No Dread of the Undead
Robert Hart on Virtues & Vampires
The vampires in the popular TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I am told, are all evil—except one named Angel. He is a vampire “cursed with a soul.” In other words, he does the same evil things to defenseless people that all vampires do, only we are supposed to accept him because he feels bad about it. What a moral quagmire pop culture can be these days.
In other hands, the vampire has, from being the perfect symbol of evil when Bram Stoker’s Dracula appeared in 1897, become sexy, attractive, and able to laugh in the face of God and man—and even, as in the novels of Anne Rice, sensitive and tragic. Today’s vampire can stare down a man holding a crucifix and he can withstand the Real Presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. (Rice’s vampire Lestat breaks open a tabernacle and takes out “the jeweled ciborium with its consecrated Hosts. No, there was no power here, nothing that I could feel or see or know with any of my monstrous senses, nothing that responded to me.”)
Today’s vampire is all the more dangerous for existing in a fictional world that has neither good nor evil in it. One sees a hint of sympathy for the demonic in the revised versions, suggesting a reaction against religion rather than simply a change of taste. This is a loss, for in Stoker’s hands the vampire story was a parable of the mercy of God, a lesson in the reality of the Blessed Sacrament, and an extolment of the Seven Virtues.
Stoker based his vampire upon the genuine superstition of the mountain people of Romania. It had grown up among people who knew that evil—which will be defeated and ultimately destroyed by God and his Church—is inherently weak and unreal. It is not sexy or attractive.
Stoker’s Dracula was ugly, and his breath stank with the foul odor of undead centuries. Being in the grip of evil, he went about spreading his misery by draining the life, the soul of the flesh, which is in the blood, from his victims. The sight of him repelled everyone who suffered the misfortune to behold him. He existed only to perpetuate his unnatural—dead—life.
He is a symbol for everything that sin makes of men, and of the pure evil that ensnares them through it. In the character of Dracula, written to be as minimal as his undead state demands, nothing can be observed except that some of the Seven Deadly Sins had captured his soul. For example, he is quick to wrath so as to be thoroughly exacting in vengeance. He is very proud that he was the greatest of the nobles that his country ever produced, especially in war.
Lust, in a strange undead way, dominates him as well. He keeps three vampire wives, all of whom gain power over their male victims by becoming sexually irresistible. He goes after female victims exclusively. There is no hint that he has charmed or seduced any of them; just the opposite, he is a brute beast, a sort of serial rapist.
Though Dracula has under his power the pathetic madman, Renfield, he never bites him; his blood seems not to interest the monster. After he uses this man to gain entry into the house where Mina Harker is staying, he simply kills him and goes after the woman, wanting only her as his newest victim.
Against this unman, this undead monster, a small heroic band assumes the duty to rid the earth of him. They have no strength compared to his demonic preternatural powers. They cannot change into wolves or bats, or enter a house by becoming a mist. Yet they are truly alive and substantial: They can absorb the light he cannot. He, being the undead and insubstantial, cannot even reflect in a mirror.
This band, led by the saintly and devout Catholic, Dr. Abraham Van Helsing, has no power of arms, no strength in the flesh against the death in which their adversary lives. Yet they possess faith in God, and their charity for others emboldens them to act.
We see from the words and actions of the hero of his story, Van Helsing, that Stoker had religious insight. Conflict with pure evil throws sins and virtues into sharp relief throughout his book. A hint of biblical theology may be given to us in the name of his hero, Abraham. Did Stoker use his own first name (Bram was short for Abraham) from some instance of vanity? Hardly so. As a good writer, he did everything for a purpose.
Abraham Van Helsing emerges as a man of solid Christian faith, able to become a father to all of the others in the little band. He becomes the father of their faith, not just in the reality of evil, but in the power of sacraments and sacramentals to overcome it. This holy man has been faithful for years to an incapacitated wife, who is unable to give him anything. Stoker made his hero a true believer by Catholic standards: “and my poor wife dead to me, but alive by Church’s law, though no wits, all gone—even I who am a faithful husband.”
