When the Good Guy Doesn’t Suck

Over Halloween I was privileged to play Dr. Abraham Van Helsing in the Steven Dietz stage adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, put on by the River Arts District Playhouse in Rome, Georgia. Nerd that I am, I did quite a bit of background reading on the character. And before stowing all that resource material in my study, why not share what I learned?

Van Helsing about to unleash a crucifix of whoop-vamp!

Forget the action figure portrayal by Hugh Jackman in the 2004 Van Helsing movie. The protagonist of the novel, as well as most 20th century films and movies, was a scholarly professor and doctor who checkmated the nefarious Count with knowledge, faith and leadership–although he didn’t hesitate to lop off heads, if need be (as he did with Dracula’s three evil vixens).

Van Helsing was both a man of Christian faith and a scientist. His friend and former student, Dr. John Seward, calls him “the most advanced scientist of your day,” and “a philosopher and a metaphysician” who “knows more about obscure diseases than anyone in the world.” Unlike anyone else in the novel or play–all Church of England, or Protestant of some kind–VH is Catholic, and deploys distinctly Catholic weapons against vampires: consecrated bread (wafers) and a crucifix, in particular. He also quotes Scripture quite a bit–mostly Psalm 62 (when confronting Dracula), although a bit of 1 John 1 in the conclusion. In his “sermon” to Seward, Jonathon Harker and Mina Murray, VH calls them to “a steadfast belief in science” as well as “a fierce reliance on faith.” As a Missouri Synod Lutheran, I mused early on that an indeterminate “faith” avails little or nothing; I also noted that not once in the stage play is Jesus Christ mentioned, although the crucifix stops vampire Lucy, and even Dracula himself, dead in their tracks (pun intended). Perhaps Steven Dietz, who adapted the play from Stoker’s novel in 1995, didn’t wish to appear too Christian. Still, the play leaves it clear, although not as much as the novel, that Abraham Van Helsing is a staunch Catholic Christian and that that faith is at least half of what enables him to lead the defeat of Dracula and his minions.

Count Dracula, is of course, the main attraction of the novel and the play. Evil always steals the show. But the excellent actor who played Dracula in our production confided to me, backstage one night, that the play should probably be entitled Van Helsing; not only does the Dutch doctor drive the action (see Garcia, “Van Helsing as the Moral Driver in Stoker’s Dracula“), but he speaks directly to the audience several times, explaining what is going on. VH serves a role similar to Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings: he has more knowledge than anyone else, but doles it out sparingly so as to protect others; he forms the “fellowship” which defeats the primary evil character; while kindly, he also possesses something of a short fuse; and, as mentioned, he sometimes acts as narrator. Indeed, Van Helsing’s “semi-deified role” is that which “carves the moral and religious reasoning that moves the plot forward.” He is “the anti-thesis to Count Dracula” (all quotes from Garcia)–although one might just as logically maintain that it is Dracula who is the anti-thesis to Van Helsing, since the former is evil while the latter is good (albeit exasperating).

Along with the aforementioned description, Seward also refers to Van Helsing as not just friend but as “master.” This is symmetrical to the relationship between the pathetic Renfield and Dracula. The mad Renfield has been bewitched by Dracula and yearns for his coming to England, although just how this happened is never explained in the novel or the play. Renfield several times asserts that “my Master is coming,” and of course eventually invites him into the sanitarium where he is locked up–only to have his “savior” kill him. Contrast this with the Van Helsing/Seward relationship, in which the former saves the latter (from the vampire Lucy), as well as from Dracula, and eventually helps him achieve his personal and professional independence, if you will–as well as comforts him after the death of his dear Lucy.

Van Helsing proves an enduring figure of interest to folks enamored of the horror genre, as shown not only by his many epigones on the screen (both large and small), but by the publication of fiction books about his life both before and after the events of Dracula. In 2004 Allen C. Kupper published The Journal of Professor Abraham Van Helsing, which purports to tell how VH became a vampire hunter. The same year The Many Faces of Van Helsing came out, edited by Jeanne Cavelos and consisting of 21 short stories about the domineering Dutchman, both pre- and post-settling the Count’s hash. Cavelos’ “Introduction” is particularly insightful. Van Helsing represents order to Dracula’s chaos (in this respect, he is thus Batman to the Joker–if the latter literally drank the blood of his victims). “As Holmes is to Moriarity, as ego is to id, Van Helsing is to Dracula” (p. xii). She points out, rather brilliantly in my opinion, that Van Helsing is the archetype for Carl Kolchak of one of my favorite shows from the 1970s, Kolchak: The Night Stalker; and that Van Helsing’s faith-based and scientific sides were split into Mulder and Scully of The X-Files (p. xiii).

Finally, playing Van Helsing and studying him reminded me of the Aldous Huxley novel The Devils of Loudon, which I read many years ago. The book is about the (alleged) mass demonic possession of nuns at a French monastery in the 17th century. Huxley points out that “no man can concentrate his attention upon evil, or even upon the idea of evil, and remain unaffected. To be more against the devil than for God is exceedingly dangerous.” Crusading against that which we hate, rather than defending and promoting that which we love, has become all too common in the modern world. Abraham Van Helsing reminds us that we need both sides of that coin.

But that it wouldn’t hurt to carry a crucifix, as well.