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.

Mathias Clasen: Attention, Predation, Counterintuition: Why Dracula Won’t Die

Mathias Clasen
Aarhus University

Style: Volume 46, Nos. 3 & 4, Fall/Winter 2012

His peculiarities caused him to be invited to every house; all wished to
see him, and those who had been accustomed to violent excitement, and
now felt the weight of ennui, were pleased at having something in their
presence capable of engaging their attention.
—Polidori, “The Vampyre” (1819)
1. Introduction: A Horror Story for the Ages
Vampires are everywhere. Pop culture teems with undead bloodsuckers, and behind them all looms Bram Stoker’s Transylvanian monster, Count Dracula (Stoker, Dracula 1897).
The genesis of Count Dracula is truly tangled. We know that Stoker was inspired by a number of sources (Miller, Sense and Nonsense), but the author’s initial conception of “Count Wampyr” or simply “Count ______,” as Stoker originally called his vampire, is stark and haunting. In March 1890, Stoker jotted down a few notes on a scrap of paper: “old dead man made alive – waxen colour – dead dark eyes – what fire in them – not human – hell fire” (Eighteen-Bisang and Miller 17).
From so simple a beginning evolved what has become perhaps the most well-known fictional villain of all time, and certainly one of the most popular (Fischoff et al.).
There are now many Draculas—sexy Draculas, disgusting Draculas, malevolent Draculas and tender-hearted ones. Stoker gave the world a vile antagonist who went straight for the jugular.
Stoker did not just create a melodramatic potboiler. He wrote an enduring horror story, one that connected squarely with anxieties peculiar to the Victorian fin de siècle while appealing to adaptive dispositions that transcend this historical period; indeed, dispositions that are common to us all. I analyze Stoker’s use of formal narrative techniques to engage and sustain the reader’s attention. I also
examine the way Stoker’s violations of natural ontology work toward cognitively stimulating the reader. While these cognitive aspects are important to understanding why the novel—and Count Dracula—refuses to die, they are hardly sufficient.

Attention, Predation, Counterintuition: Why Dracula Won’t Die 379
After all, similar narrative techniques are used in many other genres that rely on
suspense, and fantasy literature is rife with counterintuitive beings. The peculiar
character and lasting influence of Dracula must be sought in deeper sources. My
main argument is that the resonance of Dracula is explicable in biocultural terms,
that is, the complex interplay between cultural contingency and biological substrate.
1.1. The Extraordinary Reception of Dracula
Dracula has never been out of print. It has been translated into at least thirty different
languages, and it has been adapted for various media literally hundreds of times
(Auerbach and Skal; Miller, Documentary Volume). The novel was distributed
free of charge to American soldiers serving abroad in World War Two in a special
‘Armed Services Edition,’ a peculiar paperback format tailored to fit in G.I. combat
trouser pockets (Loss). A substantial academic industry has even grown up around
Dracula. There is now a peer-reviewed Journal of Dracula Studies, published by
the Canadian chapter of the ‘Transylvanian Society of Dracula,’ and a staggering
number of books and articles have been published in the field (Miller, Documentary
Volume).
For more than half a century, the novel remained virtually untouched by
academics. Since the 1970s research has blossomed, partly due to the interest
sparked by McNally and Florescu’s book In Search of Dracula (1972). The two
authors famously argued that Stoker built Count Dracula on the fifteenth-century
Wallachian Voivode Vlad Tepes. This assertion has since been seriously challenged:
the available evidence simply does not support their conclusion. Apparently, Stoker
came across the name ‘Dracula’ in a historical book on Wallachian history, liked the
ring of it, and used it for his vampire villain—knowing nothing about the bloody
historical exploits of Vlad “The Impaler” Dracula (Miller, “Filing for Divorce”).
Paul Riquelme identifies two main strands of critical attention to Dracula:
psychological, mainly psychoanalytical, and historical. The psychological
scholarship has tended to focus heavily on psychosexual subtext; one statement
from Maurice Richardson’s influential 1959 essay will serve to give a taste of the
tenor of psychodynamic Dracula scholarship: “[Dracula] is a kind of incestuous,
necrophilious, oral-anal-sadistic all-in wrestling match” (427). Many scholars have
followed suit in viewing the function of Dracula primarily in terms of repressed,
perverse sexuality (e.g. Roth; Craft; Schaffer; Moretti). Elizabeth Miller, a tireless
debunker of academic Dracula myths, proposes a thought experiment: “Imagine
a Dracula in which wooden stakes are wooden stakes, and blood is merely blood.
This is not an easy task when we consider the extent to which the text has been
pushed to the brink of total libidinal abandon” (Miller, “Coitus Interruptus” n.p.).
