Inoculation and Contagion:
The Absence of Vaccination in Bram Stoker’s Dracula
by Octavia Cade
Abstract: [page 95] Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) treats vampirism as an infectious disease. It describes how the private infection of an individual can, over time, result in a risk to public health as vampirism spreads throughout a population. It is curious, then, especially as two of the main characters are medical doctors, that Dracula does not engage with the idea of potential immunity to this contagion, either by vaccination or by other methods of inoculation. Certainly, readers would be, at the time of publication, more than familiar with this medical practice. The Compulsory Vaccination Act of 1853 required individuals to be vaccinated against smallpox to ensure sufficient immunity within the general public, and vaccines for both cholera and rabies had been recently developed. Yet even with this pre-existing context, the potential for immunity against vampirism is roundly ignored within the text. A possible explanation for this absence lies in the presentation of vampirism as a metaphor for syphilis, a contagious disease which—during Stoker’s time and even today—one cannot be vaccinated against.
Keywords: disease, immunity, inoculation, syphilis, vaccine, vampirism
Dracula is a story on the scientific and communicative cusp. Bram Stoker’s novel, first published in 1897, makes use of the developing technologies of the time, moving from handwritten letters and diaries to typewritten manuscripts and phonograph records. These indicators of modernity (Wicke 467) are available to, and used by, major characters regardless of vocation or gender. While one would expect a medical professional like Dr. Seward to have access to recent innovations, Mina is a young woman of no great financial resources and little academic standing. She is the everywoman of the text, the ordinary worker, an “assistant schoolmistress” who has been “practicing very hard” on her typewriter so as to be helpful to her future husband (B. Stoker 62). For her to be so familiar with the technologies of her [page 96] trade is evidence of how far those technologies have entered into general society.
This democratization of technology marks a shift in communication strategies. Leah Richards observes that, within Dracula, “private confidences and exchanges are replaced by publicly distributed material” (441). An example of this would be Mina’s typewritten transcription of Seward’s phonograph records, which she then replicates, along with all the other information compiled, so that all those working against Dracula have copies of their own to refer to: “I told them, as well as I could, that I had read all the papers and diaries, and that my husband and I, having typewritten them, had just finished putting them in order. I gave them each a copy to read in the library” (B. Stoker 244).
This shift from private to public is the key to information transfer within the novel, and Richards’s observations can be extended to biological and medical elements within the text. Notably, Dracula explores biological communication through the experience of contagion and simultaneously fails to explore communicated immunity through the experience of vaccination. Both these aspects exhibit—or fail to exhibit within the bounds of the novel—the same private to public shift.
From Personal to Pandemic: Contagion and Communication in Dracula
Katherine Byrne notes that the “history of the vampire myth is [...] the history of disease itself” (124). Dracula, arguably, is less a history of disease than it is a running fight against contagion. As Van Helsing states,
When they become [Un-Dead], there comes with the change the curse of immortality; they cannot die, but must go on age after age adding new victims and multiplying the evils of the world; for all that die from the preying of the Un-Dead become themselves Un-Dead, and prey on their kind. And so the circle goes on ever widening, like as the ripples from a stone thrown in the water. (B. Stoker 229)
Stoker’s own understanding of disease, of how quickly it could spread and devastate communities, was informed by the experiences of his mother. As an adolescent, Charlotte Stoker [page 97] lived through the cholera outbreak of 1832 in Sligo, Ireland. At her son’s request, she wrote him a letter recording her experiences: “Its bitter strange kiss, and man’s want of experience or knowledge of its nature, or how best to resist its attacks, added, if anything could, to its horrors” (C. Stoker 412). That sentence alone indicates how Bram Stoker may have been influenced by his mother’s memories of disease. The idea of the infectious nature of the vampiric kiss is present throughout the text, for example when Van Helsing drags Lucy’s fiancé away from her deathbed as she is pleading to kiss him: “‘Not for your life!’ he said; ‘not for your living soul and hers!’” (B. Stoker 172).
