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Envisioning an indulgence: Dracula (1897) & Van Helsing (2004).

This paper argues that a sub-theme of pro-Catholicism exists in Bram Stoker's 1897 novel Dracula. The only people who destroy the Count are a Catholic, protected by Catholic sacraments and an Indulgence from a Church authority, and apparently partly converted Protestants. The possibility is addressed that Stoker, despite being considered a confirmed Protestant, wrote Dracula as an understated work of propaganda promoting the proselytisation of Protestants to Catholicism, and that the motion picture Van Helsing (2004), being a rare example of a screen adaptation so informed, suggests a foregrounding of this pro-Catholic sub-theme is possible.

Despite the possibility that Dracula's antagonist is the most enduring and widely adapted of any modern literary creation, and that Irishman Bram Stoker's 1897 novel is arguably replete with Catholic allegory, no stage or screen adaptation faithfully foregrounds a pro-Catholic theme. The novel's religious analogy is obvious: in his most basic perversion of Catholic lore, Count Dracula is the figurative Antichrist who promises eternal life through the ingestion not of sacramental wine representing the blood of Christ, but of actual human blood. In analysing Stoker's characterisation of his eponymous star, both Ken Gelder and Judith Halberstam argue the Count is anti-semitically modeled on stereotypical images of blood-sucking, baby-stealing Jews, (1) while Clive Leatherdale plumbs the depths of its Catholic allegory and rationalises it as a response to the weakening hold of creationism in the face of Charles Darwin's evolutionism. (2)

In addition to combating semitism and evolutionism, Leatherdale suggests an even more political role for the enemies of the Antichrist when he tentatively asks: 'Are Harker and Seward [both Englishmen and the two most obviously Protestant of the protagonists] converted to the Catholic faith once they discover its tangible power? Perhaps it's as well that Stoker, likewise a confirmed Protestant, chose not to confront the issue.' (3) Or did Stoker, rather than shirking the political issue and despite claiming to be a Protestant while he lived a high-profile life in England's theatre circles, in fact subtly thematicise the issue? One of Stoker's biographers, David Glover, said: 'Indeed, it is essential to see that the anxieties that animate these novels are inextricably bound up with the most deeply rooted dilemmas facing late Victorian culture.' (4) Writing at the time of the Land Acts, which stripped the landlords of their power, Stoker was only too aware of the decline of the Anglo-Irish gentry. Did Stoker cautiously write a novel promoting the proselytisation of Protestants to Catholicism in an era when to do so might be dangerous to an Irishman's health and/or freedom? My (admittedly selective) reading of Dracula indeed suggests that its author may have been a closet Catholic cloaking his risky views and visions in a relatively safe literary medium.

Of course, this argument is difficult to support. Nowhere in the novel does Stoker use the labels 'Catholic' or 'Protestant', but the religious affiliation of his characters is definitely suggested. Leading the assault on Dracula is Dr Abraham Van Helsing, an open-minded Dutch savant who is not deterred by rational scepticism when faced with the threat of vampirism, and who proceeds to combat said threat by combining nineteenth-century medical and scientific knowledge with vampirological lore drawn from superstition and ancient quasi-Catholic beliefs about the uses of garlic, stakes, the crucifix, the Host and the Holy Wafer. Yet Stoker does not over-determine Van Helsing's specific religion. No indication of Van Helsing's Catholicism is given until chapter thirteen, when he removes from his neck a small gold crucifix which he places on the lips of the deceased Lucy, and even this small act does not definitively verify his religion. The most telling confirmation of his faith relates to his stated intention to use the Host and the Holy Wafer as permitted by his special Indulgence from an unnamed Catholic Church authority in Amsterdam.