380 Mathias Clasen
The historical Dracula scholarship is sounder than hard-line Freudian criticism,
perhaps because it is—at least nominally—constrained by reality. Critics have found
cultural anxieties peculiar to the Victorian fin de siècle darkly reflected in Dracula:
fears over degeneration (Dijkstra), reverse colonization (Arata), homosexuality
(Schaffer), the ‘New Woman’ (Senf), Darwinian materialism and the dissolution of
the soul (Blinderman), and so on. Yet mono-causally explaining Dracula in terms
of anxieties peculiar to late-Victorian Britain does not tell us why the novel retains
its narrative power, nor why it was translated to many languages and still sells.
By now, the imaginary landscape that Stoker created in Dracula has become
a track on which to ride any critical hobby horse imaginable, a text of seemingly
endless signification. This is startling in light of the contemporary reception of
Dracula. As Auerbach and Skal observe, “modern readers and critics of Dracula
are transfixed by both the novel’s primal narrative power and its extraordinary
psychosexual, sociopolitical subtexts,” even as it was “initially treated by reviewers
as a harmless, if thrill-producing, entertainment” (363).
The question remains: why has Dracula sparked the imaginations of several
generations of readers, academic and leisure readers alike? What has allowed it to
withstand the test of time, transcend the anxieties specific to late-nineteenth-century
Britain, and breed a thousand offspring? I argue that biocultural analysis—locating
cultural analysis within an evolutionary framework (cf. Carroll; Boyd; Gottschall)—
can help us account for why the novel became a success, why it is still being read
today, and why Count Dracula lives on in the popular and academic imaginations.
I draw from evolutionary and cognitive psychology partly to take advantage of
advances in the evolutionary social sciences, partly as a corrective to academic horror
studies that have for a long time been mired in untenably reductive explanatory
paradigms (versions of cultural determinism) and a reliance on arcane and unscientific
psychologies (most notably psychoanalysis in orthodox Freudian versions as well as
poststructuralist reconfigurations, e.g. Lacanian psychoanalysis). As Joseph Carroll
points out in a discussion of Hamlet: “If there is a ‘deep structure’ to Hamlet, we
will not get to it by violating the folk psychology implicit in the common idiom.
We will get to it only by developing analytic concepts congruent with the common
idiom but encompassing the common understanding within a more systematic and
integrated body of causal explanations” (Reading 124). This observation is equally
applicable to Dracula—enough with the talk of “bleeding vagina[s]” (Craft 125)
and evil mothers (Roth) already. Dracula scholars would do well to leave Freud
and his followers behind, and turn instead to modern naturalistic psychology when
they explore the psychological underpinnings and functions of the novel.
Attention, Predation, Counterintuition: Why Dracula Won’t Die 381
By adopting a biocultural perspective we can see how Dracula gives strong
emotional shape to conflicts and fears that are deeply ingrained in human nature,
but also how the novel is a product of its time. Count Dracula is a contextually
inflected embodiment of ancient, evolved terrors: the vampire is a supercharged
predator, a fierce beast reminiscent of ancestral predators to which we are hardwired
to attend, the kind with sharp teeth and homicidal intent. He is also highly
contagious, a parasitic disease-bearer, a supernaturally animated corpse with a
range of disturbing abilities and connotations. Moreover, supernaturalism plays a
crucial and ambivalent role in the novel. On the one hand, Count Dracula embodies
‘bad’ supernaturalism, the horrible idea of a decomposing corpse coming to life
with ill intent. On the other hand, Van Helsing’s band of vampire hunters embody
a ‘good’ supernaturalism inflected by Stoker’s Christian ethos. Stoker intertwines
this bifurcation of supernaturalisms with a basic social conflict rooted in adaptive
dispositions, namely the conflict between egalitarianism and dominance. Van
Helsing’s crew, the solid Christians, embody an egalitarian ethos; Dracula is
dominance incarnate. In Stoker’s worldview, this makes Dracula bad and the vampire
hunters good. All these elements work together to produce the total imaginative
effect of the novel.
2. Cognitive Stimulation
2.1. Narrative Gambits
Bram Stoker was in the business of writing page-turners. To him, keeping readers
engaged must have been a primary concern. Human attention is preferentially
engaged by themes of adaptive significance: we are endlessly fascinated by stories
about sex, murder, neglected children, incest, devious sociopaths, and so on (Cooke).
Hence, Stoker’s story about a dangerous, contagious monster is well-engineered to
capture our attention, but the author also uses formal narrative strategies to keep
us engaged.
Count Dracula is an ageing Transylvanian warrior-aristocrat who turns out
to be an animated corpse that sustains itself on the blood of the living. He has
almost depleted the local prey population and so wishes to move to London with
its “teeming millions” (Stoker 53). He solicits the legal assistance of a young
English clerk, Jonathan Harker, who soon finds himself imprisoned in Castle
Dracula. He manages to escape, however, but Dracula beats him to England. A
series of complications ensue, and the best friend of Harker’s fiancée Mina, Lucy
Westenra, is turned into a vampire. Under the leadership of the Dutch polymath
Abraham Van Helsing, the Harkers and their friends Dr. Seward, Quincey P. Morris
382 Mathias Clasen
and Arthur Holmwood assemble a vampire-hunting team. They eventually track
down and defeat Count Dracula.
