Neo-Gothicism, like vampirism, is an afterlife; or, more precisely, an un-death in which, as William Faulkner’s Temple Drake famously observes, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past” (2011, 69).
Both neo-Gothicism and vampirism elide past and present, life and death, and shadow and substance — which last conflation is especially striking in neo-Gothic films and television series about vampires.
Like the recorded image of a vampire, the neo-Gothic is a shadow of a shadow. Neo-Gothicism differs significantly from neo-Victorianism, because the latter’s relationship to history and culture is more direct than the former’s.
Victorian denotes a specific historical period, whereas Gothic connotes not only the medieval period, but also adaptations, interpretations and fantasies of it — which original neo-Gothic expressions in art, literature and architecture emerged in the eighteenth-century and flourished during the Victorian period.
The Gothic and the neo-Gothic thus tend to merge, rendering the contemporary neo-Gothic work a simulacrum of a simulacrum, positioning its interpreters in a textual mise en abyme, and greatly enhancing its metatextual and intertextual characteristics.
Given the compelling parallels between neo-Gothicism and vampirism, neo-Gothic narratives featuring vampires are arguably the richest of all such texts. The shadowy relationship between vampirism and neo-Gothicism is illustrated, with considerable complexity and nuance, by two exemplary neo-Gothic vampire narratives: ‘A White World Made Red’ (2016; hereafter ‘White World’), an episode of the BBC series ‘Ripper Street’ (2013–2016), and ‘What We Do in the Shadows’ (2014; hereafter ‘Shadows’), the faux-documentary written and directed by Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi.
These works are themselves shadows of the original neo-Gothic vampire story, Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ (1897), whose neo-Gothicism is far more than a function of its adapting the traits of its eighteenth-century forebears. The most noteworthy neo-Gothic feature of ‘Dracula’ is Stoker’s decision to bring what he conceives of as a medieval monster into his own late-Victorian world, thereby blurring the lines between past and present, fact and fiction, and superstition and science.
Stoker’s longstanding engagement with these categories — and their amalgamation — is evident in his 1897 interview for the British Weekly, in which he accounts for his longtime interest in “the vampire legend” by characterising vampirism as “a very fascinating theme, since it touches both on mystery and fact.” He explains, “In the Middle Ages the terror of the vampire depopulated whole villages,” for when someone fell “into a death-like trance” and was “buried before the time,” later to be “dug up and found alive,” naïve villagers “imagined a vampire was about” and fled (Stoddard 2000 , 486).
In Stoker’s account, and in his novel, the vampirism of the medieval past (fore)shadows the catalepsy of the Victorian present: superstition at once antedates and coexists with science, serving as its double.
Indeed, as Van Helsing reminds Seward, superstition and science are sometimes difficult to disentangle. “Ah, it is the fault of our science that it wants to explain all; and if it explain not, then it says there is nothing to explain,” the professor tells his protégé. Echoing Stoker himself, Van Helsing then observes, “There are always mysteries in life” (Stoker 229). Harker likewise acknowledges the coexistence of past and present. While noting that his contemporaneous diary is “nineteenth century up-to-date with a vengeance,” he accepts that the “old centuries had, and have, powers of their own which mere ‘modernity’ cannot kill” (67).
The dynamic nexus of past, present, fact and fiction both informs and shapes Stoker’s neo-Gothic project of terrorising Victorians with a vampiric version of the fifteenth-century Wallachian warlord Vlad III (1431–1476).
The narrative frame of ‘Dracula’ likewise highlights neo-Gothic juxtapositions and convergences. Taking its cue from the preface to the second edition of Horace Walpole’s ‘The Castle of Otranto’ (1765), the preface to Harker’s diary concerns itself with authenticity/falsity, fact/fiction and present/past.
“All needless matters have been eliminated, so that a history almost at variance with the possibilities of later-day belief may stand forth as simple fact,” it begins and continues: “There is throughout no statement of past things wherein memory may err, for all the records chosen are exactly contemporary” (Stoker 29).
This statement of past fact is, of course, present fiction. However streamlined and contemporary, the materials of ‘Dracula’ consist almost exclusively of highly subjective first-person accounts.
