03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011


Dracula has turned into many things in his time -- a bat, a wolf, a mist. Exactly when did he turn into a wuss?

There was a time when no other figure so fully personified Gothic horror, and that includes my horrid teenage neighbor Stigmata. Unfortunately the Count's image has been seriously watered down since Bram Stoker's novel Dracula was published in 1897. The sanitizing, de-fanging, and overall namby-pambying of Dracula probably began with his appearance in the 1948 comedy Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein, continued through Grandpa Munster and Sesame Street's "The Batty Bat," and reached its nadir when something called Count Chocula landed on your breakfast table.

Now there's a new sequel to Dracula called Dracula: The Un-Dead, written by a blood descendant of Bram Stoker. "The blood is the life," Renfield, the bug-eating lunatic, says in the original novel; perhaps Stoker's descendants took that to mean "The blood is the livelihood." The publisher assures us this new novel is based on notes left by Stoker himself (by any chance did he leave a note that said "Please don't write any sequels"?), but I'm approaching it cautiously and I'm not optimistic: A review of the book by the Associated Press says that Dracula "has been reinvented as a romantic hero." You might as well just drive a stake through my heart right now. There have already been far too many revisionist treatments of Dracula in which he is cast as a misunderstood, sympathetic, and even love-struck figure.

We have the movies to thank for that. A made-for-TV version from the seventies introduced the idea that one of Stoker's female characters was the reincarnation of Dracula's long-dead lover, a canard that was repeated in Francis Ford Coppola's mistitled 1992 fever dream Bram Stoker's Dracula. Let's also acknowledge Frank Langella's contribution -- he played a sexy Dracula on Broadway and in a 1979 film, long before he won acclaim portraying that other bloodsucking monster, Richard Nixon.

This rejiggering of Dracula into a mooning romantic hero puts him in step with a lot of modern vampire fiction. Today's vampire novels are filled with sexy, brooding, emotionally conflicted vampires who inhabit complex vampire societies. To which I say: No thanks -- not for me your Lestats, your Edward Cullens, your Bill Comptons. The original Dracula looms head and shoulders above today's literary vampires for a very simple reason: He's an unrepentant monster. He has just two priorities: Draining you of every drop of your blood; and not getting any on his cravat while he's doing it.

Admittedly, many scholars have commented on the vampire's sexual allure. A thoughtful consideration of the vampire -- a reanimated corpse that shuns daylight, drinks human blood and resides in a coffin -- makes it abundantly clear that these scholars need to get out and meet some new people. In the case of Dracula, Stoker describes him as having "peculiarly sharp white teeth," clammy pale flesh, red eyes, pointed ears, hairy palms, and foul breath. Turned on yet?

The novel Dracula does have an undeniable sexual subtext. Its most overt expression is found in the scene where the male characters drive a stake into a female vampire's heart. (On a scale of phallic symbols in which the stamen of a flower is a 1 and tossing the caber a 10, driving a stake into a woman's body ranks around a 19.) But Dracula himself is decidedly not sexy. He is, after all, dead. (Or undead -- he seems to be able to have it both ways).

We've lost sight of the fact that the Count is the villain of the piece, not the hero. Dracula is already top-heavy with heroes: Abraham Van Helsing, Jonathan Harker, Jack Seward, Arthur Holmwood, Quincey Morris and Mina Murray, all wielding more crucifixes and garlic than you'd find on spaghetti night at the Vatican. If Dracula earns any sympathy at all, it's because he's thoroughly outnumbered.

It's the perfect time of year to rediscover the real Dracula. Go back to Stoker's original novel. Even if you only read the first four chapters -- among the creepiest ever written -- you'll be surprised by what you find. In some ways, Dracula is strikingly relevant. It opens with a young solicitor arriving in Transylvania to conclude Dracula's purchase of an English estate; in return, Dracula imprisons him, bites his throat and drinks his blood. What could be timelier than a predatory real estate transaction?

You'll also learn that Dracula resides "Big Love"-style with three "brides" stashed down in the castle crypt. True, they are stay-at-home wives, but they exhibit some proto-feminist tendencies. They consume only human blood and inhabit a crumbling castle filled with cobwebs and dust, so they certainly aren't spending their time cooking and cleaning. And check out the scene near the end of Chapter 3 where Dracula entrusts a small child to their keeping. Here's an entirely novel approach to childcare that gives new meaning to the term "baby food."

This Halloween, do yourself a favor -- pick up a copy of Dracula and experience one of literature's greatest villains at his full-blooded, unadulterated, evil best. Be sure to turn on all the lights -- and for God's sake, get rid of the Count Chocula.