Why do vampires still thrill?
by Joan Acocella
From that point to the present, there have been more than a hundred and fifty Dracula movies. Roman Polanski, Andy Warhol, Werner Herzog, and Francis Ford Coppola all made films about the Count. There are subgenres of Dracula movies: comedy, pornography, blaxploitation, anime. There is also a "Deafula," for the hearing-impaired: the characters conduct their business in American Sign Language while the lines are spoken in voice-over. After film, television, of course, took on vampires. "Dark Shadows," in the nineteen-sixties, and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," in the nineties, were both big hits. Meanwhile, the undead have had a long life in fiction. Anne Rice's "The Vampire Chronicles" and Stephen King's " 'Salem's Lot" are the best-known recent examples, but one source estimates that the undead have been featured in a thousand novels.
Today, enthusiasm for vampires seems to be at a new peak. Stephenie Meyer's "Twilight" novels, for young adults (that is, teen-age girls), have sold forty-two million copies worldwide since 2005. The first of the film adaptations, released late last year, made a hundred and seventy-seven million dollars in its initial seven weeks. Charlaine Harris's Sookie Stackhouse novels ("Dead Until Dark," plus seven more), about a Louisiana barmaid's passion for a handsome revenant named Bill, were bought by six million people, and generated the HBO series "True Blood," which had its début last year and will be back in June. Also from last year was the haunting Swedish movie "Let the Right One In," in which a twelve-year-old boy, Oskar, falls in love with a mysterious girl, Eli, who has moved in next door. She, too, is twelve, she tells Oskar, but she has been twelve for a long time. A new Dracula novel, co-authored by the fragrantly named Dacre Stoker (a great-grandnephew of Bram), will be published in October by Dutton. The movie rights have already been sold.
The past half century has also seen a rise in vampire scholarship. In the nineteen-fifties, Freudian critics, addressing Stoker's novel, did what Freudians did at that time. Today's scholars, intent instead on politics—race, class, and gender—have feasted at the table. Representative essays, reprinted in a recent edition of "Dracula," include Christopher Craft's " 'Kiss Me with Those Red Lips': Gender and Inversion in Bram Stoker's 'Dracula' " and Stephen D. Arata's "The Occidental Tourist: 'Dracula' and the Anxiety of Reverse Colonization."
Other writers have produced fantastically detailed annotated editions of Stoker's "Dracula." The first of these, "The Annotated Dracula" (1975), by Leonard Wolf, a Transylvanian-born horror scholar, dealt, for example, with the scene of Dracula's assault on Mina by giving us the Biblical sources of "unclean, unclean" and "flesh of my flesh"; by cross-referencing "my bountiful wine-press" to an earlier passage, about Transylvanian viniculture; by noting, apropos of Dracula's opening a vein in his chest, that this recalls an old myth about the pelican feeding its young with blood from its bosom; by telling us that the vein Dracula slashed must have been the superficial intercostal; by exclaiming over the sexual ambiguity of the scene ("Just what is going on here? A vengeful cuckoldry? A ménage à trois? Mutual oral sexuality?"), and so on. None of this information is needed by the first- or second-time reader of "Dracula." Indeed, it would be a positive hindrance, draining away the suspense that Stoker worked so hard to build.
The fullness of Wolf's commentary did not discourage others. In 1979, a second annotated edition came out, and in 1998 a third. Last October, a fourth—"The New Annotated Dracula," by Leslie Klinger, a Los Angeles tax and estate lawyer who has a sideline editing Victorian literature—was published by Norton ($39.95). What could Klinger have found to elucidate that his predecessors didn't? Plenty. In the scene of Mina's encounter with Dracula, for example, he honorably cites the earlier editions, and then he goes on to alert us to a punctuation error; to conjecture, revoltingly, about the source of the mist in which Dracula enters Mina's bedroom ("Perhaps this was not a vapor but rather a milky substance expressed from Dracula's body"); to speculate that Jonathan Harker's excitement, upon awakening from his swoon, may be a form of sexual arousal; and to question the medical accuracy of Stoker's claim that Harker's hair turns white as he listens to Mina's story: "In fact, whitening is caused by a progressive decline in the absolute number of melanocytes (pigment-producing cells in the skin, hair, and eye), which normally decrease over time." Even that old sentimental convention does not get past him.