delusions & dracula


One of my favorite papers was an analysis that argued that Dracula was all a group delusion, instigated by Van Helsing when his mental health deteriorated in the face of his professional failure.

In modern adaptations and spin-offs, Van Helsing is a bad boy vampire hunter, a no-nonsense warrior doctor. However, in Dracula, he is completely different: an extremely unstable wreck who shows signs of Narcissistic Personality Disorder, such as delusions of grandeur and violent reaction to criticism.

We first meet Van Helsing when he is tasked to help a very sick young lady named Lucy Westenra. Instead of providing solace or clarity to Lucy and her family, Van Helsing keeps the others in the dark about her condition. He does not even confide to his mentee, Seward. Moreover, Van Helsing seems to take a theatrical flair to his job, such as when he has garlic delivered all the way from the Netherlands. The gesture is so grand for simple garlic that Lucy at first believes that it is a joke. When Lucy mocks the pomp and circumstance of receiving “common” garlic, Van Helsing flies into a rage that shocks Seward and frightens Lucy: "No trifling with me! . . . I warn you that you do not thwart me!” (115). Keep in mind that at this point, Van Helsing has no inkling that a vampire is at work here. He is just ordering garlic and ranting about being "thwarted" for kicks.

This is not the only time when Van Helsing is violent when his methods are mocked or ignored; he also “hurls” Mr. Holmwood, Lucy's fiancé, “across the room” with a “fury of strength” (141) after Holmwood attempts to kiss Lucy goodbye. However, it is once Lucy dies that Van Helsing seems to descend even further into madness. Seward himself diagnoses Van Helsing with hysterics after seeing the professor seemingly go mad after Lucy’s funeral: “The moment we were alone in the carriage he gave way to a regular fit of hysterics. He has denied to me since that it was hysterics, and insisted that it was only his sense of humor asserting itself under very terrible conditions. He laughed till he cried, and I had to draw down the blinds lest any one should see us and misjudge” (152). Though Seward is concerned for his mentor, Van Helsing is in denial about his condition, instead explaining it as “his sense of humor asserting itself under very terrible conditions” (152). Van Helsing almost breaks down a second time, but manages to control himself. It is during these trials that Seward has serious concerns for Van Helsing’s mental health, writing, “I wonder if his mind can have become in any way unhinged" (179).

It is after Lucy's death that Van Helsing reads the diary of her friend Jonathan Harker, who has just returned from a business stay in Transylvania as a client of Count Dracula. Harker's diary suggests that Harker himself is prone mental instability even before meeting Count Dracula; he had shown signs of dealing with severe anxiety, both with an upcoming promotion and his task at going to a foreign land to help a foreign client. However, once with Dracula, Harker truly becomes delusional, writing about being paralyzed by his glance and fighting off three seductive female vampires. When Harker writes about seeing vampires, it is always accompanied by physical symptoms, such as tiredness, a "beating heart," a "tingling of the nerves," and feeling faint, all major signs of mental hallucinations. At the end of Harker's stay, he had become so paranoid that he scales down the walls of the castle--a move that is borderline suicidal--and has what Victorians euphemistically called "brain fever," i.e. a mental breakdown. Nonetheless, when Van Helsing reads these accounts, he does not see a man crippled with anxiety, paranoia, and delusions, but instead declares not only that Count Dracula is a vampire, but Dracula killed Lucy Westenra.

To a psychiatrist, psychologist, or average person, this is complete madness. However, Van Helsing's circle, whose members include three heart-broken suitors, a grieving best friend, and Jonathan Harker, is easy to manipulate.

Now that Van Helsing has a scapegoat for Lucy's death, he suddenly has a great knowledge of all things vampire. Unfortunately, Dracula seems to have few of the powers Van Helsing describes. For example, Harker claims that Dracula scaled down the walls of his castle in Transylvania. Even ignoring the fact that Dracula would likely have left his house through the front door as the well-known town aristocrat, it would make more sense for Dracula to turn into a bat and fly out--a power Van Helsing insists Dracula possesses--rather than scale down the walls.

Second is the inconsistency of Van Helsing's claim that Dracula has come to England for fresh blood. Only two people, Lucy and Mina, Harker's fiancée, are attacked during Dracula's stay in England, a laughably low number for such a long journey. Despite a plethora of targets, Dracula ignores a majority of society, including Lucy's mother and the maids in the Westenra household to focus only on Lucy. Moreover, to attack Lucy, Dracula supposedly drugged the Westenra's decanter, a random and unnecessary act for someone who supposedly has the power of twenty men and can disguise himself as dust.

Finally, if Dracula has the ability to paralyze with a single look, as Harker attests, why does he not do so in the final battle of the story? Mina even describes looking into his eyes, "the red eyes glared with the horrible vindictive look which I knew so well. As I looked, the eyes saw the sinking sun, and the look of hate in them turned to triumph" (331), yet these eyes hold no power over anyone.

There is so much more in the paper that deals with various inconsistencies, but one last thing I'll add is that Dracula and the three female vampires turn to dust when they are killed. Lucy, who has a brief stint as vampire after her death, does not turn to dust when they defeat her. It is only the vampires that have no records or other witnesses that seem to disappear and leave no evidence.

When reading an epistolary novel, it is always important to remember that the point of view is far from impartial and possibly even false. In the case of Dracula, I remain convinced that the latter is the case. The constant clues of mental instability, coupled with the plot inconsistencies, make it more likely than not that this great adventure was nothing more than a delusion under a folie de plusieurs. In a weird way, it almost makes the book creepier--a Shutter Island, vampire style, if you will.

So, when you see the vampire costumes this Halloween, think about the book that started it all and how it is very possible that poor Bram Stoker meant to write a psychological drama and instead create a horror legend.

*The book pages are from the free Kindle edition of Dracula.