically has a harem of women he’s forcibly inducted into his fold.
Lucy, before becoming a vampire, is seen as toying with three separate suitors, although there’s a genuine innocence behind her actions that is often forgotten about. Of course, such actions aren’t those of a lady in Victorian society, and once she is turned into a vampire, it’s up to those three men to hold her down and drive a less than subtle phallic symbol into her heart in order to cure her of her perversions. Let that be a lesson to you, ladies.
While the syphilis metaphor isn’t as popular in modern adaptations of the tale, some have included it in a central manner to the story. BBC’s 2006 take on Dracula centred on Arthur Holmwood, the successful of Lucy’s suitors in the book and her fiancé in this adaptation, and his attempt to cure the syphilis he was born with before he marries. Naturally, he seeks help from a mysterious member of a cult-like order who turns out to be a vampire. As you do. It’s an intriguing tale, one that revives old ideas and imbues them with new ones, but ultimately it falls short and feels a touch toothless, all puns intended. You can check it out on YouTube if you’re interested, although Marc Warren is a questionable choice for Dracula.
Vampirism can be a metaphor for basically anything from sex to drugs to infection to rampant xenophobia and everything in between. I think we prefer the more romantic elements because there’s a reliable safeness to them, although current paranormal horror trends are making the tip back towards the more feral vampire. Perhaps NBC’s Dracula will delve into the more contagious elements if they get a second season (they didn’t). They may leave the baby eating to Hannibal though.