Anthony Hopkins, Aphrodite, Atropos, Baal, Beelzebub, Blood, Bram Stoker, Carfax Abbey, classics, Clotho, Cupid, Demeter, Dr Seward, Dracula, Eros, Francis Ford Coppola, Gary Oldman, Greece, Horror, Jonathan Harker, Keanu Reeves, Lachesis, Lucy, Mina Harker, Mina Murray, Renfield, Richard E Grant, Sadie Frost, Sex, symbolism, The Fates, The Wyrd Sisters, Tom Waits, Transylvania, Van Helsing, Venus, Vlad Tepes, Vlad the Impaler, Winona Ryder, wolf
This contains spoilers! Watch the movie first!
The 1992 film Bram Stoker’s Dracula, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, is a completely different take on the story of the monstrous Transylvanian count. It is more than just a love story, and as I began to study classics almost ten years later I realised there was a deeper meaning to the tale. The vampire had actually been portrayed as a fallen Eros, damned by God and His “mad men”.
The movie starts as no other film about Dracula starts, with the Count in human form. Here he is the real historical character we know Dracula to be based on, Vlad Tepes, Prince of Wallachia. He goes into battle, leaving his beloved wife Elisabeta. Whilst in battle, Elisabeta receives false word that her husband has been killed. Devastated, she commits suicide. On his return, Dracula is told by the priest (played by Anthony Hopkins who will later be his adversary, Van Helsing) that his wife is damned because she took her own life. Dracula, enraged that the God he is fighting for should turn against him by condemning the woman he loves, renounces Him. He then damns himself by drinking the blood from the cross he has stabbed with his sword. Straight away, we know that the reason Dracula has willingly condemned himself to be damned is for the love of a woman, also damned.
Four centuries later, in 1897, we find ourselves in London at the Carfax Lunatic Asylum and are introduced to Renfield, one of the patients. He is talking to his “Master”, saying he has made preparations for his arrival, before eating a fly and thanking his invisible Master for his generosity. In Nods to the Old Gods, I mention Beelzebub, a Semitic deity. His name in Arabic was thought to mean Lord of the Flies, although this is probably a derogatory corruption of his true name Lord of the High Place (Heaven) or “High Lord”. He is also called Ba’al, meaning “Lord” or “Master”. He is primarily a sun god, and god of fertility. If damned, as He was – like many other pagan gods were – surely Ba’al would be condemned never to walk in sunlight and all acts of fertility, such as sex and sexual love, would also be condemned as impure lust by opposing forces (i.e. early Christians).
In the next scene, Renfield’s boss explains to Jonathon that Renfield has “lost his greedy mind”. Beelzebub was condemned to be a Prince of Hell, his sin being that of gluttony, which ties in with Dracula’s insatiable appetite for feeding on human blood, and also perhaps with Renfield’s gluttony for flies.
Dracula first appears as a supernatural being shortly after we are first introduced to our two protagonists, Mina and Jonathan, a couple very much in love who want to marry. They are prevented from doing so until Jonathan has first visited Dracula. Vampires and couples in love are often a motif of many Dracula stories. The two things seem to be inextricably linked. In Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the count finds a picture of Mina and immediately recognises her as the reincarnation of his beloved Elisabeta.
Unlike any other Dracula story, Oldman catches us off-guard and talks of something no other Dracula has ever talked about. He says: “The luckiest man who walks on this earth is the one who finds true love.” He then induces our sympathy by beginning to cry whilst telling Jonathan that he was married once, but his wife died.
As the story continues, other characters are introduced: the flirtatious, sexually knowledgeable and free-speaking Lucy is balanced with the virginal and sexually naïve Mina. Lucy’s suitors, each one more in love with her than the other, are Quincy P Morris, Dr Jack Seward and Arthur Holmwood. It is whilst watching Lucy flirting with all three men that Mina becomes aware of Dracula, an allegory of her sexual stirrings.
