Dracula and Non-existential Horror

Bram Stoker's Dracula

When I was younger, back when I Believed, our church showed a the youth group a video about demon hunting. It’s hard to believe that this happened when I think about it, but it did. In the video, the Southern preacher talked about demons, and then did a recreation of his battle with a Satanist who had demons under her control. The Satanist was powerful and dangerous, but the preacher was never seriously threatened, because he had God on his side. Demons are real and terrifying, but evil cannot touch a righteous man.

This memory went through my mind as I filled in a huge gap in my classic horror reading and finally got around to reading Dracula, by Bram Stoker. Two major things struck me about the book, about modern horror, and about the world.

The first is that Dracula is in every way not existential horror.

The second is the reason this was so striking. I realized that, in a very real way, nearly all modern horror is, in fact, existential horror.

If you don’t know what existential horror is by that name I’ll provide a brief definition. Existential horror is the kind usually attributed to Lovecraft. It features characters who learn that the world is dangerous as terrifying. The universe does not care about humans, and there is no one watching out for us. To understand the full nature of reality would be not to achieve ultimate wisdom, but to go absolutely insane.

Much of modern horror does not have these specific features. However, almost all of it follows the same underlying themes. Even when the danger isn’t supernatural at all. Even when the threat comes from zombies, or a man with an axe. It still almost always has certain properties. The world is not safe. Your comfortable life could easily be changed into something dangerous and terrifying. There is no one watching out for you, and things are not necessarily going to be alright.

This is a fundamentally existentialist theme, even in the most mundane examples. That neighbor you thought was an upstanding member of the community might have a stack of bodies in his fridge. He might decide to kill you and your children, and there is nothing in the universe specifically there to protect you.

I didn’t realize how pervasive this approach to horror was until I saw a counterexample. Because Dracula is very much not this type of horror.

Warning: Spoilers for this 118 year old novel. Now you know a little more about my radical view on spoilers.

One of the central characters in the first half of the book is a woman named Lucy. She is beautiful and sweet and beloved by all of the other characters. After awhile she starts to sleep-walk. She starts to grow pale and feel awful and act strange. One character, Van Helsing, tries to save her, but his efforts are thwarted. Lucy dies, returns as a vampire and starts to feed on children. It is then that Van Helsing reveals to the others that what they are dealing with is supernatural, that Lucy is now an abomination, not the real Lucy, and that for the good of everyone they now have to destroy her.

How do you think the characters react? In almost any modern story, this would be very gut wrenching and difficult for the characters. They would struggle over whether this monster was still Lucy, whether they were killing a woman they loved. Even when they accepted that she needed to die, they would have great difficulty looking into her face and ending her unlife. It would haunt and torture them to have to do this.

Not so in Dracula. Not at all. They have difficulty believing Van Helsing about what’s going on, but once they do they are all very happy to put an end to her and save the real Lucy. When they kill her, her corpse acquires a look of release and serenity.

Later on, when Van Helsing is explaining about Count Dracula all of his powers, he also explains that when it comes right down to it they, the humans, have the upper hand. God is on their side. Dracula is an unnatural creature and the world hates him. The world wants him destroyed. His powers come from corrupting what is natural and right, and such corruption seeks to right itself.

One of the characters waxes about how wonderful it will be to free Dracula’s soul from his torment. The torment of being powerful and evil, in which the Count clearly takes great delight. There is no room for genuine love of evil. Anyone who feels that way must not really be a person. They must, as Van Helsing puts it, have a “child’s mind.” When they finally kill him, just before he turns to dust there is a look of peace on his face. The Count, who has been doing evil in the world for hundreds of years.

One of the central themes of Dracula is this: There are dangerous and terrifying things out there, but at the end of the day God is in his heaven, and all is right with the world.

The characters are ironclad in their worldview. They never see proof of God, save that crucifixes and the like work against their enemies. They don’t need proof. God is out there. They understand fully the fundamental nature of the universe and their place in it. Nothing that happens causes them to question this understanding, anymore than finding a new and more deadly species of parasitic wasp would cause a biologist to question their basic understanding of biology.

In modern horror, shattering the worldview of the characters is basically a given. Sometimes it is at a very high level—they thought they were safe in their workaday lives, and that feeling is annihilated. Sometimes it is more fundamental—they thought there was a loving god, but actually the universe is ruled by terrifying, hungry things that view humanity as playthings or food.

Even horror that keeps elements such as a loving God still annihilates the safety of the characters’ worldview. There is plenty of horror about demon possession in which God is still shown as a powerful force that can fight the demons. But even in those cases, the characters learn that they are vulnerable in a way they never thought they were. That demons are just as real as terrorists and serial killers, and that they might attack them at any time, without warning.

We no longer live in a world where most of us have an ironclad worldview. Modern horror has to be existentialist, on some basic level, if it is to fully resonate.

No matter how powerful the God, demons are still to be feared. Evil can, in fact, touch anyone, no matter how righteous.



7 thoughts on “Dracula and Non-existential Horror

  1. I don’t watch horror movies as I believe the world to be full of horror enough – point of fact the way IS burned that pilot alive to kill him. They didn’t have to kill him that way but if evil would dictate that you do the most inhumane thing possible then that proves horror exists every day.
    Loved your post, very thought provoking.

    • That makes sense. I find horror interesting because it shakes me out of my comfortable worldview. Of course, for that to be worth doing you have to HAVE a comfortable worldview. You have to feel safe.

  2. Trent Lewin says:

    Interesting… I watch a lot of horror movies and the Dracula perspective is not one I’ve considered before (and I loved the 90’s movie version). I think I will keep this in mind when watching horror movies going forward – but I agree with what you are saying.

    • It’s hard to see the existential angle because it’s so prevalent. Like I said, I only thought of it because of the contrast. I love the 90’s movie, too, and I also really love the Bela Lugosi version. But I don’t think the strong non-existential theme is present in either movie to the extent it is in the book.

      • Trent Lewin says:

        I may have to re-read the book… I remember loving it, that entire style of diary entries and different characters. I have to say, me being a horror fan and all, that you’ve given me something to think about.

  3. ravensmarch says:

    Some scholar with the right resources and plenty of available time could probably find a useful sociological tipping point in the first appearance of the a vampire who didn’t fear the cross unless the person holding it had real faith in its effect. The earliest I can think of is in “Salem’s Lot”, but I’m far from the ideal scholar for the purpose.

    It also occurs to me that a lot of the time people shorthand Lovecraft’s beasties as “a thing that should not be,” which implies that there’s some agency keeping a list of things that SHOULD be. I agree with your basic thesis, but I think part of why horror still works is that people wish for some ironclad certainties about the way the world works, even though they might not cling to them too firmly.

    • Absolutely. People have a worldview and find it unsettling or horrifying when something shatters it. I think the existential horror comes in part from the fact that modern people really want their worldview to be true, but we are secretly afraid that we are actually wrong about everything.

      The faith element is a good point. At some point in vampire fiction it became more believable to think that faith as some kind of product of human thought was the active ingredient, not the will of an absolute God. Like faith as a psychic phenomenon just happened to be a vampire weakness. I know that I found that very refreshing growing up. I suspect you are right in that there is an interesting scholarly avenue of research here. I’d read that paper. I actually have a friend who is a vampire scholar, but that isn’t really his specific area.

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