Bram Stoker’s Dracula and the brain stem

Department of English, University of California, Los Angeles, USA

Neither literary critics nor historians of science have acknowledged the extent to which Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) is indebted to late-Victorian neurology. My paper aims to rectify this neglect by examining Dracula alongside the work of late-nineteenth-century scientists like David Ferrier, John Burdon-Sanderson, Thomas Huxley and William Carpenter. At least two of these scientists (Ferrier and Burdon-Sanderson) are mentioned by name in the novel, while a third (Carpenter) is referenced indirectly when a central character discusses his widely acknowledged theory of unconscious cerebration. These references demonstrate that Stoker followed late-Victorian debates about localization of brain function, a fact overlooked by previous critics of Dracula.

This oversight is surprising in light of Stoker’s well-documented interest in science. Stoker came from a family of distinguished Irish physicians and obtained an M.A. in mathematics from Trinity College, Dublin. His personal library contained volumes on physiology, and his composition notes for Dracula, held at Philadelphia’s Rosenbach Museum and Library, contain typewritten notes on somnambulism, trance states, and cranial injuries.

Stoker used his knowledge of neurology extensively in Dracula. The automatic behaviors practiced by Dracula and his vampiric minions, such as somnambulism and hypnotic trance states, reflect theories about reflex action postulated by Ferrier and Burdon-Sanderson. These scientists traced such automatic behavior to the brain stem, which they knew controlled unconscious processes like respiration, blood circulation, and digestion. These scientists also postulated that all human behavior was “determined” through the reflex action of the body and brain, or through environmental factors – a position that threatened to undermine entrenched beliefs in free will and the immortal, extra-corporeal soul. Thus, I ultimately argue that the automaton – the soulless being who was all body, purely mechanistic – was the bogey that both Draculaand late-nineteenth-century scientific articles unsuccessfully seek to exorcize.

Session IX
Friday, 8 July 2005, 9.00 - 9.30 pm

Tenth Annual Meeting of the International Society for the History of the Neurosciences (ISHN) and
Tenth Meeting of the European Club for the History of Neurology (ECHN)

St. Andrews, Scotland, 2005