The saintliness of Van Helsing is essential to the story. With true charity he hopes, believes, and endures all things, seeing the victims of Dracula, Lucy and Mina, in only the kindest light. He suffers distress at the sufferings inflicted upon them and is able to weep for them compassionately. He is a man both of faith and of science; a scientist so advanced that he can fathom the supernatural world. He complains that the fault of modern science is that it will not believe anything until it can explain it.
Just as Dracula epitomizes the Seven Deadly Sins, the small band exhibit the Seven Virtues. Van Helsing has the prudence to know what the danger is, and to focus upon priorities in the stressful time. The entire band has the strength to act with courage, possessing fortitude and justice. That is, they are brave because their cause is a kind of Just War. The courage they show is based upon their attainment of true charity. In fact, before it is over, one of the heroes, Quincey Morris, the American, lays down his life for his friends.
From this charity they act in faith that advances with no promise of success except for their conviction that this is how they are called to serve God, and for the hope that they are his instruments. So they venture into danger and hardships, embracing temperance, for their chosen lot is discipline and self-denial to endure the final stages of the journey that lies ahead, into the mountains of Transylvania to chase the fleeing monster back to his lair.
The book opens with the journal of Jonathan Harker, traveling on legal business to see a new client of his London law firm, a nobleman in Transylvania. He discovers that this client is a monster who wants to buy properties in England for some evil purpose. Dracula plans to reside in England, where he may feed upon people who are naive because they are sophisticated. They are without defense against him because they cannot believe that he exists.
But in England he happens across the wrong people, friends of Dr. Seward, who knows and trusts Van Helsing. These men can use against Dracula the created things of God, even simple garlic, with varying success. The crucifix (what Catholics call a “sacramental”) contains power to disarm their opponent. But the real power, against which he cannot stand at all, is the Blessed Sacrament itself. Although the way Stoker has allowed Van Helsing to make use of the consecrated Host is a bit unreal, it makes great stuff for the story and for its point.
Van Helsing has been authorized to carry the Blessed Sacrament, for the presence of Christ overwhelms the vampire. He cannot pass it or view it. The point of the story really seems to be that the Incarnate God, visible and tangible to man in the Holy Communion, alone can subdue and expel evil.
This brings us to Mina Harker, the wife of Jonathan. She is the ideal woman of the nineteenth century, perhaps overly feminine for contemporary tastes, which is refreshing in itself. This honorable woman is virtuous without hint of impurity. She possesses courage, and with it a self-sacrificial nature based upon charity.
The men had freed Dracula’s slave Lucy from being a vampire by destroying her body as she lay in her tomb, and have been obstructing his plans to hide away in the English homes he had acquired. So, for revenge, he begins feeding upon this other virtuous and beloved young woman. As a result she is in the grip of evil, doomed to become eternally undead as an animate and conscious horror. The traits of the vampire are slowly becoming evident in this life; her teeth begin visibly to sharpen as she is drawing towards death.
Thinking to help her, at one point Van Helsing touches the Blessed Sacrament to her forehead. But, instead of helping her, it burns her. She cries out in pain, and the red scar left by the Host is clear and indelible. Stoker had learned, no doubt, that the sacrament which imparts life harms one enslaved to evil. This image becomes the symbol of her peril for the rest of the story.
The scar tells us that the sacrament is real, as taught in Scripture. The damage it does to Mina, undergoing gradual metamorphosis into a vampire herself, shows the terrible lot of the damned, whose hands will never handle, nor eyes see, the Word of Life—except to see him in judgment, when they will shrink in fear and revulsion from the one who would have healed them.
Death to Sin
The criticism that comes to mind is that this damnation appears not to stem from moral failing, for Mina is a victim. Her failings are not obvious, not even visible to those who know her. This fails to take into account the fact that sin, though often invisible to the eyes of men, is always known to God, and always exploited by the devil. Her corruption only makes sense with the Christian doctrine of original sin.
The depth of the subtle nature of sin, and of its alliance with the evil one, are suggested to great effect. Despite her hatred of Dracula’s evil and her desire to be free, the facts show to Van Helsing that she has buried within her a sympathy for the evil count who had mixed his pirated blood with hers, and she has with him an empathy so strong that the good doctor is able to use hypnosis on her to learn of Dracula’s movements.
