From the moment I heard the vampire’s name, I associated him with forbidden desires. After all, I was only seven-years-old when the R-rated Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) was released to theatres and very much forbidden from seeing it. Despite the begging, my parents decided it “…just wasn’t for kids.” Unacceptable! We were a family of horror fans (seriously, my dad had me convinced he was an actual werewolf) and vampires were definitely my thing. Perhaps as a consolation, my mother went out and bought me a high-collared black cape from our local K-Mart. That Halloween, an elementary-aged but very convincing Count Dracula stalked the streets of Bay St. Louis, Mississippi in white face paint and plastic fangs.
Dracula is my hero. There are a small handful of interests that I would cite as being life-long loves and Bram Stoker’s vampire king is definitely among them. In fact, a children’s abridged version of the novel was the first-ever chapter-book that I read of my own volition. Of course, nothing brought me more gothic glee than that cheap vampire cape from K-Mart. Well beyond Halloween, I would swoosh about in that exquisite garment, imagining myself an undead creature of the night. It looked especially stylish billowing behind me, as I rode my bike up and down our dirt road driveway. Little could I have known, of course, what these Dracula-imaginings were going to come to represent in my life. At that age, I was only beginning to perceive the dichotomy between hegemony and otherness; let alone my place in the scheme of it. How could I have known that my affinity for vampires was a hint as to the man I would grow up to be? How could I have known that swooshing about in my K-Mart cape was a child’s performance art that would someday come to imitate an actualised queer life? I did not see Dracula in ’92, but he had certainly seen me.
After years of holding Stoker’s masterpiece near-and-dear to my heart, I have come to realise that my adoration for both his work and its resulting iconography (including films) goes well beyond the simple enjoyment of a spooky story; I find myself in the narrative. Indeed, it takes no stretch of the imagination to see how people who identify as queer might relate to the undead. Just like vampires, we undergo a transformation the day that we realise who we truly are. Just like vampires, many of us go through a phase of living in the shadows, hiding who we are from the light of day. And, just like vampires, we know the danger of holy men brandishing crosses with righteous indignation. To exist is to be reviled; Dracula ends with a stake through the vampire’s heart.
While this appears, at first glance, to represent and underscore a more tragic understanding of queerness, I would argue for a reclaiming of the vampire metaphor through a recognition of its liberating characteristics. Stoker’s novel undeniably validates and exploits the fear of otherness, yet I find, with a queer reading of Dracula, a relevant metaphor for awakened sexuality, the coming-out process, and the inherent awareness of potential violence borne by queer communities. Dracula may have been written as a monster, but is it he who is truly the villain?
Bram Stoker set out to write a horror story. As such, it is necessary to understand the horror Dracula wields, the terror he is meant to inspire, if we are to get at the heart of his transformative power. The horror of Dracula is, necessarily, the heteronormative focus of the book. While the interpretations are many, what is commonly agreed upon, and relevant in this case, is the reading of Stoker’s work as expressing Western anxiety toward the foreign. Dracula, an effeminate foreigner, comes to Victorian England to infect and claim good, virtuous English ladies. The fear of exogamy, as John Allen Stevenson writes in his article A Vampire in the Mirror, is what’s truly at play in Dracula. “Exogamy” is anthropology-speak for marrying outside one’s tribe. In other words, exogamy means to leave behind the people and customs of one’s ancestors through union with an outsider. Dracula, then, is a force that has come to claim and pervert the next generation. He represents the fear of societal infection by the other.
The fear of infection and conversion by the other is one that will be immediately familiar to the queer reader. It is a common fear/faulty narrative that heterosexual cis youth are in danger of being seduced and converted by the denizens of the LGBTQ community. This is, essentially, the fear of queering through exogamy. “As a mother, I know that homosexuals cannot biologically reproduce children; therefore, they must recruit our children” (Anita Bryant). When discussing Dracula as a narrative of threat-to-the-norm (as Stoker intended), the characterisation of queerness becomes painfully clear: dangerous and infectious. The vampire, then, stands as a rather chilling metaphor for queer people; one that seeks to tempt, convert, and destroy. Looking to Dracula, the process of conversion (i.e. queering) is detailed in the climactic episode involving the seduction of Lucy Westenra.
Lucy Westenra is a victim of Dracula and represents the book’s only complete transformation to vampirism. She is described by Stoker as remarkably beautiful, with golden hair and a sweet disposition. In Coppola’s film, she is played by the vivacious Sadie Frost as exceedingly flirtatious and overtly sexual. This is the version of Lucy that I was most familiar with growing up, though it must be said that she isn’t quite so forward in the novel. In either case, however, Lucy has attracted the attention of three potential suitors. Having rejected the first two, she agrees to marriage with the wealthy and handsome Arthur Holmwood. In today’s parlance, Lucy is what you might call a “femme icon.” I remember seeing her on screen, in those fabulous gowns, owning every scene graced with her presence… and she got THREE boyfriends! I wanted to be her. Of course, the story progresses, and Lucy ultimately attracts the attention of yet another suitor, in this case, a vampire.