Jonathan Harker, on the other hand, proclaims himself an English Churchman, which at the time of the novel basically meant Anglican or Protestant. But he is open-minded: on two occasions he is surprisingly respectful to the followers of the Catholic Church, apparently because of the strength of their convictions. The first occurs when he is passing through the villages en route to Transylvania, the cause for much fearful crossing-of-chests from villagers and travellers:
 She then rose and dried her eyes, and taking a crucifix from her
 neck offered it to me. I did not know what to do, for, as an
 English Churchman, I have been taught to regard such things as in
 some measure idolatrous, and yet it seemed so ungracious to refuse
 an old lady meaning so well and in such a state of mind. (5)

Whilst indicating his Church of England and Protestant affiliation and discomforted by the idolatrous icon, Harker nevertheless accepts it politely. His journey of acceptance of and faith in the Catholic sacraments is foreshadowed by his obvious social and religious tolerance. During the mirror scene at the castle he begins to regard the crucifix as a defence against the advances of Dracula. (6) It's not very long before he is writing:
 Bless that good, good woman who hung the crucifix round my neck!
 For it is a comfort and a strength to me whenever I touch it. It is
 odd that a thing which I have been taught to regard with disfavour
 and as idolatrous should in a time of loneliness and trouble be of
 help. Is it that there is something in the essence of the thing
 itself, or that it is a medium, a tangible help, in conveying
 memories of sympathy and comfort? Some time, if it may be, I must
 examine this matter and try to make up my mind about it. (7)

The second occasion of Harker's religious forbearance occurs when Van Helsing enigmatically introduces the Holy Wafer:
 'The Host. I brought it from Amsterdam. I have an Indulgence.'
 It was an answer that appalled the most sceptical of us, and we
 felt individually that in the presence of such earnest purpose as
 the Professor's, a purpose which could thus use the to him most
 sacred of things, it was impossible to distrust. In respectful
 silence we took the places assigned to us. (8)

Certainly, many hard-line Catholics would be appalled: Van Helsing's use of the Indulgence is unusual (they are only given as a dissolution of past sins, not intended sins (9) and Van Helsing intends to sin by desecrating the Host; that is, crumbling the Holy Wafer about Dracula's resting places). Harker is nevertheless awestruck by the apparent power of the Catholic Church's sacraments against the Count. Later, expecting a confrontation with Dracula, Harker confidently wields both his gun and the crucifix. Dr Seward, recording on his phonograph, stated: 'We each held ready to use our various armaments, the spiritual in the left hand, the mortal in the right.' (10) Harker has made up his mind about the idolatrous Catholic sacrament.

Of course, Dr Seward's self-identification as an Englishman suggests he, like Harker, is Protestant also, but others in the novel are less easy to categorise. Renfield's religion is indeterminable, but his catchcry 'The blood is the life' (11) is a quote from Deuteronomy 12:23 and suggests he may be Catholic, as does the metaphoric signifinance of his role. Through Mina Harker, Renfield symbolically turns from blood-eating to blood-letting. He lures Dracula into his cell and attempts to kill Mina's attacker but loses his own life instead. In a Catholic analogy, the solution to blood lust is shown to be self-sacrifice.

Like Renfield, Arthur Holmwood's religion is not specified, but his surname associates him with the holly, which with its crimson berries and points permits an identification with the crucified Jesus Christ, his head bloody from the crown of thorns. (12) Holmwood's staking of Lucy and his former gift of a blood transfusion is emblematic of Christ's self-offering on the cross whence blood gushed from his pierced side. (13) Killed by a blow to his left side, Quincy Morris assumes the role of Christ dying on the cross, to cancel out the force of the Antichrist that is Dracula. Whereas Dracula unnaturally transcends death through endless rebirth, the Jesus-like death of Morris leads to a form of spiritual rebirth. He is resurrected a year later in the shape of Mina and Jonathan's baby.

Whilst the Ascendant Protestant woman Lucy is destroyed by Dracula, middle-class Mina, with her Irish maiden name Murray and her Irish connections, survives. In a gesture of marialotry, Mina is cast in the role of the Blessed Mother by the Catholic Van Helsing, and he does so in the process of announcing her exclusion from the conferences of the vampire-hunting party: 'You must be our star and our hope, and we shall act all the more free that you are not in the danger, such as we are.' (14) These words endow Mina with the iconic attributes of that merciful patron of voyagers: 'Mary, Star of the Sea'. Perhaps Mina is Jonathan's 'Mary', to share his journey from Protestantism to Catholicism?

