How these papers have been placed in sequence will be made manifest in the reading of them. All needless matters have been eliminated, so that a history almost at variance with the possibilities of later-day belief may stand forth as simple fact. There is throughout no statement of past things wherein memory may err, for all the records chosen are exactly contemporary, given from the standpoints and within the range of knowledge of those who made them.
So begins the historical record of Dracula, written a mere seven years after the events described, and still one of the best known vampire tales. The appeal to historicity is of course nothing but a narrative framing device, but it reminded me a lot of Christian apologetics.
As is hopefully obvious, this post will contain some spoilers for Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
You should be more open minded
Perhaps, like so many of these modern materialist skeptics, despite these authentic documents you don’t believe vampires exist? Well, the answer is clear: You should be more open minded.
This is particularly shown by the learned Professor Van Helsing. Here is Dr John Seward’s introduction of him (with my emphasis):
[Van Helsing] is a seemingly arbitrary man, but this is because he knows what he is talking about better than any one else. He is a philosopher and a metaphysician, and one of the most advanced scientists of his day; and he has, I believe, an absolutely open mind. This, with an iron nerve, a temper of the ice-brook, an indomitable resolution, self-command, and toleration exalted from virtues to blessings, and the kindliest and truest heart that beats—these form his equipment for the noble work that he is doing for mankind.
Van Helsing himself reiterates the importance of this:
I have learned not to think little of any one’s belief, no matter how strange it be. I have tried to keep an open mind; and it is not the ordinary things of life that could close it, but the strange things, the extraordinary things, the things that make one doubt if they be mad or sane.
Later, he applies it specifically to vampires:
“There are such beings as vampires; some of us have evidence that they exist. Even had we not the proof of our own unhappy experience, the teachings and the records of the past give proof enough for sane peoples. I admit that at the first I was sceptic. Were it not that through long years I have train myself to keep an open mind, I could not have believe until such time as that fact thunder on my ear. ‘See! see! I prove; I prove.’
And this just reminds me so much of Christian apologetics. When ex-Christians like me talk about having no reason to believe in God, we are often told that we need to be more open minded. After all, the only reason we don’t believe in God is that we’ve started off assuming that he doesn’t exist.
I notice that such Christians aren’t nearly so open minded as Van Helsing. They aren’t willing to be open minded enough to accept that the gods of other religions might exist, let alone other mythical creatures like vampires. For them, open mindedness is just something that others should apply to their god.
Being open to the possibility that I might be wrong is a great thing: It’s what brought me to where I am today. Like many ex-Christians, I came to my current position because I was open minded enough to consider that there might be truth outside the Bible. However, it also made me realise that not all beliefs are equivalent: There are better reasons for believing some things than others.
Personally, I don’t say categorically that gods and vampires don’t exist. What I do say is that I don’t have any reason to believe they exist. In practical terms, I live my life as if they don’t exist: I don’t pray to any gods for divine aid, and I don’t wear a garlic necklace or a crucifix to ward off vampires. I don’t know why Christians think I should be open minded towards their particular odd beliefs while remaining closed to the many other odd beliefs around.
The testimony of history
To Van Helsing, we should believe in vampires because there is a long established tradition that must have a basis in reality:
“All we have to go upon are traditions and superstitions. These do not at the first appear much, when the matter is one of life and death—nay of more than either life or death. Yet must we be satisfied; in the first place because we have to be—no other means is at our control—and secondly, because, after all, these things—tradition and superstition—are everything. Does not the belief in vampires rest for others—though not, alas! for us—on them? A year ago which of us would have received such a possibility, in the midst of our scientific, sceptical, matter-of-fact nineteenth century? We even scouted a belief that we saw justified under our very eyes. Take it, then, that the vampire, and the belief in his limitations and his cure, rest for the moment on the same base. For, let me tell you, he is known everywhere that men have been. In old Greece, in old Rome; he flourish in Germany all over, in France, in India, even in the Chernosese; and in China, so far from us in all ways, there even is he, and the peoples fear him at this day. He have follow the wake of the berserker Icelander, the devil-begotten Hun, the Slav, the Saxon, the Magyar.
I’m not keen on a reliance on tradition and superstition, which can easily grow over time and are difficult to verify. I particularly dislike the idea of saying “This is all the evidence we’ve got, so we’ve got to be satisfied with it”.