Dracula is a mixture of history, folklore and imagination. The novel places
itself within Gothic territory with its sensational focus on monstrous aristocrats,
decaying castles, preternatural happenings, and melodramatic plot elements. Yet
Stoker also dispenses with that tradition, conspicuously by setting Dracula almost
contemporaneously—in 1893—rather than displacing its action to quasi-medieval
exoticism, much to one reviewer’s applause: “That is the way to make a horror
convincing. The mediæval is well enough in its way, but you don’t care what sort
of bogeys troubled your ancestors all that way back” (“For Midnight Reading”
260). Count Dracula is a monster from the darkest heart of uncivilized Europe, but
eventually he is able to prance around Piccadilly, ogling pretty English girls. As
he tells Harker sometime before revealing his true nature and monstrous intent: “I
long to go through the crowded streets of your mighty London, to be in the midst
of the whirl and rush of humanity” (26).
Stoker presents the novel as a documentary volume in the short disclaimer
preceding the story:
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. There is throughout no
statement of past things wherein memory may err, for all the records chosen are exactly
contemporary, given from the standpoints and within the range of knowledge of those who
made them. (5)
This passage serves to justify his use of the epistolary format (the novel is told through
letters, diary entries, newspaper clippings, and so on), to give the appearance of
historical veracity, and thus probably also to ameliorate readers’ healthy skepticism
toward vampires and other supernatural creatures that go bump in the night. The
contemporaneous, local setting and the pseudo-documentary format are techniques
by which Stoker increases the immediacy of the threat posed by Dracula, and hence
of heightening the salience of the monster and the emotional engagement of readers.
Moreover, the epistolary format is one of several means by which Stoker creates
suspense by using it to control and manipulate the flow of information to the reader.
This keeps the reader alert and, for large parts of the narrative, actively involved in
collecting and fitting together bits of information to stay abreast of the unfolding
events. As one contemporary reviewer noted in the Daily Telegraph in 1897: “Such
is Mr. Stoker’s dramatic skill, that the reader hurries on breathless from the first
page to the last, afraid to miss a single word, lest the subtle and complicated chain
of evidence should be broken” (Courtney 262). The vampire is kept offstage for
Attention, Predation, Counterintuition: Why Dracula Won’t Die 383
most of the narrative, but very much onstage in the consciousness of readers and
protagonists alike.
In the first part of the story, Harker’s journey to and stay in Castle Dracula, the
monster is introduced. This part of the story is told exclusively by Jonathan Harker,
a timid English solicitor. Harker travels from West to East, sinking steadily deeper
into alien territory fraught with vague terror and dark portents; in an unhinged state
of deep anxiety, he (and the reader) meets Dracula. Noël Carroll emphasizes the
crucial role of audience-instruction in horror fiction (88-96): the reader needs a
character with whom to empathize, and the reactions of this character toward the
horrors depicted in the story become emotional cues for the reader. Such a transfer
of emotion from character to reader is possible because humans have an adaptive
capacity to mirror the emotional states of other humans, including fictional ones.
This phenomenon is known as ‘emotional contagion’ (e.g. de Gelder et al.). For
example, the emotion of disgust is processed by a brain region called the anterior
insula. Whether we ingest something disgusting, watch somebody else do it, or even
imagine taking a bite out of a maggot-infested lump of meat, it causes activation in
the anterior insula (Jabbi, Bastiaansen and Keysers). This capacity for emotional
contagion is obviously adaptive: if we mirror the disgust of somebody else eating
bad meat, we don’t have to partake ourselves. And if we react to a sudden expression
of wide-eyed fear on the face of a conspecific, perhaps we react in time to evade
the pouncing predator. Emotional contagion allows for swift response to a threat
that one has not personally observed, and it accounts for the way that we mirror
the emotional responses of even literary characters. Thus, Stoker provides a mirror
character in bland, everyman Mr. Harker through whose eyes the horror of Dracula
is initially presented.
After Harker’s exploits, the narrative changes character from a densely
atmospheric, fairly traditional horror story to being predominantly a story about
tracking, about the collection and collation of information. The third and final part of
the novel is about hunting and annihilating the monster. Having to keep track of the
mental states of several characters lays claim to the reader’s attention. For much of
the narrative, the protagonists possess different non-overlapping bits of knowledge.
The reader thus knows more than the individual characters: for example, when
reading Mina’s breezy, careless diary entries in chapter V, the reader already knows
about the looming threat. We know something bad is coming; Mina emphatically
does not, and this disjunction in knowledge states between reader and characters
adds an edge of tension to the emotional experience of reading Dracula.1
384 Mathias Clasen
The critical turning point, the point at which the protagonists gain the upper
hand against Dracula, occurs about halfway through the narrative, when they start
comparing notes and thus begin to learn the rules that govern even a supernatural
predator. As Mina Harker puts it: “We need have no secrets amongst us; working
together and with absolute trust, we can surely be stronger than if some of us were
in the dark” (197). The vampire hunters soon enough revert to keeping information
from at least Mina, but with disastrous consequences (she is attacked by Dracula).
