A colony of bats swarming against the night sky. Ancient stone staircases that lead to nowhere. The low light of a candle reflecting off a pool of blood.
These are just a few of the images that define the Victorian Gothic aesthetic of Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula, which spawned more than 200 film appearances from the Count and inspired over 100 years of vampires in the media.
In this century, a lot of these adaptations have taken a step back from the 19th-century setting from which the media’s obsession with vampires first spawned, instead choosing a contemporary spin. Shadowhunters, Vampire Diaries and Buffy have all played a part in this recent phenomenon, not to mention the notorious Twilight Saga which turned these creatures of the night into teenage heartthrobs, perhaps best enjoyed ironically.
When vampires are placed in such contemporary settings, it is easy to lose the original sense of fear that is felt in both early fiction portrayals like Stoker’s Dracula and Sheridan Le Fanau’s Carmilla, and the undead creatures which plagued folklore from Eastern Europe to Central America. Even the most morally dubious vampires in Twilight can’t reach the same heights of terror as the Victorian vampire. Instead, they step out of the realm of horror and into fantasy or drama.
So, when Sherlock creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss announced their own take on Bram Stoker’s novel, it was intriguing – particularly because we were promised a setting true to the source material.
To give credit where credit is due, the first two episodes were off book in the best way imaginable. It was a new take on the original source, without compromising the atmospheric and genuinely frightening nature of Bram Stoker’s original work.
BBC’s Dracula came so close!
However, this wonderful nightmare ended all too abruptly when the Count awakens after 123 years at the bottom of the ocean, washed up on the shore of Whitby in 2020, showing that the real charm of the story owes a great deal to its Victorian backdrop.
Speaking to The Times ahead of the show’s release, showrunner Steven Moffat said: “We thought we had drifted away from the traditional view of the vampire a bit, with sparkling vampires and nice vampires. They were all great, brilliant ideas, but it was time to go back to a scary castle, a tall sexy man in a cape, bats flying everywhere and moonlight.”
This turned out to be a misleading statement to keep the secret twist at the end of episode 2 under wraps, but the point still stands. There are more ways to reimagine a vampire story without bringing it into the 21st century.
The first two episodes of BBC’s Dracula were magnificent for this very reason. The audience can much more effectively feel Jonathan Harker’s fear as he wanders deeper into the labyrinth of Castle Dracula by candlelight, discovering horrors unimaginable in the dusty shadows. The idea of a vampire on board a ship, isolated in the middle of the ocean and picking off passengers one by one, can send a chill down your spine now more than ever.
A contemporary setting is too safe. Everything seems much clearer under the fluorescent lights and our hyperconnected modern society takes away from that very real sense of isolation that makes a story like Dracula on the Demeter impossible in the modern-day. Dracula loses his power and control when he has to grapple with new technology. And no one wanted to see Dracula use Tinder to look for victims.
Anne Rice faced the same problem writing The Vampire Chronicles. The earlier instalments of the series were full of character when they focussed on the past as the main setting for the story. As the characters were brought into the present, the series lost this rich atmosphere, becoming too reliant on its own philosophical musings and in doing so, alienating horror fans.
We saw Dracula fall into the same trap in its third and final episode. While its attempt to make a nightmarish atmosphere of 21st century London was valiant, it became reliant on making a shaky statement about Instagram or modern dating. In doing so, it lost the original, more elusive air of horror from the original novel.
The modern world doesn’t suit modern vampires
Francis Ford Coppola took on a similar challenge to Moffat and Gatiss in 1992 when he directed Bram Stoker’s Dracula, a similar adaptation which stayed true to the original setting throughout. For all the criticism the film attracted – mostly down to Keanu Reeve’s questionable English accent – it gave us the realisation of some fantastic scenes from later in the novel that were missing from the BBC adaptation.
Although some moments in the film lacked subtlety, it benefitted from haunting sceneries like Carfax Abbey and the Victorian decadence of Lucy Westenra’s home; these sets remain superior to the fluorescent nightclubs in the BBC’s version.
There seems to be an assumption that setting stories like Dracula in their authentic 19th Century has become clichéd. Through this belief, we’ve become so accustomed to this trope that it has lost its terror. The extravagance of the 19th century and the capes which accompany it are intimidating to the modern viewer just as much as iconic characters like Count Dracula are.
Vampires cannot thrive in modern London the way they can in 19th century Whitby, and, as it happens, neither can the viewer. The modern world is too much of a comfort to today’s audience. We do not feel true fear of the supernatural until we are placed in an environment completely foreign to our own, where we cannot rely on the safety net of everything we know. The glamour and decadence of the traditional vampire can often survive, but at the cost of the horror that makes them so great.
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