Volume 13, No. 1
Dracula and Nineteenth-Century Communication Technologies
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Late in the nineteenth century, the dead rose from their graves and reclaimed their place among the living .
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Not literally, of course, but their likenesses did. Revolutions in communication technology cast into everyday life images and sound recordings of people either dead or not present. The use of inventions like the photograph, phonograph, telegraph, and telephony suddenly populated the nineteenth-century world with disembodied pictures, words, and voices. These likenesses stood in place of the actual people they represented, taking on a sort of life of their own. Thus, technologies enabled communication to transcend traditional barriers like distance, time, and even death itself.
The result was uncanny, strange, and sometimes downright frightening. (Freud would say “unheim-lich.”) As these technologies flooded Western culture with disembodied images and sounds, interest in spiritualism, ghosts, and the occult surged forward. The resulting obsession with spirits in turn made communication technologies even more popular. British psychical researcher Frederic Myers connected the two phenomena by dubbing recorded likenesses of people “phantasms of the living.” Perhaps the most frightening aspect of this connection was the realization that through the technologies of copying, communication with the dead might not be impossible after all. In Speaking into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication (University of Chicago Press, 1999), John Durham Peters writes: “What men and women in the late nineteenth century faced with alarm is something we have had over a century to get used to: a superabundance of phantasms of the living appearing in various media” (141).
It’s no surprise, then, that the Western literature of a period dominated by spiritualism and technological achievement became obsessed with horror tales of hauntings, apparitions, and monsters rising from the grave. Gothic literature had already picked up on the ancient literary tradition of the horrifying doppelganger—the “double”—through works like Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Christabel,” Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde, and especially Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Now the application of new technologies made the doppelganger a living reality for people.
Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula connects spiritualism, phantasms of the living, and media in a way that demonstrates the uncanny nature of communication technology. By its very nature, the novel is obsessed with communication. Dracula tells its story in an epistolary fashion, through journal entries and correspondence between characters using technologies such as the typewriter, telegraph, and phonograph. Stoker’s own involvement with mass media, as a critic, reporter, and theatre editor at the Dublin Mail, may have contributed to his novel’s fixation on such inventions.
The vampire myth behind the Dracula story serves as the foundation for a tale obsessed with reproduction technology issues. As the legend goes, a vampire is nosferatu or “undead,” which means that although its body is no longer alive, per se, it lives forever and is stronger than living people. Among the many conventions of vampire literature (crucifixes, wooden stakes, and sunlight, just to name a few), perhaps the most important here is the vampire’s ability to turn humans into vampires—to transform them into corrupted copies of themselves.
This transformation occurs through a series of vampires’ biting and blood-sucking, and, in the end, the victims appear to “die” but then return to the world as undead, not only to haunt the living but also to create more vampires. In Dracula, the first to fall victim to this fate is Lucy. Under the leadership of Van Helsing (the archetypal vampire hunter), the heroes enter Lucy’s tomb after her apparent death in order to destroy her body. As Dr. Seward narrates: “When Lucy—I call the thing that was before us Lucy because it bore her shape—saw us she drew back with an angry snarl ... [and] then her eyes ranged over us. Lucy’s eyes in form and color; but Lucy’s eyes unclean and full of hell-fire, instead of the pure, gentle orbs we knew” (217). The vampire Lucy becomes like a photograph, thrust into an ambiguous state of somewhere between life and death, as a mere phantasm of the living. She is a copy, not only a copy of herself, as her eyes retain the same “form and color,” but also a copy of Dracula in that her eyes are filled with the vampire’s “hell-fire.” Faced with this frightening representation of his former bride-to-be, Lucy’s fiancé Arthur asks: “Is this really Lucy’s body, or a daemon in her shape?” Van Helsing responds: “It is her body, and yet not it” (220). This is how Lucy becomes a monster like Dracula. If we consider the Latin root of the word “monster,” monstrum, which can mean a sign, portent, or wonder—something to be looked at—it seems clear that monsters in fiction and photographs in reality share the same uncanny, unsettling nature.
This scene also demonstrates the parallel between vampirism and communication technology in that both thrive through reproduction and the proliferation of copies. Van Helsing notes that if Lucy had bitten Arthur before the group destroyed her, he would “have become nosferatu, as they call it in Eastern Europe, and would all time make more of those Un-Deads that so have fill us with horror [sic]” (221). Recall the “alarm” that Peters observes from the mass proliferation of copies, also known as simulacra, into the culture of the living. Jean Baudrillard calls this the “hyperreal” and writes of a fear of copy-takeover, in which images and simulacra take precedence over the real and the living. Copies become “murderers of the real.” Such fear and anxiety about ghostly images in the media parallel the dramatic action in monster stories all the way back to Frankenstein, through Dracula, and up to the present with films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers or The Stepford Wives.
Another issue of concern for reproduction technologies is authenticity. In Speaking into the Air, Peters asserts that the “dream” for communication is somehow to achieve authentic communication, in which the originator and the recipient come to a state of mutual understanding. For copying, as a form of communication, this means that the reproduced image or sound represents its original accurately. However, Peters suggests that because this is impossible, it is more like a “nightmare,” and that no amount of “better wiring” or advancements in communication technologies can achieve such authenticity.
Dracula shows us both the dream and the nightmare of nineteenth-century communication. When the heroine Mina comes to visit Dr. Seward, she catches him in the act of recording his diary on phonograph cylinders and excitedly asks for a demonstration. Dr. Seward refuses at first, because he only has the cylinders that relate the death of Mina’s best friend Lucy. But she insists, and the doctor plays her one of his journal entries. Dr. Seward then fears that he has distressed Mina, because of his journal’s gruesome content, but Mina counters that she has been touched because the phonograph so accurately portrayed the grief in Dr. Seward’s voice. “That is a wonderful machine, but it is cruelly true,” Mina says. “It told me, in its very tones, the anguish of your heart. It was like a soul crying out to Almighty God. No one must hear them spoken, ever again!” Then, to be “useful,” Mina transcribes the cylinders with her typewriter, so that “none other need now hear your heart beat, as I did” (229). This scene demonstrates a hierarchy within communication technologies. Because the phonograph can more vividly portray Dr. Seward’s thoughts by actually reproducing his voice, it is more accurate than the typewriter, which communicates merely through ink on paper. In this case, the phonograph with its “better wiring” is so lifelike that for Mina’s purposes, which exemplify a fearful reaction to the uncanniness of the recorded voice, it’s better to revert to the less accurate recording technology.
Peters writes that the phonograph “disembodied and even immortalized sound. ... [It] presented a human voice without a human body. The human soul, the breath, had taken up residence in a machine” (160-161). Similarly, the photograph placed the human soul onto paper, removing it from its corporeal form, and turned it into mere human artifice. In this way, the fictional world of Dracula and the real world of the late nineteenth century are very much alike. Both vampirism and communication technologies throw humanity into a state of uncertainty or undeath that transcends time, distance, and death. This creates the state of hyperreal, in which the overabundance of artificially reproduced images and sounds weakens our ability to distinguish between what is simulated and what is real. Dracula portrays the fear of such a state, a fear we can relate to today, as children take in hour after hour of television’s simulated reality without seeing the real-life consequences of violence. We eat dinner while the vampires of war, genocide, murder, and intolerance flicker across the screen on the six o’clock news one after another. And by seeing the world through the filter of such simulacra, we fail to connect the disembodied images and sounds with the reality they claim to represent.
Jay Pawlowski is working toward a Masters in Humanities degree at the University of Colorado Denver, studying representations of technology in literature and film. He is also a freelance writer and the features editor of the Denver Free Press.