Both Vlad Dracula (AKA Vlad the Dragon and Vlad the Impaler), the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula, and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, the creator of Frankenstein and his monster, were born on this date. Vlad Dracula was born 30 August 1400 and Mary Shelley came along 451 years later, but isn’t it neat that two of Western cultures most enduring horror stories are connected in such a weird way?
These gothic classics remain a part of our culture because they tap into two significant aspect of the zeitgeist; the fear of death and it’s odd connection to sex, and the fear of technology that was born with the Age of Industrialization.
Dracula is death, but he is also – with his penetrating fangs and exchange of bodily fluids – sex as well. He stalked, and overcame, the Victorian Virgin Mina Harker and could compel her even though she didn’t love him. For Victorians, who thought it was unnatural that a woman could feel lust at all and didn’t think “good” women could force themselves to commit indecent acts with anyone they weren’t deeply in love with (cultural tropes that stick around even today), the very concept of a alluring blood-drinker like Count Dracula tempting and releasing the sexuality of women was chilling. He also represented the “invasion” of Britain by foreign evil-doers who were clearly there to have their wicked ways with English women and supplant English men. Can you tell there was some anti-immigration hysteria going on at the time in England? Especially fear of the darkly brooding Slavic peoples coming to the shores of the United Kingdoms and “taking over”.
Vampires are still popular because they still manifest the fear of the Other; the non-Western and essentially perverse strangers to Our Culture who will upend the status quo and disrupt order. For a lot of people, change and disruption is just about the scariest thing possible. These dark, change-making vampires are especially dangerous in that they will unleash ‘women’ and female sexuality, which is exceptionally terrifying in patriarchal cultures.
Frankenstein’s Monster, in contrast, is the fear of what runaway technology – uncontrolled and godless science – will do to us as humans. Surely if we tamper with things beyond our purview we will pay for it with our lives? And what happens when the technology surpasses our human abilities? That’s part of why the Terminator franchise was so popular – Skynet was just another incarnation of Frankenstein’s Monster and it was up to humans to undo the nightmare technology had wrought … even if a new hero was technology in our service they way it was supposed to be. Movies like I, Robot reinforce the cultural suspicion that only people who distrust technology, rather than embracing it, are the smart ones. All technology is at risk of becoming Frankenstein’s monster, and all technology should be treated as untrustworthy until – as always happens – it becomes the new norm and doesn’t really count as new technology anymore. People used to be scared to death of electricity in the home; it was used as the animating force in Mary Shelley’s book for a reason. Now, we’ll howl like banshees if it isn’t there. It isn’t scary. It is necessary.
Technology is also untrustworthy because we’re never sure if it is going to be friend or foe. Will nuclear power be used to colonize space or blow the whole human race to smithereens? Even when it is theoretically performing FOR us, are we really serving it? The Matrix explores Frankenstein’s Monster from a slightly different angle – but it is still ultimately the story of Man trying to escape his own creation. When we gain technology, what does it take from us? At what point does it strip us of our humanity? When does the monster finally defeat us, as it defeated Dr. Frankenstein?
Again, terrifying and unstoppable change and being forced to deal with the unfamiliar are the central themes of both Dracula and Frankenstein’s Monster. A lack of familiarity and control are some of the scariest motifs in cultural narratives. Only death and being eaten seem to be more frightening to humans … and what is death but the ultimate unknown and unfamiliar?