Charlotte Stoker’s record of the cholera contagion was as concerned with the spread of the disease as it was with the hideous and lethal results. A large part of the horror was the sense of helplessness in the face of infection, including the inability to both predict and protect the people who would be victims: “One house would be attacked and the next spared. There was no telling who would go next, and when one said goodbye to a friend he said it as if for ever. In a very few days the town became a place of the dead” (C. Stoker 413). The only possible protection was isolation; “Our own household gradually ceased to go out, or hear what went on outside” (414-415). When Charlotte’s family members escaped the increasingly infectious town, they were barred from entering into other communities. The scenes of expulsion that she describes, which include bayonets and threats of burning, are certainly inhumane, but it is hard to blame the protestors, none of whom wanted the cholera brought into their own communities. When the family was finally able to take refuge with a cousin, the entire house was placed under quarantine.
The absolute devastation caused by unchecked infection led, for Charlotte Stoker, to the knowledge of some truly horrific scenes, derived both from her own personal experiences and from the experiences of others. Of the infected patients brought to the County Infirmary and Fever Hospital, she writes:
Many were said to be buried alive. One man brought his wife to the hospital on his back, and, she being in great agony, he tied a red handkerchief tightly round her waist to try and relieve the pain. When he came again to the hospital in the evening he heard that she [page 98] was dead, and lying in the dead house. He sought her body to give it more decent burial than could be given there [...]. He saw the corner of his red handkerchief under several bodies which he removed, found his wife and saw there was still life in her. He carried her home and she recovered and lived many years. (C. Stoker 414)
The parallels to Mina Harker are striking. A woman suffering from a bitter kiss, expected to die of the infection that kiss has given her. That woman saved by her husband from life as an Un-Dead, set in the grave while still living. That woman, presumably, safe from a return of infection and with a long life ahead of her.
If Bram Stoker never lived through an epidemic of such scale himself, he was certainly aware, through his mother’s experiences, of the destruction that could result. Through him, Van Helsing is also aware of it; it is notable that in a text so concerned with transmission of disease, both Van Helsing and Seward are medical doctors and, as such, particularly alive to the potential horrors of infectious diseases. The plague of vampirism, which could infect at will and even (apparently) at random, destroying the inhabitants of one house while sparing their neighbors for the possibility of future contamination, is an ever-present threat. Count Dracula, loose in London—the largest city of the day, and with far more available victims than the rural backwaters of Eastern Europe—had the potential to start a contagion to match the cholera.
It is a contagion that starts on a very personal, very private scale. Lucy Westenra is infected with vampirism and becomes Un-Dead. She begins to prey on little children—“more and more they lose their blood, and by her power over them they come to her” (B. Stoker 229)—and, if allowed to continue, will continue to feed until those children also become Un-Dead, and go on to continue the cycle themselves. This is exactly the kind of out-of-control contagion that Jonathan Harker feared might occur if Dracula were to arrive in London, where “for centuries to come he might, amongst its teeming millions, satiate his lust for blood, and create a new and ever-widening circle of semi-demons to batten on the helpless” (60). Mina Harker is also infected, but it is notable that, however tragic their infections, both Lucy and Mina are [page 99] ultimately prevented from spreading vampirism any further. Their respective infections are private, and although they have the potential to spread vampirism throughout London, to turn private contagion into public pandemic, they do not.
It is notable, too, in the context of Richards’s observations of communication and information, that disease is also information. Vampirism may not come with little packets of DNA, a double helix of data that replicates information just as Mina replicates transcripts—“I began to typewrite from the beginning of the seventh cylinder. I used manifold, and so took three copies of the diary” (B. Stoker 239)—but it is clearly communicative, and replicable. Whatever informative packet vampirism transfers in, whether it is bacterial, viral, or some supernatural equivalent, it is data that is distributed privately, between individuals, with the potential for mass public spread.
As stated above, however, the communication of infection in Dracula does not become public. Both Lucy and Mina are returned to a non-infectious state. They are no longer risks to the public health; the experience of disease remains fundamentally private. Yet readers’ experience of widespread infectious disease remained, as illustrated by the experiences of Charlotte Stoker, and if Dracula exists on a scientific and technological cusp, it did so at a time when prevention of disease was an increasingly public—not private—endeavor. If the characters of Dracula risked private infection, then their creator at least had the opportunity to partake in public immunity. That immunity was based on the public distribution of information in the form of vaccines.