The point remains that only collectively can the protagonists hope to vanquish the
monster. Dracula, on the other hand, is denied the power of joint action and creative
thinking, as Van Helsing points out: “we … are not without strength. We have on
our side power of combination—a power denied to the vampire kind” (210).
Stoker’s success in holding the attention of his readers is evocatively (if
anecdotally) affirmed by a reviewer, writing in 1897, who became so engrossed in
the story that “we could not pause even to light our pipe.” Having begun reading
in the evening, the reviewer claimed that at “midnight the narrative had fairly got
upon our nerves; a creepy terror had seized upon us, and when at length, in the
early hours of the morning, we went upstairs to bed it was with the anticipation of
nightmare. We listened anxiously for the sound of bats’ wings against the window”
(“Review of Dracula” 364). Even the violently hostile American critic writing for
The Wave in 1899 said that Dracula is “worthy of notice” because “in spite of it all,
it holds to the end.” This critic denounced Dracula as “degenerate” and a “literary
failure,” yet wrote that “if you have the bad taste, after this warning, to attempt the
book, you will read on to the finish” (“The Insanity of the Horrible” 273).
2.2. Counterintuition
Fred Botting, a prominent critic of the Gothic, claims that the “ritualised killing of
vampires reconstitutes properly patriarchal order and fixes cultural and symbolic
meanings” in that it restores “the boundaries between life and death, body and soul,
earth and heaven” (151).2 But the ontological disturbance that the undead cause
goes deeper than messing with arbitrary cultural categories: it violates distinctions
fundamental to human cognition.
Un-death is the vampire’s most salient characteristic. The distinction between
life and death is basic, binary, and inescapable: an understanding of death as the
cessation of agency is a reliably developing part of human cognitive architecture
(Barrett and Behne). But since the distinction between intentional agents and nonintentional
objects has been so crucial in human phylogeny—the distinction boils
down to that most basic of questions, does it want to eat me or not?—people tend
to over-attribute agency, sometimes even to corpses. Paul Barber has demonstrated
Attention, Predation, Counterintuition: Why Dracula Won’t Die 385
that the vampire of 18th-century European superstition is really the result of a
prescientific misunderstanding of perfectly normal decomposition processes in
corpses, a misattribution of agency to unruly bodies.
We have what Justin Barrett calls a “hyperactive agency detection device,” a
mental mechanism whose default position is to assume agency based on the most
innocuous of cues. Thus, a non-intentional, mechanical event may be interpreted
as the result of agency. If you hear an odd noise when the moon is down and the
hour is none, you might assume that you are not as alone in your house as you had
thought. This type of non-reflective cognition does not linger over statistical risk
assessment; it is a fast-and-dirty response, one that has proved adaptive if, more
often than not, inaccurate. But when the stakes are high, a false positive is much
better than a false negative (Marks and Nesse): assuming that a malicious agent
is prowling through your house is better than immediately dismissing the noise as
the result of some mechanical event as long as there is the remotest chance that
you could be in danger.
A tendency to over-attribute agency sometimes works in conflict with an
intuitive understanding of death as the final shut-down. Thus we may find ourselves
at a funeral, thinking that the deceased is hovering around somewhere, finding
comfort in the turn-up or disapproving of a certain floral arrangement. Or we may
think that a string of strange deaths in the local community is attributable to the
activities of a malicious agent, such as an angry god or a thirsty vampire (Barber).
Natural scientists have been working hard over several hundred years on replacing
intentional explanations with mechanical ones—thunder is the result of electrical
discharges, not an angry god—but science is working against deep-seated intuition.
People are natural-born creationists (De Cruz & De Smedt), dualists (Bloom), and
spiritualists (Barrett), and only with training can we shape our reflective beliefs to
conform to the counterintuitive findings of science (e.g. complex functional design
in organisms does not imply the workings of an intelligent designer).
Thus, the vampire emerges from this conflict between an intuitive understanding
of death as final and an intuitive tendency to over-attribute agency. The result is a
counterintuitive concept, the ‘un-dead.’ The vampire is a highly salient figure, one
that clashes with our beliefs about organisms. The odd state of ‘un-death’ violates
a basic assumption about animacy and its termination, and this makes the vampire
virtually pop out from a background of mundane, ontologically obedient objects.
Moreover, a concept that flagrantly violates one’s worldview—a concept “at
variance with later-day belief,” in Stoker’s phrase—may cause cognitive dissonance
or even a nauseating sense of disorientation. This is familiar territory in horror
386 Mathias Clasen
fiction. Lovecraft, for example, traded in cosmic violations, creatures and ideas
that literally drive his characters insane. In his treatise on Supernatural Horror in
Literature, he described how weird tales, Lovecraft’s brand of horror fiction, should
aspire to invoke “that most terrible conception of the human brain—a malign and
particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only
safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space” (15).
