From the Land Beyond the Forest to the Shores of England: The Merging of Science and Superstition in Stoker’s Dracula

Essay by Corey Morell

Art by Amy Ng

In his quintessential Gothic novel, Bram Stoker takes the reader on a journey from the land beyond the forest to the land of hope and glory, from the unfamiliar to the known, from the old to the new. For the Victorians of the late 19th century, a new age of modernism began to gain prominence over the older, more traditional ways of thinking in England. Stoker’s Dracula emphasizes this turbulent transition between superstition and science, with the team of vampire hunters representing “the modern, while the Count stands for the unremitting pull of the past” (Punter, cited in Dümling 181). By contrasting the sensibilities of old Europe and modern London, Stoker conveys the dangers of archaic knowledge and the effectiveness of contemporary science. When used with good intentions, the combination of these two pieces of knowledge is critical to the success of the vampire hunters. Although Dracula represents Eastern Europe’s religious superstitions and the vampire hunters represent the scientific rationality of modern London, applying both these antithetical approaches secures Dracula’s defeat. By focusing on Jonathan Harker’s stay at Castle Dracula and the vampire hunters’ preparation for the climactic showdown, I argue that their ability to adapt to new knowledge through a convergence of modern science and archaic superstition is what allows them to defeat Dracula.

Jonathan’s transition from London to Transylvania represents a shift from modernity to an anachronistic place in time, as everything he thought he once knew about the world is uprooted and replaced with irrational superstitions. He comes to Transylvania with previous knowledge of its history and he puts much importance into his understanding of other cultures and regions. He states that he has learned “that every known superstition in the world” (Stoker 32) is concentrated in the region of the Carpathians, assuring that he comes to this unfamiliar land with preconceived notions from a western perspective—a perspective shared by his fiancée, the schoolteacher Mina, when she claims “They are very, very superstitious” (Stoker 402). As knowledgeable as Mina and Jonathan are concerning science, they share an ignorance unified under Victorian culture. The Victorians considered the east a “backward region, censured… for its primitive superstition” (Hammond 88), and Jonathan is sternly reminded that “Transylvania is not England” (Stoker 52). From the moment he enters this unfamiliar region, his assumptions are confirmed as he is confronted by villagers offering him charms and crucifixes to ward off evil comings. Even as a man of science, Jonathan soon learns that he is not invulnerable to irrational fear and superstition. At midnight, his rationality is temporarily replaced by superstitious thoughts, “increased by [his] recent experiences” (Stoker 42). The power of this foreign land, unfamiliar and uncanny, forces him to abandon what he knows as truth. The events to come bring out a psychological decline in him that culminates in temporary madness. As he begins to question reality, this decline is paralleled by a “descent from the imperial centre of modernity to the pre-modern margin of Europe” (Süner 59). His journey from London to Transylvania disrupts his psyche, just as his experiences of the world no longer match up with the reality he is now confronted with.

As Jonathan begins to question reality, his reliance on modern modes of knowledge aid in his survival of Dracula’s threat. After observing Dracula’s lack of eating and lack of sleep, Jonathan states, against his intuition, that “strange things which [he] dare not confess” (Stoker 49) are occurring. His observations lack rationality, and for the first time, perhaps in his entire life, he is unable to articulate what he is witnessing. As troublesome as these experiences are, he resorts to “bare, meagre facts” (Stoker 61) to rationalize his observations, refusing to rely purely on his memory. He knows that “knowledge is stronger than memory” (Stoker 155), as Van Helsing suggests. Jonathan chooses to approach the situation through a means of science and technology, utilizing his journaling as a form of study and evidence against his faltering mind. As Ahmet Süner points out in his article, “The Representation of Time, Modernity and Its Prehistory in Dracula,” Jonathan calls on “the powers of modernity to defend the present against the… savagely romantic past” (62). Technology and education help him fight against the unfamiliar world in which he now resides. His invocation of modernity in writing and observation saves him not only from the wrath of Dracula but from a life of madness. Mina confesses, “If I had not read Jonathan’s journal first, I should never have accepted even a possibility” (Stoker 218). The simple act of attempting to understand his experiences through rationalization saves Jonathan from a life of despair, and a life without Mina if she had continued to see him as a madman.