Dracula is drawn to Lucy. It’s evident that her flirtatious nature is what was written to have attracted the attention of a vampire. From the novel and many film interpretations, we see this depiction of her, again and again: Lucy strays from purity, from behaving like a proper lady, and thus attracts the harbinger of her downfall. In other words, the problem wasn’t the vampire. It was her own “wantonness.” Even as Dracula attacks her, even as her doom becomes more and more apparent, Lucy is seen to crave him. In a manner of speaking, “vampirism” was already within her. Dracula simply gave her permission to embrace it.
As with Lucy Westenra, the vampire was already inside of me. I knew I was different. I knew from bullies and conservative family members that my outward femininity was a flirtation with dark possibilities. I suppose it came as no surprise to anyone when I began to notice other boys. Night after night, I would lay in bed, reflecting on what that meant. “I am gay,” I would repeat to myself. “I am gay.” I would repeat it so many times that it started to sound like a different language. “I. Am. Gay.” Each daybreak brought the growing realisation that these feelings were real and not going away. It didn’t matter how hard I prayed. It didn’t matter if I hung a crucifix above the bed and cloves of garlic on the windowsill. This thing was coming, invited or not. Like Lucy, I both anticipated and feared the possibility that I might be becoming different. I both desired and reviled it. My own personal “Dracula,” the acceptance of myself as a gay person, inspired no less a terrifying presence than the vampire himself.
The queer reading of Dracula necessarily reinterprets the vampire’s role from antagonist to hierophant. Whereas he is written as a corrupting force of the vulnerable, I would argue that Dracula is a liberator. He brings not damnation but empowerment. He bids us to own and live our truths; to abandon the repressive tendencies of patriarchal institutions and embrace the courage to lead an authentic life. Indeed, who wouldn’t want Count Dracula to be their guide through the initiation of queerness?
By the age of seventeen, I, like so many queer people before me, had lived through the terror of Dracula… the terror of queer exogamy. Through my attraction to men, I had abandoned the norm and become a monster: an avowed homosexual. In the subsequent years, Dracula has become for me the very personification of queer awakening and self-love. Of course, the life of a “vampire” is fraught with danger and, with the end of Dracula, we find one more lesson for the queer initiate: survive! There will always be those, often emboldened by faith, ready to exact vengeance upon the other. Lucy is killed by the very men who professed to love her. Having driven a stake through her heart, it is remarked that she once again appears of “…unequaled sweetness and purity.” Lucy, then, is forcibly realigned with the norm through her murder. In the eyes of our “heroes,” she is better off dead. Dracula meets the very same fate, by the same men armed with wooden stakes. Mina Harker, Dracula’s second fixation, is thereby saved from the vampire’s curse. With the women subdued and the vampire defeated, all is set right by our gallant heroes. The patriarchal order is restored, and Dracula is, at long last, dead… or is he?
I can find no way to write this eloquently: growing up gay meant that I had to come to terms with the reality that I might someday be harmed for being who I am. In a queer reading, my reading, the real horror of Dracula lies in the hands of those ready to do violence in the name of their bigoted convictions. The boogeyman isn’t some vampire beckoning at the window, it’s the angry men waiting to reduce your life to ashes via violence or legislation. Stoker wrote his “happy ending” with the intent to say, “The monster is defeated! The norm prevails!” He alleviates the fear of (vampiric) exogamy through destruction of the other. Well, with all due respect to the author of my favourite book, I’m happy to report that Dracula has survived.
If countless sequels, spin-offs, and reboots have taught us anything, it’s this: Dracula is never truly vanquished. What if the Count’s greatest return isn’t on paper or film but in the hearts of those branded with the label of other? What if it is we who are living Dracula’s greatest triumph? It’s been a long time since I argued with my parents about seeing the movie but, after all these years, Dracula still has a hold on my heart. For me, the real beauty of Dracula comes in reading its presentation of monstrosity as empowerment and Dracula’s death as existing only insofar as we allow him to die. Dracula reminds me to push back against institutions that seek to oppress. He reminds me to resist the call of the norm and speak out for those who are other. He reminds me that I am not alone, for the other is many.
Francis Ford Coppola went on to open a winery. As it’s a mass-marketed product, his wine is relatively easy to come across. So easy, in fact, that I’ve made a little tradition out of grabbing a merlot or cabernet (always red, of course) to pair with friends alongside a viewing of Dracula. I always enjoy tipping my glass to the screen as Dracula explains, “I never drink…wine.” On one such occasion, I recall a friend asking me if I believed in vampires. “You believe a lot of crazy stuff. Do you believe in vampires?” Literally, of course, the answer was no. Still, I couldn’t help but remember that little boy in the K-Mart cape and the long journey that’s brought me to where I am. “You’re sitting next to one,” I replied with a wink. Somehow, I don’t suspect he was very afraid.