Van Helsing is thus given the task of convincing his friends of the existence of “the
strange things, the extraordinary things, the things that make one doubt if they be
mad or sane” (Stoker 166).
Dracula has a range of counterintuitive properties, un-death being only the
most conspicuous. He also does not reflect in a mirror—hardly what we expect
of physical objects—and is able to change his shape. In one scene, Dracula scales
the outer wall of his castle like a lizard, apparently defying the laws of gravity.
Unbeknownst to the Count, Jonathan Harker is looking out of a window and sees
Dracula’s head emerge from another aperture: He is “somewhat amused” initially,
but “my very feelings changed to repulsion and terror when I saw the whole man
slowly emerge from the window and begin to crawl down the castle wall over
that dreadful abyss, face down … What manner of man is this, or what manner
of creature is it in the semblance of man?” (39). As the editors of Stoker’s Notes
affirm, this is “one of the most memorable scenes in the novel” (Eighteen-Bisang
and Miller 97). Likewise, several contemporary reviewers emphasized the passage.
The London Times reviewer spent more than a third of his review citing the scene
(“Recent Novels” 268-70), and the Bookman reviewer noted that readers should
“keep Dracula out of the way of nervous children … but a grown reader, unless he
be of unserviceably delicate stuff, will both shudder and enjoy [the lizard passage]”
(“Review of Dracula” 267).
The vampire also has peculiar traits that are not counterintuitive in the technical
sense of upsetting ontological distinctions. Dracula is vulnerable to sunlight, for
example, although it is not lethal to him. This characteristic serves a dramatic purpose
in giving the vampire hunters an edge during daytime, and a thematic purpose in
emphasizing Dracula’s evilness: he is a creature of the night. Moreover, the drinking
of blood is strange to be sure, but not counterintuitive. Much has been made of this
particular habit in the psychoanalytical literature: Ernest Jones claimed that in the
“unconscious mind blood is commonly an equivalent for semen” (199), and from
that strange premise wrought a colorful tale about the psychosexual significance of
vampires. To Jones, blood-drinking was a sexual act, but we need yield no a priori
credence to this interpretive twist. Blood is quite obviously causally connected to
Attention, Predation, Counterintuition: Why Dracula Won’t Die 387
vitality: most everybody at some point makes the observation that if you get hurt
badly enough, you bleed. And if you bleed enough, you die. Hence, “the blood is
the life” (Stoker 130).
Stoker originally intended his vampire to have even more strange and/or
counterintuitive characteristics than those already mentioned. We know from his
working papers that Dracula cast no shadow, was supposed to be “insensible to
the beauties of music,” and impossible to paint or photograph (Eighteen-Bisang
and Miller 18-21), but Stoker decided to cut back on the weirdness. It was a
wise decision, because if a concept becomes too bizarre, it loses its mnemonic
advantage. Cognitive scientists have demonstrated that minimally counterintuitive
agents—agents that breach with their ontological categories only in one or a few
respects—are easier to remember and more likely to be faithfully transmitted than
both ordinary concepts or highly bizarre ones (Norenzayan et al.; J. Barrett; Boyer).
Count Dracula is striking enough as a taxonomic anomaly, but his resonance goes
deeper. He is contagious and highly dangerous, and evokes ancient, evolved terrors
and conflicts.
3. A Biocultural Analysis of Dracula
3.1. Predation
Up until a few thousand years ago, our ancestors were regularly pounced on by
ferocious feline predators, bitten by snakes, and attacked by conspecifics (Hart and
Sussman; Quammen). This million-year-long struggle for existence has shaped
our species profoundly, and we retain our keen interest in such enemies, even in
environments that completely lack them. That is why we are still fascinated by
dangerous beasts (Coss; Grimes; Öhman), including the supernatural kind found in
horror stories like Dracula (cf. Scalise Sugiyama). Alpha predators with sharp teeth
and hooked claws may be gone from our natural environments, but they live on in
our horror stories. In E. O. Wilson’s words, “a sweet sense of horror, the shivery
fascination with monsters and creeping forms that so delights us today even in the
sterile hearts of the cities, could [in ancestral environments] see you through to
the next morning … We stay alive and alert in the vanished forests of the world”
(101). Ferocious monsters thus have a salience for us that makes sense once we
consider our evolutionary past: in the hard currency of fitness, it paid to be alert to
dangerous organisms. That is why our horror stories brim with fearsome monsters
that are so often souped-up versions of ancestral predators (Clasen, “The Horror”;
“Can’t Sleep”); a species of supernormal stimuli, exaggerations of entities to which
we are already disposed to pay attention. And this explains why Count Dracula
388 Mathias Clasen
is such an interesting creature, even as a 500-year-old vampire with supernatural
abilities is a highly implausible idea: Dracula taps into an adaptive mechanism for
danger management by meeting the input specifications of this adaptation and then
some, that is, by being basically a tweaked predator. As Van Helsing says to the
seasoned hunters Morris, Seward and Holmwood after Dracula has eluded them:
“You follow quick. You are hunters of wild beast, and understand it so” (267).