The “Note” concluding the novel does recognise that those who wrote these accounts “could hardly ask anyone […] to accept these as proofs of so wild a story” — not because they are inherently unreliable, but because “in all the mass of material of which the record is composed, there is hardly one authentic document; nothing but a mass of typewriting” (419), as if “so wild a story” were reliable when handwritten, but improbable when typewritten.
That ‘Dracula’ was itself typewritten (by both Stoker and Mina), and those late-Victorian readers found fault with its innovative approach to a traditional demon, further complicates the novel’s already multifaceted neo-Gothicism.
Just as ‘Dracula’ is framed by its preface and “Note,” so too is “White World” framed by ‘Dracula’. Set in 1897, the year of the novel’s publication, the episode begins with closeups of its pages and original yellow cover. These shots establish verisimilitude even as they remind viewers that both the novel and the episode are works of fiction with shared themes. They also suggest that the novel’s outré plot will somehow be replicated in the episode — though, given that until this point ‘Ripper Street’ has been a detective drama in which supernatural elements are entirely absent, this suggestion is alluring but improbable.
The opening mise en scène is conventionally Gothic: sitting in the dark at a parlour table with her hair undone, clad in a white nightdress, and reading ‘Dracula’ by flickering candlelight is the enthralled Mathilda Reid (Anna Burnett), the daughter of Edmund Reid (Matthew Macfadyen) the Inspector of the Metropolitan Police’s H Division in Whitechapel, who is based upon Detective Inspector Edmund John James Reid (1846–1917) the one-time head of the district’s Criminal Investigation Department.
The scene shifts to a foggy, moonlit London street, where a pale young girl in a white dress holding a lamp beckons an anxious woman to follow her. Subsequent crosscuts between these locales reinforce links between the events occurring in each. A door creaks, and Mathilda hurriedly extinguishes her candle; meanwhile, the girl opens an ominous blood-red door and disappears behind it. Mathilda hears footsteps approaching, and holds her breath — only to see her father pass by. She returns to Dracula, while the woman follows the girl into a room filled with the hanging carcasses of slaughtered animals — and a man hanging upside down. The woman’s scream, and the series credits, follow. In the next scene, Reid finds that Mathilda has passed the entire night in the parlour, reading, and reprimands her: “What is this robs you of your rest? Vampires? Really? Go. Ready yourself” (Watson 2016, 04:00–04:01).
During the course of the episode, Reid, alongside Head Inspector Bennet Drake (Jerome Flynn), the American forensics expert Homer Jackson (Adam Rothenberg), and Detective Sergeant Frank Thatcher (Benjamin O’Mahony), discover that the hanging man is the executed convict Percival Monks; he had been exsanguinated via a puncture wound to the neck before his corpse was hung in a refrigerated meat locker.
Like all episodes of ‘Ripper Street’, “White World” is grounded in history and takes artistic license mostly in terms of its plot — which, in another form of historical grounding, resembles that of a Victorian melodrama or Grand Guignol. The episode approaches outright Gothicism but appears to retreat from it, only ultimately to adopt the mode by adapting it.
The text’s sophisticated neo-Victorianism and neo-Gothicism are amply demonstrated by how skillfully it employs Dracula to align the diegetic and extradiegetic late-Victorian worlds it depicts and references, even as it explores the gaps between these worlds, and examines both alignments and gaps between these worlds and our own.
“White World” joins Dracula in paying homage to its Gothic forebears, celebrating contemporary technology, and thoughtfully comparing science with superstition. It departs from Stoker’s novel, however, by exposing the Gothic horrors of late-Victorian technological advancement, laissez-faire capitalism and xenophobia.
Both “White World” and ‘Dracula’ showcase cutting-edge technology as a means of defeating their respective antagonists, sacrificing a degree of verisimilitude in order to do so. The headquarters of H Division features recently installed telephones, a telegraph, a microform reader, and a state-of-the-art autopsy room that includes cold chambers for corpses.
