Welcome to Monique Talks, the series where I talk about things that I find interesting because maybe you will too. It’s sort of like a TED Talk, except the people who do those are professionals and I’m just a weirdo with a computer and a lot of interests.
Today, I’m going to be talking to you about Dracula, science, and the occult. Now, most people know that Count Dracula is the Transylvanian vampire who vants to suck your blooood. This is because by this point in history he’s reached cultural icon status. Also, because Halloween is a thing. But not everyone knows the full tale of Dracula. Furthermore, most people don’t know the tale of Dracula like I’m going to tell it.
Dracula was published in 1897, right around the time some very interesting debates were going on in the scientific community about whether or not to let occult sciences be studied seriously in universities.In academia, Dracula is most often studied through the lenses of feminism, Marxism, post colonialism, and psychoanalysis, but people tend to forget that one of the central conflicts in Dracula is between science and the supernatural. Today we’re going to learn about Dracula through the lens of scientific history, and along the way discover just how modern this classic gothic horror novel is.
Dracula has always been a popular book, but it’s only started receiving serious critical attention in the last forty years. Modern readers are quite privy to the Victorian sexual, intellectual, and political tensions teeming between the pages. But when you look close, there is even more going on in Dracula.
Dracula was also written on the cusp of a major scientific shift, and for a while critics argued that the novel is a clear rejection of materialist science. Materialist science is a reductionist model that asserts nature exists as a closed system. Thus, everything in nature can and will be eventually explained by science. This is a model that leaves no room for the supernatural to exist. (Jann 73) Dracula can and is often read as a rejection of this model. In the novel, Count Dracula (a supernatural vampire) invades London (the orderly, civilized society) and wreaks havoc. The supernatural destroys civilization. Science, a man-made construction for systematically organizing knowledge, is no match for the supernatural, which is of nature and is thus superior.
Recently, however, critics have begun to deem this interpretation too simplistic. After all, there are several times during the novel that the character Doctor Van Helsing and his crew of helpers take major strides in their quest to defeat Dracula wielding science as their weapon. At one point the Van Helsing even follows a set of clues and analyzing them according to what resembles the scientific method. But in the novel, not all acts of science are treated the same. Bram Stoker rewards his characters when they do their research, record their results, and analyze situations with an open mind. When characters are haughty, close-minded, and rely on technology, they fail. There is something significant being said here about how science is used. I want to talk more about this, but first let’s talk about what actually goes down in the novel Dracula.
So what is Dracula really about? Real estate. Kind of. Dracula is an epistolary novel, meaning it’s composed of written documents, such as letters, journal entries, and travelogues. Dracula opens with the travelogue of a solicitor from London named Jonathan Harker, who is documenting his journey to the Castle Dracula to assist the Transylvanian in a real estate transaction. The Count wants to move to London, presumably because there is a lot of fresh blood there, and Jonathan is to assist him in this transition.
Jonathan writes of all the local Transylvanians being really skeeved out by all things Castle Dracula, and while the reader is at once aware that something not very nice is happening up there, Jonathan remains aloof. He regards the weirdness of the locals with a detached curiosity. Jonathan arrives at the castle and immediately notices more weird happenings, like that Dracula won’t eat at meals and doesn’t have a reflection. When wandering the castle, Jonathan runs into three sexy she-succubi, but before they can seduce him and drink his blood, the Count rescues him (but only for his own gain). He has Jonathan finish up his arrangements and departs for London, leaving Jonathan behind at the castle to fend for himself. Shortly thereafter, Jonathan’s fiancée Mina Murray records in her journal that there is something going on with her bff Lucy Westenra. Lucy, who is so gorgeous she receives three marriage proposals in one day, has been disappearing at night and appearing in the morning looking pale and weak. She also has two pinprick sized marks in her neck. I know what’s going on. You know what’s going on. The characters in Dracula… ehh, they’re a little slower to catch on.
It’s obvious to any reader by this point that something supernatural is afoot. All signs point to it. But we’re also reading a gothic horror novel, so our minds are open to the possibility of something like a vampire existing. Many of these characters claim to be rational, scientific people, or at least sensible Britons, so the idea of something supernatural being the cause of this terror in London is completely outside their realm of possibility. Thus, they are blind to seeing Dracula as the cause of all this mayhem.
