Crossing Europe by train last summer, it was only on arrival in Romania that I realised we had unwittingly followed the very route (Paris-Munich-Budapest) taken by Jonathan Harker, the young solicitor at the start of Dracula (1897). Returning home to Bridport – in excellent health, I should probably add – I mentioned this to a friend. He laughed: ‘Now that is how the sequel should begin.’
That hadn’t occurred to me. Transylvania is, already, surely, endlessly, globally, with us. According to a recent study, there are already more films about the Count than about any other fictional character, Sherlock Holmes alone excepted. Sequels, prequels, innumerable variations upon: as if governed by some infernal timer, our culture seems set to generate a new version of this story every few months.
Dracula Untold (UK/US, general release October 2014) cost $70 million to make. But it isn’t only the movies. Trips to the land of Dracula were advertised on the flyer for a recent British Library exhibition, Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination, which opened (coincidentally?) in the same month. The show featured a dark annex complete with ‘vampire-slaying kit’ and a copy of the very book about ‘Transylvanian customs’ which is as close as Stoker ever got to Romania or anywhere else in Eastern Europe.
To some the Count may be a mildly ghoulish and (more to the point) wildly lucrative bit of fun. His impact on present-day Romania, however, is the subject of a fascinating new study, Heritage Through Fiction: Dracula Tourism in Romania by Tuomas Hovi (University of Turku, Finland, 2014). It’s surprising perhaps that it took so long for such a book to be written. The novel’s relationship to its own time and place has, after all, been the subject of exhaustive study. The story is often said to have drawn on (British) fear of mass-migration from Eastern Europe during the anti-Semitic pogroms of the 1880s and 1890s. Or it is said to be about the fear of female sexuality as the New Woman emerged.
I’ve only been able to locate one reference to Jews in the book, relating to someone in the London theatre. My impression, furthermore, is that the girls get to do just as much biting as the boys (one of whom says he rather likes it) so it would appear, to me at least, to be a work of fiction tending to promote gender equality among haemophages.
I’m no doubt missing some larger point. But how is it, in any case, that we so solemnly relate the novel to the time and place of its writing, while our current reinventions of it are curiously exempt from this treatment? It wasn’t only Stoker, after all. ‘Capital is dead labour which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labour, and lives the more the more labour it sucks.’ References to vampires are scattered throughout the work of Karl Marx. Mark Neocleous has recently argued that, far from being a mere rhetorical device, it expressed one of Marx’s core beliefs, that accumulated capital was ‘dead’ labour. Capitalism was essentially ‘the rule of… dead labour over living.’ Marx also argued that capitalism ‘estranged’ human nature from itself, horribly distorting its proper development. One might view the Count, then, as this system’s monstrous embodiment.
This interpretation is still going strong. In London Orbital (2004) a film about his walk around the M25, the writer Iain Sinclair saw in the road, one of Thatcher’s flagship construction projects, the perfect metaphor for a predatory capitalism and its colossally wasteful legacy. Dracula imagery is everywhere. ‘The Count’s fetid breath warmed Thatcher’s neck as she cut the ribbon,’ he says. When his collaborator on the project, film-maker Chris Petit, chose to explore ‘the world’s biggest by-pass’ by car, Sinclair warned him that he ‘risked becoming one of Stoker’s undead’. Sinclair notes that the road passes close by the site of Carfax Abbey, the property Dracula buys in Purfleet. There is now an oil refinery on the site, owned and operated by Esso, which is to say, by the Bush family.
So much for the psychogeographers. For psychoanalysts, the vampire’s invisibility in the mirror is the clue. We may be, each of us, trapped within the symbolic order in which we were raised, but the vampire is free of all that. He is both dead and voraciously alive, both sophisticate and savage, he morphs in an instant from folkloric haunting to modern urban legend. A giant bat at one moment, he is a fog bank or a wolf the next. As a coherent identity this shape-shifter is simply not there the way ‘we’ are. Here is the secret meaning both of our enduring fascination and of his non-appearance in the mirror.
There is, in other words, no reason to accept mass culture on its own brazenly profit-seeking terms. Here are thinkers determined to quarry something truer from that culture’s imagery. That the Count is alive and well, more than a century after being killed off at the end of Stoker’s novel, would strongly suggest that this character has found ways to continue meaning new things in each generation.
What, then, is the background against which this story is currently being re-told? Those who have argued that the novel was unconsciously a response to immigration from Eastern Europe probably have a point. Whether that response was specifically anti-Semitic may be arguable, but the book certainly plays on foreignness as a form of contagion. That’s a fear to which any community is prone, especially when undergoing economic crisis. Sensible people tread carefully here.
Nigel Farage, by contrast, now the leader of this country’s fastest growing political movement, will flirt up a storm with any rhetoric that seems likely to pay electoral dividends. A mother breast-feeding in public, being held up by heavy traffic on a motorway, the killings in Paris – each of these in turn has furnished him with a useful opportunity to express those vote-winning views which ‘the Establishment’ doesn’t want you to hear.
He has argued, notoriously, that ‘any normal and fair-minded person would have a perfect right to feel concerned if a group of Romanian people suddenly moved in next door.’ Leaving ‘normality’ and ‘fair-mindedness’ aside, his use of the term ‘sudden’ here is surely revealing. It’s as if Romanians don’t move into a property quite the way other people do. You can shut the windows and lock the doors against them, but ‘suddenly’ there the Romanians are, three or four of them, with the same hungry look, floating eerily towards you. Foreign nationals with HIV should also, according to Mr Farage, not be allowed to settle in the UK. So it’s something to do with blood as well. And Romanians in particular are singled out as a drain on the nation’s… resources.
