I decided to reread a horror classic for the blog (and myself), giving it a more thorough analysis than I ever did in college (and I was an English major).
Most of you are probably aware of the existence of Dracula. How could you not be? Written in 1897, Bram Stoker’s Gothic tale of horror about a vampire made shockwaves through the genre, creating a solid foundation of tropes we use to this day.
However, what I thought I’d focus on is how Dracula tied horror elements to a woman’s sexual agency.
‘Cause holy shit, if you didn’t know, you’re about to.
When you think about it, a lot of horror movies do this even now. In movies where a group of young teenagers are slowly killed off one by one, the females who are more sexually active are typically the first to go, while the “virgin” character is either left for last or is the only one to survive. Movies like The Cabin in the Woods do a delightful job of pointing out this trope to us.
In Dracula, there are two prominent female characters: Lucy Westenra and Mina Harker.
Let’s start with Lucy.
Lucy is Mina’s best friend, and she seems like an all-around kind person. It’s clear she adores Mina, she’s very generous, and she is very beautiful, enough to attract three suitors. Unfortunately for her, she’s also what I like to call the “starter victim.”
In horror movies, you often see a person undergo a horrible fate for the sole purpose of knowing what lies in store for your protagonists. Lucy Westenra is this person for Mina. Lucy is Dracula’s first victim in the novel, and everything we see happen to her spells out how Dracula’s later attack on Mina will play out.
However, there is a stark difference between Lucy and Mina that makes it more “acceptable” for the evil fate to fall on Lucy while Mina ultimately gets saved.
And that would be the fact that three guys like Lucy.
Three men propose to Lucy, and she likes all of them well enough, though she ends up agreeing to marry one. However, she does make the statement, “Why can’t they let a girl marry three men, or as many as want her, and save all this trouble?”
And because Dracula was written during the Victorian Era, this daring idea is what seals Lucy’s fate to be the doomed starter victim.
But the misogyny doesn’t stop there, oh no. My mouth fell open in resentment and shock more than once.
Once Lucy comes under the sway of Dracula, well on her way to becoming a vampire herself, she is described as being more sensuous. Her looks and demeanor changes. Her voice becomes soft and inviting, and the men who loved her for her “purity” draw back in fear from her “voluptuous wantonness.”
So basically, Stoker ties sexual confidence to the evil growing inside of Lucy.
Now let’s look at Mina, the leading lady who is sure to survive.
Mina is absolutely loyal to her husband, doing work for him, learning new skills to ease his career, and caring for him when he’s ill. When Dracula attacks her, she’s a more unwilling victim than Lucy. Where Lucy sleepwalked out of her house to a cemetery at Dracula’s call, he has to break in to the house where Mina is staying at with the help of an asylum patient to get to her.
And even aside from the fact that Stoker paints Mina as an “angel in the house” (another popular Victorian-era trope), the other characters are also incredible dicks to her, albeit in a roundabout, kindly-meant way.
Get a load of this.
Any time Mina does something smart, whether it be to learn shorthand, combine all their records so they can create a timeline of Dracula’s activities, or use river maps to figure out how Dracula intends to return home, the men compliment her by telling her she has the mind of a man.
“She has man’s brain – a brain that a man should have were he much gifted – and a woman’s heart.”
“…her great brain which is trained like man’s brain, but is of sweet woman…”
Like seriously, what the fuck, you guys.
Van Helsing is the worst of them. He constantly praises Mina for being so smart for a woman. His doddering compliments only served to make me angrier and angrier as I read through the novel, especially because when things looked to get too dangerous, he would be the one to say, “We men must go on, while dear Madam Mina must stay behind.” Dracula turns into the most annoying save-a-damsel story I’ve ever read.
Dracula gave the horror genre a lot of its tropes, for better or worse. Clearly, there were already issues with how people perceived women and their role in society back then.
That said, I’ve always thought that the horror genre serves as an excellent vehicle for social commentary. You can find out a lot about societal pressures and fears by taking a look at their horror stories. (The Victorian Era was clearly ripe with sexual anxiety.)
Combining sex and terror makes for truly uncomfortable tales, but putting readers/viewers in a place of discomfort and fear is all part of what makes the genre tick. We should look at old classics with (very) problematic sections as windows onto perspectives instead of an accurate representation of real life.
I mean, that’s fiction in a nutshell.