The Vampire as the Specter of Madness in Stoker’s Dracula

CW: Because of the time period I’m talking about and the original source material, there is some ableist language in this essay.


In Victorian England, which considered itself the pinnacle of rationality and technological development, illnesses of the mind were terrifying. In his 1897 novel, Dracula, Bram Stoker crafts horror not only by realizing the Victorians’ prudish, proper, xenophobic nightmares, but also by threatening them with madness.

Count Dracula is an aristocrat from Transylvania, an Eastern European country that is considered primitive and superstitious—supposedly the complete opposite of nineteenth-century England. What’s more, Dracula has a special affinity with madness: one of his first recruits when he arrives in London is Renfield, an inmate in the asylum where a good portion of the novel takes place.

But the count’s relationship with Renfield isn’t his only tie to mental illness. Throughout the story, Dracula gives one of the heroes a “brain fever”; he causes Professor Van Helsing’s “regular fit of hysterics”; and because of him, several characters question their sanity, going in their mind “from point to point like a madman.” When he feeds on Lucy and Mina (for some reason, he mostly targets women—go figure), they become lethargic, self-destructive, and have marked personality changes. Lucy suffers from drastic mood swings, while Mina, no longer industrious and clear-headed, becomes sluggish and over-emotional.

 
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Dracula and Renfield

The relationship between Dracula and Renfield through madness has been explored by critics such as Valerie Pedlar. In “Zoophagous Maniac: Madness and Degeneracy in Dracula, Pedlar draws attention to the ways in which the vampire and the “lunatic” are equated: both are seen as “case studies” by the experts in the novel, both are associated with animals, and both are viewed as “subhuman” and “perverse.” Pedlar suggests that Dracula is a “scapegoat for the ills of modern society,” both moral and psychological.

However, Dracula can also be understood as the cause of madness in the novel: a force that resists understanding, defies categorization, evokes the uncanny, impedes normal functioning and everyday life, and, curiously, must be invited in. It is telling that the battle against Dracula is spearheaded by Professor Van Helsing, a man who has made his specialty “the brain and all that belongs to him and all that follow from him” and Dr. Seward, the director of an insane asylum.

Dracula and Lucy

Bela Lugosi and Helen Chandler in Dracula (1931, Universal)

Bela Lugosi and Helen Chandler in Dracula (1931, Universal)

Throughout the course of the story, Dracula feeds on both Lucy and Mina, directly affecting their mental faculties, moods, and personalities. In her early letter exchanges with Mina, Lucy is girlish and happy, gushing about the marriage proposals she has received and her engagement to Arthur. Like Renfield, Lucy feels Dracula’s presence as he approaches England; she becomes “restless and uneasy all the time,” although “she will not admit to [Mina] that there is any cause for restlessness; or if there be, she does not understand it herself.”

Her mood and behavior deteriorates further as Dracula arrives, and after he feeds on her, she becomes “languid and tired.” However, she soon returns to being “in gay spirits and full of life and cheerfulness." Later on, she again returns to feeling unhappy; she is full of “vague fear” and doesn’t have “the spirit to try to be cheerful” for Arthur’s benefit.

These mood swings recall what Dr. Seward describes as part of Renfield’s madness: he is sometimes “morbidly excitable,” but also has “periods of gloom.” In both her mood swings and her psychic perception of Dracula’s arrival, Lucy is paralleled with Renfield, who is clearly established to be “mad”—and the cause, in Lucy’s case, is Dracula.

Under Dracula’s thrall, Lucy takes harmful actions she’s not conscious of, such as walking to the churchyard in the middle of the night, where Dracula first feeds on her, and opening the window to admit Dracula, in bat form, on several occasions. Toward the end of her illness, Lucy slips in and out of conscious action: “the moment she became conscious she pressed the garlic flowers close to her,” protecting her from Dracula, but “whenever she got into that lethargic state… she put the flowers from her.” This unconscious self-endangerment indicates Lucy’s altered state of mind, brought on by Dracula.

Eventually, Lucy is reluctant to eat as well: “she took but little [food], and that languidly. There did not seem to be with her now the unconscious struggle for life and strength that had hitherto marked her illness.” Refusing food was seen as a kind of self-injury, which was associated with insanity by nineteenth-century psychologists and asylum workers.