‘Follow the blood…’ the website of one Romanian tour agency recently suggested, ‘Halloween in Transylvania.’ ‘New!’ exclaimed another. ‘Halloween in 2013… the Count is waiting for fresh… friends.’ It will be objected that these invitations to engage in ‘morbid tourism’ are being extended by Romanian companies, and so they are, though the target audience is exclusively foreign. In 2001, when several locations around Romania for a Disney style ‘Dracula Park’ were suggested, the project did have its supporters, the Minister of Tourism for one. Historians, the Church and an outraged civil society combined, however, to squash the plan.
Well might Romanians feel ambivalent about the place assigned to them in global popular culture. The country’s selection by Stoker as the Count’s homeland was largely arbitrary. He had originally wanted to set the story in Austria but a popular book about vampires had already been set there. So Austria, in the course of time, became instead the land of Good Nazis and Edelweiss.
Vampire legends occurred all over Central and Eastern Europe. The Romanian writer Mircea Eliade (whom you’ve heard of, right?) once explored the status of these and other such folktales in Romania, arguing that they were, if anything, rather less prevalent there than elsewhere in the region.
It’s worth re-visiting the novel at the moment, if only to confirm for yourself that it is, if not particularly anti-Semitic or misogynist, nonetheless profoundly xenophobic. Stoker may have never set foot in Eastern Europe, but he had certainly absorbed, and has helped to entrench, enduring perceptions.
‘There is hardly a foot of soil in all this region,’ the Count tells John Harker on his arrival at the castle, ‘that has not been enriched by the blood of men, patriots or invaders.’ Born in Dublin of Anglo-Irish stock, Stoker knew full well this was as true of north-western as of south-eastern Europe. It’s a truth we routinely suppress, with real-world consequences.
When John Major explained away the war in Yugoslavia as the inevitable outcome of ‘ancient hatreds’, he invoked a far-away Eastern Europe of intractable problems and impossible legacies. The British public looked soulfully the other way while Sarajevo was surrounded. Nothing to be done. Ancient hatreds.
Transylvania’s relationship to the past is crucial to Stoker’s novel. Dracula owns not only a crumbling castle but a large library of history books. He has had several centuries of leisure to read them, too. He is, you might say, the original over-qualified east European immigrant. Yet his homeland is, within the novel’s framework, peculiarly excluded from modernity. Its past is one that can only fasten upon the present in order to infect it with unspeakable disorders.
Later, exploring the castle, Harker finds thick layers of dust coating the floors and furniture and piles of treasure. ‘The old centuries had, and have,’ Dr van Helsing warns, ‘powers of their own which mere modernity cannot kill.’ Carfax Abbey is full of dust and the Count’s property on Piccadilly has the same stale smell. It is this reek of the immemorial past which Dracula brings with him, quite as much as the unusual dietary requirements.
All this stands in the starkest contrast to the British, American and Dutch characters. They bring modern medicine to bear, cutting-edge psychiatry, methodical investigation and logical deduction. A little feminine telepathy also comes in useful. Together they defeat ‘the shade and the shadow’. They start out brave and charming, resourceful and loving, and they stay that way. All except one, who becomes infected by the foreigner and must therefore, regrettably, be stabbed in the heart and beheaded.
Foreign-ness as a dark contagion is perhaps nowhere made more explicit than in the fifty chests of Transylvanian soil which the Count brings with him, all drenched with the blood of ancient hatreds as it is. What’s to do? Land-fill, perhaps? No way. All Transylvanian soil entering the UK must undergo decontamination. It must in fact be liberally sprinkled with crushed Eucharist wafer until no self-respecting Transylvanian would be seen dead lying down in it.
What is this metaphor really about? Those chests are, surely, all that cumbersome stuff the foreigner brings with him – customs, memories, languages. He still needs them but he’s got to hide them somewhere. What’s to be done with all this troubling stuff? Why, it must be exorcised of course, so that Johnny Foreigner may fit in. He’s got to understand that this isn’t his country.
We do mass culture no favours by ingratiating ourselves with it. The freedom to subvert and mock and call it endlessly into question is not one to abandon lightly. As the Great Immigration Scare takes up more and more political space, these old ambivalences about poorer European countries – Romania in particular – are sure to be played upon.
All the more reason to ask, then, how much does a culture which has $70 m to spare for a lavishly absurd caricature of medieval Romania – how much money, and how much attention, does it have to spare for current Romanian film or fiction? Does anybody seriously doubt that migration is being addressed by today’s Romanian artists? Or is it just that nobody has thought to ask? Or does it just not matter what they think about it?
So let me end with a suggestion or two about what the Count might mean in 2015. What about Dracula as an aggressively banal public culture, say, sinking its fangs straight into any discussion that threatens to end up meaning something? Let us not, for example, ask how Europe has spent a decade now treating its eastern half, not as a group of countries with needs of their own, but as a vast reservoir of cheap labour, to be kept in that state of perpetual ferment most favourable to western business. No, let us not ask that. Let’s describe them instead as a wave of terrifying HIV positive foreign criminals, then let’s go and queue politely for Dracula Untold.
Or what about the Count as the personality-type most strongly selected for by this new world: the media-savvies – business leaders, serviceable politicians, celebrities – advancing as one, sound-bites at the ready.
The Count will hardly shrink now from crushed wafer and crucifixes. But he might steer clear of anyone who insist that ‘public discussion’ should be about something other than this week’s top story. From anyone who tries to see through to the underlying problem and call it by its proper name. From people who watch patiently where the money goes, or from anyone serious about clearing away the rubble of accumulated kitsch and horror and cheap distraction: it is from these that he will shrink.