Abraham "Bram" Stoker (November 8, 1847 – April 20, 1912) was an Irish novelist and short story writer, best known today for his 1897 Gothic novel Dracula. During his lifetime, he was better known as personal assistant of actor Henry Irving and business manager of the Lyceum Theatre in London, which Irving owned.

Jenna Harris: A View from the Classroom: Why Dracula no longer frightens us

Journal of Dracula Studies3 (2001)

[Jenna Harris is completing a B.A. in English at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She is currently working on her first fantasy novel, In the Semblance of Truth. We offer this as an undergraduate student’s commentary on Stoker’s novel and invite responses.]

“What I saw appalled me.  I felt my hair rise like bristles on the back of my neck, and my heart seemed to stand still.” (Dracula 246)        
I tremble at horror stories as much as the next person, but as a twenty-first century reader, I did not have this reaction to Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). This classic horror novel fell completely flat on me, the moments of suspense or horror seeming infrequent and insignificant. How could this have happened?

            That which causes horror, the feeling of the uncanny, has not changed. Sigmund Freud maintains that uncanny experiences occur “when the distinction between imagination and reality is effaced, as when something that we have hitherto regarded as imaginary appears before us in reality” (244). This happens “either when infantile complexes which have been repressed are once more revived by some impression, or when primitive beliefs which have been surmounted seem once more to be confirmed” (249). In other words, we get scared when something threatening that we didn’t think possible occurs in our everyday life. The threatening object usually involves something that we repressed as children or else a superstition in which we no longer believe. Applying this to literature, Freud notes that when “the writer pretends to move in the world of common reality, ... he accepts as well all the conditions operating to produce uncanny feelings in real life; and everything that would have an uncanny effect in reality has it in his story” (250). This is why Stoker’s novel was able to frighten his contemporaries more than it does modern readers. The causes of horror have not changed; time has merely diminished the verisimilitude of the original novel, and thus lessened its uncanny effect. For evidence of this, let us consider the narrative format, setting, contemporary allusions and cultural anxieties embedded in the text.

            In 1897, Dracula’s realistic format enhanced the horror of the uncanny. Stoker presents a series of journal entries and newspaper clippings “placed in sequence” where “all needless matters have been eliminated, so that a history almost at variance with the possibilities of later-day belief may stand forth as simple fact” (5). Victorian legal courts used such journal entries and newspaper clippings as evidence in their trials. To Victorian readers, the novel was similar to a real case file in which they could examine the evidence like detectives searching for a murderer. The world of the text seemed to adhere to the rules that governed their reality.

            What is acceptable as court evidence, however, has changed in the modern world. Written journals can be forged, individuals often lie, and newspaper stories like those in Dracula would be thrown out of court. We now rely more heavily on technological evidence such as videotapes, fingerprints, and DNA sampling. Modern readers no longer accept journal entries and newspaper stories as factual evidence, so Dracula’s format may actually interfere with rather than contribute to their acceptance of the novel’s reality.

            Stoker sets Dracula in his contemporary turn-of-the-century, Victorian England, at a time when both science and technology were rapidly advancing. A book review from the Spectator, published on 31 July 1897, just after Dracula first came out, even mentions the “up-to-dateness of the book” (see Stoker 365). This “up-to-dateness” is shown through many details in the novel: Jonathan’s shorthand, Mina’s typewriter, and Seward’s phonograph; as well as Van Helsing’s blood transfusions and his state-of-the-art hypnotism. The musical allusions are also contemporary. Mina and Lucy, for instance, listen to Spohr and Mackenzie as they stroll on the Casino Terrace the night after the Count’s first attack on Lucy (90). Victorian readers would have seen much of their own world in the pages of the text. To encounter the vampire in a setting so like their own would certainly have been an instance where the “imaginary appears before [them] in reality” (Freud 244). But today, such antiquated allusions distance readers from the text. The prospect of the new monster Count Dracula hiding within their society might have frightened Stoker’s contemporaries; but given the stereotypes of vampires that have bombarded our popular culture since that time, the idea of a vampire in our society no longer has the same effect.