Through modern technology and an academic background, Mina employs the scientific method to produce a useful and effective strategy against the Count. In a 2002 article titled “Pedagogic Knowledge and the Victorian Era Anglo-American Teacher,” Marianne A. Larsen writes that schoolteachers in the 19th century were important in the progression of advancing “philosophical theories of the mind into practical teaching strategies and methods” (463). As a schoolteacher herself, Mina has attained the necessary knowledge and strategic skills needed to plan an attack on Dracula. As powerful as they are in his land, Dracula’s assets are no match for the intellect of a modern schoolteacher in her own, familiar environment. By organizing all of the notes, journals, articles, and diary entries, Mina produces a unified document which, as Dr. Seward states, allows everyone to “be informed as to facts [to] arrange [their] plan of battle” (Stoker 275). Furthering her research, Mina uses the scientific method to ask questions about the Count, deducing from her answers probable outcomes that aid in tracking him. Mina’s organization of the notes, her use of the travelling typewriter, and her knowledge as a “train fiend” (stoker 379) are critical components to the vampire hunters’ success in outsmarting their enemy. Her combined knowledge of science and the train system’s infrastructure works against Dracula, as he is unable to account for such rigorous planning.

It becomes increasingly clear that modern science alone will not be enough to destroy Dracula, and that the vampire hunters must combine the old ways with that of the new to do so. Although the practices of Van Helsing are seen as odd by the other “English” members of the group, it is clear to them that “the old centuries… have, powers of their own which mere ‘modernity’ cannot kill” (Stoker 67). As Dracula sets foot on English soil, his presence threatens the vampire hunters’ plan of attack. He destroys the documents Mina collected, throws the phonograph onto the fire, and uses Renfield as a “coupling agent, [by] infecting the modern world with his madness” (Dümling 187). Although this temporarily jeopardizes the vampire hunters’ plan, they regroup and generate a new strategy. However, Dracula’s inability to learn and adapt is what ultimately leads to his failure. He can speak English and read English books, but cannot “generate anything new,” only mere clones of himself in others (Dümling 191). The vampire hunters exploit these weaknesses, acknowledging the old superstitions as an essential means of defeating him. Although a man of science, Van Helsing insists on using a garlic wreath to prevent Dracula from entering the vulnerable space it protects. He may be a doctor, but as an outsider himself (Van Helsing is not “English”), his knowledge of Dracula’s culture and past serve him when science fails. He reminds his doubtful friends that “it is a fault of our science that it wants to explain all” (Stoker 228). Dr. Seward cannot accept these practices as sensible because they do not fit into his belief system. Still, Van Helsing reminds him that it is not irrational to believe something you do not understand. He tells him, look “how you accept the hypnotism and reject the thought-reading” (Stoker 228). Dr. Seward’s temporary crisis is put into perspective and he finally accepts what he does not entirely understand as science (Stoker 256). Dr. Seward has learned—where Dracula could not. The merging of Dr. Seward’s scientific modernity with Van Helsing’s superstitious practices allows them to defeat Dracula. If only Dracula could have learned to adapt, he may have succeeded in conquering the modern world.

As one, Dracula is strong—but united, the hunters are stronger. While Dracula attempts to “propagate[e] a primitive time in the body of the modern world” (Süner 63), his prey go from the hunted to the hunters. They use their knowledge of the modern world and insert it into the past, adapting it in ways that Dracula cannot. Dracula relies on himself and his supernatural methods—projecting “copies” of himself onto English society. The vampire hunters come together to exploit his strengths, turning them into weaknesses. Dracula is always one step ahead, but in the end, the group uses their combined knowledge of science and superstition to beat him. With Jonathan’s writings, Mina’s education, Dr. Seward’s scientific approach, and Van Helsing’s willingness to embrace the unknown, they combine their strengths to rid the modern world of “the blood of its prehistory” (Süner 57). However, Stoker’s novel does not vilify the old world. Dracula shows us that if recognized and used in accordance with modernity, the past can and will survive in the modern world.

Works Cited

Dümling, Sebastian. “Killing Fear by Killing Time: Stoker’s Dracula as an Epochal Conflict Narrative.” Narrative Culture, vol. 3, no. 2, 2016, pp. 180–205. JSTOR, Accessed 22 Nov. 2020.

Hammond, Andrew. “Imagined Colonialism: Victorian Travellers in South‐East Europe.” 

Nineteenth-Century Contexts, vol. 28, no. 2, 2006, pp. 87–104. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/08905490600849501. Accessed 23 Nov. 2020.

Larsen, Marianne A. “Pedagogic Knowledge and the Victorian Era Anglo-American Teacher.” History of Education, vol. 31, no. 5, 2002, pp. 457–474. EBSCOhost, Accessed 23 Nov. 2020.

Stoker, Bram. Dracula. 1897. Edited by Glennis Byron, Broadview Press, 2000.

Süner, Ahmet. “The Representation of Time, Modernity and Its Prehistory in Dracula.” Studia Neophilologica, vol. 90, no. 1, 2018, pp. 56–70. Taylor & Francis Online, Accessed 22 Nov. 2020.