Apart from their own individual journeys of discovery there are group dynamics to be considered. Kellie Wixson has made another case for Dracula to be seen as covert proselytising propaganda, but can't quite bring herself to say it in as many words. It seems, as the story progresses, the sharing of text and other collaborative efforts indicate the group consisting of Harker, Seward, Morris, Godalming and Mina is becoming less Protestant and more Catholic. Set with the task of creating a common body of knowledge and led by the charismatic and forceful Van Helsing, the party, of whom the Protestants amongst them probably shared the belief that individual testimony has a special religious value, finds itself working towards a group testimonial, guided by Catholic (and superstitious) principles. Wixson concludes: 'Harker returns to Transylvania under conditions which are the complete opposite of those of his first trip--instead of being alone, unsure, and Protestant, he is now in a group, experienced, and quasi-Catholic.' (15)

Both Harker and Seward are apparently partly converted to Catholicism: by the end of the book Harker no longer sees crucifixes and other Catholic sacraments as idolatrous and Seward, who once quipped 'Omnia Romae venalia sunt' ('everything in Rome was up for sale') (160 admits to experiencing 'a mighty power fly along my arm' (17) when he confronts Dracula with a cross. Avoiding controversy and censure, however, Stoker created the eschatological warriors not as Irish supermen but rather as a Catholic Dutchman and his partly converted multinational believers in the powers of the crucifix and the Host. Unlike fellow Irishman and author, Catholic James Joyce, Stoker may have been a cautious and wary opposer to the 'metrocolonial' political climate enforced by the Anglo-Protestant settlers of Ireland, as indicated by Joseph Valente. (18) Valente seems to be suggesting Stoker was rejecting the 'bitter subjugation' (19) of his homeland, but in the seemingly innocuous form of a trans-continental Gothic novel. Caught between the might of the British Empire and the increasing strength of the Irish, it is perhaps understandable that Stoker exercised caution. Academic Willard Potts went on to cite another Irishman, John Eglinton:
 In 1905 [he] complained that a main canon of the writers forming
 what is now called the 'literary revival' seemed to be that they
 'must not give offence by any too direct utterance on the central
 problem of Irish life' ... by which Eglinton meant religious
 relations between Irish Protestants and Catholics. (20)

Stoker was not known for giving offence, even when he railed against so-called 'degenerate writers' for not being good Christians and having 'in their selfish greed tried to deprave where others had striven to elevate', (21) but it is not apparent whom he thought were the most degenerate Christian writers, Catholics or Protestants. Few would deny the existence of an unfavourable climate for pro-Catholic writers in turn-of-the-century Britain and few would fail to appreciate the need for subtlety. Indeed, Stoker may have written an understated inversion of possibly the single most pivotal event in Anglo-Irish political history. Instead of a Protestant Dutchman, William III (later known as William of Orange), being summoned across the seas to save England from the perils of Catholicism and from its Irish exponents, the Irishman in England Bram Stoker gave us a Catholic Dutchman summoned across the seas to save England from ungodly peril. In Dracula, England's saviour is a Catholic Dutchman heavily armed with the holy sacraments of Catholicism.

The final thrust in this analytic stake (forgive the pun!) perhaps lies in the fact that after the novel's publication, Stoker's wife Florence, following her conversion to Catholicism in 1904, 'had her name listed in The Catholic Who's Who in 1910'. (22) This unusual reading of Dracula as pro-Catholic propaganda is curiously undeveloped by Leatherdale and unexplored elsewhere in the literature. However, academic Alison Milbank does come close when she seems to suggest that the novel is merely a clumsy Hibernian attempt to syncretically amalgamate the warring Irish Catholics and Anglo-Protestants: 'Stoker used a demonic character to unite a disparate opposition. So, Dracula calls forth a union of Protestant word and Catholic sacrament, figured as modern and ancient modes of communication.' (23) I use the adjective 'clumsy' in conceding with Valente that if syncreticism was Stoker's actual intention, it was, as with his previous novel The Snake's Pass, 'an act of literary apprenticeship' (24) and yet it possibly saved Stoker the vilification, and indeed imprisonment, some other Irish writers and activists were unable to avoid. Certainly, Harker is brought back to health in the Catholic hospital of St Joseph and St Mary in Budapest, and Mina and he are married there under the auspices of a Protestant Chaplain of the English mission Church.