Back at the asylum, Renfield accuses Dr Seward of being “love sick” (thought to be a real disease in ancient Greece!), whilst in Dracula’s castle, Jonathan is seduced by three female vampires. They are described in Bram Stoker’s novel as Dracula’s three brides. Collectively they are referred to as “sisters” and at one point “weird sisters”. This is an interesting point. The weird sisters appear also in Shakespeare’s Macbeth as witches, but originally these were the Wyrd Sisters, or Fates. Here, The Fates therefore exist in order to determine Jonathan’s destiny. Clotho, the spinner, who spins the thread of life; Lachesis, who chooses our lot in life, and how long that life will be; and Atropos, who cuts the thread of life with her shears. In the film they are enjoying a sexual orgy with Jonathan, deciding his fate as they seduce him with their beauty and charm.
Meanwhile, the Dracula-as-sexual-urges allegory appears again, as Dracula watches the girls playing and kissing in the maze during a storm. Shortly afterwards Dracula lands in England and immediately entices a somnambulistic Lucy into the garden in order to seduce her. Lucy is wearing a flowing red dress, the same colour as the old count’s coat at the castle. The colour red seems to be a recurring motif of the film, perhaps symbolising its most usually associate emotion, passion and, of course, blood. In this scene, where Mina finds Dracula in the form of a beast, feeding on Lucy whilst enjoying her almost sexually as well, Dracula causes Mina to forget seeing him in such a state.
Soon after, fresh from feasting on the crew of the Demeter (incidentally, the ancient Greek mother goddess of the grain and fertility) and Lucy, Dracula appears as a young man walking through the streets of London. He is now dashing enough to let Mina see him in princely form. They go to the cinematograph, where Dracula seduces Mina. Here, a wild wolf is used as a symbol of his wild passion, which he tames as he tames the wolf, in order that Mina is safe from his carnal desires.
The next scene introduces us to Professor Abraham Van Helsing, as he gives a lecture on the problem of syphilis in Victorian society. He points out that venereal diseases literally means the diseases of Venus, Roman goddess of love, which is a reference to their “divine origins”. Venus is the mother of Cupid, the Roman god of love. Eros is the Greek equivalent of Cupid, whilst Aphrodite is the Greek equivalent of Venus.
As Lucy lies gravely ill and dying, Mina is swept off her feet by her prince, and we see that the vampire does indeed have more than one side to him. He gives Mina absinth to drink, which he describes as the “aphrodisiac of the soul”. An important line, as I’ll point out soon. Dracula, in this guise of Eros, and Mina, in the guise of Psyche (“the soul”), fall in love with each other all over again, whilst reminiscing about their sad parting. However, when Jonathan, having escaped the castle, sends word that he is safe and wishes for Mina to join him to be married, Mina puts a stop to her clandestine trysts with Dracula. She sails for Romania, still feeling he is with her, speaking to her in her thoughts. She broods over the fact that, being single and enjoying the company of her sensual prince, she felt more alive than she ever had before. Now, without him, about to marry Jonathan, she feels confused and lost.
At this point, Van Helsing realises he is dealing with Dracula, one of the undead, and warns Morris to guard Lucy lest she become a “bitch of the Devil” and “a whore of darkness”. He tells Morris that Lucy is not just a random victim, but a wanton follower. She is “the Devil’s concubine”. Lucy is the whore to Mina’s virgin.
As Mina marries Jonathan, the enraged Dracula condemns her best friend Lucy to become a vampire, and an eternity of craving human blood. He is the power or force of nature that no “foolish spells” can stop. The men watch as Lucy, now an undead nocturnal creature who has evolved into a maternal killer of children (see my blog article Margaret Thatcher meets Medea for more on the image of the monstrous mother in film), carries a toddler into her lair presumably for devouring. She is repelled by the cross, and defeated.
The men know they must kill Dracula, and make their way to his resting place in Carfax Abbey, whilst Mina takes refuge in Dr Seward’s quarters in the asylum next door. Whilst the men destroy and sterilise the boxes with his home soil in it, where the vampire must sleep, Dracula takes refuge with Mina. He escapes unseen. As a shape-shifter, Dracula can take on the form of several animals or mist. He is clearly an ethereal being.
