If you're one of those folks who think the BBC hardly ever make religious content, then maybe you’re just not looking in the right places, because streaming right now on BBC iPlayer is a lavish mini-series that doesn’t just explore Christian faith, its central theme is the power of the cross.
No…it’s not a Bible story, it’s Dracula.
Since its publication in 1897, Bram Stoker's always-in-print horror classic has been a staple of pop culture, and with countless screen adaptations, most people know the story. If you’re someone who avoids horror, however, here’s a quick primer. Naïve British lawyer Jonathan Harker visits the mysterious Count Dracula in the Transylvanian mountains to help smooth over a property sale in England. The Count is planning a visit so he can ‘enjoy’ the British people, though it's not long before Harker learns exactly what that means. The count is a centuries-old vampire who feeds on blood – and when he does come to England, by sea, he brings terror to our shores. Yet his arch-nemesis is hot on is heels - a plucky vampire hunter called Van Helsing.
Despite the many screen adaptions, hardly any of them really stick to Stoker's original, and this new BBC version is no different. In fact, it throws so many wild and ambitious new angles to the original story - it's annoyed some Dracula purists. I, however, found all the witty riffing on Dracula lore to be great fun. Writers Stephen Moffatt and Mark Gattis brought a similar contemporary spin to the BBC's hit show Sherlock. Yet while much is updated, it’s fascinating to see what remains. The makers have refused to ditch a key focus of Stoker's novel...Christianity, and more specifically, the crucifix.
The power of the cross
This show is so relentlessly focused on the power of the cross, you might call it one of the most theologically Christian shows on TV right now. That’s not to say its pro-Christianity. It just keeps asking "why does the cross have power?" Not if it has power, but why. This story seems to make the inherent power a given.
Key to all this God-talk is the show's masterstroke: the wise-cracking and irreverent Sister Agatha (played brilliantly by Dolly Wells). If Twitter is anything to go by, she is now the world’s most beloved nun. In episode one we find her in a convent, interviewing an emaciated Jonathan Harker. He’s retelling his draining experience in the Count’s castle, but he seems constantly taking aback by Agatha’s approach to faith.
At first, she talks like an atheist: "Faith is a sleeping drug for children and simpletons…" she says. And when Harker asks what happened to her faith she says, "I have looked for God everywhere in this world, and never found him." "Then why are you here?" asks a baffled Harker. "Well, like many women of my age, I’m trapped in a loveless marriage, maintaining appearances for the sake of a roof over my head."
What sounds like a cheap joke at the expense of believers is anything but. There's a complexity here. Her cynicism isn't born from a snide dismissal of faith, but from a lifetime of earnest spiritual searching. "I have sought to find God all my life," she says, "and have never seen a sign of him anywhere." That is until she meets Harker, whose story of the terrible and devilish Count Dracula gradually starts to rekindle her faith. In a moment of revelation, a light begins to dawn...
"Count Dracula fears the cross…" she says, almost with tears in her eyes. "He fears the symbol of our Lord. Dracula, Prince of Vampires fears the cross…do you understand what that means? It means…God is real. God is real and I’ve found him, at last…"
Make no mistake - Sister Agatha is really resonating with audiences. And yes, that's partly because she's a sharply-written kickass female character, perfectly brewed for 2020 audiences. One of her most quotable lines is being proudly quoted all across social media right now: "I’m all your nightmares at once. I’m an intelligent woman with a crucifix." But it’s that last part, the cross part, that makes her popularity particularly interesting. People are tired of Christian hypocrites and holier than thou clergy - but when a funny, quirky, brave and very human nun with a noble cause offers herself, doubts and all, it strikes a chord. Perhaps that's because so many people today are that exact same sort of mixture. For all the culture wars between believers and atheists, there's a mass of people in the middle, who both doubt and want to believe. Sister Agatha lives there too - and people love her for it.
To see a modern vampire show reinstalling the cross as an effective weapon should be an odd sort of encouragement to the modern church
So why should this religious symbol have the power to re-convert a jaded nun and more to the point, why does it instill such terror in Dracula himself? In episode two, the count simply dismisses the power of the cross with a clever theory. He says he's sucked so much peasant blood over the years, he's imbibed some of their foolish religious fear. Gattis and Moffat could have left it at this rather nifty explanation, but they don’t, because Sister Agatha knows better. She accuses Dracula of lying, not only to her but more importantly to himself. There is something far more profound in the cross that makes the Count fear it. There is a goodness there, and he knows it.
The history of religious imagery in vampire films
To see a modern vampire show reinstalling the cross as an effective weapon should be an odd sort of encouragement to the modern church. I've long had a theory that you can chart the recent history of Christianity by simply watching how the role of the cross has changed in vampire movies.
- In the Hammer years (the 1950s and into the 1960s) Peter Cushing could slap two silver candlesticks together and Christopher Lee would run away screaming. No-one questioned the power of the cross to hurt a vampire because Christianity still had a sense of authority and goodness in the culture.
- In the 70s and into the 80s films like Fright Night and the TV mini-series Salem's Lot said that the cross itself had no inherent power...it all depended on the individual faith of the bearer. Religion was becoming a personal, private matter.
- By the 1990s, the film version of Interview With the Vampire (written by Anne Rice, a Christian) had the vampires expressing a certain nostalgic affection for the once-feared symbol ("I'm rather fond of looking at crucifixes" says Louis, a romantic, guilt-ridden vampire).
- By the 2000s, crosses became an utter irrelevance in vampire films. In particular, the smash hit Twilight saga turned the vampire from a ravenous, evil plague to the ultimate teen heartthrob, who didn’t burn up in the sunlight, he simply glowed like a pretty Christmas tree.
How interesting then to find that at the start of a brand new decade, we see Dracula return in a form that seems to fit the complexity of our current age. He's a mass of contradictions. He’s camp, funny, scary, witty, evil, gallant, sophisticated, savage – at one point Sister Agatha rightly calls him "complicated". That's an understatement...but then so is she. She is also a sometimes confusing mixture of cynicism and faith, happy to mock the idea of God on one hand, and yet can equally say she longs for him to be real on the other. If we were honest, I think many of us, including churchgoers, can relate to her. These two complicated characters are a colourful bundle of many of us today, and what bonds them both is a fascination with the cross.
Don't miss a trick
With all it's gore and violence, Christians may well dismiss Dracula as inappropriate viewing for believers. But if you do that, you're missing a trick (and a treat). And if you hear people talking about Dracula in the coming days, or expressing how much they love Sister Agatha, don’t dismiss them, or tell them to turn from the darkness - because who knows...they might just be having a moment of spiritual insight. They probably won't want to watch Songs of Praise...or even some slick Christian-made movie like God's Not Dead that churches often assume are the only way to connect with jaded viewers.
Instead, they're turning the lights down and watching Dracula, and they're connecting with the mystery and the power of the cross. Perhaps that's because it is in the darkness, that this light shines at it's most interesting and most profound. Or as Sister Agather puts it: "If it takes the devil to lead me to my Lord, then I say, bring on the devil!"
Rev Peter Laws explores the spiritual side of horror at theflicksthatchurchforgot.com, writes a monthly column for The Fortean Times and preaches regularly. He is the author of two novels, Purged and Unleashed and tweets at @revpeterlaws
Dracula is streaming on BBC iPlayer now and is coming to Netflix soon worldwide.
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