Dracula and why I fell in love with the Gothic

I cannot remember a time when I was not fascinated by the uncanny and the supernatural. Since childhood the macabre has had a strong pull over me. This was most firmly expressed when I was just seven years old and had my first encounter the Gothic.

Back in 2002, I can remember a time when one of the U.K.’s national newspapers had been giving away free books. Every week, readers were able to collect a classic literary tale to enjoy along with their daily newspaper. Already an avid reader, I saw this as the perfect opportunity to get my hands on such classics as Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women or Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles.

Having already collected and devoured several new novels, one week the novel on offer was Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Curious and eager to get my hands on a copy, I asked my mother to collect the book for me to read and was surprised as she replied with a resounding “No.” Having always been encouraged to read I was confused. When I pushed for an explanation all my mother had to say was “It’s too scary for you, you will have nightmares.” It was fair to say that that cryptic dismissal stayed with me well into adulthood.

Fast forward thirteen years and I crossed paths with the text again at university. Dracula was stalking the reading list of my third-year Gothic literature module, and I finally had the chance to visit Transylvania and meet the Count. It is an understatement to say that I was enthralled. I eagerly read chapter after chapter, desperate to find out if the heroes would prevail and drive out the vampire menace once and for all. The novel had a lasting impact, and it is one that I now try to revisit at least once per year.

Similarly, two years later I watched William Fredkin’s The Exorcist for the first time having long been warned against watching what many in my social circle had labelled ‘the scariest film of all time.’ Again, I was not disappointed, watching Reagan’s physical and mental transformation from innocent pre-teen to demonic monster was thrilling to behold. After the credits had rolled, I noticed a pattern between the most popular Gothic fiction and the notion that these stories were so scary that they became inaccessible, suited only to the bravest among us who are completely without fear.

For me then, as I am sure it is for many others, the Gothic has long been associated with the idea of the forbidden. A genre that holds within itself a fear so terrible that it is locked away until we are ready and even then, it may be too much for us to bear. Vampires, demons, werewolves, and a host of other monsters are waiting for us, ready to expose our deepest and darkest fears. As I grew older and came to enjoy more of the genre that started with Horace Walpole’s The Castle Otranto in 1764, I came to realise that it was not those surface level figures that had made the genre so popular. It is the subtext that dominates so many of the Gothic narratives that we enjoy that remain the source of their popularity. 

If we return to Dracula as an example, it is not just the idea of the blood-sucking vampire that terrified readers in 1897 nor has continued to do so ever since. Instead, the character is a vehicle for delivering a wide range of other far more tangible and salient fears that remain with us to this day. Dracula, crossing from his native Romania to metropolitan London, is both a disease and an immigrant, an uncontrolled and unchecked spread of biological matter and alien cultural beliefs. Two anxieties that are just a prevalent in the twenty-first century as they were when Stoker first published his work. Dracula is a layered and intricate work that demands to be reread. 

Indeed, this is another reason why I fell in love with the novel. Not all my previous revelations came to me after my first reading Dracula. It was only after two or three visits to the novel that much of this subtext and the text’s various connotations and implications made themselves present. Having read the novel more than once, I am continually amazed by its multiplicity. The Exorcist follows in the same vein; Reagan’s transformation is far more than a play on secular fears and the demonic. With its true terror being invoked by an intimate and chilling depiction of a fearsome and rebellious American youth that seeks to upset the natural order of the world.

Gothic fiction has had a long history of enthralling audiences, the combination of surface-level fears and wealth of subtext keep the genre alive. There is little doubt, given the world we live in, that there will be no shortage of cultural phenomena to keep the genre salient.

Looking to the future, novel and films such as The Exorcist and Dracula continue to have an endless appeal that shows no sign of waning. With the figure of the vampire in particular remaining a continued source of fascination to readers and audiences across the globe (the count himself received a BBC adaptation in early 2020), and the vampire being exposed to entirely new demographics thanks to the rise of the likes of Twilight and True Blood it appears that the vampire will continue to terrorise the public for years to come.

The Exorcist is also receiving a sequel in October 2023 and in doing so looks set to terrorise a whole new generation of audiences. The Gothic, then, appears to continue to go on. All one can do is hope that in another century a new generation of readers are just as drawn to the genre as I was those many years ago. 


Connor Long-Johnson, currently writing his thesis on the fiction of Stephen King at the University of Greenwich in London, England, enjoys writing short stories in the gothic, fantasy and science-fiction genres. He has had various works published, three short pieces of fiction with HorrorTree’s Trembling With Fear, another in Breaking Rules Publishing’s horror anthology The Hollow and three with Science-Fiction website 365tomorrows. He can be found either at library or at cljohnson.co.uk.