Unwise Sleeper

“…there are bad dreams for those who sleep unwisely.” – Bram Stoker

This line, from Chapter 3 of Stoker’s Dracula, is the part of the novel (also seen in the 1992 movie) where Dracula warns Jonathan Harker not to fall asleep in any other rooms of the castle but the ones he has been given. “It is old, and has many memories,” the old count tells him.

And memories, as anyone who consumes horror would know, can become monstrous.

In a lot of literature, Gothic in particular, night time is a time of danger, of monsters and other threats – which is perhaps what’s so seductive about it, and about these stories. Sleep is when we’re the most vulnerable. To sleep in the night is to open ourselves up to all manner of unseen danger – so we should be careful not to sleep unwisely.

Batwoman by Albert Joseph Penot

Harker, at this point in the novel, has caught on that something is not quite right with this old count and his castle. He’s aware that there is some danger here, though at this point, he’s not sure what. That danger becomes more present when he does sleep unwisely, and falls prey to three vampire women who are chased off by the count. This is Victorian anxiety set to literature – these women are overtly and unabashedly sexual, and cause Harker to experience intense desire. They have appetites. They are sensual. And to further the contrast to the good Victorian woman, who is maternal above all else, they consume a young child.

Beyond the Victorians, there is a link between anxiety and night. Because here’s the thing about night – it’s an absence. Of light, of movement, of people, of distractions. And the fearful monsters lurking in the absence are often our own brain-drippings. Is a ghost perhaps a fear of the unknown or a fear of death? Is the fear of possession born of the fear of being out of control? Is the fear of being intruded upon perhaps a fear of lack of bodily autonomy? Etc.

I must sleep unwisely, because like Harker, I have bad dreams that aren’t really dreams – they’re real things that manifest themselves in that great dark absence, and like most monsters, they tend to be able to overpower me. Garlic and crucifixes don’t do much for anxiety attacks.

So what happens to our unwise Mr. Harker? What happens to most heroes of literature written to uphold societal norms – he gets married. To a woman who is victimized by but ultimately overcomes the darkness, releasing it and returning it to the light. (Which is, perhaps, the Gothic equivalent of taking an anti-anxiety medication.)

What I like about the 1992 film – which, campy as it is, I think still holds up – is that at the end, you get the sense that Mina Harker would much rather have stayed with Dracula, had there been a way. But they’d be hunted, and despite his monstrousness, he (in the film version) is hesitant to actually fully turn her. She realizes that she needs to release him from a tormented existence, and loves him enough to do so. But the love story we see in the film is not part of the book.

In the book, Mina is much more Victorian – she is an unwilling victim, another unwise sleeper, who having spent the night at an asylum in close proximity to Dracula’s new home, becomes his next target. Yet while the audience knows exactly what has happened, Mina initially dismisses the incident as a dream.

I’m not one of those literary types who hates it when a film diverges from a book. I like adaptations and interpretations, and while I find Stoker’s novel a fascinating read in how to pull off the Gothic genre and a study of Victorian anxieties, I prefer the 1992 film’s portrayal of Mina. Instead of being a paragon of virtue, she connects with something about this mysterious count, in a way that she seemingly can’t seem to connect with Jonathan. She wants to be with him. However, like a good Victorian woman should, she ultimately does choose Jonathan and social propriety over her newfound awakening.

I’m left with the feeling, at the end of the film, that Jonathan is never going to be enough for Mina. He’s never going to fulfil her. Once awake, it’s hard to return to a state of sleep, unwise or otherwise. Then you begin to think things like, is the monster the guy inviting a transformation? Or is the monster the guy who expects me to stay in my place and uphold social norms?

I think Mina will externally uphold them, and will silently live in a state of anxiety. I think she will be tempted to sleep unwisely, perhaps hoping that something will invite itself in, but she won’t actively seek it out.

I think a lot of us do that – we distract ourselves during the day, and then at night, meet with all the things we suppressed. We are, after all, made of memories.

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