Almost everyone has heard of Dr Frankenstein and his monster, but how many people can name the author who invented this world-famous story? It was Mary Shelley, sister of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Like her brother, she died young, but that wasnít uncommon in Victorian times. Medicine was less advanced, public hygiene was poorer, diseases and accidents were more common. The death of young people and children was sadly familiar to the Victorians.
This familiarity with death helps explain the popularity not just of Frankenstein but of another character invented in Victorian times. Like Frankenstein, heís much more famous than his creator. How many people have heard of Bram Stoker? Not a fraction of those who have heard of Dracula, the character first introduced to the world by Stoker in a novel published in 1897. When a character becomes so famous in so many different cultures, we can be sure that the character is tapping something deep and powerful in human psychology.
So what does Dracula mean? What is he saying about our psychology? Heís been famous for over a century now, presented again and again in films, books and comics. Why? The answer to that question must be about death, that frequent and familiar visitor to Victorian families. Itís also perhaps about the gradual loss of religious belief that began in Victorian times. Dracula sleeps in a coffin, but he isnít truly dead. He preys on the young and beautiful, taking them from the world before their time. When he drinks the blood of the living, he grows younger and stronger. He has conquered the greatest enemy of human beings, the enemy that defeats everyone in the end: mortality.
That is part of what makes Dracula such a powerful character. Unless he is killed with a stake, he can live for ever, staying alert and healthy for centuries while mere human beings are born, grow old, and pass away. And he can pass this gift of immortality to others, turning them into vampires too. This is a tempting possibility to human beings, particularly to those who have lost their belief in heaven and a life beyond the grave. Imagine living for ever and never suffering illness or old age. But Stoker is also careful to portray Dracula as evil, selfish and cruel. Would we want live for ever if it meant being like that?
Not many people would. By reading about Dracula or seeing him portrayed on the screen, we are able to confront our fears about death and see that there may be worse things than having to pass away. The story of Dracula also brings a kind of order and meaning to death, which often strikes in a way that seems chaotic and meaningless. Why does one person die young in an accident or of a fatal disease while others live on into old age? That question was raised more frequently in Victorian times, but itís still with us. Unless you have a religious faith and believe in Godís will, it canít truly be answered in real life. But it can be answered in a story.
Bram Stoker answered the question in his novel about the king of vampires, where death has a meaning it often lacks in real life. Mary Shelleyís novel about Dr Frankenstein also gives a meaning to death. Both stories appeal to something deep and universal in human psychology and both are famous right around the world. They havenít only thrilled, scared and entertained millions of people, theyíve helped those people to face up to the chaos and apparent meaninglessness of death and to realize that perhaps there are worse things than passing away.
Religion traditionally helped us with our fears about death, but religion was beginning to lose its power in the century in which Frankenstein and Dracula were created. These stories would not have been so popular if they had appeared in earlier centuries. They might even have been condemned as blasphemous. Not so in the nineteenth century and the two centuries that have followed. Dracula and Frankenstein are still world-famous and still telling us important things about our fear of death and our longing for meaning and structure in the face of death.