Friday, November 6, 2020

Princess Elisabeta The Ibbur, Or a Judeo-Calvinist Interpretation of BRAM STOKER'S DRACULA

The most recent episode of the film podcast Myopia Movies covers Bram Stoker's Dracula, the 1992 Francis Ford Coppola classic known for its beautiful visuals, the awesomeness that is Winona Ryder, and Keanu Reeves' questionable accent. The following discussion contains spoilers for a movie that's nearly 30 years old, so be ye warned...

When I first saw it in high school, what stuck out to me was that they gave Dracula of all people a redemption arc. The count (Gary Oldman) begins the story as a Christian warrior fighting the invading Ottoman Turks and renounces God when his wife Elisabeta, incorrectly thinking he was killed in battle, commits suicide and the priests tell the grieving Vlad she's in Hell. What I remembered was that upon learning Mina Harker (Winona Ryder) was the reincarnation of his lost love, his resolve to do evil weakens--he initially refuses to turn Mina into a vampire even though she very much wants it (!) and when the hunters confront him, he initially flees rather than try to fight them. This I attributed to his realizing that Elisabeta is not in Hell--was his rebellion against God and the atrocities he committed as history's infamous Impaler a mistake? Is he now reconsidering all his life choices?

More recently, as I became more familiar with Calvinism, I even concluded that although most vampire fiction is very heavily Catholic, this one is actually rather Reformed. Dracula was predestined by God for salvation from before Creation (see Ephesians 1:4), but he rebels against God, cursing Him for Elisabeta's death and (he thinks) damnation. However, those who are truly His are never out of His hand, even though they may try to jump from it. God is determined that Dracula be redeemed and so He allows Dracula to become a vampire--the count will be saved even if it takes 400-odd years to do it.

(In the meantime Dracula commits all sorts of horrors, but if God is in control, one could argue He allowed this for His own purposes--delaying the Ottoman invasion of Europe to prevent mass apostasy from Christianity, punishing the corrupt boyars and criminals the historical Vlad was known for treating harshly, etc. And given how some historians think Vlad's crimes might have been exaggerated by his enemies, he might not have been as monstrous as one might think.)

But what about Elisabeta? Doesn't reincarnation go against the Bible? Hebrews 9:27 pretty explicitly says man dies once and then the Judgement and in Bram Stoker's Dracula, Christianity is explicitly true--crosses/crucifixes, communion wafers, etc. have supernatural power against evil. I'm assuming Elisabeta was a Christian and the idea that people who commit suicide automatically go to Hell is not biblical, so one would assume she's in Heaven. However, the Bible does contain the account of the Witch of Endor, who manages to summon from the dead none other than the prophet Samuel, who repeats the prophecies of divine judgement he made on Earth. Some Christians believe this was actually a demonic being impersonating Samuel, but this entity does not seem to be any different from Samuel when he was on Earth. In any event, Samuel's prophecy of Saul's death comes true and a test of a true prophet is whether their predictions come true. And then there's the spirit God sends to torment Saul (see 1 Samuel 16:14-23), although that could be depression or some kind of mental illness rather than an actual supernatural entity--"spirit" in this case could mean "mood" rather than an angel or demon. After all, when David shows up he soothes Saul by playing music, not by exorcising him. :)

So perhaps Mina Harker in the present day is not actually a reincarnation of Elisabeta, but is sort of possessed by her? The notion that a living person can be possessed by the spirit of a dead person actually ties in with the Jewish concepts of dibbuk and ibbur. Although the idea comes from 16th Century Jewish folklore rather than Scripture, it does seem somewhat appropriate given that Winona Ryder's father is Jewish and she describes herself as such too. An ibbur is a dead person temporarily possessing or at least joining with a living person in order to accomplish a religious duty. In this case, tying in with the idea that Vlad was predestined for Heaven despite his crimes, this is Elisabeta returning to Earth for the purpose of leveraging Vlad's ultimate repentance. This would explain why Mina only starts remembering her "past life" as Elisabeta when she encounters Dracula in the present day--there is no indication beforehand she's anything but a sweet-natured (but as I noted in my review, extremely horny) British schoolteacher. And it's appropriate that Jonathan and Mina get married in what seems to be the Eastern Orthodox fashion--as a princess of Transylvania, Elisabeta was probably Orthodox herself, even though Jonathan is Anglican in the novel and I assume Mina is too.

(This could also cycle back to Catholicism--Elisabeta might be in Purgatory and redeeming Vlad, whose renunciation of God was prompted by her own suicide, could be part of the sanctification process prior to her own entering Heaven. However, Dracula's sins are so egregious that even if his last-minute repentance means he doesn't go to Hell, if there's a Purgatory he'll be spending a lot of time there while Elisabeta goes on. That kind of weakens the romanticism a bit, although they'll be reunited eventually.)

However, upon actually watching the film, it seems I didn't recall a lot of the details correctly. Vlad's resolve to do evil does weaken, but his repentance is much vaguer--after he is mortally wounded by Mina's husband Jonathan and their American friend Quincy Morris, Mina takes him to the long-abandoned chapel of Castle Dracula. The dying count reaches for the cross and asks God why He has forsaken him ( forsook Him). However, when Mina tries to pull the blade out of his chest, Dracula stops her and tells her "it is finished" (sound familiar?).  

Suddenly the light shines down, the candles in the chapel ignite, and the cross Dracula had desecrated so long ago heals. Things get a little theologically fuzzier from there--Mina thinks it was her love that released everybody from the powers of darkness and claims her and Dracula's love is stronger than death--but the light of God does revert the demonic-looking Dracula to his human form. At Dracula's request Mina shoves the knife all the way through his heart and the burn from the Communion wafer disappears from her forehead, indicating that her own growing vampirism has been quelled. Dracula dies apparently seeing something pleasant, Mina cuts off his head to make sure the deed is done, and the film ends implying Dracula and Elisabeta have been reunited in Heaven. Here is the complete scene for your review.

So although claiming Bram Stoker's Dracula is some kind of Christian film is really stretching it (although belief in reincarnation is blatantly heretical, the idea that God temporarily sent Princess Elisabeta's soul back to Earth to ensure Vlad goes to Heaven is still really pushing it), I figured some folks might find this interesting. 

If you want to read BSD in a purely orthodox fashion, Mina remembering a past life as Elisabeta could be the result of Dracula consciously or unconsciously using psychic abilities to fill her head with memories of 15th Century Romania, her consuming mind-altering absinthe, the fact she's a late teen or early 20-something with an overactive imagination infatuated with handsome, charismatic foreigner, or a combination thereof. Mina's thinking it was her love and not God's manipulating circumstances over 400-plus years to save Dracula is her own ego (this is, after all, from her diary written after-the-fact), not a definitive theological statement. After all, the fact she all but commits adultery with a monster who imprisoned and tormented her husband and killed her best friend shows she's not perfect.

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