Dracula and the Decline of Christian Power

Jan 31, 2014 Comment(s) Tags: ,

Okay, okay, I admit it: I am big fan of Dracula movies, and have been ever since I was a little boy. Since the time I was allowed to sit up late on Friday night and watch the old horror films playing at 11.30 p.m., I have been happily horrified by the Count. For me, the 1931 Universal version of Dracula by Bela Lugosi was the definitive one, although it was not until I was much older and learned of things like German expressionism in film and actually read Bram Stoker’s original novel that I came to fully appreciate it. Film historians report that it was much scarier to audiences when it first played in theatres than it is now in our jaded present when nothing is left to the imagination. And of course Lugosi’s Hungarian (sorry: Transylvanian) accent has become something of a caricature of itself. But even now the film continues to please, and not just for its nostalgia value.

After the Universal version of Dracula, other Draculas followed in theatres soon enough, such as the Hammer film version, released in 1958. Hammer films tended to specialize in the use of colour (the classic Universal films were shot in black and white), and gore (hence the colour), and well, cleavage. After all, adolescent boys formed a sizable part of their target audience. But in both Stoker’s text, and in the Universal and the Hammer versions, Dracula was a figure of brooding evil, a curse, a pestilence, something revolting. (The rat-like version of the Count in the 1922 German film “Nosferatu” captures the feel of it quite well.) The line between good and evil was thickly drawn then, and no one was rooting for the bad guys, even if Dracula did look cool in his cape. When Van Helsing and the good guys cowed Dracula by confronting him with a cross, and finally drove a stake through his heart, they vindicated the power of goodness. We all cheered.

Then in the 60s, things started to change. We began to lose faith in the government, in authority, in the church. Truths previously held to be unassailable suddenly began to be questioned, and challenged, and denied. Long held standards of right and wrong started to waver, and the line between good and evil started to get blurry. Even monsters didn’t look so monstrous anymore. When Dracula stepped back into the movies in 1979 in the person of actor Frank Langella, he wasn’t quite the brooding figure of evil and menace that we remembered when he was played by Universal’s Lugosi and Hammer’s Christopher Lee. In fact the IMDb summary of the film describes him as “handsome, charming and seductive”. Film critic Roger Ebert wrote that Langella “gives the fate of his character a certain nobility”. Another reviewer described Langella’s Dracula as the “sexiest Dracula ever”, and as “one classy and charming count”. The cape notwithstanding, no one ever described Dracula before in such glowing terms. Clearly something was afoot culturally.

Then in 1992 came the Francis Ford Coppola version, “Bram Stoker’s Dracula”, subtitled, “Love Never Dies”, though it might have been subtitled, “Writers Never Read”, since clearly the writers responsible for the text had never read Stoker’s original with any sort of understanding. Here Dracula is a noble, pious fighter for the Christian Church (the “Christian right”?), a poor guy who undergoes the tragic loss of his beloved wife by her suicide, and who gets betrayed by the heartless Church as a result. He then turns into a vampire (the details are a little fuzzy), but continues to pine for his lost love, his wife. She is somehow later on the same as Mina, Jonathan Harker’s fiancee, and at the end of their tragic vampiric romance, Dracula asks her to kill him because he just can’t stand to be a bad guy anymore. “Give me peace,” he begs her. His face turns from ugly to beautiful. She tearfully kisses him one last time, then drives a sword through his heart as he asked. His lips tremble; he looks peaceful. Heavenly music plays, and his soul floats up to heaven (or something; again the details are fuzzy). End of film. Happy day. Roll credits. Love never dies.

For me the problem is not simply that Coppola has turned the villain into the hero, thereby tromping all over Bram Stoker’s original portrayal of Dracula and turning the story on its head. More significant is how Christian symbols in the story have been demoted and dethroned.

In Stoker’s original text, and in both the Universal and Hammer versions, the Cross is the invincible weapon against Dracula, and is an emblem of goodness, the power through which God and light overcome evil and darkness, and drive them helplessly back. Dracula recoils at the mere sight of a cross, and is neutralized by the Host (i.e. the Eucharistic wafer). This is all the more significant, since Stoker was a Protestant Irishman, one who (in the words of his character Jonathan Harker) “had been taught to regard such things as in some measure idolatrous”, but he used these Christian symbols anyway as powers which could instantly and effectively overcome evil.

In Stoker’s day and even in the 1960s, the Christian Church and its symbols were symbols of goodness, and of God’s power over evil. But not in Coppola’s version. Though Coppola retained the scene wherein a lady insists that Harker wear a cross around his neck to protect him from Dracula’s evil power, one wonders why: when one of Dracula’s brides is confronted with this cross, she simply hisses at it and it dissolves. Some protection. It is the same later in the movie: Van Helsing holds a cross to protect himself against Dracula, and instead of being cowed by it, Dracula says, “You cannot destroy me with your idols”, and stamps his foot (really?), and the cross bursts into flame. Again: some protection. What once functioned as an effective Christian power over evil is now utterly powerless before that evil. Christian symbols are no longer potent and protective. And what does end up saving the day at the end, you might ask? Romantic love. Cheesy romantic love.

Once again, the point is not simply the bad writing, but the fact that the film accurately mirrors and in fact charts the decline in Christian power in our culture. Earlier, the Church represented goodness, and the power of goodness to overcome evil. Now the Church does not represent goodness, and its symbols are weak, pathetic, and useless. Vampires are not the bad guys anymore in popular culture—we are. Our cross is no longer the power of goodness, but an idol, fit only for burning. In its place, our culture now has romantic love—or, more precisely, good feelings and good intentions. We see this reflected in our modern culture wars: the Christians are the bad guys who heartlessly condemn and judge; the ones weeping with compassion and mouthing words about love and refusing to judge are the good guys. Times sure have changed in Transylvania, and in North America. Christians are now the ones who just don’t understand about love. And vampires, what about them, that poor, persecuted, misunderstood minority? Apparently, when faced with the sunlight, they don’t die any more. They sparkle.

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Fr. Lawrence was formerly an Anglican priest, graduating from Wycliffe…
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