Dracula and Mina

Lupita Tovar and Eduardo Arozamena in Dracula (1931, Universal, Spanish-language version)

Lupita Tovar and Eduardo Arozamena in Dracula (1931, Universal, Spanish-language version)

Mina also refuses food as her illness progresses: “I could not eat,” she writes, “to even try to do so was repulsive to me.” She goes one step further than Lucy, deceiving Van Helsing about her appetite, whom she tells that “she have eat already—that she was so hungry that she could not wait,” an obvious lie, and another self-harming action.

Like Lucy, Mina undergoes a transformation in personality and disposition under the influence of impending vampirism. From her introduction, Mina is characterized as hard-working, dutiful, and sensible. Before marrying Jonathan, she is an assistant schoolmistress. Her diary is an “exercise book”; she says, “I shall try to do what I see lady journalists do: interviewing and writing descriptions and trying to remember conversations.”

However, toward the end of the adventure, after Dracula has fed on Mina, Van Helsing worries that “She sleeps, and sleeps, and sleeps! She, who is usual so alert, have done literally nothing all the day…. She make no entry into her little diary, she who write so faithful at every pause.” In Victorian England, madness was all the more undesirable because it removed people from the workforce; “work, thrift, and self-denial” were seen as the antitheses of insanity.

This “self-denial” is also associated with control over one’s emotions. Soon after Dracula has bitten her for the first time, Mina writes in her journal: “now I am crying like a silly fool… This is a new weakness, of which I must be careful.” When Renfield attempts to convince Dr. Seward that he is of sound mind, Dr. Seward reflects that “the very excess of his emotion was militating against him.” Like her lethargy, Mina’s “excess of emotion” brought on by Dracula’s influence links her with a Victorian conception of madness.

An Invitation for the Vampire

Bela Lugosi in Dracula (1931, Universal)

Bela Lugosi in Dracula (1931, Universal)

Considering how Dracula represents the advent of madness for the characters in the story, it’s interesting that the vampire cannot cross thresholds uninvited. Likewise, during his stay at Castle Dracula, Jonathan asks to leave; Dracula says he is free to go, but when he opens the door, “the howling of the wolves without grew louder and angrier.” Jonathan realizes, “I was to be given to the wolves, and at my own instigation.” As Pendlar notes, even as Victorian psychologists struggled to explain the biological causes of mental illness, madness was also associated with “reprehensible styles of living, for which the individual… can be held morally culpable.” The concept of permission—the idea that victims have a choice whether or not to let Dracula in or to escape from him—is telling: Victorian society was inclined to blame victims for their mental illnesses, a practice that has not been erased from our society today.

Madness is a recurring thread throughout Dracula. None of the major characters escape its touch. Lucy and Mina’s cases are especially interesting because it is Dracula’s direct influence—his bite and his hypnotic powers—that affect their mental states. Although the novel calls attention to Jonathan’s brain fever and Van Helsing’s brief hysteria, it does not explicitly state that Lucy and Mina are suffering from any of the symptoms associated with madness, perhaps because in the metaphoric world of the story, Dracula’s mystical powers are the explanation.

However, their cases are both clearly associated with Victorian notions of mental illness. If the vampire were removed from the equation, one would hope that the “brain doctors” and their friends would still fight to save Lucy and Mina, but unfortunately, there would have been no monster to kill and miraculously remove the curse.

Works Consulted

Stoker, Bram. Dracula. Norton, 1997.

Pedlar, Valerie. “The Zoophagous Maniac: Madness and Degeneracy in Dracula.” “The Most Dreadful Visitation”: Male Madness in Victorian Fiction. Liverpool University Press, 2006, 134-158.

Janes, Dominic. “Oscar Wilde, Sodomy, and Mental Illness in Late Victorian England.” Journal of the History of Sexuality, vol. 23, no. 1, January 2014, pp. 79-95.

Chaney, Sarah. “‘A Hideous Torture on Himself’: Madness and Self-Mutilation in Victorian Literature.” Journal of Medical Humanities, vol. 32, no. 4, December 2011, pp. 279-289.