Sunday February 12, 2017

David J. Skal on the enduring appeal of Dracula

David J. Skal is a leading American cultural historian and critic of horror films and Gothic literature.

David J. Skal is a leading American cultural historian and critic of horror films and Gothic literature. (Brian J. Showers/Liveright)

Listen to Full Episode 52:49

Dracula is the monster that never dies. At the end of Bram Stoker's novel, published 120 years ago, the vampire is a pile of dust. But a long tradition of adaptations — movies, plays, comics, television series, books and video games — gives him the potential of an afterlife, and alludes to his having already lived for 500 years or more.

Behind the striking figure of the vampire is a relatively unknown author: Bram Stoker. When the Irish writer published Dracula in 1897, the novel was well-reviewed but sold modestly, leaving Stoker poor and needy by the time of his death in 1912. After its author's death, though, Dracula took on a life of its own.  

Horror and Gothic expert David J. Skal has written a biography of Bram Stoker called Something in the Blood: The Untold Story of the Man Who Wrote Dracula. The book is a finalist for an Edgar Award. Skal spoke to Eleanor Wachtel from Pasadena, California.

Why we know so little about Bram Stoker

Stoker didn't leave us any account of writing Dracula, and he didn't leave us any personal reminiscences. Apparently there was a room in his house that was filled with journals that didn't survive. Apparently his widow thought they weren't worth keeping. She auctioned off a lot of his papers the year after he died, and it's quite possible she tossed out his journals because they were indecipherable to anybody but Stoker. He has one of the most difficult handwriting styles that I have ever encountered.

Stoker was an enigma, he deliberately covered his tracks. I got around the difficulty of him not leaving his own account of himself by focusing on the people that were closest to him — he was in the middle of the Victorian artistic and theatrical world in London.

Why Dracula has inspired so many adaptations

Stoker's Dracula is really repellent, and he's an off-stage character. By pushing Dracula into the shadows and having him be a fairly unformed character, Stoker immediately involves the reader. We become co-conspirators. We finish Dracula in the horror of our own minds. He becomes whatever the most horrible thing in our own imagination might be. I think this is another reason the book is adapted so frequently — directors and screenwriters cannot resist putting their own spin on it or finding some new angle. There are as many different versions of the Dracula story as there are adaptations. They are not disrespecting Stoker's original vision, they are following the lead of folklore, which of course inspired Stoker from the very beginning. That's where Dracula's longevity comes from. He wouldn't live forever if he had been perfectly delineated. 

Why vampires are still popular

The vampire has become the antihero, and the character we are most likely to identify with. This is a sea change from the days of Bram Stoker, but it's certainly the driving attraction of almost all the vampire characters of recent decades. It's not surprising. The vampire is the one monster who, more or less, looks like something we want to be ourselves. Dracula is often a very sexy monster. He's handsome, he's got a great wardrobe and a castle in Europe. What is there that you wouldn't want to identify with? That is the way Dracula is keeping himself alive. If he had remained a villain indefinitely, we would have lost our uses for him. He changes, he develops. We are in an age of moral ambiguity, and the idea of the attractive vampire we can identify with is probably very appropriate. 

Why we love horror

Horror is a pressure valve. It's a way of letting off steam. Screaming, like laughing, is a way of physically letting go of tension. A good horror movie does the same thing that a good roller coaster ride does — it lets you get it all out in a cathartic way. Horror also lets us process unpleasant realities in ways so that we don't have to look too closely at those frightening realities. Horror is escapist, but I think it's important to keep in mind what we are escaping from. If we just are reacting to a scary monster mask instead of the forces in the real world that are threatening us, we are not really dealing with the essential problem, but it helps us cope.

David J. Skal's comments have been edited and condensed.

Music to close the broadcast interview: "Dance of Death" composed and performed by Andrew Bird.