This can come up in discussion of the resurrection of Jesus. If we ask for more details, the answer comes back that it was so long ago, and the gospels are the best record we’ve got. People in our scientific, skeptical, matter-of-fact
nineteenth twenty-first century are just being unreasonable asking for more. It doesn’t matter if the evidence seems meagre - you’ve got to accept it anyway because <reasons>. A few years back I wrote about what evidence we might need, and my opinion has only strengthened since then.
Don’t forget this: In Dracula they were going back to the legends to try and find more information about vampires because they actually encountered one. We don’t have any equivalent encounters with Jesus today. We just have a bunch of stories, and those stories have lots of problems.
Primary documents and eye-witness testimony
The text of Dracula is mostly primary sources: Letters, diaries, ship logs, newspaper clippings. They were clearly written at the time, then they were assembled seven years later by some of the survivors of the events described. We know who wrote them, when they were written, and how they fit together.
Christian apologists are often quick to assert that the gospels are “eye-witness accounts”. But they are nothing like this. The gospel of John claims that it was written by an unnamed “disciple who Jesus loved”. The gospel of Luke claims that at the time it was written there had been many eyewitness accounts handed down, and the author had investigated carefully and was writing an orderly account. The gospels of Matthew and Mark don’t make any claim about authorship, and give no information about their sources.
Then there’s the nature of the texts: They are hagiographic, and show clear signs of legendary development. There are claims of many miracles being performed, perhaps most notably the resurrection of the dead. And we’re just supposed to accept these as sober history because unidentified sources allegedly witnessed them.
It may be that the gospels are the best Christians have, but that doesn’t mean we have to accept them. Dracula is far more clearly testified.
Jonathan Harker at least strikes a more realistic note at the end of Dracula:
I took the papers from the safe where they had been ever since our return so long ago. We were struck with the fact, that in all the mass of material of which the record is composed, there is hardly one authentic document; nothing but a mass of typewriting, except the later note-books of Mina and Seward and myself, and Van Helsing’s memorandum. We could hardly ask any one, even did we wish to, to accept these as proofs of so wild a story.
Condemned by their very nature
It is hinted (though I don’t think spelled out) that Dracula made a deal with the devil some hundreds of years before the events recorded. It was a deal that gave him a kind of immortality, but also made sure he would be judged wicked forever. However, others can become vampires simply by being given the “baptism of blood”, and they face the same judgement:
But to fail here, is not mere life or death. It is that we become as him; that we henceforward become foul things of the night like him—without heart or conscience, preying on the bodies and the souls of those we love best. To us for ever are the gates of heaven shut; for who shall open them to us again? We go on for all time abhorred by all; a blot on the face of God’s sunshine; an arrow in the side of Him who died for man.
While that suggests part of the problem is that becoming a vampire will mean performing all kinds of evils, it doesn’t stop with that. One character at least was not condemned for her actions or intentions, but merely for being made a vampire against her will:
Oh my God! my God! what have I done? What have I done to deserve such a fate, I who have tried to walk in meekness and righteousness all my days. God pity me! Look down on a poor soul in worse than mortal peril; and in mercy pity those to whom she is dear!”
She ends up literally branded as a result of her vampire nature, rejected by God though with a vague hope held out of future deliverance:
On your forehead I touch this piece of Sacred Wafer in the name of the Father, the Son, and——”
There was a fearful scream which almost froze our hearts to hear. As he had placed the Wafer on Mina’s forehead, it had seared it—had burned into the flesh as though it had been a piece of white-hot metal. My poor darling’s brain had told her the significance of the fact as quickly as her nerves received the pain of it; and the two so overwhelmed her that her overwrought nature had its voice in that dreadful scream. But the words to her thought came quickly; the echo of the scream had not ceased to ring on the air when there came the reaction, and she sank on her knees on the floor in an agony of abasement. Pulling her beautiful hair over her face, as the leper of old his mantle, she wailed out:—
“Unclean! Unclean! Even the Almighty shuns my polluted flesh! I must bear this mark of shame upon my forehead until the Judgment Day.” They all paused. I had thrown myself beside her in an agony of helpless grief, and putting my arms around held her tight. For a few minutes our sorrowful hearts beat together, whilst the friends around us turned away their eyes that ran tears silently. Then Van Helsing turned and said gravely; so gravely that I could not help feeling that he was in some way inspired, and was stating things outside himself:—
“It may be that you may have to bear that mark till God himself see fit, as He most surely shall, on the Judgment Day, to redress all wrongs of the earth and of His children that He has placed thereon. And oh, Madam Mina, my dear, my dear, may we who love you be there to see, when that red scar, the sign of God’s knowledge of what has been, shall pass away, and leave your forehead as pure as the heart we know. For so surely as we live, that scar shall pass away when God sees right to lift the burden that is hard upon us. Till then we bear our Cross, as His Son did in obedience to His Will. It may be that we are chosen instruments of His good pleasure, and that we ascend to His bidding as that other through stripes and shame; through tears and blood; through doubts and fears, and all that makes the difference between God and man.”