Dracula is fundamentally bestial, and has prominent fangs, “pointed like an animal’s”
(155), and sharp nails. He is repeatedly described as an animal—a panther (266),
a lion (ibid.), and a tiger (278)—and he has fiery, red eyes, superhuman strength,
and a volatile temper.
And yet Dracula is unlike your garden-variety alpha predator. His cognitive
powers vastly surpass those of carnivorous felines. He is a seasoned conversationalist,
a suave businessman of cosmopolitan sophistication. Dangerous and of ill-intent,
yes, but also fascinating. Dracula’s animal-human hybridism makes him more
dramatically compelling, more interesting, than a leopard—or a human-sized
vampire bat—could ever be.
The evolutionary perspective allows us to see Count Dracula as a reflection
of the kinds of very real dangers that our ancestors faced (Saler and Ziegler). But
of course, the bestiality of Dracula has not been lost on more traditional Dracula
scholars. Several have pointed out that Dracula embodies late-Victorian fears of
degeneration or retrograde evolution, in that the vampire is a threat from the past,
essentially an atavism (e.g. Dijkstra). Stoker thus framed his monster in terms of
a discourse on degeneration that was highly salient in the Victorian fin de siècle
(Block). Mina Harker (296) characterizes Dracula with reference to the cultural
critic Max Nordau—author of Degeneration, an overwrought indictment of
‘decadent’ late-nineteenth-century culture as a hotbed of primitive hedonism—and
the criminologist Cesare Lombroso, who claimed that criminals could be identified
by a distinct physiognomy which bespoke a savage or atavistic nature.
To contemporary readers, Dracula may very well have carried a special
significance as an embodiment of degeneration. But Dracula is more than a
metaphor, and his literal, predatory presence should not be forgotten by critics
intent on excavating subtext and Zeitgeist.
3.2. Contagion
Count Dracula has been read as the embodiment of a variety of other late-Victorian
anxieties, for example the fear of syphilis (e.g. Auerbach and Skal 363). Dracula
certainly is contagious. He eventually infects Lucy Westenra and Mina Harker
with vampirism, and as Jonathan Harker surmises, Dracula’s goal is to come to
Attention, Predation, Counterintuition: Why Dracula Won’t Die 389
London “where, perhaps, for centuries to come he might, amongst its teeming
millions, satiate his lust for blood and create a new and ever-widening circle of
semi-demons” (53-4).
By portraying Dracula as a disease-carrier, Stoker invested his Count with
the subtext of syphilis and tapped into an anxiety of sexually transmitted diseases
that was widespread at the time. But fear of contagious disease is not a cultural
construction, and neither is the disgust with which the characters react to Dracula:
“As the Count leaned over me and his hands touched me, I could not repress a
shudder” (24). And later in the story, when Harker has to search the resting vampire
for a key: “the whole awful creature [was] simply gorged with blood; he lay like
a filthy leech … I shuddered as I bent over to touch him, and every sense in me
revolted at the contact” (53).
Disgust is an adaptive response to pathogenic substances (Curtis and Biran)
and is coded in our genome. Disgust comes with a characteristic, universally
recognizable facial expression that serves the purpose of ejecting disagreeable
substances from the mouth and blocking aversive odors (Rozin). Thus, disgust is
a functional mechanism that protects the organism from harm. In terms of fitness,
it pays to be alert and cautious toward disgusting objects. And like many other
animals—for example ants, bullfrogs, mice, and chimps—people tend to avoid
conspecifics who look diseased (Curtis 3484). They also tend to bury or burn the
dead, since putrefying corpses generate the disgust response. At the same time,
humans are strangely drawn to the revolting. Disgusting jokes, erstwhile freak
shows and stories about disfigured monsters and bodily mutilations exert a strong
pull on many. As soon as disgust-elicitors are safely distanced, for example by
being fictitious, they awaken curiosity as well as revolt.
By portraying Count Dracula as a viscerally disgusting creature, Stoker taps
into this evolved mechanism and keeps the reader engaged, attracted and repelled
at the same time. The fear of disease is culturally modulated and depends on
local circumstances such as the salience of particular diseases, but it rests on an
evolutionary substrate.
3.3. Egalitarian Politics
Dracula is a story of suspense. It draws us in by featuring a sympathetic—if
bland—character in great danger, it has a highly salient antagonist, and it keeps
us hooked by strategically dispensing information and manipulating expectations
in order to sustain suspense. The reader is being held in a state of alternating hope
and fear for the protagonists. Moreover, the novel is stoked full of elusive subtext
and suggestion.
