Lecturer argues for a presence of religious longing on the margins of Dracula

The lecture “Dracula’s Sacramental Prosaics and the Remains of Religion in Modernity” was presented by Associate Professor of Literature at the University of Iowa Lori Branch on March 7 as the second in a series of three lectures on religion and literature.

In her talk, Branch explained there is an overwhelming religious nature in Dracula, saying, “Religion and the supernatural are dramatically all over Dracula: vampires, crucifixes, eucharistic wafers, holy water, and the ubiquitous sign of the cross.” Branch said that instead of bringing a person closer to God, the sacramentals in Dracula are technological in nature because they are used simply as tools. According to Branch, this is because the sacramentals in Dracula reflect the expansion of technology and secularization of the late 19th century. However, she argued that despite the sacramentals’ appearance of being only technological, they actually point towards a “deeper longing for unity with God at the margins of the novel.”

According to Branch, all the sacramentals in the novel are presented as technological. The Eucharist, a constant presence in the novel, is referred to as “the sacred wafer.” The “sacred wafer” becomes a technology in that it is seen as the ultimate weapon in defeating Dracula. It burns the character Mina in a pseudo-chemical reaction when it touches her forehead because she is tainted by Dracula. In addition, the crucifix given to Jonathan Harker is used as a tool in order to protect him from Dracula. Branch also said that the sign of the cross made by villagers in the presence of Dracula’s carriage has the material purpose of warding off the negative effects of Dracula. Branch said that in these ways, sacramentals in Dracula appear to be “ontological technologies due to an era of increasing technologizing and secularization.”

However, while acknowledging the technological nature of the sacramentality in Dracula, Branch argued that “there is a richer version of sacramentality at the margins of the novel that holds a deeper longing for the presence of God.” She said, “There is a longing in Dracula for more than materialism … They want a non-instrumentalized version of God.”

Branch provided evidence for her argument that the sacramentals in Dracula point towards a richer meaning of Christianity, saying, “The true version of the Eucharist is not condescended to in the novel and it exists on the margins of the text.” She explained the sign of the cross made by the villagers in the presence of Dracula’s carriage actually holds more than material meaning because the sign of the cross is “a self-blessing, an act of worship of the whole person.” Branch also said the positive portrayal of the religious practices of the Eastern European villagers points towards a deeper respect for religiosity hidden in the novel.

Dracula teaches us that we are fearing and longing for the same thing,” Branch explained. “It’s kind of this repressed thing in culture: a personal relationship with God that is universally longed for. It’s a repressed, inner radical desire in the text.”

A member of the audience challenged Branch’s proposal that the Eucharist and other sacramentals exist as a technology in the novel because of the technologizing pattern of the era. He explained that, in the past, Catholics “were worried about ‘What if the wafer fell?’ or ‘What if you had too much sin and somehow there was something like a chemical reaction?” He explained that since the Eucharist and other sacramentals were historically seen as a material objects that could react chemically, the version of the sacramentals present in the novel derives from the historical Catholic view of sacramentals, instead of a unique view derived from the heightened role of technology in the era.

In response to this wider historical perspective, Branch joked, “I guess the best thing to do is say, ‘Yes, you’re right. I get an A-.’” She revised her argument and said that the appearance of the Eucharist as a tool in the novel is due to both the increase in technology in the late 19th century and the common view among Catholics that sacramentals were a sort of instrument. Regardless of the reason the sacramentals appear technological in Dracula, Branch concluded they actually point towards a deeper desire for unity with God.  

Ellie Gardey is a freshman living in Lewis Hall studying political science, philosophy, and theology. She has a love for sushi and country music. Contact Ellie at egardey@nd.edu.