Well, drat, Dracula pulled me in again.
When Halloween comes lurking around, I sometimes turn back a personal page to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the granddaddy of literature that laid the foundation for many of today’s horror novels and scary movies. I’ve re-read the novel four or five times in the last four decades.
As I read it this time, in late October and early November, I couldn’t help but draw parallels between this 1897 literary tale of Gothic horror and the 2016 presidential election.
Gothic horror, a genre that came into existence in the 1670s, calls on the reader to suspend his or her disbelief and be willing to accept the idea of something nefarious existing beyond all that is immediately in front of us.
If you will, try transposing this Gothic concept over the political atmosphere of the last year. The result is that every mean twist and bad nuance that we once wouldn’t have believed has suddenly become believable. Because they are real. Belief in the disbelief.
My introduction to Dracula occurred at an intersection of politics and the absurd. I started my first Dracula reading during what seemed an endless wait in a voting line in the 1972 general election (Nixon vs. McGovern), the outcome of which went on to provide real-life Gothic fear—can you say “Watergate” without a spooky shiver rippling along your spine?
Back in ’72, I was enrolled in a literature of horror class at Colorado State University, Fort Collins, Colo. The syllabus: Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley (Frankenstein author), H.P. Lovecraft (various works of horror fiction before his 1937 death), and many others (not Stephen King as his career wasn’t launched until his 1973 Carrie).
Waiting and reading: There I was, in the voting line extending down the long sidewalk from the polling place in the old Fort Collins High School, and then up a long, long sidewalk along a street and far around the corner. Hundreds of people were ahead of me, waiting, waiting, inching forward, for hours.
This was no normal line of people. It was a chilly November day. People were crunched front to back in hopes the line would move faster if you could just nudge forward the person in front of you.
So, standing in line, I got in a lot of reading while the afternoon dissolved away. As twilight arrived, the book’s open pages crept closer to my eyes.
It didn’t take long to realize Dracula cast me out of my comfort zone: the eerie journey of Jonathan Harker (a good guy) to Dracula Castle in Transylvania; the count’s three vampire wives materializing in an attempt to snack on Jonathan; and Count Dracula’s calling of wolves to destroy a local woman who came to the castle pleading to get back her baby that the count had stolen so his three wives would have a tasty meal.
Good grief. It was enough to shatter my middle-American upbringing. I was 22 years old and still hoped in the hope of long-lost hopes that Santa Claus existed.
My lips clenched tightly as my vision darted frequently from the pages, right and left, to make sure no Dracula, wolf, bat, or vampire bride would dash out from behind this or that bush along the sidewalks to bury fangs into my throat.
Beating heart: Daylight slipped away all too fast. My heart thudded in my chest (Now I remember thinking, “Ah, a good sign, at least, since, unlike Dracula, my heart is still beating”). Nonetheless, I was short of breath, shorter of courage and long on fear.
It was at the least expected moment that a monstrous clawed hand from behind clamped down onto my right shoulder. Which, of course, instantly terrorized me, forcing an instinctual lurch forward to escape what I was sure would be an ugly, bloody death.
I collided into the back of the old woman in front of me. She banged into the guy ahead of her. He stumbled ahead into a young lady, and then she fell into a mother with two kids (both quite irritated already from standing in line for an eternity).
The clawed hand, as I discovered once the human dominoes stopped tumbling, belonged to a friend who spotted me after he emerged from the polling place. He just wanted to say howdy. Well, gosh, thanks for the heart attack…
By the time I voted and got home, the night was shrouded with grim darkness. The creaky and creepy house, built in the ’20s, had huge windows in the living and dining rooms, and there was nothing to be seen through the windows but dark and more dark.
And, wait just a Frankenstein moment, did I just see evil red eyes glaring through the darkness? The same vampire eyes that peered through a window and into the bedroom of a maiden I’d just read about?
I rushed to close the drapes, switched on every light and situated myself in a chair in a corner where I could make sure no count or bride or otherwise undead could approach unseen.
Still, I read on.
Today’s fears: My 1972 feelings of fear, anxiety, anticipation of the worst, and dread have all re-surfaced—albeit it in different forms—in the current election as I watch two candidates stalk back and forth, their metaphoric fangs bared, while various minor characters lurch their way in as subplots.
At its core, Dracula is a story about good versus evil, the basic underlying theme of the Gothic horror genre. The antagonist is typically a monster who not only threatens individuals but also society as a whole. In opposition is a hero or, in Dracula’s case, a team of good English gentlemen and a virtuous lady.
On which side does Donald Trump land? It’s not a far stretch to say that, in the eyes of many Democrats, Mr. Trump is Dracula incarnate. His very purpose in life is to “drain the swamp” of Washington, D.C., destroy the lives of individual Americans and, if current TV advertisements can be believed, blow up the world with nuclear weapons. In contrast, he and his supporters weave a similar tale about Hillary Clinton, Ms. Dracula incarnate, who would tax individual Americans out of existence while bringing about World War II.
Or so the lines of all their supposed reasonings go.
Gothic horror relies on constructing and sustaining an atmosphere of terror. If you have stayed abreast of politics during the last year, you’ll know the atmosphere of terror has grown and thickened all along, almost on a daily basis. The terror, of course, has not been physical—save for some protester actions at rallies—but our minds and sense of well-being have been assaulted in fierce ways. How many times have you heard friends and acquaintances say, “I’m afraid for our country if Trump gets elected” or “She will destroy us all.” Terror comes in many forms.
Letters and journals: The story of the Dracula novel is told through letters and journal entries of the good-willed characters, the heroes. That style of presentation is a hallmark of the Gothic horror genre.
For people who closely track current political affairs, the likely sources of information are the “letter and journal” scribes of our era: Anderson Cooper (CNN), Brian Williams (MSNBC), Rachel Maddow (MSNBC), Sean Hannity (FOX News), Megyn Kelly (FOX News), and other assorted storytellers in television land and in places like the New York Times and Washington Post.
While the reputation of this pack of scribes of today has become tarnished, we nonetheless learn the storyline from them just as readers of Dracula learn the storyline from the written words of Van Helsing, Mina and Jonathan Harker, and Dr. Seward.
Meanwhile, a literary technique used in Gothic horror, including Dracula, is the discovery of a manuscript or aged information that has the potential of turning the tide, saving the day, if you will.
Need I elaborate? If you’re a follower of Mr. Trump, just think emails.
And, of course, there are persecuted maidens in Gothic horror. Through the incremental sucking of their blood, Dracula consumes one, Lucy Westenra, and nearly destroys another, Mina Harker. Both are beautiful flowers transformed by the monster into twisted, withering, poisonous vines.
And thus we arrive at the 12 women who stepped forward after Mr. Trump announced his penchant for using his power to seduce females. Regardless of whether you believe his defense (“It never happened”) or the women’s stories, the truth remains that the women felt persecuted and, in the eyes of some Americans, they were indeed.
Gothic trappings: Many other parallels exist between Gothic horror and the perils brought about by today’s political atmosphere. There are too many to tell here.
But I would be remiss, though, if I didn’t note one parallel that just begs to be made. Gothic horror settings typically involve scary castles or remote mansions where all sorts of strange things go bump in the night.
Even though it’s set in Manhattan, one of the busiest, most populated cities in the world, Trump Tower is a symbol of Gothic proportions: a mystery to most of the world, a place where secret strategies are planned, a behemoth where mere humans far below can be looked down upon just as Dracula did when calling upon the wolves to rip apart the grieving, pleading mother—all characteristics of Dracula’s Castle in Transylvania.
I’d like to emphasize that I would take a jab, too, at Ms. Clinton’s fortress, but the only lair that I’ve seen her retreat to in recent months is her jet. I suppose, in our suspension of disbelief, it is possible for a lair to fly!
Anyway, the other day I spent the afternoon once again re-reading Dracula, this time in a well-lighted place, a Panera’s cafe.
I went home. The darkness of night came on. Shadows lengthened outside the big windows. Any evil red eyes out there?
I quickly snapped down the window shades to be safe from fangs that lurk in the night.
I turned on the television and toggled back and forth between Don Lemon, CNN, and Megyn Kelly, FOX News
“Terror upon us”: Of course, my fat tongue was squarely in my fat cheek as I wrote this blog. However, just think about it. Belief in disbelief. There are suspiciously too many elements of Gothic horror in the election’s landscape to ignore.
I suspect individual Americans aren’t at physical risk, unless President Trump gets us into a nuclear cat fight or President Clinton launches World War III. It’s impossible for Dracula to take over the bodies of our presidential candidates, isn’t it?
Jonathan Harker’s words float back to me from when he contemplated the fate of his band of good guys: “Oh, my God, what have we done to have this terror upon us!”
Now, as I flip the channel over to Rachel Maddow, I ask myself: “Well, what nefarious things have our two Draculas done today?”
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