390 Mathias Clasen
But that is not all. Functionally speaking, Dracula might serve a greater purpose
than just entertaining readers for a handful of hours: it might be adaptive. In a largescale
empirical study, Joseph Carroll and colleagues analyzed reader responses to
435 characters from 143 Victorian novels. They proceeded from the hypothesis that
“protagonists and good minor characters would form communities of cooperative
behavior and that antagonists would exemplify dominance behavior” (51). In this
respect, the agonistic structure of the novels under analysis reflects the egalitarian
ethos found in hunter-gatherer communities. Humans have evolved dispositions for
forming cooperative social groups, and in hunter-gatherers, group members tend to
stigmatize and suppress status-seeking and dominance in their peers; indeed, we
have adaptive dispositions to monitor and suppress dominance in group members,
but that disposition works in tension with a disposition to seek dominance. Carroll
et al. found their hypothesis confirmed, and conclude that “the novels provide a
medium of shared imaginative experience through which authors and readers affirm
and reinforce egalitarian dispositions on a large cultural scale” (70).
Dracula fits snugly into this picture. Count Dracula is distinctly non-cooperative,
dominance-seeking, and violent and repressive. Indeed, in Carroll et al.’s study,
Dracula “offers an unmistakably antagonistic profile.” Dracula scored very highly
on a dimension called ‘Dislike’ “and—despite having his head lopped off with a
bowie knife—an only average score on Sorrow” (62).3 Conversely, the protagonists
of Dracula strive to form a small, close-knit cooperative community. They are willing
to sacrifice themselves for their cause and claim to be fighting for a greater good:
“We have self-devotion in a cause, and an end to achieve which is not a selfish one,”
says Van Helsing (210). This greater good is framed in terms of Stoker’s Christian
ethos, rather than hunter-gatherer egalitarianism, but the pattern remains: Dracula, a
highly dominant individual, must be suppressed, and egalitarian values vindicated.
The vampire hunters are supposed to be the good guys. An anonymous reviewer,
writing in 1897, captured this in his judgment of the vampire hunters as “resolute
and highly-principled persons” (“Recent Novels” 270). Subsequent criticism may
have vilified the vampire hunters (e.g. Craft), but there can be no doubt where
Stoker’s sympathies lay.
By participating vicariously in Stoker’s vision, readers were—and are—
confirmed in their egalitarian dispositions and strengthened in their aversion to
selfish dominance behavior.
3.4. The Significance of Dracula
Stoker clearly succeeded in telling a captivating story about good versus evil. He
tapped into ancient, evolved cognitive dispositions for supernaturalism, but he
Attention, Predation, Counterintuition: Why Dracula Won’t Die 391
split this supernaturalism into two distinct tiers and pitted them against each other:
horrible supernaturalism, embodied by the nasty, predatory vampires that rise from
the grave, and nice, clean Christian supernaturalism where the dead stay decently
dead until they are quietly transmogrified into angelic form or are relegated to the
eternal flames of Hell. They certainly don’t come back as rotting corpses. The two
forms struggle for dominance in the novel, as embodied by Dracula versus Van
Helsing’s Christian Brotherhood. When Lucy Westenra changes from human to
vampire, she becomes a sexualized, voluptuous, cruel creature that “recoils” at the
sight of a crucifix, eyes blazing with “unholy light” (188). Conversely, Van Helsing
uses the Host to ‘disinfect’ Dracula’s native soil. This conflict, and the resolution of
this conflict, is central to the novel, and the formal structure of the story contributes
to emphasizing it, in that the structure allows for identification with the protagonists,
who embody Stoker’s Christian ethos, and inhibits sympathy with Dracula, who is
never allowed to speak for himself, and who is cast as a counterintuitive, ‘unnatural’
creature, a violation of the natural order.
4. Dracula’s Progeny
The primary strength of the vampire is its ability to capture our attention. Vampires
fascinate us, and they make for great storytelling with their supercharged literal
presence and strong metaphorical significance (Clasen, “Vampire Apocalypse”).
While Stoker did not invent the vampire single-handedly, his Dracula would become
immensely influential, “the father or furtherer of a new order of beings,” as Van
Helsing puts it (263). As Margaret Carter observes, “it was Dracula that established
the stereotypical traits of the vampire for eighty years following its publication”
(624). In the 1970s, a radical reinterpretation took place: the vampire became a
pitiable creature (Auerbach). Certainly an unmistakable ambivalence was latent in
the vampire at least since Romanticism, but Stoker’s Dracula is pure abomination.
Subsequent authors have offered very different vampires, of which Anne Rice’s
morally complex, glamorous bloodsuckers (in her 1976 Interview with the Vampire)
and Fred Saberhagen’s reinterpretation of Dracula as a persecuted victim (in his
1975 The Dracula Tape) are extreme examples. The hyper-sexualized vampires of
the 1990s onwards are another story altogether.