The Christian version of this isn’t always spoken in so many words by apologists, but what it boils down to is that we are considered broken sinners because we are human. We are descended from Adam, and therefore (depending on theology) have inherited his sin. Our very nature is supposed to testify against us, and we are supposed to trust God and not trust ourselves.
I reject that. It’s no more just to condemn humans for being born human than it is to condemn a newly minted vampire for the misfortune of being bitten.
Oh, that I could give any idea of the scene; of that sweet, sweet, good, good woman in all the radiant beauty of her youth and animation, with the red scar on her forehead, of which she was conscious, and which we saw with grinding of our teeth—remembering whence and how it came; her loving kindness against our grim hate; her tender faith against all our fears and doubting; and we, knowing that so far as symbols went, she with all her goodness and purity and faith, was outcast from God.
Some Christians I know are really good people. And yet this belief makes them unable to accept that they are actually doing OK. They will find (or imagine) the smallest faults in themselves, the things they should have done for their god and haven’t, seemingly not realising that in reality they are doing far better than most of their fellow Christians. It’s sad - but it’s also indicative of a broken system of belief.
Salvation of the soul
In Dracula, killing a newly made vampire is supposed to be an act of love - otherwise that vampire would later be cast into Hell forever:
“If I could spare you one pang, my poor friend,” he said, “God knows I would. But this night our feet must tread in thorny paths; or later, and for ever, the feet you love must walk in paths of flame!”
But of the most blessed of all, when this now Un-Dead be made to rest as true dead, then the soul of the poor lady whom we love shall again be free. Instead of working wickedness by night and growing more debased in the assimilating of it by day, she shall take her place with the other Angels. So that, my friend, it will be a blessed hand for her that shall strike the blow that sets her free.
I think this matches how some Christians use threats of Hell and promises of Heaven. It gives them justification to interfere with anyone’s life because their interference might save that person from Hell. And that justification can even be used if the apologist seems to be hurting those people (because surely an eternity in Hell is worse than any hurt in this life?)
However, my problem with that is that they can’t actually prove that souls exist. Let alone that heaven and hell exist and their actions will save us from hell and grant them entry into heaven. It’s only after death we’ll know for sure.
So how did this play out in Dracula?
Arthur took the stake and the hammer, and when once his mind was set on action his hands never trembled nor even quivered. Van Helsing opened his missal and began to read, and Quincey and I followed as well as we could. Arthur placed the point over the heart, and as I looked I could see its dint in the white flesh. Then he struck with all his might.
The Thing in the coffin writhed; and a hideous, blood-curdling screech came from the opened red lips. The body shook and quivered and twisted in wild contortions; the sharp white teeth champed together till the lips were cut, and the mouth was smeared with a crimson foam. But Arthur never faltered. He looked like a figure of Thor as his untrembling arm rose and fell, driving deeper and deeper the mercy-bearing stake, whilst the blood from the pierced heart welled and spurted up around it. His face was set, and high duty seemed to shine through it; the sight of it gave us courage so that our voices seemed to ring through the little vault.
And then the writhing and quivering of the body became less, and the teeth seemed to champ, and the face to quiver. Finally it lay still. The terrible task was over.
To me, the concept of a “mercy-bearing stake” sounds like something out of the Inquisition. It’s like the idea of “burning the body to save the soul”. It’s horrible.