Jonathan Harker, Mina Murray, Doctor Seward, and Lucy’s suitors all view their world in a way that is best aligned with the materialist scientists, who were in support of “normal science”, a term taken from John Greenway’s article “Seward’s Folly; Dracula as a Critique of ‘Normal Science'” that is used to describe the science of “puzzle solving within the context of the communal paradigm” (Greenway, 214). This is scientific advancement that only seeks to fill in the gaps within existing scientific structures. Normal scientists operate within the disciplines of what were the orthodox sciences of the time: biology, physics, chemistry, medicine, and the very recently added disciplines of psychology and hypnotism. These are not the type of people to consider monsters or paranormal activity to be the root of their problems. The normal scientists belong to camp 1.
Camp 2 consists of the occult. It includes Dracula, his she-succubi, the blood-lusting mental patient Renfield and the various demonic wolves and gypsies that appear in the text belong to this camp. These beings are the supernatural. Quite literally, they are super-nature: super powerful beings that are still a product of and exist in nature.
The only person in the third camp is the Doctor Van Helsing.
Van Helsing is a Dutch doctor with loads of esoteric knowledge and resume that boasts skills far beyond doctoring. His approach to science is as mediator between normal science and paranormal science, and he employs both while exploring the conflict between the other two camps throughout the course of the novel. Van Helsing is the key. If we study him, we can figure out what the novel may be trying to say about nature and science. The operative word there is *may*. I try not to fuck with authorial intent.
To discuss the first camp, the “normal science” supporters, we’re going to do a case study in the character of Doctor Seward. Seward’s approach to medicine is incredibly modern. In his notes on Renfield, a patient of his who exhibits an unheard of zoophagic mental illness where he systematically collects flies and spiders and devours them, Seward expresses his hope that his study of Renfield will further the scientific community’s understanding of this previously unheard of disease. He wishes to carry out further testing on him. They very fact that Seward is treating a mental patient makes it clear right away that he is a modern scientist because physicians only began taking on the insane as patients in the 1850s (Greenway 215). Though he eventually decides to put a stop to Renfield’s animal collecting, he ponders in his notes, “What would have been his later steps? It would almost be worthwhile to complete the experiment. Men laughed at vivisection, and yet look at the results to-day!” (Stoker 108). At the time, vivisection was still considered a modern practice that “scandalized conservative physicians and anstivivisectionists” (Greenway 217). Clearly, Seward supports radical measures like vivisection (operating on live animals for medical research), and thus wants to make radical discoveries for himself. However, it’s important to note that Seward’s dreams of innovation never leave the paradigm of normal science. He only views science in terms of the past. When recording notes on his phonograph, he comments that he wishes to advance his “own branch of science to a pitch [when] compared with Burdon-Sanderson’s physiology or Ferrier’s brain-knowledge would be as nothing” (Stoker 108). Burdon-Sanderson and Ferrier were the controversial, boundary-pushing scientists of his time, and Seward wants to be the successor to their fame. He wants to follow a “puzzle-solving” approach that will make these current major scientific discoveries obsolete. This is exemplified in his willingness to classify Renfield’s ailment as zoophagy without ever examining his logic. He is thrilled by the discovery of this new zoophagy, but isn’t at all interested in how peculiar and dark it is that this man is suddenly experiencing this extreme of a bloodlust. Seward is keen to further scientific discoveries, but only within the established scientific paradigm, therefore he continually fails to recognize Renfield’s madness and later Lucy Westenra’s illness as having an explanation outside of this paradigm.
Seward’s intelligent, sure, but as a normal scientist he’s an orthodox thinker who repeatedly misunderstands and overlooks the uncanny supernatural happenings that surround him. In a letter concerning Lucy’s illness, he writes “I hasten to let you know at once that in my opinion there is not any functional disturbance or and malady that I know of. At the same time, I am not by any means satisfied with her appearance… I could easily see that she is somewhat bloodless, but I could not see the usual anaemic signs” (Stoker 149).