            The presence in Dracula of the cultural signposts of Victorian England also acts as a barrier to modern readers. Take, for instance, gender relations. What Stoker’s contemporary readers found commonplace is no longer acceptable today. Van Helsing’s comment to Mina, “You no more must question ... We are men, and are able to bear; but you must be our star and our hope” (214), might have been a noble sentiment in the old patriarchal society. Today that comment would invite responses ranging from humor to outrage, and thus further distances the reader from the story and/or detracts from the story’s uncanny effect. Similar difficulties arise with passages that expose Victorian classism and racism: Lord Godalming’s statement “My title will make it all right with the locksmith, and with any policeman that may come along” (261), and Jonathan’s observations that “these Szgany ... who are almost outside all law ... are fearless and without religion, save superstition” (45). 

            Today’s reader also does not share the cultural anxieties and fears of Victorian England. Dracula may very well be, as Stephen Arata asserts, a tale that “the culture tells itself not only to articulate and account for its troubles, but also to defend against and even to assuage the anxiety attendant upon cultural decay” (623). Such Victorian anxieties as  “reverse colonization,” the sexuality and feminism inherent in the “New Woman,” homosexuality, prostitution, and secularization do not play as large a part in the cultural experience of today’s reader. What is reverse colonization to a melting pot of cultures, especially as it is now situated in our global society? Our culture adamantly markets sex and values sexually expressive women. Though unfortunately fears of feminism and homosexuality still exist, we now find subtler, more politically correct ways to express those fears. We still struggle with the individual solitude resulting from our secularized world, but now we express that by questioning our reality, such as we did in The Matrix and The Sixth Sense. In the face of a throng of teenage mothers and the child massacres at Columbine, our fear of prostitution is pushed to the backburners. The syphilis feared by the Victorians has changed to AIDS, and instead of trying to push down the lower classes, we’re now afraid that they may never rise. Since the original Dracula doesn’t address our modern concerns, it no longer twists a knife in our gut as it did to Victorian readers.

            Yet in one respect, Dracula belongs more to our modern world than it ever did to Victorian England. Everyone knows the story of Count Dracula; its myth and symbols have become part of our cultural heritage. Vampires are so popular that they’re now labeled in Three Genres, a guide to writing, as one of the “Seven Deadly Sins” for fiction writers: “[The vampire] was once good dream stuff, but the convention has been repeated so often that it has sunk to the level of comic strips and Halloween masks” (Minot 150). Vampires are so common now that occult researchers assert that vampires truly exist, though not quite in form of the famous Count, and they offer a plethora of case histories and first hand accounts as evidence. A small portion of our population even emulates the behavior of vampires, and some, such as Kristin from Norine Dresser’s American Vampires, even say they need to drink blood (note that such blood is donated, not taken from victims). Dracula and the vampire have become more real to us than they ever were to the Victorians.

            This particular increase in verisimilitude decreases Dracula’s ability to induce horror because vampires are now so familiar. The strangeness of both Dracula and his situation caused Jonathan to write “I doubt; I fear; I think strange things which I dare not confess to my own soul” (24) before he even knew Dracula was a vampire. As one may recall from Freud, the uncanny feeling occurs “when something that we have hitherto regarded as imaginary appears before us in reality” (244). Count Dracula is too familiar now to frighten us. We can never experience the original text as Stoker’s contemporaries did. It is very difficult for us to detach the popular faces of Lugosi, Lee, Langella and Oldman from our image of the Count. The changes in today’s society which have either distanced us from the world of the text or have made it even more real to us than Stoker ever imagined possible have irrevocably altered our experience of the novel. Dracula has become less the horrific encounter with the uncanny than an enjoyable reunion with an old friend.

Works Cited:

Arata, Stephen D. “The Occidental Tourist: Dracula and the Anxiety of Reverse Colonization.” Victorian Studies 33.4 (1990): 621-45.

Dresser, Norine. American Vampires. Vintage Books: New York, 1989.

Freud, Sigmund. “The ‘Uncanny.’” The Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Vol 4. Ed & trans James Strachey. London: Hogarth, 1966.

Minot, Steven. Three Genres. Prentice Hall: New Jersey, 1998.

Stoker, Bram.  Dracula.  1897. Ed Nina Auerback and David J Skal. New York: Norton, 1997.

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