But the thing to note again is that in Dracula-world there is actual evidence that this extreme action worked:
There, in the coffin lay no longer the foul Thing that we had so dreaded and grown to hate that the work of her destruction was yielded as a privilege to the one best entitled to it, but Lucy as we had seen her in her life, with her face of unequalled sweetness and purity. True that there were there, as we had seen them in life, the traces of care and pain and waste; but these were all dear to us, for they marked her truth to what we knew. One and all we felt that the holy calm that lay like sunshine over the wasted face and form was only an earthly token and symbol of the calm that was to reign for ever.
Van Helsing came and laid his hand on Arthur’s shoulder, and said to him:—
“And now, Arthur my friend, dear lad, am I not forgiven?”
The reaction of the terrible strain came as he took the old man’s hand in his, and raising it to his lips, pressed it, and said:—
“Forgiven! God bless you that you have given my dear one her soul again, and me peace.” He put his hands on the Professor’s shoulder, and laying his head on his breast, cried for a while silently, whilst we stood unmoving. When he raised his head Van Helsing said to him:—
“And now, my child, you may kiss her. Kiss her dead lips if you will, as she would have you to, if for her to choose. For she is not a grinning devil now—not any more a foul Thing for all eternity. No longer she is the devil’s Un-Dead. She is God’s true dead, whose soul is with Him!”
The Christian apologist can’t point to anything like this. They may claim that a soul has been “saved” or has gone to heaven, but all we can see is that a person has died.
The power of the cross
In Dracula the crucifix has an important power - it can ward off vampires. The same is true of consecrated Communion wafers:
Instinctively I moved forward with a protective impulse, holding the Crucifix and Wafer in my left hand. I felt a mighty power fly along my arm; and it was without surprise that I saw the monster cower back before a similar movement made spontaneously by each one of us. It would be impossible to describe the expression of hate and baffled malignity—of anger and hellish rage—which came over the Count’s face. His waxen hue became greenish-yellow by the contrast of his burning eyes, and the red scar on the forehead showed on the pallid skin like a palpitating wound.
It’s a bit odd, really, how very Christian a vampire Dracula is.
But how could I argue with these eye-witness accounts?
Again, it’s worth comparing the account in Dracula with what Christians have to offer. In Dracula, the crucifix has an immediate and visible effect: It can save you from vampires. In Christianity, the cross is a sign of sacrifice, but also of love and of hope. It is supposed to magically motivate people to sacrifice their own petty desires, give over their lives to God, and gain salvation from sin.
I literally saw this written in the sky at Easter:
How a condemned criminal sentenced to execution and dying a painful death is supposed to be a sign of love is an interesting question. Similarly, how is it loving to try and convince people that they have problems that only Christianity has the power to fix? However, some apologists make this part of their routine.
This has the same problem as with heaven and hell: Christians can assert that the cross has power to save us, but they can’t produce any evidence of it. It’s not like warding off a vampire, where the effect can be seen immediately. No eye-witness has seen a cross or the blood of Jesus saving someone. It also requires us to accept the Christian definition of “sin”, which I don’t.
People giving their life for a cause
In the final struggle to defeat Dracula, one of the men receives a mortal wound and dies “a gallant gentleman”. The death of Dracula removes the curse on Mina.
In the words of the inimitable Van Helsing:
We want no proofs. We ask none to believe us! This boy will some day know what a brave and gallant woman his mother is. Already he knows her sweetness and loving care. Later on he will understand how some men so loved her, that they did dare much for her sake.
This also reminds me of apologetics, and in particular the claim that Jesus must have been resurrected, because believers wouldn’t have died for a lie. Not only do we lack the eye-witness accounts for most of those claimed deaths, but we also just know it’s not true. People do die for things that are important to them, but that doesn’t necessarily make those things “true”.
Life after death
Dracula contains eye-witness testimony of a vampire who was alive after her death. She walked the streets at night before returning to her tomb. And eventually the protagonists killed her again, claiming that they were saving her soul.
However, despite all this carefully set out evidence written by eye-witnesses at the time, I don’t feel I have any reason to believe it. And I don’t think I have any more reason to believe in life after death through Jesus than I do in life after death through vampires.
As I’ve said before, if there were a story of a resurrection that happened yesterday, I would be skeptical and want to know more about it. A two thousand year gap doesn’t make it somehow more likely.