Seward is a competent enough doctor to recognize that Lucy is sick and is low on blood, but he’s not open minded enough to consider that her sickness is something beyond the understanding normal science. Not even when it becomes clear she is losing massive amounts of blood after daily transfusions. Her ailment worsens not just because of Dracula’s powerful infection, but because of Seward’s ignorance. At one point Seward observes that the two pinprick-sized marks on Lucy’s neck are worsening in appearance, and he writes that “it at once occurred to me that this wound, or whatever it was, might be the means of that manifest loss of blood; but I abandoned the idea as soon as formed, for such a thing could not be” (Stoker 161). Seward is clever enough to recognize Lucy’s uncanny symptoms and discover the true nature of her ailment, but he is also quick to refute his assumptions because they cannot be explained using the paradigm of normal science that he adheres to. When Lucy’s symptoms worsen, Dr. Seward calls upon an old mentor of his, Van Helsing, because he is an expert in unconventional scientific procedures. He hastens for the doctor to come examine Lucy himself. It is only when the open-minded Dutch doctor arrives that our characters begin to get some answers.
Despite being the book’s namesake, Dracula actually makes very few appearances within the text. However, his superior power is undeniable. Dracula can transform the living into the un-dead, shape-shift into a vampire bat, and cannot be defeated by modern weaponry. Not even guns can kill him. After he feeds on Lucy Westenra, he infects her with the disease that will transform her into the undead. When Lucy begins to crave blood, which she “must have or die”, Van Helsing gives her several blood transfusions, which Seward identifies as a very modern practice. Unfortunately, even modern medicine cannot overcome Dracula’s supernatural disease. Van Helsing feeds new blood into Lucy day after day, but while each night she goes to bed looking vibrant and healthy, she awakens the next morning worse for the wear. When Van Helsing suspects that something more sinister is afoot, he begins exploring alternative treatments. After consulting some rare texts back in Amsterdam, he urges Lucy to wear a wreath of garlic flowers at night and places crucifixes in her room. He uses his esoteric knowledge of occult medicine and mythology to treat Lucy. But while crucifixes and garlic wreaths are protections well ingrained into present-day vampire lore, these rules surrounding the vampire mythos were a creation of Stoker’s. While the rise of vampirism can be traced back to Medieval folklore, Stoker created these rules in order “to make explicit the real conflict in his story: that between the sentimental world of Seward’s London civilization and the libidinous, atavistic anarchy of Dracula” (Greenway 228). By providing a set of rules for Dracula, Stoker establishes “Dracula’s world as being just as real as Seward’s. Indeed, the London world is the accidental, Dracula’s being the norm” (Greenway 228).
Civilizations like London, which is cast in Dracula as the center of civilized thought and culture, are founded on sets of rules and ideologies, many of which are removed from nature. The existence of these social norms is entirely dependent on the existence of society; without a society to perform them in, social norms would be arbitrary and useless. Manners don’t matter if you’re trying to survive in the wild. In Dracula, London is the city at the heart of the largest empire in the entire world, and therefore the center of modern civilization. Despite this, Count Dracula, who is motivated by the primal sources to feed and “breed”, can still invade London and threaten to completely upend society. The structure of civilization can collapse upon itself are flaws are found in it’s foundation. Just like all human-developed structures of knowledge. Nothing created by man, not the great city of London or the empire of Ozymandias, King of Kings, can outlast nature. Therefore, just as Dracula threatens to destroy London society (and ultimately all of civilization itself), the existence of Dracula as a supernatural being threatens to topple the entire structure of science. If strange, mysterious, and paranormal forces exist even when scientific “fact” says they don’t, then this “fact”, as well as all other scientific “facts”, become worthless without a scientific structure to occupy. Basically, if Dracula is real, then science is wrong, and we completely have to start over. As both a threat to civilization and science, Dracula is proof that his reality if far more powerful, pervasive, and natural than anything man has ever constructed. When it comes to Dracula versus normal science, Dracula is the clear winner