Drake uses the telephones throughout the episode to communicate with his officers; the telegraph sends crucial information about Blanchard from Paris to London and the cold chambers serve both forensic and symbolic functions. While this technology is appropriate for 1897, the episode takes liberties — as does ‘Dracula’, to a much lesser extent — in terms of how accurately it represents late-Victorian scientific experimentation and advancement.
That both Abraham Van Helsing and Homer Jackson conduct blood transfusions is unremarkable: the first transfusion was performed in 1818 by the Scottish obstetrician James Blundell (1790–1877), and in 1870 Robert McDonnell (1828–1889) transfused his own filtered blood into a fourteen-year-old girl (McCann 2016, 19). That Van Helsing and Jackson’s transfusions succeed, however, is far less likely.
Not until 1901 did Karl Landsteiner (1868–1943) discover the major blood groups, and “[recognise] the possibility of a fatal reaction if different blood types were mixed in a patient” (McCann 19).
In 1907, Ludvig Hekoten (1863–1951) “recommended testing the blood groups of [the] recipient and prospective donor and crossmatching them before transfusion” (McCann 19). In 1913 Reuben Ottenberg (1882–1959) “conclusively proved the necessity for crossmatching before transfusion by showing that antibodies in patients’ blood could be harmful to donors’ red cells” (McCann 19).
Years before these discoveries, without any apparent knowledge of blood types, and certainly without conducting any crossmatching, Van Helsing transfuses blood from Arthur, Seward, himself, and Quincey into the repeatedly exsanguinated Lucy. His potentially deadly ineptitude is exemplified by his assurance to Seward that Arthur is “of blood so pure that [they] need not defibrinate it” (Stoker 158).
Given Van Helsing’s dubious medical practices, Lucy’s surviving four transfusions at his hands is nearly as remarkable as her transformation into a vampire. Showing a great deal more scientific acumen than Van Helsing, Jackson discovers a “blood match” (Watson 29:30) four years before Landsteiner’s breakthrough and concludes that his adversary and scientific doppelgänger Blanchard has done the same.
When Blanchard tears a transfusion needle from the throat of Magdalena (Julia Rosnowska) in an effort to escape the police, Jackson saves her life by transfusing Thatcher’s blood (which he has already determined is a match for her own) into her body.
Science appears to vanquish the supernatural in “White World,” as it does in ‘Dracula’, but both texts demonstrate that appearances deceive. When the detectives begin their investigation by discovering the bodies of Percival Monks and Agnieszka, the situation could be interpreted either supernaturally or scientifically.
Ice-cold and deadly pale, Monks is found hanging upside down, drained of blood via a puncture in his throat. Agnieszka is located in the street, her throat likewise pierced with blood having poured from her wound. Both appear to be victims of a vampire, and the man’s hanging upside down like a bat suggests that he has begun to change into a vampire himself.
In the realistic world of ‘Ripper Street’, of course, this reading is untenable. In fact, both are victims not of a vampire, but of a renegade surgeon conducting illicit experiments. The triumph of scientific fact over Gothic fantasy appears complete when Drake asks Jackson, who has just finished his examination of Monks, “What more?” “What do you think this is, a crystal ball?” Jackson retorts, holding up his magnifying glass (Watson 10:31–10:33).
Yet Jackson recognises that there is indeed more to life—and blood, for “blood is life” (26:27–26:28) — than what he sees through a magnifying glass or a microscope. Jackson’s appreciation for the mysteries in life — and science’s inability to cope with them — is expressed in a story he tells of a friend stabbed to death by a “Comanche brave” in a Wyoming mountain pass “full of virgin snow” while he was helpless to intervene.
“My friend died,” he explains. “And I’m a doctor, understand? So, well, the impotence of it. All I could do was watch as blood spread through the eyes. A white world made red” (20:30–21:50). This story illustrates Jackson’s contention that the fear of blood is an “instinctive phobia, as inescapable a part of any man as, well, his blood itself” (20:01–20:12).
As Jackson tells his gruesome tale, he prepares a slide of blood and examines it under a microscope. A subjective camera shot shows the blood cells moving, while a diegetic heartbeat pulses and portentous music plays. The focus first blurs and then sharpens, as Jackson adjusts the microscope.