Shared Immunity: Public Health and Dracula
Vaccination involves introducing weakened elements of the disease, known as antigens, into the body in order that the immune system of the recipient learns to recognize—and more effectively counteract—those antigens should the vaccinated individual be exposed to the same disease in the future. The vaccine, therefore, is a means of efficiently communicating information about a disease to the body, which then stores that information for future use. Mass vaccination spreads this information throughout a population and limits the possibility of deadly, widespread pandemics [page 100] such as the cholera outbreak experienced by Charlotte Stoker.
About the time that Dracula was written and published, a vaccination against rabies had been in existence for around a decade, and the cholera vaccine was newly developed (Plotkin 12284). The full extent of Bram Stoker’s knowledge of the cholera vaccine is unknown, but given his mother’s experience with the disease, it is likely that both she and Stoker would have been invested enough in its existence to be aware of developments in that area (Charlotte Stoker did not die until 1901, four years after the publication of Dracula). The smallpox vaccine, however, had been public knowledge for close to a century—it was developed in the late eighteenth century by Edward Jenner—and had been mandated since 1853 by the Compulsory Vaccination Act (Durbach 19). It can therefore be assumed that Stoker was aware of the practice of vaccination against smallpox and had likely been subject to it himself.
Yet vaccination (or indeed immunization of any sort) is not mentioned in Dracula. Given this, the impact of disease within Stoker’s family history—recall that image of the cholera charnel pit, and its possible influence on the character of Mina—the impact of disease within the text, and that text’s emphasis on utilizing new innovations to improve efficiency in communication, this is a curious omission. Recall, too, that two of the main characters in Dracula are physicians. Both Seward and Van Helsing are highly regarded by others for their skill in the medical sciences: Seward is the head of an asylum, and Van Helsing is “one of the most advanced scientists of the day,” a man who “knows as much about obscure diseases as any one in the world” (B. Stoker 122). They are, therefore, presumably conversant with both the common practices and medical advances of the day, which included long-established and developing vaccines. Stoker certainly had access to resources that would reinforce his characters’ skills: three of his brothers were doctors, and the eldest, Sir William Thornley Stoker, was familiar with the Dracula manuscript. Sir William “scrawled four notes in the margins of the typescript” (Eighteen-Bisang and Miller 135), all of a medical nature, and could have provided vaccine information if needed. [page 101]
Familiarity of concept does not necessitate explicit inclusion, of course. (Readers can surmise from the lack of smallpox scarring, combined with the public dissemination of biological information enforced by the Compulsory Vaccination Act, that Mina, Lucy, and company have been protected from one contagion at least.) Yet if the primary goal of vaccination is to inhibit the spread of disease, and if vampirism is treated as a disease—as a contagious disease, as it is within the novel—then the concept of prevention should theoretically arise within the novel. Neither Seward nor Van Helsing raise the issue of vaccination, however.
Perhaps this is because they—or Stoker—shared the perception that vaccination “would corrupt their bodily purity” (Goode 119), in which case not including it seems a missed opportunity to underline a theme, given that vampirism within the text is so clearly connected to contamination, and to connotations of filth and corruption: “Unclean, unclean!” Mina wails, judging herself after being infected (B. Stoker 303). Perhaps relevant here is Ross G. Forman’s observation that, aside from transfusions, all of Van Helsing’s treatments for Lucy are topical, and do not result in further intrusion into her body, maintaining as far as possible “the integrity of the self unless or until penetrated” (940).
The imagery associated with blood (and therefore information) transference within Dracula is consistently penetrative. Blood transfusions are accomplished with needles, blood loss with the sharpness of preternatural teeth. Each event requires the forceful puncture of a vein, and each results in a small wound. Stoker deliberately mirrors these wounds within the text. After Lucy receives her first transfusion, for instance, Seward bandages the wound of her blood donor, and then examines the marks on Lucy’s neck: “Just over the external jugular vein there were two punctures, not large, but not wholesome-looking” (B. Stoker 134). These dual penetrations are mirrored not only in their associations with bloodletting—each is the site of the transference of blood from one organism to another—but in their appearance.