This event may have significance as a symbolic attempt to syncretise the two faiths, but if Stoker was happy depicting Protestants and Catholics peacefully living and working together, one wonders why he included no contribution by expert practitioners of the Protestant faith to the destruction of Dracula? Of course, as Jacques Derrida argued, no text survives deconstruction to a sole meaning or 'transcendental signified', but it surely remains the attentive adaptor's duty to understand as many interpretations of his or her source work as may be suggested. This caveat is particularly relevant when one acknowledges that the overwhelming embracement of and ongoing enthusiasm for Dracula by Hollywood stems from a relatively simplistic theatrical adaptation published by Hamilton Deane and John L Balderston nearly thirty years after the novel. Until their version it seems Hollywood considered Dracula unfilmable.

As fundamental as anagogical interpretations may be to an understanding of Dracula one might argue that Deane and Balderston's famous 1924 and 1927 stage plays of the novel, like the myriad of subsequent adaptations, neglected the pro-Catholic themes for the sake of a succinct and entertaining production. To them, the proselytisation of Protestants to Catholicism may have been a troublesome sub-theme that simply got in the way of a good show. Or one might argue that increasingly secular societal attitudes worldwide since the fin de siecle have seen writers ignorantly emphasise other aspects of the book in their unfaithful theatrical or cinematic adaptations. The battle between Protestantism and Catholicism is perhaps not as furious today in popular culture as it was in Stoker's social and political milieu: these days many non-Catholic people wear crucifixes without giving a second thought to their 'idolatry'. But if the theatrical adaptor of Dracula aims for maximum faithfulness, then this pro-Catholic theme should be considered.

Is today's movie-going world ready for a frank and faithful transposition of Stoker's pro-Catholic theme? One recent Hollywood version of Dracula suggests it may be. Van Helsing (2004), written and directed by Stephen Sommers, is a loose, analogous adaptation of the stories of Dracula, the Wolfman, Frankenstein, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Sommers is obviously informed by knowledge of the sub-theme of pro-Catholicism but merely alludes to characters from the Stoker novel, simplifying them radically to permit as many action sequences as possible. Van Helsing, played by Hugh Jackman, is more a strapping 'Indiana Jones' than an elderly intellectual with a curious European accent. His character Gabriel, apart from sharing the surname, bears little relation to Abraham Van Helsing in the diegesis of the novel, but his motivation in Van Helsing is made clear: he is on a mission from a top-secret Holy Order of the Vatican, a mysterious cabal supported by a basement full of monks committed to research and gadget-making (and in what may be of interest to Milwood, the monks appear to include Buddhists and mullahs, seemingly syncreticised).

Like a nineteenth-century 007, Van Helsing meets the top brass in their secret hideout before taking on the next brief. He is given unofficial permission to bend the rules: a nod to the Indulgence the literary Van Helsing was granted. Of course, the Protestant-Catholic divide has not gone away completely, and in 2004 filmmakers are still chary. This Dracula adaptation refrains from mentioning the 'P' or 'C' words but in a film with so thin a plot any edifice is plainly visible: Gabriel Van Helsing is saving the world from Dracula under the instructions of the Catholic Church. It will be interesting to see, in the inevitable sequel to Van Helsing (or an even more interesting prequel), if some more is shown of the secret Holy Order hidden deep within the cobwebbed catacombs of the Vatican that sends the Catholic superhero out on his good deeds. The Catholic involvement in Van Helsing's work is unmistakeable in the Universal Studios' co-released animation Van Helsing: The London Assignment (2004), in which Gabriel is identified as a Knight of the Holy Order and ordered by one Cardinal Jinette to battle not Dracula, but Mr Hyde (interestingly, the crucifix still proves to be a powerful weapon against Robert Louis Stevenson's .end). If such adaptations as these--so loosely based on the original--acknowledge the pro-Catholic theme at all then a more faithful version might some day foreground it. Of course, as earlier admitted, mine is a selective reading of Dracula. Over the numerous sub-themes a particular reader may identify in the novel I have prioritised the sub-theme of pro-Catholicism. This is my indulgence: to envision an adaptation of Dracula that is not only informed by the sub-theme I receive as a reader but actually foregrounds it.

