The Predatory Gentleman: Manners and The Gift of Fear in Universal’s Dracula

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LugosiIn The Gift of Fear, Gavin De Becker reveals a complex world of pre-incident indicators and emotional exchanges that are the stock and trade of predators, and creates a context in which we can better listen to our intuition, and take advantage of tens of thousands of years of recognizing danger.

Understanding predatory behavior allows us to better recognize and react to it. When we attribute that behavior to monsters (often labeling them as such after the fact), we leave ourselves more vulnerable. In Universal’s DraculaDracula embodies this insistence on seeing the predator as a monster, rather than a predatory human being. By walking through the film with this in mind and an eye to De Becker’s work, the count is revealed as a century old example of De Becker’s theories as he scouts for victims, controls the narrative, and uses manners to silence the inner voices of those who might resist his charms.

Renfield

Renfield ignores the warnings of the villagers, and his sense of social obligation and class privilege lead him to ignore his own growing sense of alarm at his midnight meeting with Dracula.

Predators are acutely aware of the power dynamic between themselves and their potential victims: the more power they have, the less polite they need to be, and the more the protestations of their victim can be ignored. Dracula (disguised as a coachman) is initially polite, but as soon as Renfield gets in the coach the balance of power shifts, and the solicitor’s protestations are ignored as the horse gallops madly; when Renfield looks out of the window he sees a bat, driving the frothing horses forward: the friendly coachman has revealed himself to be a beast.

Renfield was lost the minute he ignored his own intuitive unease, gave over his power, and got into Dracula’s coach. Though the dynamic of Drink the Winepredator and prey continues to play out between them, Dracula is merely toying with him, watching as Renfield continues to ignore the danger, trapped in a web of manners by a host who greets him, feeds him, shows him to his bed, and ultimately assaults him. Nothing about the situation “feels” right, but a lifetime of cultural indoctrination leaves Renfield unable to take action. Dracula’s demands for secrecy and absolute control (hallmarks of a predator) are accepted by Renfield, even as the count’s odd behavior – sometimes formal and polite, sometimes strangely aggressive – is overlooked in the name of business, and the courtesy owed by a guest to his host. By the time Renfield sits down to dinner he is on some level afraid, but nevertheless he lifts up his glass for Dracula to fill, and when asked, says that the wine is delicious. By then, what choice does he have?

Dracula Scouts his VictimLucy

Predators hide in plain site, leveraging the social rules of their environment to help them identify, isolate, and manipulate their prey. Dracula is an aristocrat, and upon his arrival in London he inveigles an introduction to Dr. Seward. Dracula’s ruse – of a call that the doctor needs to attend to – affords him a chance to scout his first victim.

Dracula watches and plays into Lucy’s reactions as he speaks of the broken battlements of his Transylvanian castle. The next time she sees him it is at night, in her room. Dracula appears by magic, but Lucy has already fallen under his spell. Had Lucy been looking for De Becker’s pre-incident indicators, she would have asked herself why, exactly, this handsome stranger was trying to charm her.

Mina

When Mina tries to share the experience of her assault with John Harker (her fiance), he dismisses it. Though Mina herself thinks that what she experienced was a dream, the subtext is that of a failure to recognize the existence of a predator, and the tendency to see a woman’s account as suspect. Dracula in this case is a proxy for any member of polite society, confident in the knowledge that his greatest defense is denial of his existence, and a system that routinely disregards victims’ stories, especially when those stories are inconvenient.

Only Van Helsing – himself an outsider – takes Mina’s story at face value, at least to the extent of looking more deeply into her claims. When he does, evidence begins to pile up. Even when the presence of a predator is suspected, manners demand that Dracula be invited in when he stops by, unannounced. Once there, he uses the power he already has over Mina to isolate her from her family and friends by challenging her relationship to her fiance and usurping the power of her father. He asks her if he may inquire again as to her health, and any agency she might have had to refuse him is stripped away by social expectations: she can only say yes.

John, you mustn't touch meThe last thing that a predator wants is to be revealed, and when Van Helsing confronts Dracula with a mirror, the predator is laid bare. Harker refers to him as being “like a wild animal” and Dr. Seward likens him to a madman. Both men are perpetuating the myth that the primary way to recognize a predator is not through behavioral cues, but through obvious, outward signs; they continue to ignore the predatory behavior that Dracula has demonstrated all along.

Harker fails to listen to Mina, even after a second assault by Dracula has cleared up any self-doubts she may have had. Despite the evidence, he is more focused on her behavior (as a hysterical woman) than he is about the predator in their midst, and his solution (whisking her away) is more about asserting his own dominance in the face of another male figure than protecting Mina.

Stopping the Predator

Lugosi Bottom

Often, the victim of an assault is seen as tainted (“you mustn’t touch me or kiss me,” says Mina) or unbalanced (Renfield). Lucy’s victimization by Dracula results in her death and rebirth as a vampire, a metaphoric removal from the upper class and placement on the street. Ultimately, the predator is defeated by his own predictability. The vampire, like the human predator that he represents, follows a strict pattern: understanding it can help us become more receptive to environmental cues that might otherwise go unnoticed. By being alert to pre-incident indicators and choosing safety over manners, we keep our power and have have a better chance of staying safe. “The strength of the vampire,” says Van Helsing, “is that people will not believe in him.” Strong words, when dealing with monsters, or men.

 

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