Notably, they are small puncture wounds, designed to control the flow of blood and not be wasteful of its transference. Disapproval of waste is a hallmark of public communication in Dracula: Mina practices shorthand as well [page 102] as typewriting in her attempts to more effectively share information, and the smaller the puncture wound, the more efficient the transference of blood (and therefore the more efficient transference of any communicable infection, with little of the contaminated fluid wasted). When Dracula forces Mina to drink from his body, however, it is not from a puncture wound. Mina recalls that Dracula, “with his long sharp nails opened a vein in his breast” (B. Stoker 307), which indicates a short slicing motion rather than a puncture. Nevertheless, the wound is a small one, and the blood that Dracula exudes is limited, coming out his chest in a “thin stream” that restricts his potential blood loss (300). Furthermore, while Dracula himself could certainly drink from a larger wound, the probability of spilled—and therefore wasted—blood increases with wound size, and the text makes it clear that he is a tidy eater. Indeed, Seward initially dismisses the puncture wounds on Lucy’s neck as the cause of her blood loss, as “[t]he whole bed would have been drenched to a scarlet with the blood which the girl must have lost to leave such a pallor as she had before the transfusion” (134).
The marks on Lucy’s neck, then, mirror the transfusion marks on her donors in type as well as size: small puncture wounds, and when the wounds are made by teeth, such scars can only be left by canines. These teeth, which become needle-sharp at the onset of vampirism, perform the same function as needles or syringes do in blood transfusions, piercing the vein in advance of blood transference. For modern readers, however, the image of a needle (or needle-analog) entering the body has an association more prevalent than transfusion. As well-known as the procedure is, relatively few people will require a blood transfusion in their lifetimes. Far more people—the vast majority, in fact—will have experience of vaccination, and anyone who has undergone vaccinations for diseases such as tetanus, influenza, or COVID-19 will recall the injecting needle.
It may be instructive, at this point, to look at the vaccination techniques associated with smallpox during Stoker’s life, as this was the oldest available vaccine and, thanks to the Compulsory Vaccination Act, likely to be the most familiar to him. Derrick Baxby describes eleven different techniques and a “bewildering variety” of [page 103] instruments (2140); however, restricting these to the time and place relevant to Stoker limits the results somewhat. Primarily, early vaccination methods were variations on the variolation technique, which used a lancet (a small, sharp, two-edged surgical knife) to make small, extremely shallow incisions in the skin; Baxby comments that the method of holding the lancet “would be familiar to surgeons as one of the principal methods of bloodletting” (2144). It was recommended that bleeding during vaccination should be avoided, but “in practice slight bleeding would indicate that the vaccine had been deposited in living tissue” (Baxby 2141). Inoculating material was then introduced into the incision. Notable is that this material, lymphatic secretions scraped from the pustules of previous patients, need not be transferred immediately: the contagious lymph could be stored for brief periods on ivory points, which were then used to introduce the lymph into the skin of a previously uninfected person (Didgeon 1369).
This technique had the advantages of being quick and easily replicable, which was necessary as it sometimes had to be repeated several times over different sites to maintain effective immunity (Baxby 2145). In 1871, in a letter to the British medical journal The Lancet, a doctor, H. Cooper Rose, promoted a vaccination instrument of his own design, consisting of five sharp needle points that, when pressed into the skin and rotated, caused an abrasion through which inoculating material could be introduced (593). The success of this instrument resulted in a number of variants until the end of the century, but “deeper penetration with increasingly effective vaccine led to unacceptable severe reactions” (Baxby 2145-2146), and other methods replaced it.
It is difficult, within the context of this paper, not to see the parallels. The metaphorical teeth behind the ivory points, agents of infection as they are, and the use of sharp needles, or lancets otherwise used for bloodletting, combine to spread infection, and are reminiscent of fangs and sharp, slicing nails. The primary difference, of course, is that one is used to transmit infection for the sheer sake of contagion, while the other is used to infect in the service of immunity. [page 104]
Immunological Response to Vampirism: Private, Public, or Impossible?
The lack of any explicit reference to vaccination in Dracula may become less strange when paired with the potential of immunity, or with its absence. When it comes to vampirism, the human immune system might as well not exist. In particular, Lucy is repeatedly exposed to infection. After each blood transfusion, she moves a little closer to health, and each time this improvement is thwarted by the return of Dracula: “All our work is undone; we must begin again,” Van Helsing laments (B. Stoker 138). Lucy vacillates between improvements and bodily failure, and no matter how much blood is poured into her through a series of transfusions, constant re-exposure to the source of her illness lessens the positive effects of those transfusions. Her body is attacked, again and again, by an infectious and corrupting agent, and because she—like all the other characters—lacks an immune system that can recognize vampirism, her body is never able to recognize and counter the attack for what it is: something not-Lucy, something to be recognized as alien and defended against.
“The immune system,” Alfred I. Tauber argues, “assumes the role of discerning host from foreigner, a cognitive function, and like the nervous system, it also has a second function of response, that is [...] to defend the host” (3). The role of immunity in defence, certainly, has long been recognized: individuals who come down with certain diseases may be protected from suffering that disease again, for instance. Such is the case with smallpox, where those who survive it are immune from a second dose. It is also, potentially, the same with cholera. While a person may suffer from cholera more than once, there are also “epidemiologic data which indicate that second attacks of cholera are very rare” (Holmgren and Svennerholm 106). It is certainly not the case with vampirism. Lucy’s repeated exposure does nothing to build immunity, as her immune system cannot effectively assimilate the information that vampirism is giving it. Contagion may be the spread of biological information from the private individual to the public health, but immunity, in Dracula, appears neither private nor public.
The lack of references to vaccination in Dracula may [page 105] result from not only a lack of perceived immunity, but a perceived inability of an infected person to ever become immune. This may make more sense if vampirism is seen as a metaphor for a specific disease rather than disease in general. If Stoker had presented vampirism with a subtext of smallpox, rabies, or cholera, for instance, the total absence of any reference to vaccination might be more marked, as vaccines for these diseases were either widely available or recently developed. Byrne, on the other hand, explicitly links Lucy to the images and beliefs surrounding consumption (137). The wasting effect of tuberculosis tended to produce popular portraits of pale and fragile suffering, and Lucy’s decline represents this perfectly. Yet although a vaccine for tuberculosis did not develop until early in the twentieth century, the bacteria responsible for the disease was discovered in 1882 by Robert Koch, which could give rise, in Stoker’s time, to the belief that a vaccine might soon be available.
There is another disease, however, that has a place in the Dracula narrative and which may explain the absence of vaccination within the text. Syphilis, contagious and sexually transmitted (and therefore even more suspicious, and more threatening, to Stoker’s Victorian audience), has long been noted for its metaphorical connections with vampirism; Mathias Clasen describes how Count Dracula was tainted with the “subtext of syphilis” (389). It is notable, too, that the microbe responsible for syphilis was not discovered until 1905, eight years after the publication of Dracula, and that there is, to this day, no vaccine for syphilis, and therefore little prospect of immunity from it. If Stoker himself was infected with syphilis, and Forman suggests that he may have been (925), then he might have had incentive enough to be aware of the lack of contemporary progress in this area, and the unlikelihood of there being a possible vaccine—and therefore a possible immunity—in the foreseeable future. What Stoker lacked—and what the victims of Dracula lacked—was a functioning immune system against this particular infection. Victorian treatment options were poor. An 1867 study in a London hospital that attempted to inoculate patients already suffering from syphilis was a painful failure (Hanley 23) and did not prevent re-infection. Medical science had not—and has not yet—developed an [page 106] efficient means of communicating with the immune system in such a way as to permanently fight off this contagion. Both Stoker and, by proxy, his characters were powerless against it.
There is arguably a syphilitic subtext to Lucy’s infection, resulting from a highly sexualized interaction with a foreign, infected body. Lucy’s interactions with Dracula take place either in her bedroom or in the outdoors sleepwalking scene that is “marked by miasma” (Forman 936). Her vampiric attempts to seduce her fiancé Arthur are deliberately presented as threatening and immoral; she is even “suggestively compared to a prostitute since she threatens to infect an innocent man with the syphilis-like vampiric disease” (Dang 7). But Lucy is also linked to a history of understanding illness that differs from germ theory, one which draws on unsanitary, often miasmic, environmental factors, and one that is linked to moral character. Widely perceived as impure and disgusting—“Unclean, unclean!” Mina cries, upon her own infection—syphilis easily slots into the perception of disease that is based on unsanitary behavior and moral failing.
Stoker lived at a time when multiple understandings of disease were fighting for dominance. On the one hand was the new germ theory: “Increasingly, disease appeared to derive from external entities, from microbes cultivatable in the new laboratories” (Anderson and Mackay 3). Medical scientists convinced by germ theory therefore became “more committed to tracking down, suppressing, and expelling specific microbes caused by specific diseases” (Anderson and Mackay 4). Interestingly, however, Jens Lohfert Jørgensen notes that there was a “strong tendency in late Victorian (popular) medicine to anthropomorphize bacteria by attributing to them a malign intentionality” (38). It is not difficult to see the influence on Stoker’s work. Dracula is an external entity, even if he has not been cultivated in a laboratory, and he is most definitely intentionally malignant. He is not literally a microbe, of course, but the effort to track him down and render his hiding places uninhabitable, therefore expelling him from London and suppressing both his influence and his potential to infect, resonates with metaphor. Van Helsing’s description of this process—he argues that they must “sterilize his lairs” (B. Stoker 311)—recalls ideals of hygiene [page 107] and cleanliness brought into a place of lurking and darkness and makes dealing with Dracula a matter of public health as much as private wellbeing.
But germ theory, although gaining ground against a previous perception of illness, was not the only explanation. Disease, throughout history, has been explained in any number of ways, but in the context of Dracula, the alternate explanation “regarded disease as a disturbance of an individual’s constitutional equilibrium, ensuing from imbalance in consumption and excretion, a mismatch in the interaction of body and environment” (Anderson and Mackay 3). There is in this a long history of thought about the self, rooted in the Greek understanding of humours and the potential imbalances thereof. It is an explanation that skirts, uneasily, the question of blame. Warwick Anderson and Ian R. Mackay note that, under this model, factors such as heredity might play a part in an individual’s vulnerability to disease, but that “whether this actually was excited into disease depended on circumstances and habits” (3), and Jørgensen supports this. “In the 1870s,” he notes, “medical practitioners and observers believed that diseases were caused by a combination of four factors: heredity, climate, miasmas, and immoderate lifestyles” (36).
While it is true that Stoker represents Dracula, all too frequently, with miasmic imagery, particularly that of putridity and polluted air (Willis 311), it is also true that the late nineteenth-century theories described by Anderson, Mackay, and Jørgensen imply that poor personal behavior invites infection. There is a substantial body of criticism that explores the way in which Lucy might be thought to encourage infection (see, for instance, Byrne 138; Stevenson 144; Senf 43). Her flirtatious nature and her sexualized presentation—especially when compared to Mina Harker’s idealized perfection—indicate a potentially transgressive nature that allows for a reading of vampirism as a metaphor for syphilis.
Yet if Lucy invites the distorted sexual energy expressed by vampirism (Craft 107), then it stands to reason that she could have warded it off had her behavior been different. The argument from character implies that, if flawed character can invite illness, then admirable character may repel it, conferring some sort of immunity from that illness. We can [page 108] see from the text that this is not the case. Mina Harker is certainly not flirtatious, nor is she sexually adventurous. She is arguably the character within the text most widely perceived as admirable and noble, and as “brave and gallant” (B. Stoker 402). Yet she is infected despite her character—as everyone around her must be, despite theirs, if she and others infected like her are allowed to spread the contagion within them. This would initially appear to be an argument against vampirism as syphilis, were it not for the fact that syphilis was frequently also contracted by people who had broken no moral code, and who had not been transgressive in any way.