Thank goodness that’s not how it ends, then. Luckily we have our third camp, consisting only of Dr. Van Helsing, to save the say. Van Helsing is not just a doctor, either. He’s also a philosopher, lawyer, and metaphysician, as well as an expert on obscure diseases. Because Van Helsing has done so much and seen so much shit go down, he’s a pretty open minded dude, and his willingness to believe in vampire myth and experiment with occult sciences aligns him as a man who marries the orthodox and unorthodox sciences. While he practices medicine, an orthodox science, he refuses to work exclusively within the paradigm of normal science by not thinking “little of any one’s belief, no matter how strange it may be,” arguing that lack of faith is a form of prejudice (Stoker 221). But it’s his orthodox thinking and his adherence to the principles of scientific inquiry that ultimately lead him to discovering Dracula’s true identity. It’s only once Van Helsing talks to Mina Murray and gets her to bring him Lucy’s letters and Jonathan’s travelogue that he is able to determine that the count has been preying on Lucy. The way he comes to this conclusion mimics the scientific method: he forms a hypothesis (that a demon is plaguing Lucy), collects data (in the form of letters, articles and journals), analyses it, and reaches a conclusion. This process is not unlike the ones Jonathon, Mina or Seward engaged in. They all recorded their observations compulsively and searched relentlessly for answers, but these characters never arrived at a conclusion because they were operating within a normal scientific structure. They would never reach the conclusion that a vampire had invaded London because that isn’t even a feasible concept within such a structure. Van Helsing, who is not afraid to dabble in the unorthodox sciences, was able to stay open-minded and eventually discover that which was reigning terror throughout London.
Van Helsing’s actions become all the more significant in light of a major scientific debate that began right before the publication of Dracula. Following the inception of spiritualism in 1848 and its rise well into the 20th century, the scientific community began to take measures to define sciences as orthodox in an effort to distinguish themselves as separate from unorthodox spiritual sciences (Wadge 25). Included in their list of fortified sciences were chemistry, biology, physics, medicine, the new discipline of psychology, and hypnotism, which was only recently being explored as a science and not as spiritual fancy (Wadge 26). Spiritualism, theosophy, and occultism were all considered to be outside the realm of this establish orthodoxy and were rejected by scientists (Wadge 27). Psychicial research, the study of paranormal psychology, is a science that exists somewhere between the disciplines of psychology and spiritualism. In 1882, a group of Cambridge University scholars formed the Society of Psychical Research. Their mission was to have psychical research recognized as a legitimate scientific field wherein they could study spiritual phenomena “without prejudices or prepossession of any kind, and in the same spirit of exact and unimpassioned inquiry which has enabled Science to sole so many problems, once not less obscure” (Proceedings 1:4).
Stoker began writing his first notes on Dracula in 1890, just two years later. Stoker could have very possibly been aware of these proceedings, but at the very least one can be sure that he was certainly aware of the tenuous threshold between orthodox and unorthodox sciences. When Seward insists that there is no conceivable scientific explanation for Lucy’s continuous loss of blood and eventual death, Van Helsing tells him, “You do not let your eyes see nor your ears hear, and that which is outside your daily life is not of account to you. Do you not think that there are things which you cannot understand, and yet which are?” (Stoker 226). Van Helsing insists that Seward knows hypnotism is scientifically proven to work, but forces Seward to acknowledge that he can’t explain the mechanics of hypnotism. He ponders then why Seward will readily accept hypnosis as a science but is unwilling to believe that something sinister and supernatural was the cause of Lucy’s demines. It too is something one can observe and yet not explain. Perhaps because of the ramifications of believing in something that would destroy so many previously-held beliefs, many of which were no doubt a comfort to our characters. I mean, I certainly find “vampires are not real” to be a comforting thought. But when sciences like hypnosis and psychical research, which occupy a liminal space between orthodox and unorthodox science, start to get treated as legitimate sciences, it threatens orthodox science’s claim of being “stable and monolithic, a fixed standard against which the legitimacy of pseudo-science can be measure”; The inclusion of psychical research as an orthodox science would therefore redefine the “legitimate extent of knowledge” (Wadge 29).
