Voluptuous vampires

What's changed in the hundred years since Bram Stoker's death?

This month marks the centenary of the death of the pioneer of gothic horror and author of Dracula Bram Stoker. Spawning countless adaptations for both television and film, including recent ratings-hits Twilight, True Blood and The Vampire Diaries, Stoker’s creation, Count Dracula, is deeply lodged in our cultural consciousness (and indeed in the collective unconscious). But what has made this misogynistic and xenophobic novel such an enduring hit?

Stoker’s novel is centered on a perceived "cultural invasion" of western Europe and the fear of women’s independence. Indeed, the Britain of the late 19th century (Dracula was published in 1897) was marked by fear and social anxiety caused by an influx of immigrants from Italy and eastern Europe, falling birth rates and fear of the decline of the British Empire. As Daniel Pick asserts, "The family and the nation, it seemed to many, were beleaguered by syphilitics, alcoholics, cretins, the insane, the feeble-minded, prostitutes and a perceived 'alien invasion”'of Jews from the East who, in the view of many alarmists, were feeding off and 'poisoning' the blood of a Londoner".

Stoker’s vampire-women - beautiful, seductive and dangerous - are misogynistic representations of a decidedly fin de siècle fear: the "New Woman". She is described in the character Mina Harker’s journal thus: "‘New Women’ [writers] will some day start an idea that men and women should be allowed to see each other asleep before proposing or accepting. But I suppose the New Woman won’t condescend in future to accept; she will do the proposing herself." As this suggests, new attitudes of independence were seen as a threat to the very survival of British society. This threat is embodied in the novel by the character of Lucy Wenestra.

Indeed, Stoker’s portrayal of the two central female characters, Mina and Lucy, presents a crucial contrast: Mina, meek, domesticated and submissive, remains the idealised Victorian archetype of female passivity. In contrast, Lucy,  monstrous and, vampiric, takes on the attributes of the New Woman, rejecting traditional female roles, destroying marriage and motherhood: "The sweetness was turned to adamantine, heartless cruelty, and the purity to voluptuous wantonness."

Though today’s vampire series are largely aimed at and written by women, the same underlying images of submissive, fey femininity linger. Rather than disseminating the misogynist elements of Dracula, Twilight author Stephanie Meyer merely dresses Stoker’s Mina in a pair of Converse. Just like Mina, meek, passive, and under the complete command of her boyfriend, Bella mopes around while the men get all the action. The vampire women, though slightly more animated than the mortal Bella, are also largely lumped in the “cold and sexy” camp, contributing very little to the development of the narrative.  A dynamic, Angela Carter-esque re-writing it is not.

Indeed, the fetishisation of female victimhood and the unabashed justification of men’s abusiveness, happily dressed up as "protection" rather than obsessive stalking, have unsurprisingly provoked a strong feminist backlash.  Yet, perhaps most baffling is the fact that, while Stoker’s misogynist representations of women were created by a man in the pre-suffrage years and during a period of mounting hysteria, Twilight was written by a woman - exactly the type of woman Stoker’s Mina disparages in Dracula.

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Why Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes were a real horror couple

BBC Radio 4's My Muse sees Kathryn Williams explore the eerie side of Plath's life.

The first in a three-part series in which artists describe the figures that have most inspired them (Mondays, 4pm) followed the English singer-songwriter Kathryn Williams as she went, first, on a pilgrimage to Sylvia Plath’s grave and later to a favourite spot of the poet’s atop Parliament Hill. Williams has written an album devoted to Plath and we heard bits from it – but those weren’t the moments that conjured up the poet. It was when Williams approached the grave in Heptonstall, West Yorkshire – and thunder clapped from nowhere as she reached the headstone (with its inscription from the Chinese: “Even amidst fierce flames the golden lotus can be planted”) – that this story really got going. “It’s baking hot,” she croaked, “and there’s thunder behind me!”

Occasionally we heard Plath herself reading from poems, talking in that Katharine Hepburnish way, a way you can’t quite believe she spoke in actual life, oddly decelerated and lustrous, slowing into a relentless and deeply uncanny imperiousness. Then, just as Williams visited the bench on Parliament Hill where Plath sat wretchedly after a miscarriage in 1961, a rat ran past her feet. “Wow! Look! What is going on?” By now both presenter and programme were deep into the boding mood that Plath can put you – the sort of mood where you’re bound to meet a million portents and omens. Someone mentioned a woman who thought she saw a picture of herself in the newspaper one day . . . and only after some time did she realise that it was Sylvia.

A more spooky Plath-Hughes ­experience you couldn’t make up. Both poets, masters of the harbinger. Sylvia pulling the worms off her body (“like sticky pearls”) after coming to, following a childhood suicide attempt, lying in a nook under the ­family house. Ted with his horoscopes and his dreams, recalling the howling of wolves in the aftermath of Sylvia’s death (London Zoo was just down the road from him). They were the great horror-writing couple: it is an abashingly real element, vital to their appeal. “Need”, “want”, “an addictive pull”, “moon” and “sea” – those were the sorts of words Williams used in speaking about Plath, in her kind and curious Liverpudlian voice, and with her songwriter’s noticing eye. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser