Dracula is our most famous vampire. Created in 1897, at the turn of the century, his legacy is the most famous Victorian monster of our time.
In the past 100 years, Dracula has been analyzed with Freudianism, feminism, post-colonialism, racism, and Marxism. While some have written about its commentary on asylum medicine, I’ve only seen one author make a connection to vaccination.
When Bram Stoker penned his famous novel, Germ theory had finally been accepted after a century of skepticism. In Stoker’s time, doctors were mistrusted by the poor. Only the rich could really afford them (this was before universal health care). Karl Marx had just published his book Das Kapital, and fear of blood-sucking capitalists was given a language. Distrust of the medical establishment was high, as this was before modern medicine, and some bizarre recommendations were floating around the otherwise ballooning professional medical community. It was still a male field paternalistic towards women, and people with mental disorders were institutionalized. Written information flowed like never before, as public education and the typewriter ad been introduced in the West.
Enter the fictional monster, Dracula, and his nemesis, Van Helsing. As the characters begin to realize the threat that Count Dracula poses, the monster appears to resemble the spread of disease, and the horror story resembling a medical mystery.
Count Dracula is a strong metaphor for disease. He leaves sick people in his wake, not just the dead. He purchases grave plots for use while he feeds. He an infect those he encounters and they can, even unwittingly, do his bidding. He is immortal, and yet “alive” is not quite an accurate description of he is (much like a virus).
As Eula Biss points out, “Dracula arrives in England just as a new disease might arrive, on a boat. He summons hoards of rats, and his infective evil spreads from the first woman he bits to the children he feeds on […] he is a monster whose monstrosity is contagious.”
Enter Dr. Van Helsing, a teacher of many old and new sciences. His recommendation to heal a victim of Dracula is for healthy donors to provide blood transfusions. He also attempts to use both herbal medicine (garlic) and pseudo-religious cures (a cross).
As with tracking down a disease back to patient zero, Helsing and co. must use clues to track Dracula back to his original home. In the process, Helsing’s company also discovers the nature of the monster, tough he himself has long suspected it. The Battle against Dracula becomes a battle of reason against doubt. Dracula is not at first understood, and neither is the way to defeat him.
In her book On Immunity, Eula Miss uses the metaphor of Dracula to assist in making a case for why people sometimes fear vaccines more than disease. After reading the book, I began to take the theory one step further: What if Bram Stoker had purposefully composed his novel as a pro-vaccine campaign against infectious disease?
Vaccines have been feared since they were invented, and the Victorian era was no exception. In one Anglican sermon, vaccines were labeled as the “mark of the beast,” “an abominable mixture of corruption, the lees of human vice, the dregs of venial appetites, that in after life may foam upon the spirit, and develop hell within, and overwhelm the soul.” In Stoker’s time, fear of vaccines was rampant. 120 years prior, George Washington debated whether to inoculate his soldiers in Canada (eventually saying yes). 150 years prior, Puritan leader Cotton Mather referred to variolation, the precursor to vaccines, a gift from God. His house was firebombed for expressing such a positive view of inoculation.
So if one wanted to convince people to get inoculated, they’d have to get creative, and usual traditional and spiritual illustrations to persuade the public that vaccines were not only good, but necessary.
Consider that the primary way to successfully defeat Dracula is by way of a jab to the heart, the blood-pumping mechanism of his body. This stabbing is a necessary violence that, resembling a needle to the skin, renders Dracula’s danger completely inert. Consider also that the sacramental bread laid on coffins to keep him from regenerating his powers also resembles the communion of sharing a single healthy body, the body of the Christ, just as those receiving vaccines share the same immunity by participating in life through the death of the disease. Consider also that Dracula is also “protected” by gypsies, a people routinely known not to comply entirely with other cultures, and often feared for bringing disease across national borders.
Dracula’s death at the end isn’t just with a stake in the heart, but a simultaneous decapitation. The message is not only about overkill, but a subtle insinuation that striking at the heart and chopping off the head are one in the same.
It would seem that Stoker was trying to use the horror of Dracula and the quick fix of a steak through the heart by a doctor who has done his due diligence to resemble the administering of vaccines to stop the spread of pathogens. What if he wrote Dracula to convince everyone that vaccines were necessary and proper?
While it’s a neat theory, it’s not likely at all he had vaccination in mind when writing the novel. Stoker had written plenty of novels full of sensational horror. His is one of many stories about horrible monsters invading civilized England, and was published well after many other vampire stories. Victorian readers didn’t have much to say about it, not to mention any connection to vaccination, other than the thrill of all that gloom.