So Dracula threatens to ruin everything. Science, civilization, all of it. Which is why the conclusion of the novel is so unsettling. In a final showdown, the gang defeats Dracula by storming him, stabbing his heart with a stake, and slitting his throat before he turns to dust. And everyone’s lives sort of just… go on. While on the surface this ending seems like a neat conclusion to a crazy adventure, in reality it poses “a scandalous challenge to socially normative constructions… despite the fact that [Dracula] has a conclusion which, on the surface at least, attempts to adumbrate that challenge” (Holden 470). All it took for the vampire hunters to defeat Dracula was to understand him and adjust their system of beliefs accordingly. Instead of seeing Dracula’s very existence as a horrifying, paradigm-exploding phenom, they normalize this new knowledge by inserting it into their preexisting structures of knowledge. Rather anticlimactically, the remaining characters, Van Helsing excluded, learn nothing from their adventure.
This ending is likely the product of “a certain ambivalence within the text that stems from Stoker’s anxieties about science’s unstable relationship with transgression” (Byron 49). He understands the true ramifications of Dracula’s existence. Dracula as reality doesn’t just blur the lines between unorthodox and orthodox science. It completely abolishes said boundaries. Chillingly, the normal science camp in this novel appears completely ignorant to this fact. At the end of the novel Mina still notes that the Transylvanians are “very, very superstitious” and react strangely to a scar she acquired on her forehead (Stoker 396). Even after all she has been through, she still chides at the locals’ superstition, even though they have every right to be superstitious. Seeing as VAMPIRES ARE REAL. Mina has literally the most definitive proof possible that vampires exist, and yet she is still close-minded to the possibility of other unknowns. Instead of opening herself up to the possibility to more unorthodox truths existing, she simply revises her own orthodox system to include the singular new truth they have discovered. Nothing changes radically for her, or any of the other normal scientist supporters, because they are still operating within their structures of ignorance. This perfectly exemplifies the futility of science being a totalizing system and the danger of thinking oneself knowledgeable the world full of mystery.
The strongest character in Dracula is Dr. Van Helsing because he proves to be the most objective and open-minded of the whole gang. His success is based off of his ability to transcend the binary of science vs. the supernatural by accepting the validity of each. Throughout the entire text, we see the power in both. On one hand, the supernatural doesn’t adhere to a structure and can exist in a reality far greater than one defined by science. On the other hand, science allows for us to categorize empirical knowledge and make market progress in medicine, physics, biology, and other disciplines. We see throughout the novel that science and the supernatural are held in the sort of binary where one force is always attacking the other while simultaneously defending itself: the supernatural triumphs over science when it fails to account for Dracula’s identity, science launches an attack at the supernatural when a blood transfusion is given to Lucy, supernatural overcomes the treatment until Van Helsing uses science to determine who Dracula is, and so on.
Ultimately, Dracula dies, but this is merely the death of one vampire. Not the death of the supernatural. Thus, science must constantly be subjected to a system of checks and balances as determined by the natural world (or, in some peculiar cases, the supernatural world). Dracula was, and still is, a timely reminder that it’s paramount to recognize these structures are based on empirical evidence, not truth, and that they can come toppling to the ground the second a superior reality invades. By all means, we should get excited about scientific discoveries. But there is a difference between celebrating science and evangelizing it. Science gives us the language to talk about really fascinating and cool observable phenomena and leads to further discoveries that can ultimately really benefit society. Or, in many cases, destroy one. Regardless, it’s important to remember that there is a reality far greater that what science can explain. It probably doesn’t contain vampires. But it contains a lot of other mysterious and awesomely inexplicable stuff. Some of it we will discover, and that’s exciting. But most of it we won’t, and that’s equally exciting. The universe is profoundly enigmatic and complex. Keep an open mind. It’s dangerous to cling to tired conventions and old “truths” if they no longer fit you and important to get present to the structures in your life and question the truths they claim. To question everything, really. Especially seductive strangers who insist you drink their blood. Especially then.
1. Byron, Glennis. “Bram Stoker’s Gothic and the Resources of Science” University of Sterling 4.1 (2007)
2. Greenway, John. “Seward’s Folly: Dracula as a Critique of ‘Normal Science’”, Stanford Literature Review. 3.2 (1986)
3. Jann, Rosemary. “Saved by Science? The Mixed Messages of Stoker’s Dracula.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language. 31.2 (1989)
4. Wadge, Elizabeth. ” The Scientific Spirit and the Spiritual Scientist: Moving in the Right Circles.” Victorian Review. 26.1 (2000)