The plot of a film is usually objective, but the themes or meanings we make of it can be entirely our own. Take Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) for example. It’s a film about a young barrister helping an old man purchase some real estate. It’s a gothic romance about everlasting love. It’s a horror story about a monster who feeds on living blood. Take your pick. To me, it’s all those things, but it’s also about transformation.
The film opens with a cross falling through smoke and crashing to the ground while Anthony Hopkins’ Abraham Van Helsing sets the scene for us. It’s 1462 and the Ottoman Empire is attempting to invade Transylvania. Up steps our hero, a knight of the Order of the Dragon: Gary Oldman’s Dracula. Luckily for Christendom, and unluckily for the Turks, he is a merciless killer. While he’s away on his quest to impale as many people as possible in the fight against the Ottoman Empire, his bride Elisabeta gets a letter falsely reporting his death. Horrified, she takes her own life by plunging into the river. In a tragedy echoing Romeo and Juliet, on his return, Dracula is shocked and grief-stricken to find Elisabeta dead. As if experiencing the horrors of war and the death of his beloved weren’t enough, he’s informed that her soul is damned to Hell for all eternity because she took her own life. Dracula is utterly distraught. He renounces God, thrusts his sword into a cross (which along with the rest of his furniture begins to bleed), and howls in anguish. He has reached a crisis point in his life, and there is no going back to the way things were.
All of us can relate on some level to experiencing a moment of crisis, although hopefully not as dramatic as Dracula’s own. These events can act as markers in our lives which we orientate ourselves around — there was a “before” and an “after.” The current pandemic may be such a time for many of us. The question is how we choose to respond to such crises, and Dracula offers up an example for us through his personal transformation.
Dracula transforms his way of being and physically transforms into a bat and mist, among other things as well. He transforms his way of being by changing the rules he’s lived by up until now. As we’re introduced to him as a soldier of war, we can assume he believed in the importance of duty and putting his life (and blood) on the line for others. But through the death and damnation of his love Elisabeta, he decides to reject all of this and instead live for himself and take the lives (and blood) of others to sustain his own.
Metaphorically this is a choice we all face in moments of crisis: whether to passively become overwhelmed by the distress or to actively rise up to the challenge. In this decision on how to respond (even if it is to rise from your own death to avenge your bride with all the powers of Darkness) is the decision to take control of your life. The very act of making a decision — any decision — is an optimistic one. A crisis may feel like it breaks us, but despite the horror, there may be an opportunity for change and regrowth if we can find the courage to take it.
As Dracula’s character goes through a transformation, he also embodies a metaphor for our own potential transformation following times of crisis. Following Descartes, the western world often behaves as if there is a mind/body split, and in doing so we become distanced and even afraid of our own bodies. It’s even steeped in the language we use; writing ‘our bodies’ implies that they are objects separate from ourselves and that bodies are just vessels in which ‘we’ reside. We push away the idea of decay and death because we are afraid of it. If someone we know dies, we call professionals to take the body away to add a level of distance between ourselves and death. We even separate ourselves from death by conceptualizing it as being the opposite of life when it may be more accurate to say death is the opposite of birth and that both form the circle of life. In stark contrast to this, Dracula embraces death and through death gains a new life free of the restrictions by which we live. He embraces his body, his sensuality, and gains power we can only dream of. I think that’s one of the reasons Dracula, and vampires in general, are so attractive. In accepting and embodying death, they somehow live more fully than we could with all of our insecurities and internalized rules.
As I said at the beginning, different themes will emerge from the film depending on how you view it. Sexuality is one aspect that’s hard to ignore in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I know Keanu Reeves is often derided for his wooden acting in the film, but honestly, I think his fairly lifeless character works perfectly as a foil for Dracula’s sexuality. During times of crisis, sex and sexuality can sometimes seem like the perfect escapism. Winona Rider’s character Mina pleads with Dracula to “take me away from all this death” and be transformed into a vampire like him while tussling together half undressed in bed, full of lust. However, Dracula is conflicted as Mina is implied to be a reincarnation, or at least a spitting image, of his lost love Elisabeta. His feelings are more complicated. He abandoned his life for her, he has loved her, mourned her for hundreds of years, and is reluctant to curse her to walk in the shadow of death for eternity. This is where the tragedy of Dracula’s character comes into focus.
The decision Dracula made to abandon God and life was not just a sexy jape complete with cool bat-transformation powers. He has cursed himself, and I read him as deeply sad. I do think his decision at the beginning of the film to reject his previous life and seek a new one can be seen as optimistic as he takes his life into his own hands and rejects the internalized rules that no longer serve him. But it’s impossible to ignore the tragedy of his living death, his grief, and his search for love. Ultimately it is Mina’s love for him that releases his curse. As she kills him, he is transformed from his monstrous form back into the young man she loved before she lops off his head for good measure. The ultimate transformation is complete, and he can rest in peace at last.
Luke Beale is a writer interested in horror films, fantasy, comic books, and psychology. Follow him on Twitter @mutantgenes.
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