During the momentary distortion, we see, through his eyes, both a slide of blood in the microscope’s aperture and what resembles a bloody eyeball. The white tiles of the autopsy room — whose whiteness, designed in part to highlight the presence of blood, emphasises the interplay of white and red — echo the “virgin snow” stained by the stabbed man’s blood, as do the virginal Mathilda and Camille’s white dresses, the white gauze applied to bleeding wounds throughout the episode, and Blanchard’s immaculate white lab coat. The white world of science — suggesting at once pure reason and cold objectivity — is thus balanced by the red world of horror.
A white world is made red when we recognise that science and the supernatural are not complementary but identical, and that scientists are not opposed to vampires — they are vampires. This conflation is both literal and figurative. Drawing a firm line between the normal and the paranormal is difficult, as Van Helsing teaches Seward, because this boundary is always shifting with the (re)discovery of knowledge — “the growth of new beliefs” that “are yet but the old, which pretend to be young” (Stoker 228).
Van Helsing’s metaphor is more ominous than he realises; after arriving in London the centuries old-Dracula likewise appears “young” (Stoker 210).
In life, Dracula was an “alchemist—which […] was the highest development of the science-knowledge of his time” (342); thus, it makes sense that this rejuvenated vampire-scientist is “experimenting, and doing it well” (343).
His coffins are inventoried by the Whitby solicitor Billington as “cases of common earth, to be used for experimental purposes” (265) as indeed they are, for “this monster has been creeping into knowledge experimentally” by testing “whether he might not himself move the box[es]” (343).
Renfield, another (would-be) vampire-scientist, imitates ‘Dracula’ by conducting his own experiments in vampirism, and mimics Seward by recording their results in “a little notebook in which he is always jotting down something” (102). “He gave many flies to one spider and many spiders to one bird, and then wanted a cat to eat the many birds,” Seward writes in his own notebook, and wonders, “What would have been his later steps? It would almost be worth while to complete the experiment” (103–4).
Seward’s completing Renfield’s experiment — which would logically culminate in the doctor’s observing his patient drink human blood — would itself be vampiric: not only because it would foster Renfield’s vampirism, but also because Seward would figuratively vampirise Renfield in order to “advance [his] own branch of science” (104).
Seward himself recognises a parallel between his experiment and Renfield’s: “I must not think too much of this, or I may be tempted; a good cause might turn the scale with me, for may not I too be of an exceptional brain, congenitally?” (104). Ironically, Seward does enable Renfield to complete his experiment in vampirism. After Renfield cuts him, Seward observes the aspiring vampire “licking up, like a dog, the blood which had fallen from [his] wounded wrist” (177–78). His simile reinforces the connection between vampire and scientist, for Renfield is a dog with two masters: Dracula, whom he calls “Master” (135, 137, 138, 193, 320), and in whose presence he “sniff[s] about as a dog does” (135), and Seward, who views Renfield as his “pet lunatic” (272–3) and seeks to become “master of the facts of his hallucination” (93).
This conflation of vampire and scientist extends to their respective instruments: Lucy’s body is punctured repeatedly by both Dracula’s fangs and Van Helsing’s needle. Vampires and vampire-hunters are likewise connected by their use of pointed blood-draining and blood-letting tools.
After being bitten and needled, Lucy is staked by Arthur while “the blood from [her] pierced heart [wells] and [spurts]” (254); Dracula uses his “long sharp nails” to “[open] a vein in his breast” before forcing Mina to drink “the blood [that begins] to spurt out” (328); and, as hunter becomes hunted, Dracula’s body is slashed and pierced by Jonathan and Quincey’s knives.
They then find the corpse of the woman, a Polish seamstress named Agnieszka (Janice Byrne) with her throat likewise punctured, lying in an alley.
Their investigation reveals that, aided by the Newgate Prison doctor Carlyle Probyn (Ed Hughes), the renegade French surgeon Tristram Blanchard (Dylan Smith) has been transfusing refrigerated blood drawn from newly hanged prisoners, together with fresh blood from working-class women, into his daughter Camille (Emelia Devlin) in an attempt to save her from porphyria. After Blanchard’s arrest, Mathilda and her father recommence their discussion of Dracula.