Dracula visits Mina as she sleeps. This scene conveys two things. Initially it is the iconic incubus night demon who visits a sleeping woman in order to have sex with her (the succubus being the female equivalent who visits sleeping men). This is thought by some to be a manifestation of the disturbed mind, and is linked to suppressed sexuality. Dracula by Bram Stoker is itself linked to the suppression of women’s sexuality, especially in Victorian society when the story takes place. This bedroom scene is also evocative of the Eros and Psyche story, which concerns the overcoming of obstacles to love that stand between the psyche (“soul” or “breath of life”) and Eros/Cupid (love and desire). Initially Eros marries Psyche but, though a good and gentle lover, he does not allow her to see him. He flees when she goes against this rule and looks upon his true nature. The jealous goddess of love, Aphrodite, sets Psyche some tasks. After she accomplishes the tasks, Psyche is thus purified through suffering and is now prepared to enjoy eternal happiness. With the help of Zeus, she is reunited with her husband, Eros.
When, at last, Mina sees Dracula as he really is – a non-living being – she asks what he is. His reply: “I am nothing. Lifeless, soul-less, hated and feared. I am dead to all the world… I am the monster the breathing men would kill. I am Dracula.” Of these two lovers, Mina is the only one with a soul, and now she has seen her true love as he is. She is devastated, realising he is the murderer of her friend Lucy, and therefore of flirtation and freedom. Nevertheless, in spite of his true nature and in spite of herself, Mina finds she still loves this particular monster. Her only desire is to become his partner in eternal life. Even at this point, Dracula attempts to stop Mina from becoming “cursed for all eternity” because he loves her too much to condemn her. The choice to be cursed is entirely Mina’s as she insists on drinking his blood: what would normally be perceived as an unholy communion, were it not for the fact that we understand these two to be true soul mates completely in love with one another. The question should be, why is this love deemed evil by God (or His followers)?
Christianity has always played a role in this story. The men attempt to ward Dracula off by wielding crosses, one of the things that supposedly repel him. He has been damned because he renounced the Christian God at the start of the story. Nevertheless, he seems more empowered now, with the love of Mina, and manages to set fire to the cross Van Helsing is holding, saying “Look what your God has done to me.” Again, following one of the most important scenes of this movie, this is one of the most important lines. It is God, and His followers, that Dracula blames for turning him from a prince into a monster. As any scholar of Christianity knows, as the new religion took over, everything of an erotic nature was condemned. As Van Helsing himself says towards the end: “We’ve all become God’s mad men.”
Finally, it is then up to Mina to give Dracula peace, piercing his heart and reuniting him once more with his soul in heaven. Through her trials and suffering, Mina is at last blessed by God. She is both the Virgin and the Magdalene, as well as Psyche. Eros, in this 20th century story, has at last found His way into Paradise. So too, possibly has The Magdalene, if that is who Mina is supposed to represent towards the end of the story. Certainly Dracula takes on an almost Christ-like appearance as he ascends to Heaven and is reunited with God, and Mina must always be his counterpart. This might seem a slightly complicated point, but it seems that Eros (erotic love) has been purified and is now innocent and pure enough to enter into Paradise. Mina, in her vampiric state, is wanton and lustful. At one point, she seduces and kisses Van Helsing. In recent years, it has been widely agreed by religious scholars that Mary Magdalene was misidentified (possibly deliberately) as a prostitute. However, there is no evidence of this. If Dracula as Eros has now become the epitomy of pure love (Christ), his lover Mina/Psyche/Magdalene has the mark of shame removed from her forehead and is also purified once more i.e. after many years of being falsely represented by the Church, we know now that The Magdalene was not a promiscuous “sinner” (not, I hasten to add, that I believe prostitution is a sin). I *think* that might be the point of the ending…..
Until next week. As always, your friend, A.D.
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Rose Sullivan said:
Thoroughly enjoyed that Alyson, very informative
Alyson Dunlop said:
Thanks, Rose! Those theories have been swimming round my head for at least 10 years!!!! So glad you enjoyed it.