The Vampires’ Journey V. Hammer Horror brings sexual liberation?

The post-war years saw a shift in vampire fiction – with women beginning to take more active roles than previously. The emerging women’s movement and the sexual liberation the pill brought had something to do with this. Though vampire fiction was still a long way from the point when Joss Whedon would decide to have the blonde girl in the alley fight back, it wasn’t really enough for women to be waiting around to get bitten anymore. One of the earliest examples of can be seen in the first Hammer Horror film about Dracula, directed by Terence Fisher in 1958.

In Horror of Dracula Christopher Lee’s performance as Dracula brings glamour to the role. The Count is well spoken, well dressed and his home is luxurious.

I have theorised in another article[1] that the Cullen family of vampires of the Twilight novels and films represent consumerist aspiration. The way in which audiences aspire to lifestyles that we see lived by film and TV characters can be clear when the character is young, beautiful, wealthy or has an amazing career. It is not so often, however, that the monsters of horror films are so depicted, but Hammer’s Horror of Dracula may be the beginning of such a trend in vampire fiction.

The Cullen dream house, lifestyle eye candy?

We are now so used to the idea that vampires are attractive, and can also be wealthy and powerful, that this may seem like an odd point to make. But if you go back to Bela Lugosi’s castle in 1931, Count Orlok’s castle in 1922 and Stoker’s Castle Dracula you will see Dracula living in cobwebby, ruinous dark spaces. Dracula looks forward to moving to Carfax Abbey in England reflecting, “I myself am of an old family, and to live in a new house would kill me.”[2] But as Auerbach comments on the home of Christopher Lee’s Dracula, “Lee’s castle is spacious and modern, full of expensive furniture… It’s colorful rooms have just been painted; even its crypt is sparkling. Anyone in the Hammer target audience would covet this art deco home, a pointed contrast to Lugosi’s unlivable mausoleum.”[3] Similarly the Cullen’s home is described as “timeless, graceful… very bright, very open and very large”. Walls have been replaced with glass, there is a “massive curving staircase… high-beamed ceiling… wooden floors… thick carpets… all varying shades of white”.[4] Is this a vampire novel or an episode of Grand Designs? Vampire super-Mom Esme Cullen even gets involved in renovation projects in her spare time.[5] So in 1958 we see the beginnings of vampires not living in dusty old crypts but instead having desirable, affluent lifestyles that tap into the hopes and dreams of the viewing audience.

Peter Cushing as a dapper Van Helsing

But never mind interior decorating, on to the plot of Horror of Dracula. Well, it doesn’t make much sense, in fact it is gloriously incoherent. It is not clear where we are as characters rush back and forth from the castle and the town and are all mixed up. Jonathan Harker is recharacterised from solicitor to vampire hunter, posing as a librarian who gets turned into a vampire and is later staked by Van Helsing. He is engaged to Lucy (not Mina), whose friend Mina is married to Arthur. It is all a jumble but that doesn’t matter, it is very entertaining. I believe its styling has been a huge influence on future vampire fictions. Van Helsing played by Peter Cushing is young(ish) and athletic, but still tweedy and distinctly brings Rupert Giles to mind.

In another precedent the film shows vampirism as a metaphor for female sexual awakening. What is amazing is that this happens without the presence of the vampire. Auerbach describes the Victorian women as “family-bounded…under the control of a slew of interchangeable paternalistic men”. Dracula however, is “too elusive to be another overbearing male; he is an emanation of the anger, pride, and sexuality that lie dormant in the women themselves. Stoker’s nightmare of violation becomes a dream of female self-possession”. [6]

Mina in Horror of Dracula

A weak Lucy is fussed over, appearing childish. Once alone, she rises, opens the window, takes off her crucifix, lies down and strokes the bite marks on her neck. Auerbach writes, “The scene suggests vampirism, but we see, instead a woman alone, claiming herself… opening the window to her adult self.” Later we see Mina return home after, we can only assume, spending time with Dracula. She has been transformed from a dull presence to an enlivened woman, smiling to herself with “an infusion of self delight, not delight in Dracula”. [7]

This is all a bit tame by modern standards, but its impact can’t be underestimated to an audience in the late 1950s. Vampire fiction was reflecting changing times and attitudes. The pattern of emerging sexual awareness shown here is echoed in today’s fiction. In early episodes of True Blood’s Season One for example several highly-charged erotic scenes focus on Sookie as she is alone absorbed in sexual fantasies.

Hammer Horror films of course soon gave way from sexual liberation to sexism. It is noticeable that the real violence of the films is less the attack by vampires and more the staking of female vampires. In Horror of Dracula when Jonathan is staked the camera turns away, it seems it would be undignified to show that penetration. But when a female vampire is staked we have a full view, (a clip which we are treated to during an episode of True Blood, being shown on TV in a background). When Van Helsing kills off Dracula it is sunlight that does the job and not a stake. In the follow up film Dracula, Prince of Darkness, 1966, Lee’s Dracula is brought back to life in a scene that brings to mind the attempted revival of the Master in BtVS Season Two, (When She Was Bad). Dracula is later killed by drowning. Disappointingly Christopher Lee’s Dracula in this and other follow ups is reduced to a snarling, prowling creature who is inarticulate and lacks the charming menace of his Dracula of 1958. But this would not be the end of articulate charming vampires…

Coming soon Vlad the romancer! The 1970s and the myth of Dracula’s connection to Vlad the Impaler… 

This is part five of a series of articles on The Vampires’ Journey. If you feel you are missing something please see earlier posts.
Text ©Angela S

[1] ‘From Buffy to Bella – has vampire fiction lost its teeth?’ Angela Stapleford, Socialist Review, January 2011.

[2] Bram Stoker, Dracula, p21.

[3] Auerbach, p123.

[4] Stephenie Meyer, Twilight, p281.

[5] Stephenie Meyer, New Moon, p352.

[6] Auerbach, p124

[7] Auerbach, p125

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