Syphilitic infection could be passed on to an innocent party within marriage. Mina only becomes infected after her marriage to Jonathan, and after his previous exposure to Dracula and the three vampiric women of Dracula’s castle, with whom Jonathan experienced vampiric and sexualized behavior: “He is young and strong; there are kisses for us all” (B. Stoker 45). Relevant, too, is that Lucy’s sleepwalking, characterized by Senf as transgressive—“By day Lucy remains an acquiescent and loving Victorian girl. By night the other side of her character gains control” (42)—is a characteristic inherited from her father, who would also “get up in the night [...] and go out, if he were not stopped” (B. Stoker 81). Private failings, then, result in public risk, as the spread of syphilis within socially sanctioned relationships would impact Mina, Lucy’s fiancé Arthur, and potentially any children born to their unions.
The increasingly widespread consequences of these perceived moral failings can therefore constitute a public health risk, spreading the biological information of disease from a private to a public sphere. It is interesting here to look back at the other communication strategies within the novel, in the use of technologies such as typewriters and phonographs to record and disseminate information, making public what had once been private. In the final passage from the novel, Jonathan Harker reassesses the records that he and Mina made from primary sources during the course of the story: “there is hardly one authentic document; nothing but a mass of type-writing [...] We could hardly ask anyone, even did we wish to, to accept these as proofs of so wild a story” (B. Stoker 402). Richards’s analysis of this passage is particularly relevant, commenting that the text, “ostensibly a [page 109] tribute to the modern age, is also enacting anxieties about the age, specifically the technological spread of information” (442). It is worth noting that this, too, has a biological parallel. The inoculation of patients with smallpox material obtained from other individuals, via the variolation technique, was criticized in the nineteenth century for the risk that this technique posed of passing along syphilis as well as immunity to smallpox (Riedel 20)—a transfer from one party to another that might even, recall, have occurred on ivory points of transmission that have an inescapable familiarity to teeth. Penetration of the body, whether sexual or medical, ran the risk of inviting disease.
Eula Biss comments that “Debates over vaccination, then as now, are often cast as debates over the integrity of science, though they could just as easily be understood as conversations about power” (26). Power, in Dracula, is multi-sourced and multi-directional, but it is always embedded in the technologies of communication. Dracula uses his own needle imagery to communicate biologically, to transfer disease from an infected source, and to take in nourishment from an uninfected source and corrupt it thereby. When trying to counter him through the apparatus of transfusion, Seward and Van Helsing fail. Having no adequate immune systems themselves, they cannot transfuse one into Lucy. Their productive communication is through tools of another kind—the phonograph, the typewriter, and the telegraph. They use non-biological technology to counter biological threat because efficient, effective biological communication in the form of transmitted immunity is simply beyond them.
The overt lack of vaccination in Dracula—characterized by the absence of even a single mention—may therefore be attributed to contemporary understanding of vampirism, as it appears in the text, as analogous to syphilis. Not only could syphilis cast doubt, under specific circumstances, on a sufferer’s character; its spread could also be interpreted as corresponding to the new ‘germ theory,’ even if the microbial cause of syphilis had yet to be found, effectively melding together two different understandings of disease prominent at the time. To a culture familiar with vaccines, and required by law to have them, the lack of syphilis vaccine—the lack of any hope of one, even—would ensure that its absence in a text like Dracula would not be exceptionable. [page 110]
Thanks are due to Dr. Maebh Long for her feedback on an early draft of this paper.
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Octavia Cade is a New Zealand writer with a PhD in science communication. Her most recent poetry collection, Mary Shelley Makes A Monster, was nominated for a Bram Stoker award, and she was the 2020 writer in residence at Massey University. Her academic work on the intersection between science, biology, and horror includes papers in Horror Studies; Hororo Cogitare: Critical Essays on the Intersection of Horror and Philosophy (McFarland, forthcoming); Superheroes Beyond (University Press of Mississippi, forthcoming); and All Around Monstrous: Monster Media in Their Historical Contexts (Vernon Press).
MLA citation (print):
Cade, Octavia. "Inoculation and Contagion: The Absence of Vaccination in Bram Stoker’s Dracula." Supernatural Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Art, Media, and Culture, vol. 7, no. 1, 2021, pp. 95-111.