Dracula’s conflation of scientists, vampires and vampire-hunters is thoroughly incorporated into “White World.” The surgeon-scientist Blanchard, whose name, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, means “whitish,” blanches Monks, Agnieszka, and Magdalena by piercing their throats with a needle and draining their blood, in a vampiric attempt to give his porphyria-stricken daughter Camille unnaturally renewed life.
“She will recover. She will transform. She will live” (Watson 47:01–47:05), he declares while transfusing Magdalena’s blood into her body. Like Dracula, who vampirised the women in his castle and whom Jonathan believes “seeks to create a new and ever-widening circle of semi-demons to batten on the helpless” (Stoker 84), Blanchard has sired another vampire.
Jackson underscores the tie between Camille’s malady and vampirism when he diagnoses her as suffering from “porphyria,” involving “discolouration of the teeth, anaemia [and] photosensitivity” (42:56–43:01), while tapping a copy of Dracula.
Fittingly, Camille — whose skin is pale, whose teeth are disturbingly stained, and whose own name evokes Dracula’s precursor and inspiration, the vampire Carmilla — lures Agnieszka to her death and consumes a good deal of Magdalena’s blood.
Though the vampire-hunter Jackson stops the vampire Blanchard, the two men — who, as Reid observes, can communicate “surgeon to surgeon” (45:04–45:05) — closely resemble each other. Most obvious are their blood ties: both draw, refrigerate, study and transfuse blood. Other links are more subtle but equally significant.
When Drake, Reid, and Thatcher enter Blanchard’s operating theatre after he has fled from it, they find Jackson hovering over Magdalena’s body, her blood literally on his hands.
Both Blanchard and Jackson, moreover, employ cutting-edge technology to preserve corpses. Jackson places bodies in the refrigerators of his newly renovated morgue at the headquarters of H Division, while Blanchard disposes of Monks’ corpse in the innovative cold-storage room of a slaughterhouse.
Although cold storage was introduced to Smithfield, London’s principal meat market, in 1889, it spread so gradually that “in 1897, vessels with refrigeration were repurposed solely for cold storage because London’s land-based cold storage capacity had not grown fast enough” (Rees 2013, 113). The sober-minded Drake and the forward-thinking Reid respond in character to “the new cold stores” (Watson 07:06–07:07).
“They may keep meat for six months before it spoils,” Reid remarks admiringly, while Drake retorts, “Who wants mutton that’s half a year old?” (07:10–07:17). His question echoes Reid’s own query about Monks’ being placed in cold storage: “Why preserve a dead thing?” (15:10–15:12).
That meat, (exsanguinated) corpses and blood are all artificially preserved underscores the relation between state-of-the-art technology and vampirism, which link is reinforced by the fog-like condensation produced in the cold stores, together with the coffin-like shape of the morgue refrigerators.
Cold storage also illustrates how both animals and people can be (pre)served as food, and how vampires can “batten on the helpless” — a phrase that calls to mind both Monks’ hanging upside down like a vampire bat, and Van Helsing’s tale of vampire bats that feed not only on “cattle and horses” but also on “sailors” (Stoker 229).
Finally, though somewhat anachronistically, the slaughterhouse tableau evokes ‘The Blood Drinkers’ (1898) by Joseph Ferdinand Gueldry (1858–1945).
The editor of The Magazine of Art describes this extraordinary painting as depicting “a group of consumptive invalids, congregated in a shambles, [who] are drinking the blood fresh from the newly-slain ox lying in the foreground — blood that oozes out over the floor — while the slaughterers, themselves steeped in gore, hand out the glasses like the women at the wells” (Dijkstra 1986, 338). Among these anemic women is “one young girl, pale and trembling” (338) who resembles Camille. The visual reference to Gueldry’s painting reinforces the interchangeability of human and animal blood: the invalids drink the ox’s blood in an attempt to supplement and revivify their own. It also underscores the horror and peril of late-Victorian science as practised by Blanchard.