Ever since Stoker's novel was first adapted for a non-literary medium, the inventions of popular cinema and gimmick-laden stage devices seem to have become the main concern as the writers and producers of Dracula stage plays, musicals, films, theatre restaurants and even theme parks either deliberately or unknowingly neglect the thematically important Catholic allegory in favour of cheesy comedy and cheap thrills. With regard to Geoffrey Wagner's 1975 'Three modes of adaptation', these are not faithful 'transpositional' adaptations but, rather, mere works of 'commentary' or 'analogy'. (25) By excising the theme of pro-Catholicism they have made a significant comment about the theme's relevance and significance: 'it isn't'. Yet before Deane and Balderston's 1927 transmogrification of a disgusting, blood-sucking 'undead' monster with foul breath and hairy palms into a sexually alluring and culturally refined opera-cape-wearing gentleman whom one would plausibly invite into one's English--and Protestant--drawing room, Count Dracula was arguably the Antichrist who was particularly vulnerable to Catholic sacraments and could apparently only be killed by Catholics and partly converted Protestants armed with crucifixes, Holy Wafer and an Indulgence.

The production of a stage or screen adaptation of Dracula that faithfully foregrounds this pro-Catholic theme might change forever the public's understanding and reception of Bram Stoker's most famous novel and ensure that the author's original intentions, in an anti-Catholic environment, are finally recognised. If the cultural and political metamorphosis and devolution of Dracula that ensued some thirty years after its birth is ever reversed by a new, faithful adaptation that identifies and foregrounds this pro-Catholic theme, then the most enduring literary figure of the last 108 years will be reborn. Sommers' Van Helsing has paved the way for a splendidly revisionist, if somewhat indulgent, contribution to the popular reception of Dracula in mainstream thought.


(1) Ken Gelder, Reading the Vampire, Routledge, London, 1994, 13; Judith Halberstam, 'Technologies of monstrosity: Bram Stoker's "Dracula"', in Sally Ledger & Scott McCracken (eds), Cultural Politics at the Fin de Siecle, Cambridge University Press, New York, 1995, 248.

(2) Clive Leatherdale, Dracula:The Novel and the Legend, The Aquarian Press, Wellingborough, Northamptonshire, 1985, 177.

(3) Leatherdale, 185.

(4) David Glover, Vampires, Mummies and Liberals: Bram Stoker and the Politics of Popular Fiction, Duke University Press, Durham and London, 1996, 15.

(5) Leonard Wolf (ed.), The Essential Dracula, Plume Books, New York, 1993, 9.

(6) Wolf, 35.

(7) Wolf, 38.

(8) Wolf, 225.

(9) See The Catholic Encyclopaedia entry on 'Indulgences', www.

(10) Wolf, 362.

(11) Wolf, 181.

(12) See Mark 15:17.

(13) See John 19:34.

(14) Wolf, 293.

(15) Kellie Wixson, 'Dracula: an Anglo-Irish novel', in Elizabeth Miller (ed.), Dracula: The Shade and the Shadow, Desert Island Books, Westcliff-on-Sea, UK, 1998, 254.

(16) Wolf, 80.

(17) Wolf, 364.

(18) Joseph Valente, Dracula's Crypt, The University of Illinois Press, Illinois, 2002, ii.

(19) Valente, ii.

(20) Willard Potts, Joyce and the Two Irelands, The University of Texas Press, Texas, 2003, 11.

(21) Bram Stoker, 'The censorship of fiction', in Nineteenth Century, September 1908, 485.

(22) Barbara Belford, Bram Stoker: A Biography of the Author of Dracula, Alfred A Knopf, New York, 1996, 314.

(23) Alison Milbank, 'Powers old and new: Stoker's alliances with Anglo-Irish gothic', in William Hughes and Andrew Smith (eds), Bram Stoker: History, Psychoanalysis and the Gothic, MacMillan Press, London, 1998, 21.

(24) Valente, 11.

(25) Geoffrey Wagner, The Novel and the Cinema, Associated University Presses, New Jersey, 1975, 226.
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Author:Starrs, D. Bruno
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Article Type:Critical essay
Date:Jul 1, 2004
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