The vampire has become ever-more conspicuous in popular culture. Vampire
novels feature regularly on bestseller lists, and each season sees several new vampire
movies. Perhaps sheer exposure to vampires in fiction has made the figure less
salient to modern audiences, hence authors’ need in recent years to make it more
extreme in its strange characteristics. Whereas Count Dracula merely had “the
strength of twenty men“ (219)—impressive enough in his day—the vampires of
392 Mathias Clasen
the twenty-first century (in Twilight, True Blood, and so on) move with the speed
of sound and have the strength of industrial wrecking-machines. They are invested
with vastly more sexuality than Stoker’s repulsive Count ever was. And in some
versions, they make vampirism seem attractive, even preferable to traditional human
life. Bella, in Twilight (Meyer), longs to be a vampire, and is eventually turned
into one—beautiful, strong, rich and happy beyond measure. In a culture strongly
dedicated to self-realization, this is perhaps unsurprising. But Stoker would have
been shocked. His vampires signified everything that humans should aspire to
transcend—they are soulless, carnal, egoistic monsters—and the type of vampire
that currently dominates bestseller lists symbolizes everything that we wish we
were: beautiful, strong, rich and happy beyond measure.
The twentieth century saw a proliferation of vampire types, oftentimes
embodying different sets of anxieties and/or desires (Auerbach) and fulfilling
different psychological functions. For example, present-day stories about attractive
vampires and their human girlfriends have more to do with mate choice and romantic
dilemmas than with the fear of being eaten by a fearsome predator or infected by
an unclean organism. Authors and readers are attracted to vampires because of their
salience and metaphorical juiciness, their capacity for the embodiment of salient
anxieties, conflicts or desires. In Dracula, Stoker gave an emotionally charged
portrayal of good versus evil, of a supernatural predator that must be exterminated
by the forces of good, embodied by Van Helsing’s crew. Fred Botting analyzes
Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 adaptation of Dracula and notes that in “moving
from horror to sentimentalism Coppola’s film, appropriately enough for the ‘caring
1990s’, advocates a more humane approach to vampirism, one based on love,
tolerance and understanding” (179). Conversely, Stoker conceived of vampires as
soul-less and vile, ungodly creatures, “foul things of the night … without heart
or conscience” (209). And infected Mina Harker, fearing that she is turning into
a vampire, makes her husband and friends promise that “should the time come,
you will kill me” (287). Evidently, death is preferable to vampirism. In Stoker’s
Christian worldview, trading your soul for immortality or an existence dedicated
exclusively to hedonic pleasure is just not a viable proposition.
The old-fashioned, nasty, conservative vampire has not been completely ousted
by the glitzy, sexy undead. Justin Cronin, author of the popular 2010 vampire
novel The Passage, betrays a sentiment closer to Stoker’s. According to Cronin,
The Passage is really about “love, honor, courage, valor, the connections between
people.” On the fascination that vampire stories exert, Cronin claims that “at its
heart, it asks the question, what part of your humanity would you be trading away
Attention, Predation, Counterintuition: Why Dracula Won’t Die 393
if you got to live forever? It’s ultimately a fable to reassure us that it’s better to be
mortal” (“Justin Cronin”). Cronin’s vampires are repulsive, scary creatures who go
under a variety of names: jumps, smokes, virals—and ‘dracs.’ His debt to Stoker
is openly acknowledged. And like Stoker, Cronin uses the vampire as a vehicle to
tell a moral fable, an ideologically modulated tale about good and evil.
The vampire will presumably change even more in the future, but it is unlikely
ever to find peace. It is simply too effective at what it does to stay put belowground.
And what it does is play on evolved dispositions in its audience. The sexualized
vampires made popular by Twilight and other such stories evoke a different range
of emotions in their audiences than does Dracula (cf. Johnson), but they are no less
products of adapted minds working in socio-historical ecologies to produce monsters
designed to resonate with other adapted minds (Clasen, “Monsters Evolve”). The
vampire can signify virtually anything, from our deepest fears to our deepest desires,
but its sheer literal presence, the chords it strikes deep within human nature, makes
the figure exquisitely suited to capture our attention: the vampire is guaranteed
immortality. Count Dracula certainly survived being stabbed and decapitated and
lives on in the pages of Stoker’s novel and the popular imagination, far-removed
from the Victorian fin de siècle.
Notes
1 Brian Boyd cogently explains how dramatic irony builds on evolved ‘mindreading’
capacities or Theory of Mind (Origin 278-281 et passim). See also Noël
Carroll on how discrepancies in knowledge states between characters and audience
work toward heightening suspense in horror fiction (Philosophy).
2 Botting thus claims that the male protagonists of Dracula by staking
vampire-Lucy “subject her to phallic law” (151), presumably proceeding from
the observation that a wooden stake vaguely resembles a penis—as do a vast
number of other objects in the physical world. We need invest the stake with no
special psychosexual significance because of its shape. Moreover, Stoker not only
modeled this scene on similar descriptions in previous vampire literature (e.g. Le
Fanu’s Carmilla), he took the idea of the wooden stake as apotropaic from vampire
folklore. As Barber documents, bloated corpses would sometimes be understood
by prescientific observers to have gorged themselves on the blood of the living,
and the stake provided them with a mechanical means of deflating the body—in
reality not so much killing a vampire as forcing decomposition gases to evacuate
an organic balloon.
3 Actually, Dracula is decapitated with a kukri knife. The bowie knife goes
into his heart (Stoker 325).
394 Mathias Clasen
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