Though convenient for tracking Dracula, Mina herself realizes the danger she now presents to these brave men. Later, as the band must split into small parties and Van Helsing is in the woods of Transylvania alone with Mina, she is urged by the vampire “wives” to leave his protection and complete her transformation, but she is terrified, not tempted. After chasing them away by holding up the sacrament, he encloses her within a circle of fragments from the consecrated Host for their mutual safety.
But they are near the end. And when the man of sin is destroyed, the scar left by the sacrament vanishes from her forehead; she is saved from the fate of becoming an undead feeding upon the souls of the living. Because Dracula is truly dead, she can live free and blessed, for the presence of Christ no longer acts upon her as a curse.
There is but one freedom for the undead. Earlier, when Van Helsing had led his companions to rescue Lucy from her undead state, he asked her grieving fiancé, Arthur, to be the one who with “the hand of him who loved her best” would do the deed “most blessed of all, when this now Undead be made to rest as true dead.”
After the painful ordeal of driving the stake through her heart, while Van Helsing read prayers from a missal, all of the men were comforted by what they saw: “One and all we felt that the holy calm that lay like sunshine over the wasted face and form was only an earthly token and symbol of the calm that was to reign for ever.”
In the context of the novel, this does not suggest Universalism. It is more likely that Lucy, a thoroughly charitable Christian soul, entered into a state of blessed death after her purgation. She had been an innocent victim, and had not shown any sympathy for Dracula in her life, dying from his attacks without knowing what was happening to her until the very end.
Near the book’s close, when Van Helsing drives stakes through the hearts of Dracula’s three “wives”—a task difficult and terrible—each one dissolves instantly because they had for centuries cheated death, but not until first showing an expression of peace. So, too, it is with Dracula, upon having a knife driven into his heart and his neck severed. Mina recounts in her journal: “It was like a miracle; . . . the whole body crumbled into dust and passed from our sight. I shall be glad as long as I live that even in that final moment of dissolution there was in the face a look of peace, such as I never could have imagined might have rested there.”
Charity & Peace
This “miracle” does not imply sympathy for the vampire, but charity, and the realization that perhaps this one too, having been enslaved himself, was not beyond God’s mercy. Even he could hope to find, after undergoing at least this much purgation, peace.
This is, however, unlike Lucy’s passage into tranquility, a bit of a problem from a religious standpoint. Perhaps here is the one weakness in the story: Dracula and his wives are never presented except as demonic creatures, yet here they seem possibly to be granted entry into heaven itself. It is not farfetched to consider, however, that the relief they show, which is far less than the blessedness that is revealed in Lucy, is meant to convey rest from laboring under the domination of evil. Some vestige of a human soul in them is glad that mankind is spared further evil from their undead, demonically animated forms. The nightmare is over.
Does a new one begin? Does their brief cessation of slavery lead only to hell? The religion of the novel is not simply Christianity, but Catholicism specifically. The difference between absolute damnation and the hope that exists in the doctrine of Purgatory cannot be overlooked as part of Stoker’s thinking.
Though she had been under the power of evil, Mina’s deliberate and sustained will to resist it and to contribute to Van Helsing’s efforts saved her. Despite the pull of evil, she nonetheless endeavored to help kill the monster. She had struggled in this effort, for his evil had become a part of her very being. Her battle suggests the words of Christ about the violent nature of genuine repentance: “If your hand cause you to sin . . . if your eye cause you to sin. . . .” The echo of these dominical words comes to us from St. Paul: “Put to death your members upon the earth.” Death is what we must give to our own sinful passions; otherwise, we live as though dead and cannot be free.
This is a story that is creative not only in content but also in the manner of its telling, using the collected journals, correspondence, and diaries of the characters themselves, interspersed with occasional newspaper reports—a clever method that gives us the various characters’ own reflections upon their experience as it is unfolding. Since it cannot be duplicated in any medium other than a book, this method is one reason why no movie has ever been true to Stoker’s work.
The other reason is, I suspect, a deep and subtle sympathy for and empathy with the count, a very telling feature of the times in which we live. •
Robert Hart is rector of St. Benedict's Anglican Catholic Church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina (Anglican Catholic Church Original Province). He also contributes regularly to the blog The Continuum. He is a contributing editor of Touchstone.
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“No Dread of the Undead” first appeared in the July/August 2003 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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